Photograph: Joel Low
Life is full of risks. Be it at work or in your personal life, you will always be faced with uncertainty. But that shouldn’t stop you from living life to the fullest and pursuing your goals. Veteran actress and executive movie producer Irene Ang would know – she took a big gamble on her latest project, My Love Sinema, which opens in cinemas on September 8, 2016.
She devoted five years to producing the film because she identified very strongly with the central themes of friendship and pursuing your dreams. But she admits, “I don’t know what the response will be like, but I know I have the support of the right people.”
Irene says that she is able to make calculated risks after cementing a vast network of support and accumulating many years of experience as a businesswoman. Here are her top tips for us to do the same in our professional lives.
Invest in ideas with the right formula
When you are presented with a new project or idea, consider the following things that are crucial for its success:
1 Mass appeal
The idea should be something that the majority of your target population can enjoy. Instead of choosing a screenplay peppered with local references like the Hungry Ghost Festival or kiasu mothers, Irene picked a nostalgic and heartwarming story about a boy who aspires to be a projectionist in the cinema because she felt the theme was suitable for an international audience.
“Everyone loves going to the movies,” she explains. Whether you are young or old, a Singaporean or an expat, you will be able to relate to the plot of My Love Sinema.
Do not confine yourself to a niche market, says Irene. It is a lesson she learnt the hard way when she opened Kampong Fish Therapy, a fish spa she started with five other partners. Although the first outlet was a success, the business failed with the opening of the second outlet when the public quickly lost interest. In addition, it happened in the midst of the financial crisis.
2 Existing gap in the market
Does your idea address an unmet need? This is another element that is vital to your success. If it has been done before, don’t do it. You don’t have to limit the scope of your business to radical technologies, but the idea needs to have a unique selling point that fills a gap in the market.
Irene says: “It could be something that is already proven to appeal to people, like a rooftop bar. What you need is to make the product or service more valuable by finding ways to refresh the concept.” At her restaurant, FRY Bistro and Bar, Irene introduced local dishes to the menu to set it apart from the usual Western fare.
3 Find the right location
Irene and her team canvassed the entire Chinatown area to find the perfect location for FRY Bistro. She wanted to look for an environment with a thriving community of patrons who could appreciate what her business had to offer- a chill-out spot for casual dining and drinking. They chose to set up at Club Street not only because of constant flow of expatriates and local professionals through the area but also the precinct association that helps tenants to negotiate rental prices, collaborate on marketing and implement other programmes that benefit the businesses there.
Survey the market and do your research. You need to grow your business in a hospitable market that fits your demographic well.
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Develop guanxi, or good relationships
Irene believes in paying it forward first. Many of her best relationships with people were cultivated over decades of knowing one another.
“You need an ecosystem of friends and local business partners,” says Irene. Start by helping those around you. Contribute your ideas and energy to projects that promote values that you care about. When friends need help for events or marketing, Irene and artistes from her talent management firm, Fly Entertainment, would pitch in to help. She also uses her reach as a celebrity to help with publicity.
Irene points out that it is not easy to start a business in Singapore and there are many risks involved, so local enterprises should support one another. Once you’ve cemented your relationships with other entrepreneurs, you can trust that they will come to your aid and minimise the impact of losses. When the time comes, do not be afraid to ask for help.
Groom your people
A business does not revolve around its founder alone. In order to succeed, you need a good team. Choose people who do not just value the idea you present them with, but are also able to challenge it.
As a leader, you need to stay open-minded. Give your staff opportunities to take on different roles and responsibilities. “Make their contributions matter,” Irene says. When you engaged with members of your team, they feel valued and become more committed to the project. No matter how young or inexperienced they may be, everyone has something to offer. For example, Irene just discovered Snapchat thanks to her young staffers and is now using it to communicate with her fans.
As you look for new ways to grow your business, allow your team to keep you grounded and realistic. Most importantly, provide them with a safe space to communicate their views and ideas openly. This builds trust and facilitates growth of the individuals and the organization. You can’t do it on your own, says Irene.
Learn from your mistakes
The prospect of failure is scary, but it is also unavoidable. “People and projects will disappoint you. The key to dealing with risks is learning how to recover from disappointment,” Irene reflects. As she looks back on her personal experiences, she notes that some of her biggest gambles involved staff, vendors and partners whom she thought she could rely on but failed to deliver.
“People are often the biggest risk,” she says. “But you must learn not to let emotional hurt keep you from finding practical solutions to clean up the problem.”
Don’t take it personally. Take a step back and reflect on how you could have managed the situation better. Also, adjust your expectations in future. Did you demand a lot from this particular person in too short a time? Over time, you will learn how to gauge someone’s potential without limiting it.
And certainly don’t repeat your mistakes. Experience guides your judgment, says Irene. Failed projects can teach you how to make measured risks, but only if you are mindful of the factors that contributed to the failure.