His insights on how to get ideas off the dashboard, the importance of small wins, and in learning quickly through rapid failures, are all spot on.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organziations into action.
To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About Brian Tam
Brian is a Creativity Catalyst and co-founder of an innovation consultancy, Let’s Make GREAT!
Born in America and having graduated from the University of Maryland, Brian saw China’s dynamic growth and decided to make a leap back to the mainland in 2007 when he came to Shanghai to create more growth and innovation in China.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
Brian: I am Brian Tam, I am the founder and CEO of Let’s Make Great!. We are a creative consultancy focusing on the next hundred years of innovation in China. So basically, what that means is that we do everything and anything to help people become more creative in China.
We were doing some Google research, just looking at different words that are popping up. And if you search “creativity in China”, it’s very very low. All the new top 10 results are all negative results. “It’s not going to happen.” “Education is not going to allow creativity to happen.” But then interestingly, what’s changed is that if you search “innovation in China”, the results are going up.
So it’s all positive news about how China is becoming more innovative, Chinese companies are becoming more innovative. So there is a change happening. It’s in wordplay, but I think it’s a real change.
China’s ecosystem for innovation
Brian: It is changing a lot. I started about three to four years ago now. And since I started, I can see that larger scale organizations are now starting to reach out to start-ups and build up connections and collaborations. So BMW now has an incubator. OMD is working with China Accelerator of course. Unilever and another New Zealand milk company, Fonterra, is also working with internal entrepreneurship and building up that innovation game that way.
So I think it’s happening, it’s starting to change. Three to four years ago, when I started, I was like “Entrepreneurship! This is the way to the future! This is going to make everything/the world a better place. You build a company inside a bigger company, how great is that? You get all the joined freedom of your own business and also you get the power and distribution of a large company.”
And I thought that was gonna be it. But companies don’t like that a lot of times. They are like, wait, you want them to be the boss? Then what is my job gonna be? So there’s a lot of people pushing back on that. But there’s also a lot of people making it happen ‘cause they do see it as a way for it. So those are the front runners and there is hope!
Do foreigners understand China?
Brian: I think there’s a lot of people who don’t get it. They are not really doing the homework of talking to the people who are going to be using it or getting in touch with their ideas. So that needs to change.
Rich: Do you think they really think that they know it better than the Chinese?
Brian: There’s a certain arrogance. Everybody has arrogance, so that’s always gonna be the case. “We are from the West, and we know better. This is what we should be doing.” But is that always true? No. I mean, somewhere in the middle through the process, you figure out, “Okay, I do need to change.”
Hopefully, people are figuring out that they do need the change, because at the end, money shows how much impact you are really making or how much traction you’re getting. So I think there needs to be a significant/true metric. So a lot of entrepreneurs — actually let’s not call them entrepreneurs yet. They are not entrepreneurs yet, I can’t even say that.
They are just guys with ideas or people with ideas, and that’s nice and good. And usually, those ideas are about making impact and helping people to something better. But how realistic and driven are they? A lot of these people I work with are entrepreneurs, creatives, designers, architects, consultants — all knowledge-based people. They are not really thinking about, “How do I make this happen?”
They are thinking about thinking about thinking about making it happen.
Brian: They are several ways away from that. And it’s good, we need that. We need thinking. It’s important. But where’s the rubber meet the road? And that’s where I’m trying to push these people to get to: interacting with the Chinese market. Making sure that their idea really works for whoever they are targeting. That’s always an interesting thing to get people to move towards, because they are afraid. They don’t know.
Because if you actually — if you start meeting the road and you get resistance, then everything changes. You’re not sure if can really do it. You’re not sure. You hit reality, and reality is hard, and it sucks, and it hurts. So people are gonna get scared of that. It’s getting pushback. In idea land, in the dream world, anything is possible.
And that is fun, energetic, sexy, and alluring for a lot of these creative leaders to think about their ideas over and over again. But it doesn’t go anywhere. I think that’s one of the biggest things that needs to change for a lot of people. I don’t care if you’re a teacher, go make it real. I don’t care if you’re an artist, actually do something with it. Everyone got ideas, and it’s not about ideas, it’s about execution. But it is fear that’s preventing them.
Brian: It’s interesting — I couldn’t say “on the Chinese side”, because I’m not working with them — but just looking at the things that are coming out, I can see that they are very much based on other ideas. But they are mixing and matching, so it’s more plug-and-play and collecting different ideas together. And I think that’s a type of innovation as well. With the foreign entrepreneurs, maybe they are trying to do something different.
They are a little more disruptive. It’s just two different strategies. I don’t think either one is right or wrong, it’s just two different strategies. Yeah, so there’s a lot of entrepreneurs here. The community here has been developing, and that’s kind of cool. There’s a clear divide, though, between the Chinese entrepreneurs and the foreign entrepreneurs.
I mainly work with the foreign ones and the foreign creatives, and so they are pushing the line — but their impact is somewhat limited, as we talked about earlier. They are always looking for a Chinese partner, and they are always looking for the way to get their products into the Chinese market — a little bit more localized, right?
Or, they wait and make those excuses that say, “I can’t do that because I don’t have that partner. I can’t do that because I don’t speak Chinese. I can’t do that because…” I think those are excuses, and I really try to get these people to keep pushing on their own side to do what they can and what’s within their control. So that’s always been an interesting mind shift for a lot of these people, because we think we need help rather than we need to create momentum to attract help. And I think that’s a complete mental shift that a lot of people need to get towards.
Challenges of entrepreneurship
Brian: They are afraid of failure, is the biggest thing. They build up these fantasies in their head and they’ve got these big dreams. I mean, I got them, too. My big dream is a hundred years of innovation in China. That’s pretty big. Let’s think about that. One hundred years. China. Innovation.
This is like the three biggest ideas in the world right now. It’s scary. It’s unrealizable almost. But it’s not supposed to be realizable right now. It is supposed to be realizable in that time. So I try to separate people’s ideas and thinking into short-term and long-term.
And short-term, you need to have that action but be guided by that long-term vision. So that’s something I’m trying to separate for people, so that they do start taking action — because the fear of failure is this kind of ambiguous fear. You don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know what might cause that failure, and so it could come from anywhere. Here, there are different factors/drivers at play. The government have their rules, and we’re here playing by their rules. That’s the name of the game.
Dealing with fear
Brian: How do you deal with fear? It is everything. I say fuck fear, first of all, because it’s always going to be there. I’ve been doing this three to four years, and I’m still afraid. It’s just a part of it. If you are afraid that means you’re doing something new, which means you’re on the right path.
If you’re not afraid, then what are you doing? You’re so comfortable that you don’t have to think about. You are not putting yourself out there. Then what value are you adding to society, to your team, to your company and to the people around you? So you need to be doing something a little bit scary at least so that you can start to realize it.
So I say, first of all, fuck fear — it’s there, deal with it. Second of all, start small and get that feedback early so that you know if you’re on the right track or not. If you have those small wins, they build up to a big win at the end. So that’s a super critical step.
What is a small win?
Brian: Small wins are even just people smiling as you talk about the idea, and people are smiling and nodding, and they go, “Okay, I kind of get that.” A small win is even, they give me feedback that I can use to improve it [the idea], so maybe sometimes a small win is everything. You just try to switch your mind into looking for the small win rather than looking for the failure or the reason that you shouldn’t do it.
And I think a lot of people who are very smart — these educators, consultants , designers — are very smart and creative people. But because they are so critical, they start looking for all the reasons they shouldn’t be doing it, all the “NOs” — and that adds up, so you don’t do anything. There’s no action then.
You just stop. You are paralyzed by fear. So I’m saying, look for that small win no matter what it is. There’s always a small win. You gotta look for it. And as long as you take action, you got a small win. So that small win and taking that small step is the key.
Is social entrepreneurship different?
Brian: So for me, I don’t give a shit about it. It’s not for me to label. I don’t care about labels. You can call it whatever you want — as long as you’re doing good, adding value, making the world a better place, I don’t care what you call that. But make sure that happens. If you are an entrepreneur, a businessman, a politician, or even a homeless person, make the world a better place. That’s it.
Why else are you alive? Why is your heart beating? Why are you breathing air and consuming things if you are not giving back in some way? My girlfriend is really amazing, because she’ll give to all the homeless people. I’m like “you can’t do this”.
But if they are playing music, she’ll take out the 10 RMB or the 20 RMB note. She’ll give them a little bit more. I think it’s because they are adding value. They are creating this atmosphere of positivity and enjoyment, right? Just like that. There’s a positive atmosphere that we can all live and love by. It’s amazing.
Ideas do not equate to action.
Brian: So everyone is different. I can’t give you an answer for how to start or where to start, but just start! That’s the wrong question to be asking — just starting, right? So, if you have one tool, go with that tool right now. If you have a million tools, maybe it’s time to start using some of them. All these ideas are all really nice, but the ideas are pointless until you start to realize them. And that’s what an idea is for, right? It’s for action, to make it come true.
I had that problem. I was a marketing guy doing project management. Then I was an English teacher. Then I was another marketing guy in another leadership development company. This was just ideas about ideas about ideas. And it drove me crazy. I wasn’t satisfied. And I thought, “Why not?” Because they were just in my head and weren’t in reality, and they weren’t a part of my reality. So I went out, and I quit my job, and I started Let’s Make Great!.
And I decided that this would be my vision: By reflecting on my past, I looked at the “why’s” of my past, and I saw that these “why’s”, these motivations, were all leading toward something that I didn’t even realize until I reflected. So I was lucky to have built up six to eight years of working experience before I started reflecting.
I know when you are a little bit younger, you don’t have enough experience to know “why” yet. You just haven’t connected enough dots — some people say that, but I don’t think it’s true either. I think if I reflected earlier, I probably would have seen it earlier, but nobody was pushing me to think about it. So that’s on me, it’s just circumstance.
Brian: Are you taking action? The first assessment. Are you taking action?
Research, and preparing, and planning is not “action” in my definition. Getting feedback, talking to people and building something, that’s action. I’m gonna call you out (points to Rich). I see you are stopping and starting, but have you actually put them altogether yet in video? I tried to shoot a video before, and I stop and start, but I couldn’t bring them altogether because there are these weird cut points.
That drove me crazy. So I was like “Are you taking action? Are you really following through with that?” All right, thank God for you (to Rich’s assistant).
China and entrepreneurship
Brian: I think two things about this question. First is that entrepreneurship is the modern-day spiritual journey.
Because what is that? In entrepreneurship you find out who you are, what you are about. What you are trying to do, and what value you have to society? If those aren’t spiritual questions, I don’t know what is. It doesn’t matter. It just happens to be that if you do follow entrepreneurship, you’ll figure out these things.
And in China, it’s nice, coming from the West at least, because you end up in this place where all of the rules are different slightly or majorly — and you just go “why?” And by having that huge impact on your expectations and beliefs that not everybody is crossing the road the same way, not everybody is dressed the same way, not everybody is talking the same way, not everybody is treating me the same way.
All those expectations that flipped you around — that flipped you mentally around — is very challenging, frustrating, and difficult. But that creates a better environment to think creatively and differently about doing something. So, China is great because of that — for now, at this time and place, there’s no better place in the world.
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs
The 20-year old fresh arrival in Shanghai. I think there’s so many opportunities to go explore. A lot of times, we fall into these patterns. We want to be comfortable so we find people who look like us, talk like us, think like us — and that’s good to a certain extent, but where are you expanding yourself? Where are you pushing yourself? Again, feeling uncomfortable, feeling afraid, that is a good thing. So use that as your barometer for right or wrong.
How much does it scare you?
One of the biggest question is “What am I supposed to do?” I’m like, “What are you most afraid of?” and that’s the answer. That’s what they should be doing, because they already know, but everything is an excuse.
“I can’t do this. I shouldn’t do this. My mom, my dad, my sister, and my friends don’t get it. The market says I shouldn’t do it. The advisor, Brian, says you shouldn’t do it.”
Fuck that. I’m wrong, you’re wrong, everybody is wrong. You got to figure out your own way. And so if people are telling you you’re wrong, listen of course, and make sure you get that — but move forward too. But don’t let it paralyze you. A lot of people let it paralyze them. It is really annoying and scary.
And when those people become 41, and they haven’t gone their own path, they become different people. They become shells of their previous self, where they aren’t really pushing the boundaries as much. They forget that they should, they forget how to — they forget that it’s natural, and everything becomes an excuse on why it won’t work, why they shouldn’t do it, why they it’s not their responsibility, and all this sort of stuff. So it is a strong contrast between these two types of people.
Advice to our interns
Intern: I’m thinking about all the ideas that I have, how do you pick one?
Brian: So what have you done?
Intern: So far, I have interned with Collective Responsibility and I’m trying to find my basis.
Brian: Good start. Big win.
Intern: My original idea is… but now my idea is…
Brian: Stop… stop… stop… I like all these ideas here, but what have you actually been doing to work towards it? I think the thing about taking action, small steps, and those small wins is that through those small wins, you’ll find your way.
But if you are just thinking about it, nothing happens. Like you started with “I’m thinking about…” or “I’m preparing to…” that’s like several layers away. That’s what I was talking about the “thinking about thinking about thinking…” We’re trying to get you to action right away in a small way, and that’s what needs to happen.
And through that action, whatever it is, it could just be these videos you can reflect that you don’t like interviewing idiots like this, “This just doesn’t help me in my career.” Now you know that’s not what you want. Or, you find out that, “This is great, if I can do this times a million, whatever it is, in a city out of nowhere, I’ll be very happy.” So you start learning from there. But it requires small steps, small actions.
Intern: So how do you pick just one?
Brian: You don’t pick, you just do.
Intern: Even if there’s all of these ideas, do you think I should take a direction and run with it and see where it develop?
Brian: I think a lot of times we are looking at different directions, and any direction is a good direction but until you know why. So why are you doing it? So list down all the 10 different directions that you might have and just do 10, please. Just start with 10. And then looks at all the “why’s” behind it. So don’t look at what it is, but the “why” behind it, and look at which ones make the most sense. And probably from that “why’s”, you can even see that pattern in it — and then whichever one feels that most powerful to you, go with that and just do that and start.
Intern: I’m a very indecisive person. How does that play into finding an action and just going with it?
Brian: Indecision comes from those people who aren’t tapped into their emotions. I don’t know you, but typically that’s what happens. People are too logical, too smart, and they’re analyzing, and they are not feeling. So I’m going to ask you to feel the right answer — that’s why I asked you to look at the whys. And from the “why’s”, you feel that this one resonates with you, so you’re going to go with that. Of course, these are all ideas that you’re coming up with, so they should all resonate in some way — but we are talking about the ones that make you go, “Oh shit, I have to do this. This is it. Oh of course, why didn’t I think of that?”
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.