To round off 2015 we spoke to Richard Liew, founder of NZ Entrepreneur and NZ Sales Manager magazines.

You’ve started four businesses over the last 15 years. Can you tell us a bit about how your entrepreneurial career started?

I have always wanted to live life on my terms and of all the ways to earn time and money freedom, building businesses has always appealed the most. But it was actually out of desperation that my first entrepreneurial venture was started back in 2000. As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention!” Long story short, I did a finance degree but after 3 years working as an accountant I realised I was hating it. I was 23 at the time and thought that learning how to sell would probably be a good idea if I wanted to be in business. For 6 months I applied for every B2B sales job I could find and got rejected every time because I was an accountant with no sales experience.

One day I bought an awesome book called “Money, Success and You” by John Kehoe and after a month studying it and examining some of my beliefs, I realised the best way for me to get some sales experience was to just build something and sell it. So I handed in my notice at my accounting job, built a package of spreadsheets for small business owners, and my first business Spreadsheet Solutions was born. I cold called and sold it to business owners and real estate agents and it made enough to pay the rent for a year. Not only did it give me a year’s worth of sales experience to put on my CV but it was also my first taste of being fully responsible for my own income. If I didn’t sell, I didn’t eat!

I then spent the next few years in ICT sales and what I learnt opened the doorway to my second business, a specialist sales training and recruitment firm. We had no recruitment or sales training experience other than as salespeople ourselves but we soon had some of NZ’s biggest companies as clients. We ran this for 5 years and then the GFC hit, at which time we took stock, assessed the lessons we had learnt and made the decision to exit the recruitment industry and instead looked at building a membership based learning and development organisation for salespeople. Our small team was too under resourced and pulled the plug after two years. By this time I had launched NZ Sales Manager mag to help inspire and nurture NZ’s sales people and that then led to creating NZ Entrepreneur which we have been building since.

What was the reason and vision behind starting NZ Entrepreneur?

I believe that success in any area of life starts with self development. So just like I did for the sales profession with NZ Sales Manager, I wanted New Zealand’s aspiring entrepreneurs to have some sort of publication that they knew was there to help inspire, encourage and educate them on their journey. It has become clear to me that in order for NZ to build bigger and better businesses, we must first build bigger and better entrepreneurs. So I guess NZ Entrepreneur is my little contribution towards helping this happen.

What do you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?

Ha! Maybe ask me in a few more years – still working hard to figure that out! No, from my personal experiences so far, and what I have observed, a business is only as good as the entrepreneur/s behind it and there are three fundamental personal qualities that are essential.

1) Courage. The courage to believe that you deserve and can achieve the life you dream of. The courage to take the actions you will need to make it happen. The courage to stand up to the bullies, sharks and detractors you will meet along the way. Courage, because entrepreneurship requires you to constantly take actions and make decisions that are outside of your comfort zone, experience or knowledge. Most of the time you will not have all the info you need to make a risk free decision and most people can’t handle this. In order to expand your reality, you need to keep pushing through the limits of your current reality and for most people it is easier to simply stay within the comfort zone they know.

2) The ability to learn quickly. Someone said, “I never lose – I either win or I learn” and this to me is the epitomy of the formula for entrepreneurial success. There are a series of rules and principles that must be mastered and it is your job as an aspiring entrepreneur to learn these as soon as possible. So your ability to learn from your experiences is critical. Whether it’s something that worked, or something that didn’t, you need to always be asking “What can I learn from this?” Entrepreneurship is like a video game. The quicker you learn, the quicker you can overcome whatever challenges are in your way and progress to the next level, where of course some other problems or challenges will pop up. Some people refuse to learn and get stuck at the same level.

3) Tenacity. If the basic formula is “set a goal, take action, learn, repeat until success” you need the tenacity and determination to hang in there for as long as it takes. It’s important to remember that the majority of successful entrepreneurs have taken years, often decades, and numerous failures to achieve the success they are recognised for. The media loves “first time entrepreneur makes it big” stories but don’t let them fool you into thinking that is the way it has to be for you. Entrepreneurship is not just a job – it’s a way of life so you need to be prepared to spend the whole of your life working towards success if that’s what it takes.

Who are some of your heroes or inspirations?

Actually I have heaps of heroes but most of them are non-business people. My wife, my brothers, my friends are first to spring to mind – I see them trying to do heroic things every day and that’s inspiring. When things are tough I try and put things in perspective by reflecting on their challenges, achievements and attitudes. Other well known heroes include Bruce Lee, Billy Corgan, Kurt Cobain, Goldie, Richard Branson, Roger Hamilton, Jim Rohn, Seth Godin, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Edmund Hilary, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela… Some Kiwi entrepreneurs I am inspired by include Rod Drury, Ray Avery, Bill Buckley, Victoria Ransom, Jeremy Moon, Glenn Martin – actually pretty much any Kiwi out there doing their best to make things happen.

You’re a keen reader – what books would you recommend for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Yeah I believe there is nothing that you need to learn to be successful in entrepreneurship that has not been written down. So taking time to seek out as much knowledge and inspiration as you can just makes sense. Some of the books I recommend every time are:

  • “Wink” and “Your Life, Your Legacy” by Roger Hamilton
  • “7 Principles of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey
  • “Money, Success & You” by John Kehoe
  • “Awaken The Giant Within” by Tony Robbins
  • “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill
  • “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
  • “How To Get Rich” by Felix Dennis
  • “Art of the Start” by Guy Kawasaki
  • “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki
  • “Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson

Richard LiewYYou made a conscious decision to build a “virtual” business – how is that working out and do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs looking at the same model?

Yeah basically we wanted to build a lean business that allows team members to work from wherever they want, without being restricted to a traditional office structure where everyone has to come into an office and look busy from 8-5 everyday. Instead we have a culture built around performance and efficiency. As a result we have team members (all Kiwi’s) who currently choose to live in Auckland, Wellington, Bali, Singapore, Scotland and in the new year our family will be moving to Wanaka to enjoy the offerings down there for a few years.

There are certainly some challenges but with the cloud based tools now available it’s very doable and we serve clients overseas just as easily as we do for our clients throughout New Zealand.

The biggest challenge is communication. In an office a lot of information gets shared just by osmosis – general chit chat and that kind of thing. With a virtual business you don’t get that so you need to be more diligent about communicating and ensuring everyone has access to the information they need.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Well, I’m not an inventor or a technical person so I’ve never really just had any great ideas. Rather I’ve looked for problems related to whatever sphere I’ve been working in and looked to create a business around it.

For example, as an accountant I saw how much small business owners were paying in accounting fees because of unorganised expenses. So I created a solution to address it. Once I got into sales I saw how existing recruitment firms were failing sales managers and business owners when helping recruit salespeople so we created a business to do that. Through our experience in training and recruitment we saw that there was a need for a learning and development organisation for the sales profession so we attempted to solve that problem. As part of trying to help salespeople learn more I saw that there was a need for a dedicated publication so we started NZ Sales Manager. As a result of starting NZ Sales Manager we started to do similar things for other interest groups.

Really I have just tried to go with the flow – one opportunity opens the door to the next. You just need to have the courage to step through the door.

People who know you know that one of your guiding principles is “flow” – can you tell us a bit about this?

The concept of flow is nothing new but it is certainly one of the principles I have tried to live my life by, including in my entrepreneurial journey. One of my heroes, Bruce Lee talks about “being water” – formless, shapeless – flowing and crashing. Roger Hamilton’s Wealth Dynamics system for entrepreneurs is based on being in the flow – “If it doesn’t flow, let it go” is one of the underpinning concepts of the system.

Sportspeople and artists will understand what it’s like to be in flow – also known as being in the zone. Time ceases to exist and everything seems to flow easily and effortlessly. In terms of personal productivity it means playing to your strengths. When what you’re working on doesn’t seem like work you know you are in your flow. You’re hugely productive and you don’t have to think about what you’re doing as you’re completely in the moment. Ideas for overcoming problems or challenges emerge without having to stress or obsess over them. But as soon as you start doing work you are not naturally suited to, you start to get bogged down, not sure about how to proceed, finding it difficult to get done. When you’re out of your flow you’re forced to try and use your head to “figure it out” because your intuition stops working. This is why it is essential you understand the value you bring to the table and build a team who can take care of the things outside your flow so that you can spend as much time as possible on the sort of work you are suited to.

In an entrepreneurial context, aside from personal productivity this concept of going with the flow and learning to let go can be applied on a number of levels.

For example, in sales, if a relationship or deal you are trying to build just seems to be hard work, let them go so you can find better quality opportunities.

If there is a team member who just doesn’t seem to fit in, let them go.

If there is a market opportunity, idea or product that seems to stall every step of the way, let it go.

Learning to let go will enable you to spend time on better quality people, relationships and opportunities. The problem is, as entrepreneurs we are a stubborn bunch and love a challenge so we hate to quit on anything. The idea of giving up on anything feels like we’re losing and so we dig our toes in even further, throwing even more time, effort and money at trying to make it work.

For whatever reason, consciously or subconsciously, I seem to have been attracted to past times and activities along these lines. Parkour and wingchun kung fu are all about finding flow and I’m really looking forward to finding my flow on the slopes while we’re in Wanaka.  

What’s the plan for the next few years?

Our focus for 2016 is just to continue building on the foundations we have in place now and ramping up the number of NZ customers we’re serving and the number of startup initiatives we’re putting out. No doubt something will come up!

Any last advice?

Firstly, be careful who you take advice from! When you know nothing, everyone sounds like an expert.

Say “No” more often. Spreading your time, energy and focus across too many things will get you nowhere fast.

Learn how to sell.

Work harder on yourself than you do on your business.

Document every agreement that involves money, in writing.

Know your strengths and play to them. Delegate everything else to others.