For 18 months or so, until last month, I tried burning my work candle at both ends. The goal was to play a constructive role both as Chairman of China First Capital, and CEO of Awareness Technologies. For me, it’s been something of a dream come true, this chance to work with two great companies, at different points in their lifecycle, in wholly different industries, with different home markets, different customers, different languages, and vastly different business models. So much the better.
It’s also exposed, in way that nothing else ever quite has, just how limited my managerial skills are. They are, at best, barely adequate for managing one business. Cleaved in two, they are woe-begotten. It probably also helps explain why bigamy never really caught on. Attention divided is attention corrupted.
Or so I thought, until I began spending time with one supremely talented entrepreneur in China. He’s the boss of at least four different companies. There could be more, for all I know. Each time we meet, he mentions, in passing, another business that he founded and runs. Other than the fact they’re all based in China, they are all as different from one another as chalk and cheese. This entrepreneur owns and manages a very consumer goods company, a mining business, an advertising agency and a high-technology business.
And when I say “manage”, I mean manage. He’s not some absentee landlord. He spends significant time with each, and established each to seize what is a very large market opportunity. I only know in detail one of these companies, and it’s outstanding. My sense is that the others are no less so.
So, how does this one guy do it? For one thing, he’s probably a lot smarter, and certainly more locked-in and ambitious than I am. He sees the world, so far as I can tell, as a vast and intricate delta, of multiple earning streams and innumerable opportunities for profit. He grabs only those that he knows he can readily seize – by being clearer, smarter, and richer than any competitor.
Me, I look in my business life more for purpose than for profit, for the chance to work on large and complex problems, rather than ways to make a killing. It’s probably why I’ll never be as rich, or as managerially capable, as this Chinese businessman. Some businessmen enter new areas for the very sound reason of diversifying their sources of wealth.
This businessman does so because he visualizes the world as a series of P&L statements. He sees (better than anyone I’ve ever met) where the money is. Then he goes for it. He also chooses businesses that let him maximize his managerial skills, by setting a concrete direction, funneling in the capital, hiring strong management, and then waiting for the money to flow.
Knowing him more and more, I’m convinced he’d never have entered the two businesses I’m now involved with: investment banking and enterprise software. Investment banking, especially for Chinese SME, has too many moving parts, too many vagaries (for example, of market prices and investor predilections); enterprise software is crowded, and competitive, prone to technological disruption, and has many smart people chasing the same limited supply of dollars.
As I said, I like challenge. He likes making money.
The kicker here is that it turns out, we need each other. I need him, because my investment banking business thrives by having the very best Chinese entrepreneurs as clients. He needs me to help him get additional capital to build the most promising of his businesses. I am equally confident we can get him that capital as I am that he will put it to very productive use, and so earn his investor a fortune.
Of all the entrepreneurs I work with, this guy is the one that I’m most awed by, probably because he is so obviously so much better at this “CEO multi-tasking” than I am. He is very comfortable in his skin, and clearly having a great time in life. It’s a joy to be a small part of his intricate, expansive and beautifully-engineered business empire.