Canmeng Aveda Founder Chu Ping
A self-described "daymaker" rather than hard-nosed businessman, Chu Ping has some unconventional wisdom for today's younger entrepreneurs in this conversation with management professor Ji-Ren Lee.
'Alternative' EntrepreneurshipBy Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 526 )
Canmeng (Aveda) Taiwan founder Chu Ping may be 64 years old, but he bears few of the signposts of advancing age. His stylishly cut short gray hair, fashionable black-rimmed glasses and trim figure radiate an urbane, yuppie feel.
That flair carries over to his many business ventures, from companies offering imported beauty and hair products and spa services and his hair-styling academy to his restaurant Nonzero, which promotes healthful eating. They are all imbued with what Chu's good friend and author Tom Wang calls the "Ping style."
"It has certain youthful qualities about it," Wang observes, a reflection of Chu himself. Wang explains that whenever he appears publicly with his good friend, the youngest person at the venue is invariably Chu, even if the audience is mostly college students.
Wang describes the Aveda Taiwan boss as willing to take risks and try new things, quick to put aside setbacks, full of unconventional ideas and possessing the zeal of a missionary in advocating entrepreneurship and life. And when it comes to professing the faith, Chu's cardinal rule of starting a business, Wang says, is to not suppress youth, because "youth is an entrepreneurial force."
The deeply embedded passion for trying new things has shaped Chu's entrepreneurial destiny. While studying in the United States, he decided to have some fun by cold-calling companies in the yellow pages to sell them computers. One of his customers was the "Paul Mitchell" brand shampoo company.
An avid user of "Paul Mitchell" products, Chu was beside himself when he had a chance to meet the man behind the brand, starting a relationship that led to Chu becoming the company's Asia distributor and launching his first commercial venture, Canbran International Inc.
"There's a kind of person who you just know is meant to be an entrepreneur. Chu Ping is one of those people," says Xue Xue Institute chairwoman Li-Lin Hsu, who has known Chu for more than 20 years.
She admires her long-time friend for being so full of life and having the ability to influence others. When as an industry outsider he successfully introduced a foreign shampoo brand into the market by getting hair and beauty businesses to accept his ideas and methods, it was because of his unique powers of persuasion, Hsu says.
Chu has another trait that distinguishes him from fellow entrepreneurs, Hsu observes: in addition to the rationality of a typical businessman, he also has a generous emotional quotient.
"Whenever Chu Ping takes his daughter on a trip, he always buries a keepsake," so that when his daughter returns to the place, she can dig up the memory of their time together, Hsu says.
That also explains why Chu prefers to describe himself as a "daymaker" rather than a businessman. As Wang says, Chu is somebody trying to "make the day" of his employees and others.
The entrepreneur eschews standard "size" metrics that typically measure the degree of an enterprise's success. Instead, he has created several small businesses, and wherever he goes he trumpets his passion for starting new ventures. Chu believes that a company with 10,000 employees can lack a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, unlike 10,000 one-man businesses, which represent 10,000 seeds of innovation and entrepreneurship.
As part of CommonWealth Magazine's series on Taiwan's new entrepreneurial spirit, this unconventional entrepreneur sat down for an interview with Dr. Ji-Ren Lee, a professor of international business at National Taiwan University. The following are excerpts from their conservation.
Ji-Ren Lee: Why at the age of 38 did you "accidentally" take this entrepreneurial road? What was the impetus that led you to start a business?
Chu Ping: From the time I was young, I never liked school. I still remember a day when I was in the second grade that I left school, hopped on a bus and rode around all over Taipei.
So I always knew inside of me that I didn't like being compared with others, and that I didn't like constraints or traditions. But I simply didn't know what it was that I liked. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to go to the United States to study, and I set that goal in junior high school.
After doing my military service and then studying in the U.S., I worked there for 10 years as a pharmacist, but I always had the feeling that my life was missing something.
Scared of a 'Beautiful Life'
I didn't know what other possibilities I could have. I already knew what my life in the U.S. would look like in the future. I would be part of the middle class working for a company until retirement. And then actually retiring one day and buying two or three houses. That's it. I would have everything I needed in what would be a "beautiful life."
I was somebody who was really afraid of that kind of life, but I never considered becoming an entrepreneur. Later, I had the chance to meet Paul Mitchell, and he told me that doing business was actually all about sharing passion. It suddenly dawned on me to abandon the traditional concept that it was beneath intellectuals to become merchants. That's when I discovered that starting a business was also an option.
Lee: Internal and external factors led you to become an entrepreneur. What about after you got started? What has been the key to your long run?
Chu: First, you have to have a rich life if you want to be an entrepreneur. If your life isn't rich enough, even if you take the entrepreneurial road, it will be extremely narrow and you'll face many bottlenecks.
When I went to the U.S., I was very curious about where my colleagues went to get their hair done. That was in the 1970s, and most ethnic Chinese would have their hair cut by their wives or head to Chinatown where a haircut was three to five U.S. dollars.
But my American colleagues would go to beauty salons. I thought to myself, "I'm working in the United States earning U.S. dollars, so do I still want to live a Chinese lifestyle? I didn't want that. My colleagues were earning the same pay as I was, and I could not have been poorer than them. If I continued to live on the cheap, my life would not get better.
Enriching One's Life, Building Contacts
So I went to a hair salon in the city to have my hair done, and, wow, I liked it, not just because I saw people living a fashion-driven lifestyle, but because I saw people who were at the top of their profession.
My stylist was the type of person who never intended to go to college and was happy to cut my hair. We had a great chat. I found out that these people had richer lives than I did.
The point is that through this experience, I came in contact with Paul Mitchell products for the first time. That's the second key I want to mention. You should constantly extend your network of contacts, and it should be done anywhere at any time.
There has been another very important element. I've had a number of dreams that involve changing the way people think about the hairstyling business in Taiwan:
First, I wanted owners of beauty salons to feel happy if one day they saw their children working in their business.
The owner of a hair salon who used our products when I first started as an entrepreneur came to see me with his son and said, "This is my son. He's volunteered on his own to come back to the salon and help out, and I'm really happy about it." This dream has already been fulfilled.
Second is creating an appointment system. When I started my business in 1998, I told everybody that every hair salon should develop an appointment system; otherwise, you'll always be waiting for customers and all you'll be selling is time. This dream has also pretty much become a reality.
There are still two dreams that have yet to be achieved, but I'm heading in the right direction. One is to have hair salons give employees eight days off a month; the other is to give them a month of vacation every year. Most stylists have yet to get that kind of time off. They'll get four days off a month at most because of the drive to make money.
I tend to think that this isn't good for their professional development, because without a family life, their lives can't be rich.
Commission-based Salary: the Biggest Insult
Lee: As an entrepreneur, how did you gain confidence in what you were doing?
Chu: I probably ran into every problem that the average entrepreneur might face, because I had never done it before. It was a process of trial and error.
Most people don't know that when I started Canbran in 1988, beauty salon owners were very receptive when I talked to them about how to grow and how to offer customers something different.
So at the beginning, things went pretty well, but I was still unhappy because I discovered that two factions had developed within the company – one that believed in my approach and one focused on sales that put a lot of pressure on me.
I was torn over whether to adopt a compensation system that offered a basic salary plus commission. It was only later, when I flew to Houston on a friend's introduction to attend a course on management taught by quality guru W. Edwards Deming, that I finally figured it out.
My management philosophy was greatly influenced by Deming. I strongly associated with his view that paying employees on commission is the worst possible insult to workers.
Deming showed me that in high-commission companies, it's hard to find anybody who is really happy. He argued that enterprises should not use people's most primitive survival fears as incentives, but rather rely on positive, trusting methods. "I believe you will work hard, so I'll first give you a salary and have you go out and do your best" was how Deming put it. This was the huge breakthrough in thinking Deming gave me.
Lee: How do you see the younger generation treating future opportunities? What advice can you give them on starting a business?
Chu: The younger generation has too many choices, one of which is staying at home and being taken care of by their parents.
If I wanted to survive, it was very simple. I had to find a job I could do. But to the younger generation, there is no issue of survival, so they can fully consider their future path.
No Rush to Start a Business
The first piece of advice I would give to young adults is to not be in a rush to open a new venture.
I've learned that the average age at which successful entrepreneurs launch their businesses in 43. So if you want to start a business, it's really quite simple: first see if you are doing your current job very well.
You have to love what you're doing to be able to do what you love. Can you innovate? Do you have the ability to do all the things on your own without others telling you to do things well?
Second, you have to first forget the fact that you want to start a new venture. When it comes to your current job, there should be no excuses. You can't say you have no enthusiasm because you don't like what you're doing or believe that the boss is incompetent or that the company stinks.
Only when you take advantage of whatever opportunities are at hand, and achieve something, even in a bad environment, when you have that kind of passion where you're willing to go without eating or sleeping, then you're definitely going to achieve something grand.
My experience is a good example. When I was still a pharmacist in a hospital in the United States, I successfully applied for two patents and was named "pharmacist of the year" from among more than 100 pharmacists from around America.
To some people, being a pharmacist might seem like a boring, simple job. But in doing pharmaceutical research, I was able to discover some interesting things, and then spent my own money and time to study statistics and computer programming outside my job.
I may have had yellow skin, and my English wasn't very good, but I was willing to do things others weren't. When classmates graduated, they immediately went for their professional licenses so that they could immediately make money and buy a house. But I preferred to make half of what they earned and serve as an intern to get into one of America's best hospitals so that I could learn more.
I truly believe that only by working in the best places with the best people can you truly develop a vision and world-class instincts.
When I was working at the hospital in the U.S., when there were floods from a hurricane and some colleagues couldn't make it in, I was willing to work overtime. When a patient was discharged and headed to a hotel, I volunteered to take him when I got off work. When there was a need for blood, I was always first in line.
So ultimately, and most critically, you have to have this kind of passion in whatever you do. You have to have a high sense of involvement and be willing to sacrifice your private time to do what you believe in, and then do it well.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier