Someone once asked me “What do you even learn, doing the same thing every day, just selling tea?”
To be honest, I was offended. I felt the rush to defend my profession, my business and to prove that whatever I am doing has value. And so much more value than whatever anyone else was doing. Then I decided against it. I realized that no matter what kind of job you are doing if you have the attitude to learn, you will learn. But if you don’t have want to learn, no matter how difficult, high paying or glamorous your job is, you will still find it boring.
To me, starting my business at Pasar Malam is a stepping stone and a learning ground. It might be true that I am doing the same thing every day. But what I’m doing is not only 1 thing. And every day presents a new set of challenges, a new set of customers, new opportunities and experiences for me to enhance my skill set as an entrepreneur.
When I first started out, I only had 1 goal, which was to make money. To make as much money in the shortest amount of time, and then I’ll get out of here. But I fell in love with the process. It’s like I enrolled in Small Business school. Suddenly, I realized that there are so many things that I never knew and never saw.
I found something in Pasar Malams that I never found in the previous glamourous SME and other big companies that I worked for: I could learn to be a better person, in terms of attitude, mentality, skillsets. I found myself reading more books and articles than I ever did in my entire life because it made me hungry. Hungry for knowledge and skills to improve myself to be better prepared in this business world.
These are some of the lessons that I have learned over the past 2 years.
1. Never take for granted the comfort of your work environment, facilities, and surroundings
I don’t think I’ve ever once stopped to be grateful for the clean, running water that we have. The clean toilets that we can visit as and when we like. But working in Pasar Malams, I learned to appreciate all these things that are all temporary. I might get running water but there will be shortages of water when everybody is washing at the same time, rushing to go back home.
Sometimes, when we are all very busy, the water supply is suddenly cut off. It affects business and we will have to think of solutions to solve this problem, if not we can’t sell.
Sometimes, we are near the malls where we have nice clean toilets to use, sometimes we are in the middle of nowhere, with only dirty mobile toilets without lights to use, sometimes we have to walk 15 minutes to the nearest toilet.
So, appreciate your toilets, water, air-con. You will only realize their importance when they are no longer there.
2. Never get too comfortable with your workspace
Because it never stays the same, unlike the same office desk that I used to work on every day.
Sometimes we get a small, narrow space. Sometimes, we get space on a slope. Sometimes, we get space on mud. Sometimes we get wet when it rains. Sometimes we get a big space. Sometimes we have to climb slopes to reach the sink, every single time I have to wash something. (that means I climb a slope every 5-10 minutes).
Standing on slopes is very tiring. And I never once appreciated the nice office building even flooring until I met slopes.
Each time, we will have to think of different ways to set up the booth. For each place, it is different.
3. “Office-politics” are prevalent everywhere, not only in offices.
It gets even nastier because everyone is so hungry here. Everyone is working for themselves. The radio broadcasting game is strong here.
4. I am never good enough.
And I just keep having to work harder and not be complacent and stagnant. Because every day you will meet with situations that you don’t know how to handle yet. And you will get to learn and improve along the way.
5. Entrepreneurship doesn’t discriminate
It doesn’t matter if I’m half-half, or whoever you are. As long as you are willing to work hard, you can be an entrepreneur. And working in Pasar Malam, allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to pretend to wear a shirt, pants, and tie that I don’t identify with or a dress that I don’t identify with. I can be who I am.
Your educational level doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t matter if you have a cert or not if you don’t know how to use it well.
Note: Entrepreneurship doesn’t discriminate. BEWARE OF THE PEOPLE AROUND.
6. People will look at you differently
Some of them. People will speak in English but when they turn to me, they intentionally speak Chinese to me. Why? Working at Pasar Malam means I will have to be a Pasar Malam auntie?
There are times when I feel so self-conscious when my ex-colleagues see me washing or sweeping the floor, doing some unglam stuff. And then I try to convince myself that, not everybody is willing and have the courage to do the things that I do! Not everybody will survive.
7. Never take for granted the choices that I have
I am grateful that I chose to do this, instead of doing this only because I have no other choices.
8. I’m grateful for my van.
I’m just grateful that I have my own means of transport home so I don’t have to rush for the last train or bus every day. I don’t have to worry smelling like stale food and oil in the trains, with everyone around avoiding me.
9. I’m grateful for my home
I’m grateful that I have a home to return to, a clean toilet to shower in, clean clothes to change into, a soft bed to sleep on. Because some people here don’t. They sleep in the Pasar Malams, and shower in public toilets or god knows where.
10. I don’t need fancy clothes/ bags/ shoes at all.
All I need are my cooling black Uniqlo Supima tees that make me look clean and dry at the end of the day.
Plastic bags are better because they are waterproof and oil proof.
Slippers are also better because they are waterproof and oil proof.
11. I get to choose the way I want to sell
Ethically or unethically. Quality or quantity. I call the shots. I decide the way I want to work. And I will only work in the way that I believe in, and that aligns with my own principles.
12. We need to be exposed to different kinds of people to learn.
In offices, there is a standard kind of people you will meet, where our pay ranges are similar, educational backgrounds are similar. But here, you meet ALL kinds of people. It is also where I got a chance to interact with foreign workers: Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Malaysians. I learned so much from them because they are so humble, kind, generous, hardworking, willing to do so much more for so much less. Not all of them, but most of them.
Through them, I realized how fortunate to be born in the right country, with a strong currency. I have never realized how fortunate I am to be able to use at most 1 month’s pay to get an iPhone. But for them, it might take half a year to a year to get the latest iPhones.
I know of a Vietnamese lady from the pasar malam. She has $100 left for the month. But she chose to lend $50 to her Singaporean neighbor whom she claims, needs the money more than she does. I asked her, what if her money never gets returned. She said, “she will return and anyway I have enough, and then I will get my pay already”.
These are the small little things that touch my heart. It made me feel so ashamed of myself, and so small.
13. Being your own boss doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything.
It actually means that you have to do everything. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to work, and in fact, you’re working almost all the time. And being your own boss also means you have to be the hardest worker and the best worker in your own company.
Even if you’re rich or you hire people to work for you, you still need to know how to do the basics and set the example to be able to teach and guide them.
This is the part where people get it wrong. You can be a boss who knows and does nothing, as long as you have enough money to pay your workers. But will they respect you? Will they even for you like they are working for their own company?
14. It is not difficult to do the same thing over and over again.
But it is difficult to do the same thing well (if not even better) over and over again. Because consistency is really the key. I cannot afford to wake up and feel like I’m not in the mood and accidentally add too much sugar in the tea that I’m brewing. I have to strive to be consistent so that my customers will come back consistently.
15. I have so many bosses.
Instead of having only 1 boss, I now have to please all my bosses who pay me. All of my customers.
16. Nothing is ever fixed.
Not the sales, not the customers, not the location, not the sink, not the water supply, not the weather.
This drives me to really seize the day and sell like there’s no tomorrow.
17. Rental prices are cut-throat.
Pasar malam rentals are high……… so much higher than you even imagine.
18. I never realized that the weather can really affect a business
Rain = slow business
Hot= good business
These lessons may be learned from any kind of entrepreneurship but I think some of them can only be learned in the tough pasar malam environment. It really opened my eyes to so many things that I have never seen. And so many that I would never have seen in my entire life if I didn’t choose to do this. I guess I prefer to be challenged and learn things in the hardest ways.