10 More Key Lessons I Learned While Working At The Thieves Market.

by Patrick Liew on March 17, 2014

On a good day, hundreds of people would crowd around different stalls at Sungei Road otherwise known as the Thieves Market.

Average entrepreneurs saw a crowd. Astute entrepreneurs saw a precious human with dreams, fears and struggles. A potential customer that can make a difference for that business day. Many would just “window-shop” to while away their time. To true entrepreneurs, these window-shoppers could be convinced to make a purchase.

Entrepreneurs would do everything possible to make it happen. They would not waste a single opportunity to close a sale. They sold good products at very good value. These entrepreneurs inspired me and taught me useful lessons at the start of my business journey. As an “Ah Boy”, I look forward to meeting every one of my customers. I endeavoured to build a lifelong friendship with and learn from them.

I love my customer.

That will always be a key to building and growing a business.

When a prospective customer walked into our retail outlet, he would be served by an “A Team”. The team comprised of my uncle, aunty, and the most handsome, charming, charismatic, and sharp 11 year old-entrepreneur. Ahem, that was me. Ha!

Our merchandise included mainly jeans, shirts, and other clothing. They were targeted at working adults from the lower socioeconomic segment. To passersby, our shop was a shack, put together with wooden poles and run-down canvass. To us, it was a “retail palace.”

I knew intuitively that the future belonged to those who dared to dream great dreams and pressed on to turn it into a reality. So what if we didn’t even have enough space to set up a changing room.

Big dreams always start in the mind.

It may sound funny to you if I tell you my prospective customers would strip to their undies and try out the jeans. For ladies, one of us would hold up a dark cloth to set up a temporary changing room.

One of my favourite sales closers was, “Wow! You make our jeans look good.” I could say that with all sincerity because I’ve learned to see the good in every person. There was not a single human I’ve met that didn’t look wonderful to me. Those days at the Thieves Market were some of the happiest days in my life.

More importantly, I learned many powerful lessons about entrepreneurship.
1. Know the customers better than they know themselves.

At the Thieves Market, I planned to keep my customers for life, not just as a customer but also as a friend. That’s why I asked questions professionally and politely so that I knew the customers well and deeply too. I was purposefully curious because without customer data, I would operate like a blind and deaf entrepreneur in the Thieves Market.

I aimed to know customers better than they knew themselves and better than what their loved ones knew of them. I didn’t just go for market share but also for a share of the customers’ heart and mind too. After building a wonderful relationship with my customers, I believed they would not even dare to buy from my competitors even if their products were cheaper and better. Obviously, I wouldn’t stop them. More importantly, the more I knew my customers, the clearer I knew what my business was all about.

I was in a better position to take the best action and in the best possible way.

2. Create and arouse customer needs and ignite combustion for action.

I endeavoured to know customers’ needs and wants intimately. I found out their current requirements as well as anticipated how these requirements might change over time. It went right down to how they use our jeans and dispose of them.

To me, customers’ needs included personal needs as well as needs for their job, team, and company. I also believed customers might not know their needs and how to meet them. My job was to highlight needs to the customers. I educate them about urgency of satisfying needs and potential challenges of not fulfilling them.

With comprehensive and detailed information, I could present a total solution and explore possibility of providing a more complete package of desired values. The complete package would also include emotional attachment to my business and emotional fulfillment from my product.

I saw myself as a catalyst for prompt action and ensured that every customer is a happy customer for life. Our “A Team” was a growing needs-arousing, customer-creating, and satisfaction-building organism.

3. The sale is first closed in the mind.

Many of my competitors would prime themselves to fail even before they started a business day. When the prospective customer say “No” to them . They would tell themselves, “I knew it. I knew they won’t buy.” Some would go on to blame the product and justify for their failure. They gave lots of excuses.

I’ve learned if the sale was not first closed in my mind, it would not be closed in real life.

That’s why I would imagine all kinds of sales scenarios. I could see clearly in my mind how I would lead my prospective customer. I would use all my senses to visualize step-by-step, word-by-word, and action-by-action how I would close the beautiful sale and start a wonderful relationship with my customer.

4. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Even if the customer didn’t buy from me, I would still love him. I made it a point to listen to customers even if they bring bad news to me.

More importantly, I asked myself a series of at least 5″Why”s.

Why did I fail? Why did I not close the sale? Why did I not convince the prospect? Why did I honestly not close the sale? Why did I really fail? I’ve learned the quality of results depended on the quantity of quality questions I asked myself.

When I asked the right question, our Creator would send me the right answers.

5. The first “product” to sell is myself.

Before the customer bought my product, they must “buy” me first. I was the first and most important living, walking, and breathing advertisement for our business. The Thieves Market taught me if customers didn’t like, trust and respect me, they would never step into our “retail palace,” let alone buy our clothing.

Before a new business day, the first step I needed to do was to go to the mirror and asked myself, “If I were the prospect, will I buy from myself?”

That’s why I made vigorously sure that I put on the best image. I reflected the best outcomes of a sale to my customers. I aimed to make sure that if anybody walked into our “retail palace,” they would never forget me. It would be a pleasure to do business with me.

6. Marketing is a transference of passion.

Closing sales is a transference of my feeling and emotion to my customer.

In the Thieves Market, I knew if I was not enthusiastic about my product, my customer would not be enthusiastic about buying it too. If I was not passionate about using the product, the customer would not be passionate about using it too.

Before I sold to my customers, I must sell to myself first. If I didn’t believe in my product, I would not sell it, otherwise I would be a HYPOCRITE. If you have a chance to look at my childhood photo album, you would know that my favourite jeans was from our shop at Sungei Road.

I love that pair of jeans.

7. Brand the experience.

Branding is not about buzz words, advertisement and promotion. It’s not even about being recognized and remembered, especially for the wrong or less-than-optimal impression.

In the Thieves Market, my face was my brand.

My name was my logo.

My thoughts, words and action was the best branding equity and deliverables. Branding was therefore, the ongoing experience that my customers have with me. That’s why, I aimed to make it meaningful, fun, exciting, fulfilling and memorable.

It has to be a lifelong love affair.

8. The proof is in the references and referrals.

In the Thieves Market, we didn’t operate like many of the advertisers and promoters in the modern age. We didn’t just toot our horns and blow our trumpets.

The only worthwhile proof that our business was good was when our customers promoted us through worth-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). They continued to buy our clothing and brought new customers to us.

That was what total quality meant to us.

9. Maximize benefits and values.

In the tough and highly competitive Thieves Market, I was compelled to have the right mindset and behaviour. The days under the hot sun taught me that as an entrepreneur, I must ask myself every day:

“How much more strengths, advantages, benefits, values can I provide to my customer?”

“How can I earn the customers’ trust, respect, affection, and loyalty on a lifelong basis?”

” How can I earn the privilege to be their “freehold” friend and serve them and their family for the next three generations?”

Customers are for life.

10. Customers gave me my life.

When I was working in the Thieves Market, my customers helped me to earn extra pocket money. I could use the money to buy food, acquire books, play games, and go out with friends. I owe them a debt of gratitude.

At a later stage in my entrepreneurial life, customers helped me put food on the table. They helped me to have a roof. In an indirect way, they paid for most of my bills. They supported not just me, but also my family and colleagues. I’m mindful they can stop doing business with me. They can take their business elsewhere.

I owe customers my life.

They may not always be right and I may have to correct them in a proper way. Still, it’s cheaper to retain a customer than find a new one. I’m willing to go on my knees and thank them for their business.


I have left the Thieves Market behind me. But the lessons have not left my heart until today. They have helped me achieve many successes and will continue to do so throughout my entrepreneurial journey.


By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

Visit my Inspiration blog at http://liewinspiration.wordpress.com/

For my opinions on social affairs, please visit my Transformation blog at http://hsrpatrickliew.wordpress.com/

Please read my reflections and continue to teach me.

Life is FUNtastic!


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