It’s Time To Learn From Your Childhood Experiences – Story #1.

by Patrick Liew on July 31, 2018

It’s Time To Learn From Your Childhood Experiences – Story #1.

The Sungei Road market, once known as the “Thieves Market” has been around for more than eighty years. It has given way to a proposed modern built environment.

According to the Master Plan 2014, it will be replaced by residential buildings, shops, parks, and a brand new MRT station that is scheduled to be opened in 2017.

Sungei Road will be gone but it will always have a special place in my heart.

I used to work there during school vacations, right from a tender age of 11.

I did it to earn extra pocket money as I came from a poor family.

That’s the good news about child labour. Without it, I would not be able to earn an extra income to live and study properly.

In the days of old, there was a flea market at Sungei Road. You could buy almost everything you need in your home and workplace, and at a bargain price.

During some school vacations, I was helping an elderly couple. They were distant relatives on my grandmother’s side.

My grand aunt cum lady boss was an unforgettable character. For example, during every meal, she would eat a bowl of rice for lunch.

Nothing strange about that – except that my seemingly invincible boss would pour a bottle of Guinness Stout over the rice.

She would make sure it was stirred, not shaken before eating it.

We ran the second dinghy stall in front of the defunct ice factory and at the fringe of Sungei Road.

In the old days, there was a flea market at Sungei Road. You could buy almost everything you need in your home and at a bargain price.

It was also a trading hub for petty thieves, pickpockets, and purse-snatchers. Those were exciting times.

If you lose the hubcap of your vehicle, you could buy one at the Thieves Market for a fraction of the price. And get a second-hand hubcap within minutes.

After you have fitted the hubcap on your vehicle, when you go to the other side, guess what? The other hubcap might be missing.

At the Thieves Market, I got to know many ethical, hardworking and creative hawkers. They struggled to eke out a living by offering different wares and services.

Some of them broke the poverty cycle and became very successful. And made a good living for themselves and for their loved ones.

I remember a 17 year old orphan. He was a student from Beatty School who supported his entire family by selling second-hand shoes.

He made anywhere between $1000 to $3000 months per month. It was considered a princely sum of money during those days and was equivalent to the salary of a senior executive.

I was helping my grand aunt to sell jeans and all kinds of clothing for working adults in a highly competitive marketplace.

They were generic brands and the only selling point was that I could sell it cheap or cheaper.

When you walked into my shop, the first question I would ask you was, “What is your size?” In my stall, there were only three sizes of jeans: small, medium or large.

If you had replied, “Small,” which was the most common size for people from the lower socio-economic class, I would have given you a pair of medium-sized jeans.

The reason was simple. After you washed the pre-shrunk jeans, it would be reduced to a small size.

If you continue to wash it, the long pants would become a pair of shorts. The last line was a joke that I used to tell my customers.

(Please laugh. Thank you).

Looking back, it was in that tough and highly-practical “business school” that I first learned about entrepreneurship.

Let me share some of the salient lessons that I learned at Sungei Road market.

1. Start small. Dream big.

Serious peddlers at the Thieves Market started with a simple profit-generating idea.

However, we harbour big dreams. They kept us learning, improving, and strengthening our performance and results.

On a stormy day, when the crowd dwindled, the big dream would warm our heart and kept our spirit up.

2.Stay desperate.

What kept us going was the fear of going through hunger in the following day, week or month.

Desperation compelled us to become self-regulated learners.

We had to develop perseverance, grit and resilience so as to make more than three bowls of rice per day.

3. Find out the truth from Mr Market.

In the Thieves Market, I learned the map is not the territory.

Never assumed anything.

“Assume” meant making an ass out of you and me.

Before launching a new product, we studied what the customers wanted.

We had to find out if there were enough of them who would buy it at a reasonable price.

A trial run had to be run to iron out the kinks before launching the full-blown campaign.

Every cent counted and every effort had to be targeted to achieve best results.

Ultimately, results is the only true litmus test of business.

4. Sharpen the edge – all the time.

We monitored our competitors like a hawk, including studying their garbage bin.

The battle cry was – Out-sell, Out-perform, and Out-service them.

We were constantly looking for gaps in the market that were not served or under-served by them.

We would do everything possible to dominate it profitably and sustainably.

If we didn’t eat their three bowls of rice, they would eat ours.

5. It’s about the CBV, not just the USP.

Business is not just about creating a unique selling proposition (USP).

It has to be compelling. To do that it has to be distinctive, be differentiated, and more importantly, be desirable to the customers.

They must have an emotional attachment to the product and a memorable experience with it.

It was not about what we sold or wanted to sell, it was about what the customer wanted to buy.

It was also about their emotional fulfillments.

To us, selling our products was only part of the proposition.

We endeavoured to sell the strengths, advantages and benefits of a total experience.

They could be quantified and measured in terms of real values.

Hence, it was not just about the USP, it was also about the compelling buying value (CBV).

6. Innovate or die.
In the dog-eat-dog world of the Thieves Market, we needed to constantly reinvent ourselves and redesign our operation.

It was not unclear in our mind, if the customers didn’t pay more money for our “brilliant” ideas, it was time to up the ante.
Innovate or die, it was as simple as that.

7. Create luck.

Luck was directly proportionate to smart sweat. The smarter we sweated, the luckier we would become.

“Practice makes perfect” might not work. Practicing a failure would only make us a perfected failure.

We ran more miles in the right direction.

We ran more than what our customers expected, longer than our competitors, and ahead of the market.

Along the way, luck kept raining upon us.

8. Work for the love of the business.

We worked for the love of the business and not just for the money. And our love for the business brought in the money.

That was what make the business meaningful, fun and exciting.

9. Fail successfully.

I learned never to underestimate values of failure.

In the same way, I didn’t overestimate and over-celebrate success.

It contained seeds of failure and could accelerate their growth.

Entrepreneurs see opportunity in every failure and danger in every success.

Failure can be a friend and a great teacher.

It is a great feedback and learning experience.

If we never fail, we may not be compelled to learn and improve.

Failure mold and shape us to exploit more opportunities and achieve bigger success.

In short, fail gloriously.

Fail successfully.

10. Live well and do good.

Integrity is first and last. Never sell your soul for any price.

Do the right thing. Never do the wrong thing.

To avoid taking the wrong path even if it done ignorantly and accidentally, ensure that it is so much easier to do the right thing.

Make it very very very hard to do the wrong thing by establishing a positive culture.

Enroll people with honorable values to uphold it.

Set a good example and catch your employees setting high ethical standards.

Recognize and reward them privately as well as publicly.

When you live well and do good, you will earn the respect of your colleagues and customers. They will prefer to work with you and be your friend.

Entrepreneurship will be a purposeful, exciting and fulfilling experience.


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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Life is FUNtastic!


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