STYLEGUIDE sits down with seasoned entrepreneur Clinton Zheng, partner to Diamond Walker and Karaoke World Championships as well as a growth consultant to disruptive fashion brands Zalora and Grana, to find out more about what inspires and motivates him to keep hustling.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~ African Proverb
Clinton Zheng emphasizes this quote twice during our interview. The double-degree graduate from Singapore Management University (SMU) can testify to his belief in teamwork, having dropped out of post-graduate law school as a Juris Doctor scholar to focus on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem called The Millionaire Oracle.
Believing that becoming a millionaire through business - by building a strong business model - is something that is highly achievable, Clinton decided to spearhead one of Singapore’s largest millenial entrepreneurship community known as Twenty And Free that helps first-time entrepreneurs kick-start their businesses by leveraging on the founding team’s experience and expertise.
What were some things about your business and personal life that made you dissatisfied with the way things were?
One of the things I observed in life is that the education system, in the sixteen years it took me from primary school to university, has not really evolved even though the times and economy has moved on in terms of skillsets. So we become labour that provide talents and skills, only to meet with no demand in this new sharing economy.
The biggest pain point, for me, comes from being in business school.
Personal reasons and ambitions led me to stay in Singapore to study. Back then, my dream as an eighteen year old was to be a famous lawyer, inspired by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. I remember being accepted to Kings College, University of London and University of Manchester to study degrees in Law and Accounting, and my parents could afford to send me there.
But sometimes, we make big sacrifices in the name of love.
When I was young, naive and foolish, I thought I loved my ex-girlfriend and decided to stay in Singapore to study Accounting and Business in SMU. She obviously wanted me to, having heard horror stories of long distance relationships.
In the name of love, I also paid a significant amount for my ex-girlfriend’s tertiary education at a local tertiary institution.
Also, my friends in Victoria Junior College were very smart - most were scholars and went overseas to study. I wanted to avoid a long distance relationship so I decided to stay in Singapore to study at SMU, and also decided to study accounting and business so I could earn money and support her in Singapore.
I was hustling every day, testing out if what was learnt in school could be applied in real life.
I realised business school made simple algebra sound complicated and polishes it with the names of branded consultancies and business professors. Look into most of these professors’ backgrounds and you will find they mostly had academic instead of business successes or track records, yet they are teaching me about business!
Unlike in medical school, where one learns from doctors who are also trained practitioners, I am learning from people who cannot teach me how to make money - what I feel to be the primary goal of being in business school.
Also, a lot of successful individuals typically, through the cultural backdrop of Singapore, have a very selfish mentality when it comes to success.
My extreme view is that this is because of the incumbent, flawed education or indoctrination system of competitive meritocracy. All my life experiences have positioned me to answer this currently flawed education system at its root.
Success need not be achieved by stepping onto other people.
You need not adopt a selfish mentality to achieve what you want.
Such thinking is passé.
In the past, it was a zero sum approach to many things in life due to (information) asymmetry that existed due to lack of technology and communication. You could rely on that, take advantage of that and exploit people’s lack of information and vulnerability.
I aim to disrupt such a mentality and mindset through my experiences.
What is the greatest success you’ve experienced?
Businessmen have succeeded in the past because they hid their trade secrets. Till today, there is a Chinese saying that if you teach your disciple everything, the master will not have anything left to eat. Know eighteen martial art styles, teach seventeen and keep the eighteenth to yourself so if your disciple backstabs you, you have number eighteen to finish him off.
But, people have achieved success without subscribing to this school of thought.
I am propogating the business mentality that you don't need to give up something to gain something. You don’t need to have someone to lose for you to win.
Win-win-win versus win-lose mentality; an abundance over scarcity mentality.
There is no need to trade space and time for money. This is not a message commonly heard. It is a counterintuitive approach.
In fact, the more your business cannot be seen, the more successful. The less you trade space and time for money, the richer you are.
What if it’s too good to be true?
Some things in life can be too good and too true.
Inclusive, Abundance, Prosperity. This is an almagamation of reading a lot - the integration of this message is novel and it provides an alternative voice to the incumbent system. A lot of my students are uninformed, they have a scarcity mentality. To them, you have to be busy, be a know-it-all, have a zero sum game approach. But what if, everyone adopted my mentality - let's all be A+ together? Everyone would be elite students together. I believe my passion and conviction became contagious in this platform I created.This is my most satisfying success. Not the most financially lucrative project, but holistically, this is by far the biggest accomplishment because I’ve seen lives changed.
If you could give your 25 year old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell my 25 year old self not to be impatient. Impatience has killed me too many times, allowing a lot of emotions, ego to control my life. Read ‘Ego is your enemy’ by Ryan Holiday. Being impatient is a symptom of egoism. There’s four levels of ego in decreasing order.
To Me: This first group have a victim mentality - you think everything happens to you. You can't do anything about it so you blame everyone except yourself. Big ego is an impediment to anything you can achieve in life.
By Me: Everything happens because of me. This is good to some extent as some have been successful from having an independent mindset.
Through Me: You become a conduit of change, you have no ego and are willing to allow change.
As Me: This would be akin to the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-actualisation. Your teachings and mindsets are replicated by others, similar to the saints throughout history.
What would you say is your biggest challenge in life?
Shaking off the ‘rich kid, wealthy family’ label. Everyone loves the rags to riches story. But there are so many extenuating circumstances. I didn’t choose my family or parents.
Whether I succeed or fail, people will think it didn’t count because my family was rich to begin with.
But I tell my friends that as second generation businessmen, their managerial, entrepreneurial and leadership talent and ability lies in bringing the family business up ten times, a hundred times from how it currently is.
That is value: to multiply and leverage what is given to you.
Where do you see your life 5 or 10 years from now?
Well, playing chess does help in this aspect. Every move you make, you anticipate the players involved (family, economy, important stakeholders) and make a decision that gives you an advantage.
Einsten once called the power of compounding the eighth wonder of the world. Incremental improvements in every area of life - intelligence, languages, musical inclinations and a growth mindset - can break every barrier.
Lifestyle-wise, I want to speak many languages, understand many computer languages, play many musical instruments and understand many domains of knowledge. And to do that, I need to gain financial and time freedom and my goal is to do that in five years’ time. My longer term goal is to be the founding dean of Singapore’s first entrepreneurial school and teach for the rest of my life on topics that I’m interested about.
Which 3 books would you recommend to others?
I can’t name three, there’s too many! But I’d recommend three platforms. One book is not going to get you anywhere. Warren Buffet is such a successful investor because he reads six to seven hours a day and is able to apply a multi-disciplinarian approach to investing.
But if I had to name one book, there’s no getting away from ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ by Robert Kiyosaki. There’s a game too called Cashflow Quadrant and you know what, play the game. You’ll figure out that the rat race is not a place you’d want to be in for long, so build as many passive income streams, have positive cashflow, because we’re born to live our dreams.
Second, I’d recommend Blinkist. Read summaries of trending books.
Third, Youtube. You learn a hell lot from Youtube.
How do you recharge your energy amid your busy schedule?
Well I check myself into a karaoke lounge and just sing! I can sing six hours of karaoke and sing to my heart’s content. I find that music makes me recharged and singing makes me even more recharged! Those high-tempo, high-beat songs...it’s very energizing! There’s a karaoke app called Smule that I use too and I’d sing for two to three hours. I swear to you, I do it in the morning sometimes too!
If you could do your business venture all over again, what would you do?
Focus on the people, put systems in place and eliminate ego. In my first business venture, I lost a lot of money, lost my then-girlfriend and was betrayed by a good friend. Never allow ego to get in the way and always be humble enough to learn from everyone.
I was not a good listener and thought I knew things.
Now I know I only understand a small speck of business, and over time have just widened that speck, borrowing other’s perspectives to see what is really going on. Interdependency is better than independence. A successful ‘team’ has no ‘i’ in it, teamwork makes the dream work.
I used to think I had to be the MVP (Most Valuable Person), all else should follow.
I allowed myself to be the centre of attention and that led many talented people to walk away as the spotlight wasn’t on them or the team.
I looked deep and saw that perhaps there were many actions I had done that culminated in my ex-girlfriend and close friend’s negative behaviour towards me - how people treat you is a mirror reflection of yourself.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
Holistically? The most important thing to me right now would be to be the best leader and role model to my wife and future son. If I can’t manage the basic Confucian unit - the family - what right and authority do I have to call myself a leader?
Success doesn’t happen overnight, you have to be grounded on solid footing, getting priorities right and first things first.
At the end of the day, nothing matters more than family, the memories, the relationships, the trust.
Can you have it all? I say yes.
Second, to be a great role model to my business - and to set up the first real world university where you graduate when your survival needs are met, with money in the bank. I wouldn’t be that ambitious to think I can change the world now, not even twenty years down the road.
I believe the greatest change happens within myself - to be the best version of myself. Then and only then, can I be a great conduit of change in the world. I can effect change on the world when I make the greatest change within myself.
Everyone’s aspiration should be to become the best version of themselves.
The reason why people don’t experience change is because they expect change. When people see the change in you, they’ll be inspired to change themselves - it’s a multiplier effect.
I aim to be the clearest person that the world will ever see - extreme clarity.
If I am very clear on what is the calling in my life and what others’ calling are in their lives...only then can I truly effect change, as the best version of myself.