Career advice: Go where the competition isn’t

This week I am in Shanghai, China, visiting with alumni of Darden, business leaders, government officials, and interesting companies. It’s refreshing to plunge into the business ecosystem here because of its buoyancy and optimism. Sure, there is frustration with state-owned enterprises, bureaucracy, air pollution, corruption, and government restrictions on freedom of speech. Yet this country is a magnet for global talent. Is it rational to reach for great career opportunities despite local frustrations?

The answer is “yes…if:” you envision opportunities unobtainable in more liberal and pleasant environments and you harbor the great passion to pursue those opportunities. In brief, you must be an entrepreneur, a go-getter, and quite persistent.

Jimmy Wei, (Darden MBA 2002) gave me a personal example of this spirit. A breakfast meeting with our alumni leadership here brimmed with expressions of the opportunities that drew Darden graduates here. Jimmy explained that at graduation from Darden, he accepted a job with McKinsey and Company in the U.S. Eventually, he decided to return to his homeland, China, where he held some general management positions with local companies before ultimately becoming a venture capitalist, investing in promising young companies.

Jimmy reminded me that on the final day of my courses I used to distribute to students an excerpt from a book by John Train, Preserving Capital and Making it Grow. Train pursued a remarkable career as investment advisor, government official, and writer. This particular book, published in 1983, is long out of print but is relevant today not least for its final chapter. The previous chapters give sage advice about investing one’s nest egg; in the final chapter, Train in effect asks, “if the previous advice bored you and you want to do better than the average investor, where should you go?” His reply has little to say about investing one’s money, and a lot to say about investing one’s time.

The final chapter is entitled, “For the Adventurous Few: How to Get Rich.” At Darden, we believe that business is about a lot more than getting rich; creating value is important, but business is also about treating others with respect, living according to one’s values, lifting society through one’s work and so on. If you allow for the distance of 30 years and allow richness to include Darden’s broader range of values, you will see in Train’s chapter a strong response to the question, “where should I work?” His answer resonates well among entrepreneurs, risk investors, and many MBA students: in effect, he says, “go where the competition isn’t.” This is sound and intuitive advice, delivered with flair and a bit of romanticism. The following excerpt catches much of the spirit that I detect among Darden’s entrepreneurs in East Asia.

* * *

(Excerpt from pages 191-197)

The first step is to stop thinking the way people do who don’t get rich. Almost none of my “successful” friends in the East are getting rich: They either started out that way or else just have good jobs, as law partners, bankers, company vice-presidents (plus a few presidents), or whatever. These friends of mine become respectable, but they don’t get rich, not the way people did in the old days or still do out West or in places like Mexico, Brazil, Spain, the Middle East, or Taiwan, with palaces in town, yachts, ranches here and there, and collections they eventually give to museums…

You can still get rich, although, as I say, you have to change your thinking. All these successful but non-rich friends of mine have modest, conventional points of view. They went to the right schools and colleges, they joined the right law firms, brokerage houses, or banks; they appear in the right clubs; they have deliberately turned themselves into professionals or corporate functionaires…The worst of it is that the lawyer or brokerage house vice-president knows that he isn’t needed…

So step number one is to abandon the entire Eastern respectable point of view, which prizes a safe seat in the shadow of the throne more than the magnificent reality. You have to think like an Elizabethan, an adventurer; like the American of a century ago, not his clerkish descendant of today. You must think as a builder, a conqueror.

Second, you must ask yourself: Where am I needed enough so that I can really get paid for it if I’m able to stand some risk and discomfort? The answer is, in the developing countries with idle resources–specifically, the ones that have sufficiently overcome their political hangups to be able to welcome capital and entrepreneurship for what it’s worth to them…Much of the world’s surface is lying fallow, useless to its population, for lack of entrepreneurs. If you are clever and energetic enough to make the grade in a good law firm, you probably have multiples of what it takes to play a role in building up a developing country. Never fear, the countries themselves know the score–they have investment codes, tax rates, and labor unions, not to speak of anti-free enterprise intellectuals; but the needs and opportunities are still so great that a trained and able person can reasonably expect to build an interest in something really valuable during his or her career.

In such places, it is taken for granted that one works hard, takes risks, creates something, and is well-rewarded for it, not an almost lost idea in the respectable Eastern Seaboard circles, where “new money” is mentioned in whispers. Young friends of mine have developed a minerals empire in British Columbia; created the principal agricultural-equipment distribution company in Central America; organized the Hong Kong television station; started a bottling company in Thailand; developed a large petrochemical venture in the south of Spain; organized a major investment bank in Madrid; put together a fertilizer complex in Korea; organized vineyards in Australia; I can cite dozens of such cases. Most of these people live magnificently, with swarms of servants who are delighted to have the work….

Let me describe the actual process. In the first place, you will have a much easier time if you know something valuable before you set off. A good grasp of investment banking (more precisely, the “deal business”) would suffice, or a degree in engineering plus a few years operating in a manufacturing company, or field and money-raising experience in oil or hard-rock geology, or a thorough knowledge of some aspect of finance, such as consumer credit or leasing, or of a consumer business, such as bottling or mail order sales. You must have a business sense and entrepreneurial flair. Ask a seasoned friend how he sizes you up. You also need six months’ or a year’s eating money, preferably borrowed from old family members. After you arrive in Vancouver or Caracas or Sao Paolo or Lisbon or Sydney or Denver or Singapore (one hopes that the place has been chosen rationally, a high growth rate being indispensable), ask around about the young Americans who are doing interesting things. Visit them. Call on a couple of banks and lawyers (preferably with letters of introduction from your own) and take soundings…Then visit the local development banker and whatever the ministry of development is called, and then the people who run the local and the U.S. Chambers of Commerce.

If you push right along, following up leads, within a couple of months you will have found three or four projects in search of an entrepreneur, including with luck, one or two where your expertise is applicable…In a month, you will have five telephone calls waiting for you each time you get back to your hotel, and after three months you can decide to work on two or three of these projects for a piece of the action and expenses–but no salary.

If you are always honest, energetic, and careful, then even if the first project doesn’t score, you will get a reputation for being serious, and after a while the solid groups will seek you out with something really worthwhile….

Why can’t all this be done in the States? It can, but the competition is much tougher. Any number of large corporations are constantly sifting through stacks of self-generated expansion possibilities. There are hundreds of competent deal makers in even provincial centers, and the real G.N.P. growth in sectors where individual entrepreneurs can function is more limited. In the United States you haven’t got the comfortable margin for error that you have in the developing country, where you have more opportunities, less competing talent, and a chance to look up the answers in the back of the book, so to speak, by bringing in foreign know-how….I am not talking about putting money into foreign ventures without going there. It will be lost. I am talking about going and staying, of committing your working life to a place that needs your energy, talent, and knowledge of a more advanced economy and will reward it. I can’t guarantee that this prescription will make you rich, but it probably won’t happen any other way.

Learned Hand put it better, as usual, “…in establishing a business, or in excavating an ancient city, or in rearing a family, or in writing a play, or in observing an epidemic, or in splitting up an atom, or in learning the nature of space, or even in divining the structure of this giddy universe, in all chosen jobs, the craftsman must be at work, and the craftsman, as Stevenson says, gets his hire as he goes…If it be selfishness to work on the job one likes, because one likes it and for no other end, let us accept the odium.

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5 Responses to Career advice: Go where the competition isn’t

  1. Adam says:

    I like the idea of going where the competition isn’t, but Train’s specific recommendation of exporting your advanced economy know-how into a developing economy seems pretty limited to people who have “old family members” to borrow “eating money” from and few other constraints (e.g. spouse, children, MBA debt).

    My pessimism aside, I’m sure that you certainly can apply the general argument of this post in a more limited fashion in developed economies.

  2. Bob Bruner says:

    Adam:
    You’re right about exporting your know-how within a developed economy. Think of “developing” as a descriptor not only for a country, but also for an industry, or a problem in society. For instance, social entrepreneurs apply their know-how in the inner-cities and distressed rural areas of the United States. And tech entrepreneurs apply their know-how to the “frontiers” of big data. They all go where the “competition” isn’t.

    Borrowing “eating money” from old family members is essentially what all entrepreneurs do in starting a company: it’s called looking for “angel” investors. And you don’t need to be constrained by looking to old family members. Other possible sources include friends, neighbors, former employers, and folks who call themselves “angel investors.” Small business incubators (like Darden’s) function in the same capacity.

    The “other constraints” you mention are relevant to many entrepreneurs. In no small sense to a spouse and children make a sacrifice on behalf of the entrepreneurial venture.
    –Bob

  3. Amy says:

    I think I enjoy the concept of going where competition isn’t…However, isn’t it competition that makes us work harder, think more strategically and move mountains where they try to hold us in place? Competition, whether it be in sports, grades, sibling competition, etc. allows us to grow character, become stronger and more driven. If we don’t have competition, how can be what the American Dream has the ability to give us? Throughout time, whether it was Carnegie or Rockfeller, there was competition…It is the basis of capitalism. So, if you want to go where the competition isn’t, perhaps it is due to the fact that while you may have an Adventurous spirit, but you don’t truly believe in yourself or your product. Why not have an adventurous spirit here in the States, work to bring prosperity and jobs to those of us here who need it and work to make our own economy better? Just a thought…

  4. Keith Bobbitt says:

    On that note, I’ve become a mentor here in Lima, Peru for a Start-up incubator organization yesterday called “Founder’s Institute”, which I was part of last year in New York during a solid career in finance. I listened to 16 pitches from aspiring entreprenuers and it was pretty cool to have them ask for feedback. There’s definitely a lot of smart, relevant business plans that are similar to proven models in the US – proven successes like Yelp, Hotelnow.com, etc. That’s one reason I’m totally in agreement with the article after seeing the fierce competition for small parts of the pie in NYC. For the adventurous souls there’s a lot out there.

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