No one takes this sobering reality more seriously than 31-year-old Jeff Wei, who unequivocally disputes any talk that attempts to glamourise entrepreneurship. After all, passion alone was not enough for the interior designer by training to pay off the $800,000 debt he found himself in after making a foolish business decision.
In 2013, the managing director and founder of Ctrlplus, a construction and interior design firm, was too focused on accepting jobs from one particular company: interior fit-out firm Serrano Holdings Pte Ltd.
Jeff says, “After Serrano engaged us as a subcontractor, we were overwhelmed by projects from them. They were very promising, which made us grow quickly as well. We saw a good future with them and placed all our hope in them. We projected that we’d grow about 300% with them each year.”
You know that nagging feeling you get when things seem too good to be true?
Yeah, never ignore it.
Around the same time, Serrano was trying to get listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX). They would succeed in 2014, only to crash shortly after.
According to Jeff, Serrano had also convinced other contractors that they were doing well. They had even used the excuse that they were going to be listed on SGX to temporarily withhold payment. But once the realisation sunk in that Serrano did not, in fact, have the money to reimburse Ctrlplus (or anyone else), it was too late to do anything.
It would take Jeff a year before he would even begin to chip away at the staggering debt he owed to both workers and suppliers.
Some might even see his failure to plan as wilful blindness, due to his love for the money he was more or less guaranteed.
Yet I suggest to Jeff that there is probably no experience more humbling than completely messing up. Perhaps, hitting rock bottom is a good thing.
While it’s a privileged perspective, it’s one that Jeff can understand. However, he is quick to remind me that only on hindsight would anyone be able to appreciate the silver lining in what is essentially abject failure.
For someone who was previously “childish” and “immature”, and who believed that hard work would get him the money, this brutal reality check was just what he needed to ground himself.
He remembers feeling mortified about the large amount of debt, and revealed this ‘epic failure’ only to his family.
“I was so embarrassed. I went from doing very well at a young age to losing everything. So I actually felt very touched when my family asked ‘How are we going to pay off the debt?’, instead of ‘How are you going to pay it off?’”
Despite being naturally optimistic and “not inclined towards depression”, Jeff recalls locking himself in a room.
“Oddly enough, I didn’t develop any trust issues towards other people, but I started doubting my own ability and journey as an entrepreneur. I felt I wasn’t mindful enough to manage people, and not calculative enough to survive the brutal industry. Clearly, if not for my decisions and plans, my company wouldn’t be in that state. The people with me didn’t do anything wrong.”
Eventually, Jeff managed to convince himself that $800,000 was “only money” that could be paid off.
“I spoke to my workers and suppliers and they were willing to wait for me to settle the debt. They were not chasing me. We agreed I could pay them back by instalment over six to eight months. So $800,000 may seem a lot, but based on my company’s scale and the work we could take on to make ends meet, I realised we could break even sooner than I thought.”
Ironically, Serrano’s closure also meant there were many projects left unattended to, which Jeff and Ctrlplus decided to take over. Instead of merely supplying labour to do installation work, as they previously did, Ctrlplus now took over the entire installation and fabrication process.
By the end of 2014, Jeff decided to diversify his business and started another firm, Boewe Design, which focuses solely on interior design and renovation. (He manages Boewe with his brother, Yuming.) Jeff had also expanded the factory size and hired more workers from other companies that were shutting down.
Perhaps there is some truth to the natural dogged persistence that drives entrepreneurs to succeed. After all, his breakdown led to a breakthrough.
Barely two years after hitting rock bottom, his life turned around.
For instance, they may see that he has “a very easy life, meeting a couple of people per day, doing a couple of things”, but they don’t know the years of personal and professional sacrifices he has made to achieve financial freedom. These include working 20-hour days, becoming aggressive and losing his cool easily, and risking a strained relationship with his wife (who was his then-girlfriend).
As such, many friends regard him with disbelief when he tries to tell them that they need to compromise on a comfortable life.
But if anything, I’d like to think his sacrifices help him temper the excessive idealism and naivety of youth today.
“People say running your own business is about doing what you like, but it’s not. It’s about the passion to chase money. You must be willing to go all the way to make it happen,” he says.
“My passion is in design, but it’s not enough to push me forward to as an entrepreneur. Sure, I can run a small business doing interior design, but to run a big company, you need to have money sense. You need to have financial awareness and a sense of urgency. You need to know how to prepare, read and analyse a balance sheet. You can’t avoid any of this.”
In fact, this financial literacy is the one value of being an entrepreneur that Jeff will never compromise on. This stands in stark contrast to the comparatively ‘fluffy’ values that he hears in mainstream narratives, ones often involving passion and perseverance.
“If you are merely chasing your dream, your interest will start to fade. But if you are chasing money, the money will keep growing. Say you get a million, soon you will want five million.”
Today, the daily challenges are still a struggle. For instance, getting older management teams to adapt to the culture of the newer ones that he hired to help his company grow, and vice versa. While he’s hopeful that the teething issues will be solved sooner than later, I can tell he’s not overly bothered either.
In the end, being in debt provided a life-changing opportunity for Jeff. But this isn’t a story of sheer determination or optimism.
In fact, he would probably hate being put on that pedestal.
This is about ordinary people who make incredibly shitty decisions and learn how to deal with the aftermath for as long as it takes. What’s certain, at least to Jeff, is that a singular choice can irrevocably change your life. When it does, all you can do is build a new normal.