Adjusting to a Foreign World

By: Howard Wong

It was approximately 2pm, in a hot, humid and sunny day in the Janga market, the wind occasionally breezed over Fion (my business partner) and I as we stood in silence waiting for Mr. Lefler at the main entrance to the market, garnering occasional glances by locals curious to find out what exotic country we hail from, if we were “Korean” and why our skin was unusually white. Engines roared in the distance as motorcycles, tricycles, and what was seemingly an army of angry bikers rushed by eager to explore what the day had to offer.

IMG_4454The day begins at the Jagna market.

In boredom, I glanced around noticing all the businesses selling largely undifferentiated goods, ranging from peanuts to common local snacks. The teachings of first year economics couldn’t help but emerge in my mind: undifferentiated businesses rarely excel in the long run due to excess profits quickly being eliminated by new entrants. I think to myself, that would probably be one of the factors explaining the poor economic development of the region; vendors offer mostly the exact same thing.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the laid back nature of the vendors. It almost seemed like they could care less about sales and about the profit they were going to generate for the day; they seemed content with simply having a stable job. This naturally draws large contrast to Hong Kong. Back home, it seems most businesses are constantly seeking the slightest advantage possible, to generate the tiniest increase in sales because, as we know, in a hyper-competitive city where rent is amongst the most expensive in the world, every customer mattered. It was unusual to stand here, in a busy market, without someone trying to sell me something or pass me a flyer to advertise. This reminded me I was in a distant land far from home, with business practices heavily differing from those I’ve grown accustom to.

As I stared into the azure sky watching thin streaks of clouds trailing by, it made me somewhat sad to realize the lack of opportunity that these vendors faced. Back home, with a bit of luck, if one worked hard, he could go very far in life: even Li Ka-Shing began his career as a lowly factory worker eventually becoming the richest man in Hong Kong. However, we must realise that his success was partially fueled by the opportunities existing to begin with: a stable economic infrastructure and plentiful business opportunities. Before my eyes were vendors, who, if they bothered to work hard, would seemingly sell an additional 2 packs of peanuts per-day. This amounted to such a minuet difference it probably wasn’t worth the effort. I now better understood why the vendors were mostly disengaged and unworried about sales. While I was discontent with the lack of opportunity these vendors were experiencing, they didn’t seem worried at all: they chatted enthusiastically amongst themselves, occasionally bursting into laughter, and always happy to serve the next customer. Perhaps, after all, simplicity and stability mattered more to people here.

IMG_4452Happy vendors selling undifferentiated goods, chatting amongst themselves.

Mr. Lefler soon joined us and we headed towards our shop, “Glace”. Situated along a vertical street to the left side of the Jagna market, approximately five stalls in was Glace, a dessert-cum-ice cream vendor offering ice cream, “ice crumble” (flavored ice shavings), shakes and “banana barges” (simply banana splits, name differently to be “more appealing”). The first thing I noticed was the general lack of effort by the business owner. But before we discuss that, I must apologize for my comments appearing as judgmental and harsh. As I type this blog post, I realize that the strong thriving businesses that we are use to seeing at home can greatly distort our vision overtime of what a business, with some chance of survival, has to resemble. Of course, these ideals are erroneous in this geographic.

Back to the whole effort thing, to the main entrance of the shop are 2 banners hanging approximately 3 meters high draping downwards, advertising ironically, coffee, instead of the business. Stuck to the exterior of the counter is a blue oval shaped logo (positioned in a landscape orientation) with the word “glace” printed in white on it. I couldn’t help but notice the poor color scheme, it almost resembled a child’s arts and craft project. There was also no menu in sight instead, a television screen hung on the wall displaying photos of desserts and associated prices. There was however no effort to make the images appear appealing, it literally was a photo of the dessert stuck onto a colored background. No the product was not cropped out neatly and assembled onto the background, no the colors didn’t sit harmoniously, no the pricing was not easy to read, but it worked regardless: I observed as multiple customers came in to place their orders. Content and grateful, they enjoyed their treat in the blistering heat. This again reminded me of the different geographic I was in and the need to stay open-minded.


IMG_4445The entrance to Glace, the logo can also be seen here. 

IMG_4441The menu of Glace.

Upon speaking with the owner we learned that the business did not keep any accounting records. While they knew they were profitable, they were unsure of the extent to which they were. They were also largely unsure about the level of their expenditures. The owner explained that her husband, who is working overseas, ordered everything (materials, machinery, etc.) and she had no access to the electronic records. As an accounting major, this was alarming and to some degree frightening. How was I supposed to help a business that, to begin with, had no clue how they were doing? How would we measure the impacts of any initiatives implemented? How did they know if the business was performing overtime? How did these people sleep at night not knowing …. I digress. I believe one thing that has to be attempted during our stay is to convince the owner of the importance of solid book keeping and the value added.

Other aspects later became apparent including, the vigilant nature of the owner, her gravitation towards keeping things unchanged and, her unwillingness to listen. Back home, people would listen to your idea and then shoot it down. Here, it was shot down before we even finished explaining. As we brought up potential changes, as elementary as designing a simple menu for her, she shot them down immediately. We eventually convinced her of the value of the menu, but only by explaining it would save her money as the T.V screen required electricity to operate. This made me realize the very cost conservative nature of the owner. Moreover, it worries me that initiatives (e.g basic accounting) that are proven to positively facilitate business operations may not be adopted due to her desire to keep things unchanged. It was also eye opening to see how her attitude deviated when we mentioned the menu would save her money. It seems like businesses here are rather short-sighted and only interested in the immediate pay-off of initiatives instead of also considering the long-term implications of things.  I believe, moving forward, we will have to emphasize the cost cutting implications to our proposed initiatives and be more persistent when introducing ideas. This experience also draws strong implications of the importance for students (or any individual designing solutions for a stakeholder) to frame initiatives / changes in accordance to KPI(s) valued by the stakeholder in order to garner a greater level of acceptance.

Based on my observations and experiences, the following initiatives have been devised for the coming two weeks:

  • Design a professional, visually appealing logo to replace the oval with cursive writing.
  • Design a simple menu that they can handout to customers, this saves money with the electricity but more importantly, avoids congestion around the entrance of the shop (which was where the television was positioned and where consumers were therefore congregating.)
  • Devise a simple book keep system and convince the owner to adopt it.
  • Develop advertisement material of some sort; we were told that there is currently no advertising for the business.

While I’m aware of the challenges ahead with convincing the owner to implement the materials we will produce, I’m excited for the opportunity. I was initially confident in undertaking this course given my previous exposure to consulting case studies, but this experience proves otherwise. In retrospect, case studies done at school will fail to reflect the challenges that arise due to fundamental human dynamics such as, the inability to implement certain solutions. To be successful, students / consultants necessarily have to learn to work with people and their accompanying needs and not simply expect a solution that is sound on paper to suffice.


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