Well yes, when the media start to notice you, you know that you're on the right track. I will provide the link as soon as it goes live.
If you want to pick up the book, go to amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007WK9UB6
Or you can read the article here, it's cheaper.
Nothing is impossible: Overcoming obstacles in your business
Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt is certainly one of the most inspiring people on the planet. Polio-stricken and unable to walk, he claimed: “Nothing is impossible”. Through rigorous exercise he regained the use of his legs and made a dramatic appearance on crutches at the 1924 Democratic Convention, proving to the world that “Nothing is impossible”.
I am a South African expat who is living and working in Southeast Asia. I started out manufacturing cutting boards and chopping blocks from reclaimed teak in Northern Thailand, and I don't compare myself to Roosevelt
When I started my teak business, I was faced with a multitude of obstacles. Money, without doubt, is one of the biggest obstacles most startups face. You need far more money to run a business than you are able to generate from a monthly salary. Surprisingly enough, cash flow was never the biggest obstacle I faced in my business. With a big demand for teak and customers paying a fifty percent deposit, I had few cash flow problems. But I had an obstacle so obvious, and so unforeseen, it’s unbelievable. The obstacle was labour – skilled labour. It became so problematic it eventually forced me to close my factory in Thailand and rethink my strategy.
I was situated in Maesot, Northern Thailand, a stone throw away from neighboring Burma. The sixty year old civil war in Burma resulted in numerous refugees spilling into neighboring Thailand. Displaced and vulnerable, these refugees toil seven days a week for sixty to seventy dollars a month. The first time I visited Maesot, I saw huge business potential. Maesot had an abundance of teak, cheap labour and low rentals.
But I was completely wrong, I was not going to profit from any of these prospects. In Asia, and especially Thailand, things are never what they seem to be. I could never have imagined that in teak-rich Thailand, it would be hard to buy teak, that carpenters would not work for me and that I would not be able to rent factory space.
Getting teak was the first obstacle I had to overcome. I bought teak from merchant in Burma who was willing to supply me, even though I had to pay a premium. Then I paid a cyclo-driver to take it to a warehouse near the border and a ferry to take it across the river where I collected it and took it to my factory.
During the elections in November 2010, the Burmese military junta closed the border and I was no longer able to go into Burma to buy teak. I had to look for another outlet. I turned to the Muslim teak merchants in Maesot. These traders sold reclaimed teak and did brisk business when the border closed. There was a huge demand for reclaimed teak and I saw the price of teak doubling in less than a year. I paid more for my teak, but the main advantages were that I had a reliable source and was making cutting boars from reclaimed teak. My product was legal, environmentally friendly and sustainable too!
Getting factory space was the easiest obstacle to overcome, but perhaps the costliest mistake I made. When I started out in Maesot, I was working from the basement of my rented house. It was the ideal setup, but the owner put a stop to that and threatened to have my workers arrested. So I went searching for factory space. I found a big deserted wooden house on stilts overlooking the river. It was easy to convert the ground floor into a factory and the upper level into living quarters and storage space. I was even able to communicate with the Burmese on the other side of the river from the veranda of the house. I cleaned the place out, installed water and electricity and moved in. The house was deserted, because it was believed to be haunted. Perhaps someone died in the house. Superstition goes a long way in Asia, and no one would live there. But when I moved in with my dog, I proved that this ghost thing was nonsense and people seemed to be happy to stay there.
There is virtually no pest control on the Burmese border and the place was rife with mosquitoes and other disease carrying vermin. First there was a tick, and then a lice infestation. I contracted dangee fever (from mosquitoes), scrub typhus (bites from rat lice), and several infections. Because of poor sanitation, I had prolonged diarrhea. And to top it all, I was hospitalized for a ruptured appendix.
Things were not going well for me in this charming little border town. I suffered a break-in and had equipment and my water pump stolen. In November 2010 Burma had elections and there were skirmishes between the Burmese forces. RPG’s from across the border fell within meters of my house. My workers told me that it was like fireworks. I was sleeping in town then, but could hear the gunfire and grenades. A stray rocket killed a dog and someThais and everyone was very nervous. The border was closed and it became difficult to move teak into Thailand. During this time the Thai military raided my house and ordered my workers to stop working. Luckily for me I was out of town that day and did not have to face the music.
In the summer of 2011 Thailand saw some of its worst flooding. We had several power cuts and my factory was flooded twice. As if this wasn’t enough, I got arrested for bringing wood across the border. ‘Bahn Pee and Mai Sak, Thai for Ghost House and Teak, had become a nightmare for me.
My biggest headache however, would to be labour. Wood manufacturing is labour intensive and one is very dependent on a competent and dedicated workforce. I was never able to select from the best and had to put up with endless foolishness and incompetence. Soon after I had started, I fired my first three workers. They were hopeless and I believed I would be better off without them. Thereafter, numerous would come and go. Being an industrial engineer and former factory owner, I was totally frustrated. I had orders that needed completion and was at the mercy of the workers. After yet another walkout I came to an agreement with a Thai factory owner that he would supply the labour and that I would manage the production. His workers were happy with this agreement even though they worked for far less than I paid my staff. It wasn’t the ideal setup. I had lost control over the workers and the quality was sliding.
The reason why I could not get people to work for me still remains a mystery. I paid my workers more than their Thai bosses and gave them free housing with meals twice a day. Most of the money came out of my salary as a teacher. The Burmese are not open and honest people and would never tell me the reason.
Whether the Burmese would not work for me out of fear or superstition, I still don’t know. I believe it was a collective attempt by several factions to discourage and intimidate the Burmese. Firstly there were the Thai factory owners. I’m sure they were not happy with the fact that a foreigner had encroached on their territory. The fact that I paid my workers better wages and gave them better living conditions, surely inflamed their anger. The envy of expats and some of my coworkers whom saw me carving a nice niche out of teak, and the outright stupidity of the Ngo community whom naively believed that I was an exploiting the Burmese surely worsened the situation. What part the teak mafia played in intimidating potential workers, I wouldn’t know. Or perhaps it was the fact that a foreigner had the guts to operate a teak factory with Burmese labour and seemingly disregarding the consequences, which infuriated the people.
Being law-abiding person who has never seen the inside of a jail, I lived in constant fear of being arrested. Until that fateful Saturday night in May 2011 when, orchestrated by some NGO’s and a few journalists, I got arrested by a group of around ten plainclothes policemen, including the feared “Boys in Black” from Bangkok. But with a payoff (borrowed from one of the local cops) I had the police in my pocket. I never feared a raid or arrest by the cops again. It was not funny at the time, but looking back, I think it was hilarious. There were two groups of police, Customs and Forestry. I was a few thousand baht short and one of the cops actually lent me money so that I could pay the bribe which they shared. She kept my passport as security, but returned it a few hours later when I repaid her the money.
At the end of September 2011 I lost my comfortable, but mundane teaching job. The factory was not getting anywhere, nor was my relationship with my Burmese sweetheart. My luck had run out and, with no income it was time for me to leave Maesot. It was very sad and stressful. Leaving my beautiful six year old girl behind and saying goodbye to my girlfriend and faithful dog was one of the hardest things I had done in my life. I had multiple setbacks, my health was suffering and the business was not viable. I could not sustain myself and I was starting to give up hope. Admitting failure and giving up were totally out of character for me. I became depressed and for the first time in my life felt suicidal.
But I regrouped in Vietnam, a noisy and polluted shithole, working mad hours in Saigon teaching English seven days a week to little spoilt brats and saving money to buy better equipment. I redesigned and streamlined my product range, concentrating on a range of upscale salt and pepper mills from reclaimed teak, fitted with a CrushGrind mechanism, rather than the bulkier cutting boards I made before. Chopping boards are heavy and not feasible to ship via air. When I was making cutting boards in Thailand, I had to sea freight about a cubic meter to make an order viable. This time round I was looking for a lighter product with a higher value, something I could ship via air.
I learned CAD and made drawings of a range of pepper mills. I steered well clear of the old and tired designs and designed wooden pepper grinders that are simple and practical to use. My philosophy is to put a product on the market that would last a lifetime.
I spent a fair amount of money on photographic equipment and a lot of time on designing my website and brochure. It saves me a lot of money doing the promotional work myself. I do all the design and photography myself. I believe that I have a better feel for my product than most of the studios I came across.
Another obstacle most start-ups face is lack of funding. Once you have set up your business and have your product or service in place, there is hardly any money left for marketing. I overcame this by doing all the marketing myself. I set up a website and the only money I spent was the $39 to register my domain. I was extremely lucky that www.teakmills.com, the name I was looking for, was available. I wrote original content for my site and uploaded photos and a video. I use weebly to host my site for free.
Whilst in Thailand I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Maesot or relocate to another country. Factors I considered while researching potential countries were teak, labour, the infrastructure, shipping cost, and the ease of doing business. Living in Thailand, I was fairly familiar with Southeast Asia. The last quarter of 2011 I travelled through Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam looking for a country to setup a teak factory.
With a good infrastructure, low overheads, cheap labour and reasonable shipping costs, Vietnam looked very promising. There is one problem though: Vietnam has no teak. It is all imported from Laos and Burma. And there is Vietnam’s notorious traffic and pollution. Cambodia was very attractive with cheap labour and a pleasant expat lifestyle, but it is still underdeveloped and lacks a good infrastructure. Burma has all the teak in the world but it hardly has an infrastructure. I would have to use neighbouring Thailand for shipping if I decided on Burma. I did not look into Indonesia, as it would be very difficult for me to get a visa.
In the two and a half years that I have been trying to get my teak business going, I’d been faced with numerous obstacles. I failed the first time, lost money and had to relocate to another country, leaving my loved ones behind. I was totally despondent and even suicidal. But failing is not an option and I bounced back. I worked hard in Vietnam and saved money. I bought photographic equipment, developed a product range and marketing materials, landed myself a good job and I’m ready to give it another go. Who knows what obstacles will be waiting for me and how I will have to overcome them. Remember that nothing is impossible.
And would I ever go back to Maesot? Of course. Despite the setbacks and obstacles I will not give up. Besides, I still miss the smell of freshly worked teak and smouldering sawdust as the illegal teak factories are getting rid of the evidence of their illicit operations.