25 years of running businesses in Asia: My business stories with Scott Stockdale

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

For a change, I’m the one being interviewed. This time, it’s by the host of the Entrepreneurs Can Party podcast, Scott Stockdale. I shared with Scott how I first got in public relations, my life as an entrepreneur, and what it’s like running businesses around the world.

How it started and what got me to move to Asia

Photo from 123RF

It all began when I was 18 and I applied for Operation Rally, a program where young people compete for a chance to go overseas. Out of 100 applicants, I won a spot to go to Australia for three months, but I needed £2,000 pounds to go, which I didn’t have, so I started selling toys in a supermarket. I was never going to be able to afford it making £38 a week back then, so it occurred to me that if I could do something that would catch other people’s attention, that might generate some sponsorship. An idea led me to jump out of an aeroplane and tackle my fear of heights. From that, I was able to raise £1,000. I then rang the local newspaper called the Kentish Gazette and they agreed to cover my story. Next, I went to a local outfitter and offered that I could get them news coverage if they gave me equipment like hiking boots and backpacks, and they accepted the deal. 

As a result of this completely juvenile and spontaneous 18-year-old decision, within three months, I managed to raise the money and go to Australia. A big company found my story interesting, and so they decided to give me money as well. This event was the impetus to me moving from Manchester to Singapore at the age of 24. At 28, I started my own business, and in 2006, I started one of several businesses in Beijing. In 2020, I returned to the UK to build an international agency without any employees, meaning I have a team of on-demand professionals that operate remotely from all over the world. 

In 1994, I went to a trade show in Singapore and was struck by the dynamism of Southeast Asia. I found that no one was doing technology and public relations in Asia, and so I considered being the pioneer, but it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Many people questioned me, telling me I didn’t know anyone in Singapore, I had never lived in Singapore, I had never been an entrepreneur before as I had only worked for companies. Despite all that, I left England still feeling that Singapore was full of opportunity. The worst case would be having to go back home to England after living for a few years in Asia. I sold everything I had, including my house, and went to Singapore to start the business. I didn’t think of failing, because welcoming the thought would have left me with a shadow of doubt. I worked on a very tight budget, but I did leave some money behind in the UK from selling the house though on the grounds that if I take all of my money with me, I would spend it all and end up with nothing, which is likely to happen when running your own company. So, if anyone is planning to do something similar to what I did, I highly recommend leaving 10-20% of your assets back at base, so that if things don’t go quite as planned, you’ve got some extra funds. 

On whether I considered myself a solopreneur, I had never run an agency. All I had was the ambition to get to Singapore and start a business. Before moving there, I found myself an office first. There was a publisher I knew, and so I asked if I could rent 50 sq. ft. from her, and luckily she said yes. I then wrote to everybody I knew telling them I was going to Asia to start a PR business and I gave them that address, the company address, in case they would need my help. In those days, sending a letter by post would take some time, so I did that three months before I moved there. 

What it was like starting the business in Singapore

When I arrived in Singapore, I received around 25 letters from people congratulating me and even offering me work. Surprisingly, within a couple of months, I had clients in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t know what the company would look like, but I started by identifying in advance who my customers would be. People often start a business, and they completely underestimate how long it’s going to take for business to come in, so if there’s anything you can do to bring forward the sales pipeline in advance of acquiring costs, do that and start preparing the business development side. It’s best to give a few months’ notice when you’ve got your first client, and while it takes a while to generate sales, waiting until you’ve got potential leads saves you capital, because there’s cash flow from the start. 

After a month of opening my business, I had $25,000 worth of billings, but I also had $18,000 of costs. The thing is when you’re new, no one gives you credit and no client will pay you in advance. I spent $18,000 to get printing and production done, and at the end of a month, I had $30 in my bank accounts. On paper, I had made a net profit of $7,000, which is more than I’d ever earned working for someone else in the UK in that length of time, but I was nearly out of business because I overtraded. Leaving some money back home did serve a purpose, and I was able to use some of it for the business. I then showed the suppliers that I had paid in advance my letter of invoice to my clients as proof that I had money coming in so that they would no longer doubt my ability to pay. These are small tactics, which can save your life if you’re running a business, and I learned them the hard way. 

My first few clients were foreign companies getting into the Asian media and then some other foreign companies that had seen the work I was doing for one of their subsidiaries. I worked with Quantel for 12 years, and I ran their regional public relations. I also worked for a company that is now called Astro, and it’s the largest telecommunication satellite broadcaster owned by Ananda Krishnan of Malaysia. I did all their recruitment, branding, and brochures. The business grew, and I greatly enjoyed it. 

My experience living in Beijing and learning Mandarin

During my time in China, In 2004, I enrolled in the Beijing Language and Culture University where I studied Mandarin for eight weeks in the morning, then I ran my PR firm in the afternoon. I learned enough to get around, and I felt quite proud of my achievements having done some business speaking in Chinese, but my children say that I shouldn’t do it in public. Some challenges when learning Mandarin is that, first of all, it’s character-based as opposed to being alphabet-based. Once the 26 letters of the English alphabet are mastered, it’s easy to form words, but in Chinese, each character has to be learned for itself. The second thing is that the characters don’t sound the same as they look, and the third element is that two characters together can mean totally different things than when standalone. Nevertheless, it’s a fun language to learn, it’s great mentally, and the truth is that if you do make an effort, even at a low level, people in China really appreciate it. If one assumes that there will be mastery, that’s quite a great ambition, but if it’s to introduce oneself and make other people feel the effort to understand their culture, it’s also beautiful.

In the same way that many people learn English from watching the television or listening to music, I would listen to the Chinese radio to help me learn. I also met a fellow student who wanted to learn English, while I wanted to learn Mandarin, so we would spend time teaching each other. In the early days, I had a dictionary with me. Now, you can use Pleco which is a Chinese dictionary app on your mobile phone, and it’ll scan the characters and read them for you. Also, if one uses apps like WeChat, there is a function to auto-translate. I’ve had more than one meeting with Chinese businessmen where I’ll say something in English, and with a press of a button, it’ll automatically translate both audio and written into Mandarin for them. We’re now at that stage where there’s almost simultaneous translation, so thanks to technology, learning a language has become a lot easier.

In terms of the English proficiency of the people I did business with, it comes down to the generation; younger people speak much more English, and it is important to keep in mind that there are more people in China that speak English than in America. When I started my business, EASTWEST Public Relations, in Beijing in 2006, I was intent on using my Mandarin, and I would labour through meetings trying my best to speak the language. Eventually, someone told me that as much as they appreciate my effort, it would be so much quicker if I spoke in English. And often, the Chinese want to practice their English, so if anything, they’ll want to speak English more than Mandarin.

EASTWEST PR 25 years later

When I was 28 and started EASTWEST Public Relations in Singapore, I rented a space and within a couple of years, I had 13 staff. We were one of the biggest independent agencies in Southeast Asia. After that, I went on to open offices in China in 2006 and in Bangalore in 2008. With that many offices and that many people, I ended up spending a lot of my time doing recruitment, management, and basically working for the staff. But over the last four years and now that I’ve come back to the UK, I’ve been working on a strategy that I call a geography-independent and knowledge-driven agency where we’re working towards having a zero employee agency, which is everywhere, virtually. With the use of a branded platform called Zoho where I have inputted all the necessary processes and documentation, I have consultants or freelancers who work with me on projects using my email, brand, and legal entity. This means clients get only the best people for a particular project, retainer, or short-term, and as an organisation, I no longer worry about having to manage a lot of people. Most people don’t like working permanently for one company anyway.

EASTWEST PR is a global brand serving business-to-business clients that understand that it’s the value of what we deliver that’s important, not having a large overhead. For an agency that has a lot of staff, when the client comes in, the consultant with the most bandwidth is allocated to that project, not necessarily the consultant who’s the most qualified for it, which makes sense because agents are, in effect, freelance hiring services of talented, qualified people with a particular specialty. By having this Uber-style or Airbnb-like model for PR, we can still assure the best quality and delivery, and clients are going to get the most appropriate consultant for the job. The freelancer is also motivated financially to do great work, because they don’t have a fixed salary, and they want to prove themselves to the client. These consultants are judged by the quality of their work, which is why we’ve signed up for Trustpilot, so we start to have accountability.

My love and my passion is to help entrepreneurs and fellow business owners, so I’ve developed a program called SPEAK|pr which stands for Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and Know. This is a five-stage methodology that business owners can use to unlock the value in their own businesses without needing an agency. It starts with storification, which is all about building a narrative around the person and the business; personalisation at scale is about the three different audience groups: the internal, the partners, and the external; engagement is around creating engaging content through infographics, text, video, and so on; amplification focuses on delivering information across multiple channels without a big team using automation tools; the last part is to know. For this, I’ve developed what I call the Active Communications Index which is a productivity metric that is basically a function of content, frequency, and channels.  Page views, clicks, engagement, and reach are metrics that can’t be controlled, but what we can control as business owners is what goes into the activity, so the Active Communications Index tracks the productivity of the PR strategy and determines if enough work is being done or not.

If anyone’s looking to get more exposure for their PR, the best thing they can do is think about their story and what makes their own company or brand unique. It all starts with this a vision, a problem, and a solution. For any entrepreneur or business owner, start with your story, because if you get that right, the exposure will follow. The best piece of advice is to dig deep, find that burning passion for a cause, articulate it well, and then the rest will follow. Scott ends by asking me what I would write on a billboard that thousands of people would see. My answer was, “Life is for living. Live yourself,” because while other people love giving advice as to how we should our lives, the decision is ultimately ours to make. I personally believe that we only grow through what we attempt, and if you don’t attempt anything, then it’s impossible to grow.

This article is based on a transcript from Scott Stockdale’s Entrepreneurs Can Party podcast, you can listen here.

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