In search of things new and useful.
Lessons from my Dad
Reading Brad Feld’s dad’s post about Brad’s grandfather made me get around to writing this one.
My Dad was born in 1947. He passed away just four weeks ago after a prolonged bout with lung cancer. It was sad, but he passed peacefully surrounded by family. It was time – the illness had taken a really tough toll.
I owe my Dad a lot (don’t we all?). As I wrote his eulogy, I realized how much I learned from him. He was never the “come sit on my lap and let me teach you some life lessons” kind of guy. But by watching him and being around him through the second half of his life, I learned many of the big things that really matter.
1. Be Bold: My Dad grew up in the Philippines and was an entrepreneur. His first real job was as the manager of a bowling alley that my grandfather owned in Hong Kong. He later worked for our family’s business in Manila before things started to fall apart in the late 80’s. He moved our family back to Hong Kong where he owned a Burger King Franchise, a Chuck-E-Cheese franchise, and a number of other businesses. None were all that successful. But he noticed something from running the Chuck-E-Cheese – he was making all of his money from carnival games. It made sense in Hong Kong, because it was an dense city with pretty bad weather and not that much for kids to do. Letting them play some fun carnival games for plush toys was a nice outlet, and better than frequenting video game arcades which were smoke filled spots usually restricted to kids over 18. Plus, Chinese people don’t like pizza too much.
Anyway, my Dad took the bold step to start his own indoor entertainment center, taking some of the things he learned from Chuck-e-Cheese and modifying it to the local market. His first store was a big success, and he eventually expanded the company to several stores in Hong Kong before he was acquired by Yaohan, a Japanese department store chain which then blew the company out across Asia. At its peak, Whimsey had over 25 locations and was a household name for anyone with young kids in Hong Kong and some other cities as well.
My Dad was always proud that a man from the Philippines who couldn’t even speak proper cantonese could start a successful consumer business in Hong Kong that was a first of its kind. It was a bold move. He was always very calculated about his risks, but he did take a lot of risks in the effort to build something significant. There was something about watching him start his businesses that rubbed off on me and made it natural for me to quit jobs to move across the country to pursue love (that’s another story) or leave Spark to start my own firm without too much concern. It meant a lot to me to have his example to give me the confidence to make unconventional choices.
2. Be Loyal: My Dad married my Mom when he was 21. Like every marriage, theirs wasn’t always perfect, but it was strong, and he was loyal throughout their life together. He also hired and kept the same assistant for the past 30 years, and she literally has never had another job her entire career. One of my Dad’s first investors is also one of the first investors in my fund. One of my Dad’s closest friends through the years was a man in Taiwan that he met when he travelled there for an international basketball meet when he was in middle school. My Dad was always very generous and very loyal. Building lasting relationships and making proper choices with people was incredibly important to him. I’ll never really have my Dad’s gift with people – he just had a way about him that made people gravitate towards him. But I hope to be as loyal to my friends and business partners as he was. Business relationships are a multi-turn game, and he really taught me that.
3. Be Open: In some ways, my Dad was incredibly old school. I was always frustrated by how unwilling he was to learn new things or learn how to use a computer properly. But I think that’s because in other ways, he was always so open to new things and looking for new opportunities as globalization was taking hold during his lifetime. He had a remarkable ease in moving through different cultures. Funny enough, he told me once that because of his upbringing, he never really felt fluent in any language (imagine that!). He grew up speaking his native chinese dialect, learned tagalog from living in the philippines, learned english in school, picked up mandarin somewhere along the way, and picked up cantonese to survive in Hong Kong. He was a bit of a unique creature when he started his businesses in Hong Kong because he was one of relatively few Chinese people who could feel at ease with Americans and Europeans, which allowed him to attract American franchise partners and work with western suppliers. He even blended in nicely within Yaohan, the Japanese company that acquired him and retained him for several years. A few years after he left Yaohan, he started another business selling hand-decorated candies and lollipops. He had to pull together licenses mainly from America, and had distribution partners for his business in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, and other countries throughout Europe and Asia. A big part of his professional success came from his willingness to look outside his own world and dive into uncomfortable situations because he knew that few others were comfortable doing so.
4. Be Resilient: It’s easy to see my Dad’s career as a success story. But it was really a struggle in many ways. When he was in the Philippines, their family business had a strong rise, and pretty spectacular fall that led him to head to Hong Kong. He was lucky enough to sell Whimsey before the financial crisis in Asia took out many businesses and ultimately, the company that acquired him. The candy company had some good years, but also some really bad ones. In between were failed franchises, restaurants, and other less successful experiments. But my Dad worked hard and was persistent. He was a fighter and survivor. And that was true professionally, and personally too… even to the end of his life. He fought his illness courageously, and was able to give us all a few more good years with him than he probably needed to. He was able to meet my second daughter, and get to know my first better, even if most of their final visits and skype chats were in the hospital.
I love my Dad and learned so much from him. He has had a big imprint on who I am. I miss him.