Smart in Any Language
When my company put the small business TV show “Making It” on the air in 1989 the very first story in episode #1 was the fascinating tale of a brother and sister team of business owners who owned a flower shop in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Helen and Marth Shih came to California from Taiwan inspired by their mom’s encouragement to leave home, get more formal education and to live the American Dream! They have truly lived it in 3-D, the exhilarating chapters of success in business along with the nerve racking near failure episodes of starting and growing several business enterprises. Getting a close up look at an immigrant’s take on the American Dream is a lesson worth our attention.
Recently, my lady Andrea and I enjoyed a wonderful family dinner with both of them at Helen Shih’s home where we had the opportunity to relive their story of pursuit, successes and failures. When Helen’s brother Marty followed her to Los Angeles back in the 1970’s she persuaded him to divert money that was supposed to go toward his college education into using the cash to start a business! His mind was already full of big ideas and failure was a concept totally foreign to grasping the mythical dream of what America represented him while living in China. Marty told me that he knew his lack of English language skills and extended formal education meant that becoming the president of a major American company was not a likely pathway to the dream. Intuition told him that his happy picture had to be created and could not be assumed.
Think about this. If you had just moved to a country where you weren’t fluent in the language and had less than $1000 to start a business, what would you do? Helen and Marty decided to launch a business selling flowers! The early steps were rather simple, guided by the most important principle of an enterprise which is if you can “Buy for one and sell for two” you have a business! For them that meant taking a hundred dollars to the wholesale flower mart to buy flower stock for a day and then selling those pretty items on the streets of central Los Angeles. Speaking fluent English was not an important part of hustling colorful flowers to people passing by because complicated explanations weren’t needed! Offering the merchandise with an enthusiastic smile was the secret. That’s how Shih’s Flowers was born in 1979! Their gross sales on the first day amounted to just $2.00! Being a fearless street peddler is how many legendary titans got their start in our country.
By the time I met Helen and Marty, their drive and ambition had evolved the business to more than one bricks and mortar establishment offering a large array of floral merchandise. On day number one in the first location, they made a major rookie mistake that would have stopped many people. Of course they needed a cooler to help keep the flowers fresh and extend the sales life of the merchandise. Since they weren’t yet really experienced florists, they simply bought a refrigeration unit that fit their very small budget. The fresh flowers for the day went in….and before closing time, they were frozen flowers! They had spent $200 on inventory, had to toss it all out and start all over again. Real life was tossing some big hard rocks at their dream!
After putting their story on television along with many others from the world of enterprising and ambitious business “wanna-bees” I began to see that many immigrant entrepreneurs had a simple advantage over native born Americans. People who were fresh arrivals to our shores easily saw the immense opportunities with a clear vision not cluttered by negative stories or experiences to dampen their ambitions. First generation immigrants weren’t being coddled by parents who pushed them into a corporate job or by the siren-song of entitlement programs. If they wanted a path to great prosperity, they generally had to make it. I’ve often wished that more of us who were born here were being taught about seeing opportunity regardless of our socio-economic situation at birth. Too many of us weren’t taught much about self-reliance through entrepreneurial thinking as children or teenagers.
At their peak in the flower business the Shihs were grossing $4.5 million per year in twelve southern California stores including six franchises! But that turned out to be just part-one of their dream.
Marty Shih has a mind that strikes me as being similar to a popcorn machine! His ideas pop up all the time, and quickly fill up the container of a 24-hour day. His sister Helen gladly accepted the key role of determining what could be done with the torrent of ideas and helping make them their reality. One of them was to franchise the flower shops. That notion worked but did not become the centerpiece of an empire! In the basement of their main store they began an enterprise to help large American companies connect with Chinese communities across the country via outbound phone calls in their native languages. Helen and Marty sold memberships in an organization which they formed and named “The 777 Club.” It was a buying club where its members would gain access to services and merchandise at a discount. The club business grew so rapidly that they decided to sell the flower business and set up phone rooms that employed hundreds of people working two shifts making phone calls in five Asian languages to prospects sixteen hours per day!
Helen and Marty’s dream had certainly taken wings and soared to ownership of seven story office building with over four hundred employees and gross receipts of over $300 Million per year! Easy? Definitely not. Along the way, they came close to losing the business when their vision differed from their partners and they were almost forced out of the enterprise they started. However, they survived and continued to move forward including establishing an office in China.
Sometimes I tell people who’ve been in business for just a couple of years that “If you do it long enough you’ll see and learn it all.” Purpose, passion and persistence are hard to beat if they form the framework of your dream. Whether your roots are in small southern town in America or a hillside village in a distant foreign land, the ingredients for making the dream a reality are the same. The story of Helen and Marty Shih may be a lesson to fuel your ambitions.