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The hamster honcho

Saturday, November 12, 2016 - 05:50

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OF all the things that are interesting about an entrepreneur's life, it's not how they made it big that intrigues me most; it's how they started small.

Take the legendary Warren Buffett, for example. There's this oft-told anecdote about his first trade: At 11 years old, he bought three shares of Cities Service - an oil service firm - at US$38 apiece. When the stock dropped to US$27, a nervous young Buffett held fast to his investment, waiting long enough for the price to hit US$40 before selling his shares for a modest profit. (He later regretted this decision, though - Cities Service rocketed up to nearly US$200 per share.)

While that's certainly a great tale - I mean, the only thing I was trading at age 11 was Backstreet Boys posters - it's not the one that fascinates me most. That story happens about five years earlier, when Mr Buffett was just six years old. Back then, he would pay 25 US cents for a six-pack of Coca-Cola from his grandfather's grocery store. He'd then split up the set, and sell each bottle individually for five US cents. This made him 30 US cents in all - marking a five US cent profit, and a 20 per cent return on investment.

There are stories like these closer to home, of course - Hyflux's Olivia Lum was once a door-to-door salesman, peddling everything from cosmetics to flower pots - but what of the not-so-famous, less-mythologised entrepreneur? After all, it's not just the big boys who have awe-inspiring stories to be told.

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Enter Mark - not his real name, as he prefers to remain anonymous - whom I've gotten to know in the course of my work as a journalist. By day, he's a professional in the financial services industry; by night, he pours his energies into a string of home-grown businesses - all of which can be traced back to his first business venture when he was seven-years-old.

Mark ran his earliest enterprise in his final year of kindergarten, in much the same way Mr Buffett did - by flipping goods for a tidy profit - although he did so in the most Singapore-circa-1980s way possible. Remember how kids used to be obsessed with collecting erasers, particularly those with national flags printed on one surface? For those unacquainted, kids used to duel with these; the aim was to flip your eraser from afar, and have it land on your opponent's. If it did, you'd claim their eraser as your own, growing your empire of rubber flags. Mark would arrive at kindergarten before anyone else, and keep vigil outside the school bookshop. Once open, he'd snap up the whole lot at 20 cents per piece; then turn around and sell them to classmates at double the price.

His business was short-lived, though. When one of his classmates complained that he was being cheated by Mark's scheme, the school decided to put an end to his entrepreneurial exploits. (Mark's mother first learnt of her kindergartener's startup when the school called to inform her of the cease-and-desist order. To her everlasting credit, she saw nothing wrong with what Mark was doing, and - much to the school's chagrin - never told him off for it.)

Fast-forward nine years later, when Mark was in secondary school. As part of the science curriculum, his class had two pet hamsters, used to teach students about mammalian life cycles. When the school year was over, he offered to adopt the hamsters, and brought them home. One day, he was surprised to find that they had mated, producing five tiny, pink, hairless hamsters.

Once they had grown a little, he took them to the pet shop across the street, and asked if the owner wanted them. "The first thing the auntie asked me was: 'How much?'. I was stunned - her question made me realise that I could actually make money from this," Mark recalls. He walked away from that encounter S$40 richer, after selling each baby hamster for S$8. He ploughed that money right back into the business, by buying two additional adult hamsters - effectively doubling productivity. Soon, he was borrowing library books on selective breeding, and keeping a ledger of hamster accounts. "I would track every female, so I knew that this female on average would give me this number of babies. I also figured out that this male and this female would create this colour, so I was able to breed them for specific looks. Basically, I was differentiating my product - but back then I didn't know these fancy business words lah," says Mark.

He soon had at least 80 hamsters at home at any one point in time. A quarter of those were adults, used for breeding. With his keen eye for artificial selection, he took custom orders from pet shops who wanted a certain look (hamsters with a mixed brown and white coat were popular, apparently). He also found ways to keep costs low; instead of buying expensive pre-mixed feed, he'd go to provision shops and buy different grains and seeds in bulk, and mix them up on his own at home. His hamster business thrived. In just a few months, he had cornered the market around his home, and became the sole supplier of pet shops there - including those in Balestier, Toa Payoh, Katong, and Serangoon. This made him "a few hundred dollars" each month - a significant amount for any 15-year-old in the 90s (all the more so because his family was poor). Unlike his first business venture, he made the call to close shop on his own terms. He eventually shuttered his breeding service after a year-and-a-half, when his O-Level exams drew near.

(If you're now comparing how you spent your teenage years and are feeling rather pathetic, know that it's all I've been able to think about, too.)

As Singapore moves to shape its youth into a more innovative and risk-taking bunch, stories such as Mark's are instructive. We would do well to remember that every entrepreneur starts small before they make it big, and each of them - not just those who have made it to the hall of fame - has a story to share.

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