Meet the Serial Entrepreneur Who Sleeps Just Four Hours a Night
What does it take to run a business full-time while studying for a bachelor’s degree in physics, a Master of Business Administration degree, and a doctorate in law?
For serial entrepreneur May Cheung, it has meant working till well past midnight and going to bed at 3 a.m.
“I sleep four to five hours a day on average,” said Cheung, founder of Easy Print and Procurement (EasyPnP), one of China’s largest online printing services for customized merchandize, including t-shirts, cups and umbrellas. “I have three secretaries who work for me on three shifts because I’m always awake.”
EasyPnP has nearly tripled its revenue from 440 million yuan ($64.9 million) in 2015 to 1.2 billion yuan in 2016. The Hurun Rich List for Chinese female billionaires named Cheung a “future star” in 2015.
In addition to her grueling work schedule, Cheung says, her ability to spot trends early on and the courage to follow her gut have helped her on her assent to the top.
For example, Cheung was on the verge of shutting down her high-end book-printing business in 2004 when she wrote her doctoral thesis that urged China’s printing industry to give up on paper.
It took several years before e-readers like the Kindle hit the market, and at a time when she could still command a 50% premium on glossy photo books. Her essay warned that traditional printers would go belly-up unless they retooled to print on T-shirts, coffee mugs, umbrellas and packaging materials.
“Many thought I had lost my mind. … Back then, printers refused orders to customize T-shirts or other products, saying it wasn’t their business,” said Cheung. But she decided to put her money where her mouth was and went on to create EasyPnP, which runs an online service that connects businesses that want to customize items like staff uniforms, souvenirs and store interiors, with ventures offering such services.
The company grew quickly because the switch from high-end publishing to mass-market customization coincided with the rise of e-commerce in China, which led to an explosion in demand for customized packaging and individualized products.
“I’ve always had a strong insight or intuition about the future,” Cheung said. “That may be related to my (zodiac) constellation. I am a Scorpio.”
Cheung sat down with Caixin to talk about what inspired her to become a serial entrepreneur and how she uses lessons from serving high-end niche clients when serving the mass market. The following are translated excerpts of the Chinese-language interview.
Caixin: If you had to choose three words to describe your personality, what would they be?
Cheung: Optimistic, persistent, very hands-on with a strong push to finish things I’ve started. That’s more than three words, so if I may add one more to the list, I’d say I rely on my intuition and ability to change course quickly.
Where do you get these qualities from? Parents or other role models?
I think it has a lot to do with my parents; it’s part of my DNA. My mental sharpness comes from my mom. She is smart and intelligent. On the other hand, my father is tough, persistent, and can endure a lot of pain. My personality has been shaped by these two very important characteristics that are necessary for every entrepreneur. Sometimes I think I was born to be an entrepreneur.
I don’t really have idols. But if you ask who I want to be, I would say (Alibaba Group founder) Jack Ma or (Tencent Holdings founder) Pony Ma. I want to have my own business empire, like them.
What inspired you to start a business? Did you start your first company while in college or after getting your doctorate?
I started my first business — a coffee shop — during my second year of college in the ’80s. Back then, coffee shops were just starting to be in vogue and become fashionable in China, but you could only find one or two in a city. I opened one on campus, and all the waiters were my classmates. I paid them by the hour, and I was the richest one in class. At that time, 100 yuan (per month) was considered a high salary, but I earned more than 2,000 yuan per month. That was a really good experience for me, and I ran the business for more than a year.
How did this first experience shape your journey as a businesswoman?
One of the first lessons I learned was about having standard prices (and not allowing customers to bargain).
We had a menu back then, and I still remember the prices on it. A cup of Nescafe was 1.5 yuan, and a Maxwell House coffee cost 1.2 yuan. On our first day, a few hours after we opened for business, a couple walked into the shop. I was experimenting with different blends of coffee when my classmate rushed in and said: “We’ve got our first customers! But they are asking whether they can pay 1.2 yuan for a cup of coffee that has a price tag of 1.5 yuan. If there’s a discount, they want to buy two cups; if not, they’ll buy only one cup.”
I refused and said the price was nonnegotiable. … She left with a sour face, but a few minutes later she came back and said “You won! They ordered two cup of coffee even without a discount and spent a total 3 yuan.”
Cheung runs an online business-matchmaking platform that allows companies like Didi Chuxing, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and JD.com to find service providers that can print uniforms, marketing materials and other customized products. EasyPnP nearly tripled its revenue from 440 million yuan ($64.9 million) in 2015 to 1.2 billion yuan in 2016. Photo: EasyPnP
My colleagues tried to convince me to reduce prices to get more customers, to reduce the profit margin from 30% to 10%. I said, if clients give me only 10% more for a job that could command a 50% margin, then they aren’t my customers. Only those who share our values and temperament are our customers.
Customers’ habits are formed by the way we do business. If you don’t impose any rules, you have to follow their rules, which are endless, and then we are unable to create value and steer our own businesses.
But bargaining is an important part of Chinese business culture. How did you survive while swimming against the current?
It all depends on your target market. My earlier business in high-end publishing needed a 30% to 50% profit margin to cover costs.
But with EasyPnP, my latest venture, we are focusing on clients at the bottom of the pyramid. While customers at the top require high quality, those at the bottom of the pyramid want you to give them something ordinary.
What made you switch from serving a niche clientele to serving the mass market?
I shifted gears because the overall market size at the top of the pyramid is small. If you want to scale your business, it’s impossible to do it. After I got enough experience serving the top end, I wanted to apply those lessons to serve a larger group.
I left the traditional publishing business in 2004 because I believed the internet will replace paper books completely. But the internet won’t replace everything, like packaging. When I left the industry, I wrote an article saying, “Printing can be more than just printing.” People in the industry at that time thought I was crazy. … For example, a decade ago, if a client had asked, “Will you help me print something on a gift or a T-shirt?” printing companies that only focused on paper products would have refused to do so, saying, “It’s not our product.”
But we transformed Easy Print to EasyPnP to expand our services.
HP Inc. recently inked an agreement with EasyPnP. How is this partnership helping the U.S. company to improve its digital printing business in China?
HP found us. ... HP is at the forefront of digital printing technology, but many of its technologies aren’t well-known because HP’s clients are printing-oriented factories, not individuals. Earlier, its products had to be promoted through printing factories, but it was a weak and limited channel for marketing its technology (in China.) Because it didn’t have a broader platform, it just relied on word of mouth.
We work with clients (like Tmall.com and JD.com) directly. Our platform brings together printing companies and businesses that require personalized products, and through this, we are able to promote HP’s technologies directly to end users.
As a serial entrepreneur, how do you strike a work-life balance?
I set very high standards for myself. For example, I didn’t get a Ph.D. because I wanted to study, but because at that point, I felt my experiences were enough to support a good thesis. I needed a paper to help me put my real-word experience into a structure. Of course, the process was a difficult one.
There are three things that have always competed for time in my life: working, studying and family. I am a very efficient person, and I organize my time well. I may also be the one who sleeps the least number of hours and works the most in our company. I joke with my employees, saying I am a “24-hour customer hotline,” and that I could be found whenever someone is awake.
I am also a cheerful and optimistic person. … I sleep four to five hours on average. I usually go to bed at 3 a.m. I have had days when I would go to at 3 a.m. and wake up at 5 a.m.
I have three secretaries who work for me on three shifts because I am always awake. … I usually won’t leave the company before midnight.
I don’t have much time for my family. I care about the most important aspects of my daughter’s life, about whether she is safe and what kind of friends she has. But I don’t have time to take notice of other details in life.
Starting a business is like running a marathon, and you need someone to give you water from time to time. That refers to a kind of infinite inspiration and support. My family plays this kind of role — they won’t try to meddle in my things, but will be with you and care about you.
Contact reporter Poornima Weerasekara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Caixin Hot Pot is a regular feature that introduces you to the colorful array of players in today’s China — from the leaders of top U.S. companies doing business here to the migrant woman selling noodles from a pushcart.
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