I think that my story is not very unique in Malaysia.
Like many other people, I wanted to set up a business to build a future for myself. I knew that if I worked for someone it would take me a lot longer to reach my destination, so at age of 21 I started looking for the right business for me to run on my own.
On the recommendation of my father, I started a small business importing plastic parts used in creating shelves for F&B businesses (the kind of plastic shelves you see at bakeries all around town). It all went very well. The economy was doing well (this was 2005) and there was demand for my products. Cafes and bakeries kept on opening and I was one of the few people in Malaysia who could supply quality plastic parts that fit their requirements, so with some marketing and a few referrals from my friends I found that my business naturally grew without needing much effort from myself.
I was proud of myself. Not only had I actually taken the leap to set up my own business, but it was actually very successful. My friends admired and looked up to me. They were setting up families while paying off debts on their house and car and I was supporting myself out of my own pocket.
Around this time I thought to myself: “If I can get this far in such a short space of time, with so little effort, imagine where I could go if I just add a bit?”
I began to keep my ears open for new opportunities. I went to entrepreneur meet-ups, forums, conferences, business presentations, joined chambers of commerce, anything to be in the know about the newest “big thing” in business. I became the typical “serial entrepreneur”, willing to do almost anything to take advantage of the next opportunity.
And in 2012, a contact I met at a networking evening told me about a new opportunity in the oil and gas industry. It was an area where I had no knowledge, but I was sure I would be fine. After all, its not like I knew anything about the food and beverage industry before starting my first venture, and that all went very well, right?
It was a business selling ball bearings used for oil drills and thanks to a deal we struck with a major oil and gas producer, we were able to sell up to half a million units a month. This was big money and it enabled me to buy a warehouse where I would store all my stock. I also expanded my team to 20 people and bought three trucks to transport my goods to the shipping yard.
However, just as my big-time business dream became a reality, so did the big-time stress that came along with it. As the orders became bigger in number, so did the number of calls I received from the client. These came at all times of the day, even in the middle of the night. And whenever I received a request, it had to be actioned immediately, even at the most unreasonable times. My staff became unhappy and I didn’t have the time to solve their problems. They would quit and I would hire new staff, until it happened again, and again, and again.
I was starting to realise why they say that big business isn’t for everyone. Still, though, I just couldn’t quit. There was just too much money and reputation on the table. So I redoubled my efforts and really committed myself. Any challenge is surmountable, I told myself, as long as I put in enough effort.
Work started to consume me completely. I was now 35, without a girlfriend and with two ageing parents whose health was rapidly deteriorating. Suddenly, in 2014, my father died of a heart attack. I was on an oil platform at the time, dealing with my client, and I didn’t come back for the funeral. This sounds crazy and twisted now but at the time I justified my decision by telling myself that he had already died and that my business was more important. I even convinced myself that he would have approved. That was how far I had gone into the black hole that had consumed my life.
My business was the only thing I had left and, of course, that was about to go bust as well. Just as quickly as I had built it, it crumbled thanks to just one decision by my client. One day last year, as the oil and gas crisis really started to impact Malaysia, they decided to shut down their offshore business. Just like that, I was out of a client. Just like that, the business I had invested so much time into was gone, and I was left with nothing.
Nothing, that is, except for mountains of stock in my warehouse and an unhappy staff who were suddenly out of employment. All of sudden I had no income and very high expenditure and the worst part was that I didn’t even have the energy to do anything about it.
I know what a lot of you must be thinking now. “Why pity this guy? He made so much money that he should just buck up, not complain and move on to the next thing!” I know. I know. But it really wasn’t that simple. After everything I had gone through over the last ten years, everything I had sacrificed, I really felt like I had lost the will to continue trying.
This is where my story changes, and perhaps where it is different from other people who have been in my situation. Because instead of just spending my money or trying to chase for more money at the expense of my happiness, I decided to proactively change what was wrong with my life and live my life in a way that would make me happy.
I decided to become the man I wanted to be, even though it would mean reliving a lot of painful memories and confronting myself about many things that I wasn’t proud of. A month after my business folded, I went back to F&B and starting supplying plastic to bakeries again. It was small in comparison with but it gave me time to spend with my family and especially my mother, who is not getting any younger.
As for my stock and my warehouse, I needed a better solution. So I went online and found Flexi Storage, who are based near my house. I went for the largest space they had, put all my stuff in it and immediately sold my warehouse – and it turned out to be one of the best business decisions I have ever made. For a price far lower than the price of renting an actual office space, I had a completely safe, well ventilated place where my stuff could be stored and which I could access 24 hours a day. It was just like having an office and a warehouse in one. They even provided a socket for me to work in my unit, and it was extremely easy to bring buyers to see my stock at any time.
Now, at this present moment, one year since my oil and gas business folded, I couldn’t be happier. I have a lifestyle that I can handle, time to spend with my family, and a business that is actually fulfilling to run. All my old stock is gone too, and I’ve downsized to smaller unit at Flexi Storage which I use to store bakery related goods. Things are in balance, and I can honestly say that I feel happy.
In life, we often think that ‘biggest’ means ‘best’. We want more money, more possessions and more things, but why do we actually want them? After all, if we’ve never experienced them before, how do we know they will make us happy? We want them for what they represent: a ‘successful’ career, a life of ‘achievement’ and all that sort of stuff, but at no point do we ask whether they will actually make us happy.
Downsizing, whether its in business or in life, is sometimes the best thing you can do. It means that you are cutting out the clutter and the things you can’t handle and focusing on the things you can. It shows that you know what matters to you, and it allows you the space and time to enjoy those things for what they are.
In my case, downsizing was the last thing on my mind, yet the best thing I could have ever done. And it could just be for you too.
In addition to running his day-to-day business, Alex Tan is also a part-time motivational speaker dedicated to helping people find their passion in life in work. He has been a customer of Flexi Storage since May 2015.