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Perlin’s Fast Track In Learning And Business
“I WANT to manage a brand that I can call my own,” says Perlin Chan Aik Ju, while handing out bags of savoury snacks to customers at a table stall in a weekend flea mart.
Perlin is standing in a rain-soaked field in Goodman Road, helping business partner Ken Tan as curious people flock to their stall to taste the snacks that are dipped in exotic sauces with Chilly Crab, Salted Egg or Mushroom Chardonnay flavour.
Perlin and Ken have been experimenting with dory fish skin strips that are fried lightly in oil and marketed under the name, Fish Sh-nack. The taste is addictive without a hint of oil. And it certainly doesn’t smell fishy!
“We worked out a frying technique that turns the fish skin into a light, crispy texture. The flavour simply bursts inside your mouth,” says Perlin. “More than 80 percent of customers just love Fish Sh-nack!”
Perlin, 26, graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor in Business Administration from SIM-State University of New York at Buffalo. She has many interests, from badminton and Toastmaster public-speaking in her student days, to food research and working with Ken to distribute Fish Sh-nack in cafés and eateries.
She also holds down a day job as operations manager in her father’s marine vessel business. “After a full-day’s work, I spend another three hours every night managing the fish snack business. At weekends, I would fry the fish strips. Once or twice a month, we would be at flea marts selling our snacks and hopefully creating awareness.”
Girl In A Hurry
Perlin is a girl in a hurry. It was no surprise when after her ‘O’ levels, she did not take the junior college route but headed straight into Buffalo, which accepts ‘O’ levels school-leavers. “This path has enabled me to cut short my tertiary education by 2.5 years, and graduating at age 20,” she explains.
“It has also given me the chance to hone my selling skills, brush up my knowledge on raising capital, and to build connections. For example, while my fellow students were still in class, I was already doing a work stint in the hotel industry in Bangkok. The highlight of that stint was being in three countries in a single day, searching for potential hotel sites for development.”
Perlin’s course of study was conducted on the SIM campus, with one semester in Buffalo campus in New York State. The trip was an eye opener for her.
“Other than battling 12-inch snowfall every day, I was also forced to come out of my shell in order to make friends and know people. There was a networking event where everyone was just talking to each other and having a good time, while I stood alone in one corner, feeling awkward and scared. It was then that I realised my shyness was a stumbling block and that I was inadequate in my interpersonal skills, which I proceeded to remedy.”
One way to boost confidence was for her to take part in public-speaking events organised by the SIM Toastmasters Club. “ I represented SIM in Toastmasters competitions and went on to clinch third position at the divisional level in 2009, the final year of my studies. This was a far cry from my early days as a wallflower.”
Working In Diverse Industries
After graduation, she worked in a local bank for three years, handling corporate sales, and then moved on to become a financial analyst in a budget hotel. She also co-founded a technology-related company. “All these work experiences in different industries allowed me to experience fully the difficulties and pitfalls of running a business, and allowed me to work on my weaknesses.”
Working in corporate sales helped hone her selling skills and instilled in her the discipline of accepting rejection. As a financial analyst she learnt to identify projects with good potential from those that were lemons. And co-founding a technology business exposed her to the highs and lows of running a start-up.
Starting From Ground Zero
On her current work in the marine industry, she says: “We build and charter commercial vessels to oil and gas companies. In the male-dominated marine industry where I had zero experience, the work was daunting but I did advance from the bottom up. I visited each and every one of our vessels every week, and familiarised myself with every part of the vessel, for a good six months. It came to a point where I was able to point out blind spots that crew members with years of experience missed out.
“I was also able to conduct drills for the crew and make them heed my instructions, which was no easy task at first. I supplemented my lack of experience with reading and research, and asking lots of questions, gradually building up my knowledge of the marine industry.”
Through hard work and perseverance, she earned the respect of the crew and became accepted in the industry. “There are many more things to learn in this industry and so I was rotated across various departments to gain a complete picture of how to manage a business in the offshore marine industry.”
Snacking Up On Success
Her start-up experience probably gave her an edge when she teamed up in October 2014 with Ken, an RMIT graduate, to take part in the annual RMIT Business Plan competition. The two succeeded in getting into the final round in Melbourne where they were matched against nine other top teams from around the world.
Although the Melbourne judges loved the fish snack, Perlin and Ken didn’t win the global title. Still, they decided to realise their business plan of making and selling Fish Sh-nack.
Perlin persuading customers to try the yummy Fish Sh-nack (in brown paper bags) at a flea-mart in Goodman Road in December 2014
Cash Flow The Secret Of Business Survival
Sharing her thoughts with current SIM students who have aspirations to start their own business, Perlin says: “One of the most important factors in business success is cash flow. CEOs tend to neglect this aspect, thinking that their job is to sell, sell, sell or to raise funds.
“To me, however, the most important job of a CEO is to ensure that prudent cash flow management is in place. Even if the company rakes in high revenues, but its cost control is weak, the company will be in the red sooner or later. In my opinion, companies failed because they grew too aggressively and landed themselves in too much debt, or they made some bad strategic decisions. As clichéd as it may sound, cash is king, and when the economy tanks, and the bank recalls your loans, your company could still survive if you have cash.
“So, I’m of the view that budding entrepreneurs should take at least 2-3 years after graduation to hone their skills in all aspects of a business, particularly in cash flow management and selling skills, and in building connections.
“Blind passion without the necessary skills is blind. Know where your weaknesses are and plan purposefully to work on them. Learn from other organisations’ failure stories so you won’t be blindsided when things turned bad.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, as the old saying goes. It’s okay to be cautious and wait for opportunities. But while waiting, get yourself prepared so when the opportunity arrives, you can grab it by the horns.
“If you’re unsure of whether you should be an entrepreneur, ask yourself what do you really care about? If you don’t want to give up your peace of mind, if you enjoy long hours of undisturbed sleep, if you don’t want to face disruption and problems every day, then by all means get a routine, predictable, salaried job.”
Helping The Disadvantaged
“Currently, I’m devoting time to voluntary work with a local organisation called Early Readers where volunteers read English stories to disadvantaged children on a regular basis, in the hope of creating interest in education for them at a young age.
“I’m passionate about creating a sustainable solution to help disadvantaged children and the elderly who have fallen through the social safety net. Right now, I am in the planning stage for this.”
Her favourite book is The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, by Ben Horowitz (March 2014). It tells about how a billionaire worked his way up and all the troubles, crises and hard decisions he had to make in the process. It talks about his business failures and successes as well as his emotional well-being at that time.
“This book keeps me grounded during small successes and reminds me that things do not come easy in businesses,” says Perlin. “When the going gets tough and lonely, it shows me that I’m not alone and that other entrepreneurs had faced the same, or even bigger problems.”
— Posted online 13 May 2015