When you take on an inherently traditional and somewhat ‘old school’ market place like Asian food, it’s not without facing a number of interesting challenges along the way. This is exactly what I have experienced when I set up my business. Tradition can be a positive in business but sometimes it can also present obstacles because you often need to break down age-old barriers, yet still retain the all-important elements that make your business proposition so appealing. To survive in business today, you have to build an evolving and forward-thinking business that is agile and can flex to accommodate different market demands and changing customer preferences.
Historically in Asian Culture, women would have been the home-makers and despite being exposed to the western culture and seeing women at work, this generation has been stuck in a time-lock where certain traditions and values continue to be maintained (even though in India, the country itself would have progressed past some of these issues by now). So I was starting a business in a sector that is still heavily male-dominated from a business perspective and much of the sector are not used to dealing with women when it comes to business negotiations.
Choose your battles wisely
For example, I recently met with one of my suppliers along with a male member of my team, yet despite being well aware that I’m the owner of the business, they still directed all of their questions to my male colleague and only maintained eye contact with him rather than me. Most men in my industry would feel uncomfortable shaking hands with a woman. From the way you dress to the way you address, each minute and irrelevant detail is observed differently, simply because I am a woman in business. That’s often hard to take, but sometimes it is about choosing the battles that are worth fighting, and tackling them in the right way.
Of course, the obstacles continue to evolve in this sector because for those that don’t have an issue dealing with female entrepreneurs, I’ve found that being an online tech entrepreneur can sometimes be perceived as a threat. It is sometimes because they do not understand it but are aware that the internet is a disruptive force that could change the way they do business forever and that is either a concern for them or something they choose to disregard. There are things that I’ve learned to do that have helped me in business such as to try and speak the same language where possible, dress a certain way and even bring a male colleague with me if I think the supplier or contact will be uncomfortable dealing with a woman. Whether I agree or not is of little consequence, because this will take the tension off of the nonsensical barriers and help bring the focus back to the core aspects and objectives of the meeting.
Retaining the essence of ‘unique’
If you really want to disrupt a traditional market place that is very passionate about its heritage, you need to understand how the current market works if you hope to stand a chance of improving it. At the same time you need to retain the core essence that makes it unique or you risk losing the benefits of what makes that market so buoyant. It is critical for you to get the key players in the market place to cooperate and work effectively with you and that is not always easy.
I faced some tough times with my suppliers initially because they naturally assumed that the prices of my products should be more expensive than high street prices and so provided me with uncompetitive rates. It took me a great deal of negotiating and a lot of battles to break down these misconceptions and barriers before I struck the deal I wanted. When I deal with competitors it is a completely different story but you have to bring them all along your journey so that means finding an approach that doesn’t alienate or intimidate. Business is about addressing concerns and working through challenges.
My business is disrupting the current market with the intention to raise the bar in providing great customer service, something that requires a huge shift in thinking in the current market place, as well as a need for greater efficiency as the industry has a high level of wastage associated with it. There is also a need for tighter process and controls – increasing the general standard and quality of the goods through improved supply-chain management.
The psychology behind the sale
There is a challenge to flex and adapt to different cultures when you work in an industry like mine, but I’ve found this has got easier as I have begun to learn and understand more about the thinking and psychology behind the purchase. Getting to know your customer is key to providing a product offering that they will truly appreciate. Success in business is really all about resilience and persistence and a will to achieve your goals, because sometimes it can feel like an easier option to give up.
In terms of gender issues in this market place, I’ve had to accept that change is happening gradually, but it will be slow. There are more females working in support functions, but I have yet to come across any leading women in the Asian food/supplier sector that are truly making decisions at the top.
Turn restlessness into relentlessness
If you are keen to disrupt a traditional market, you need to do your homework first and understand how that industry works inside out. If it is an industry not used to dealing with women in power, the chances of you getting a fair shot and any accepted meeting requests will be slim. To get your business off the ground you may need to remove the focus on more personal matters (i.e. gender) to diffuse any potential tension that could have been caused. This will also enable you to have a more productive meeting and focus on what is important – the success of your business.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Understand exactly what the barriers to entry may be and create a plan of action to overcome them. Without being aware of the barriers, it will be difficult to pre-empt and tackle them successfully. However, tackle these piecemeal, one by one else you will overwhelm yourself and feel you are not making much progress. Be mentally prepared too; you will have setbacks and come across challenges you may not have thought would occur. It is important to maintain a positive frame of mind and to not let things get you down. Turn your restlessness into relentlessness and this will also open up more doors for more women to join you in breaking down the stereotypes and barriers in the future – and that can only be a positive thing.
My goal is to become the leading online consumer brand for Asian cuisine. Cooking Asian cuisine from scratch can be very daunting with so many unique ingredients that make up a dish. The idea behind my business is to make cooking Asian cuisine a less scary process and to show how easy it can be to cook it from scratch.
I also want to challenge stereotypes of Asian cuisine and prove that is does not have to be unhealthy and full of oil to taste good and that requires a level of disruption in terms of what has always been a tradition. I want to be able to showcase the plethora of recipes and dishes that can be cooked up that are quick, healthy and super tasty. Markets steeped in heritage can be tricky but the prospect of leading changes that will make all the difference in the long term, is an exciting and rewarding one and something I now feel much better prepared for.