Real gems


By KAREN CHAPMAN

Starting a business is like mortgaging your life away because there is no guarantee that the business will take off, says Mark Vadon, founder of Blue Nile, an online jewellery business. 

This is just one of the tips offered by some successful business people at a series of lectures specially arranged for a group of budding entrepreneurs from Malaysia and Hong Kong. 

The group comprised winners of the HSBC Young IT Entrepreneur Awards 2003. They had won the top prize of RM15,000 in Malaysia and HK$30,000 in Hong Kong respectively, and were brought on a week-long study tour to Seattle in the United States. 

Their time in Seattle was filled with visits to Microsoft, Boeing and the Seattle Times, meeting successful entrepreneurs and doing some sightseeing. 

Dr Tuen-yu Lau from the University of Washington, who had designed the study tour for the undergraduate winners, chose speakers from various backgrounds to share their experiences.  

BIG RISK: Blue Nile CEO Mark Vadon shares that starting a business is like mortgaging your life as there is no guarantee of its success.

He also arranged workshops conducted by university staff on how to make use of the information available as well as how to use the various electronic tools to set up online surveys. 

Mark Vadon, founder, Blue Nile 

This is an online jewellery business which offers consumers a chance to buy diamonds and fine jewellery. The website which is located at www.bluenile.com was founded by Mark Vadon in May 1999.  

Vadon said he was inspired to set up the website after a long search for a diamond engagement ring; he finally found what he was looking for at a small online retailer called Internet Diamonds.  

He talked about the financial aspect of the business and explained the role of venture capitalists. It is important to consider the business model, team and the financing when launching a technology-related start-up business, he added. 

''It is like you against the world when it comes to setting up a business because you are convinced about its viability but a venture capitalist will think of the various risks associated with such an idea. 

''You have to be prepared to work really hard and in a way, it is like mortgaging your life,'' he said. 

Vadon believes that the company is successful because ''it stays focused on what we do best'' and last year, the company made its first annual net profit. Currently it only sells within the United States. 

The largest gem ever sold was a five-carat diamond, D colour, flawless, heart-shape for US$183,000 (RM695,400). 

Dr Tuen-yu Lau, director of the Digital Media Master's Programme, School of Communications, University of Washington 

Dr Lau shared on various topics including media ownership such as a subscriber service called tivo in the United States. He explained that it automatically records your favourite television shows every time they air even if the time slot changes. 

There was a discussion on whether this led to loss of privacy since the service would have records of customers' information and viewing preferences. 

Rob Koepp, research fellow, Milken Institute  

Koepp spoke on the Silicon Valley and China's growth. He also shared excerpts from his book Clusters of Creativity: Enduring Lessons on Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Silicon Valley and Europe's Silicon Fen. 

Tia Walker, chairman and CEO of Zendit.com  

She talked about her company which designs, builds and maintains risk manageable software and services that provide Internet security. Walker explained how she started her business by writing her business plan, assembled an advisory board and raised her finances. Like Vadon, she said it is important to be passionate and to believe in what you are doing. 

Leisa Ashbaugh, Ashbaugh and Associates  

Ashbaugh talked about the 20th century work habits that need to be eliminated in order to build a foundation for 21st century productivity. She also discussed a system called Mission Control which can provide a dramatic increase in productivity and effectiveness while reducing stress. 

Prof Therese Louie, associate professor, School of Business, University of Washington 

This was a fun class as Prof Louie gave everyone a quiz to see how they handle money and analysed the results together with the class to ascertain if they are hoarders or spenders.  

Monica Soto, technology reporter, Seattle Times  

Soto spoke mainly about e-businesses such as Amazon.com and its phenomenal growth and what happened when the dotcom bubble burst and what the company did to survive. 

Scott Ehrlich, co-founder, Red Tie Media 

He spoke about his experience of working with Real Networks which provides the universal platform for the delivery of any digital media from any point of origin across virtually any network to any person on any Internet-enabled device anywhere in the world. He also talked about leaving the company to start his own business. 

Lori Dugdale, instructor, Digital Media Programme, University of Washington  

She talked about marketing and its laws. She also explained why branding is important, how to build a strong brand as well as delivering and reinforcing the brand message. 

Karin Roberts, University of Washington  

She conducted a workshop on Catalyst which is an integrated collection of resources, training, tools, templates and support to help educators make effective use of technology in teaching at the university.  

Jessica Albano, communications studies and reference librarian, University of Washington 

This was a workshop where she encouraged the undergraduates to look up various sources of information to prepare for a quick presentation. She also talked about how to be a smart person in a knowledge-based society. Sharing some statistics, she said more new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000 years. Close to one million books are published internationally each year and approximately three billion home pages are available on the web with five million new pages added daily! 

Students' comments 

Malaysian team member Eileen Tey Yee Lin found the lectures interesting as each entrepreneur or speaker had something special to share. 

''My team enjoyed the Blue Nile lecture as Mark shared his experiences of starting a business with us. He didn't hold anything back and even told us about the financial aspects and strategies used in starting up the business,'' she said. 

Her team-mate Edah Chong said the information gained from the lectures would help them when they rewrote their business plan. 

''There was so much we didn't know before, particularly on how to set up a business and applying for financing,'' she said.  

Soh Lin Che, the third team member thought the workshop conducted by Albano was useful. 

''I enjoyed the part where she asked everyone to describe her based on information from various sources such as the university library's newsletter, magazines and website addresses she had handed out,'' she said. 

Hong Kong team member Rachel Lui found the lectures interesting too. 

''We found the lectures interesting as the entrepreneurs shared their real experiences and not theories. We can learn from these experiences when setting up our own businesses later. 

''It was also good to network with both the Malaysian students and the entrepreneurs,'' she said. 

Rachel said she and her team-mate Matthew Chang were keen to set up their fashion consultancy once they had gained some work experience. 

''Who knows someday we may even be able to franchise our idea,'' she said, adding that she would be starting work as an auditor soon.  

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