David Yeung

The Future of Plant-Based Proteins | David Yeung, Green Commons

In this episode of Entrepreneur for Good, I speak with David Yeung, founder of Green Commons, about his impossible mission to encourage people to leave the meat-based lifestyle for the betterment their health and the planet.

This mission was born through David's personal experience and difficulties as a vegetarian who regularly traveled the world and lived abroad. When he returned to Hong Kong, he found some like-minded others interested in creating a change, called “Green Common”. Over time, David has scaled that group into a number of organizations with the same mission, including "Green Monday", an initiative centered around the idea of helping people replace animal-based protein with plant-based protein.

Being very pragmatic about achieving his mission, David has had a very simple goal at the outset, which is to get people to give up one meat-based meal a week, one day a week, and take steps from there as they’re comfortable.


"We’re entering uncharted waters, so by definition, it’s a learning and trial-and-error process. So think big, dream big, but be ready to fail – and simply learn from it very quickly, and move on. And I think that applies to any entrepreneur in any field."
– David Yeung, Green Monday & Green Common


About The Entrepreneurs For Good Series

Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome. It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organziations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.


About David Yeung

David Yeung is a noted environmental advocate and founder of Green Monday, an innovative social venture that takes on on climate change, food insecurity, health issues and animal welfare with a diverse platform that shifts individuals, communities, and corporations towards sustainable, healthy, and mindful living.

Under Green Monday, David launched Green Common – the world’s first plant-based green living destination – to introduce a revolutionary food and lifestyle experience. The movement of Green Monday has now spread to over 10 countries, with 1.6 million people practicing Green Monday at its Hong Kong origin.

Follow David and Green Commons:
Website: http://www.greencommon.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidyeung.hk
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-yeung-77094b1/
Instagram: http://instagram.com/green_common


About Rich

Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.

Follow Rich
Website: http://www.richbrubaker.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rich.brubaker
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richbrubaker
Snapchat: http://snapchat.com/add/richbrubaker
Instagram: https://instagram.com/richbrubaker
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/richbrubaker

Contact Rich
social@richbrubaker.com


Full Interview Transcript

David: So I'm David Yeung, and I’m one of the co-founders of Green Monday. And we're trying to change the way people eat around the world towards a more sustainable and healthier diet.

THE PROBLEM

David: Well, there are a lot of things that are wrong with today's food system, in many ways. One of the key things is people eating way too much meats. Livestock industry, a lot of people do not know, is one of the biggest culprits for carbon footprints, and it's also a very inefficient way to produce food. It takes a lot more land and a lot more water resources to produce the same amount of food if you're eating meat versus if you're eating plant-based food.

And also, from a health standpoint, with the animal factory farming practice these days, so many chemicals and artificial things are added to food that this is not the healthy way to eat.

GREEN MONDAY

David: So what we're trying to tell everyone – and what we're trying to empower and enable everyone to do – is shift towards a plant-based diet and a plant-based lifestyle.

Now, we don't necessarily ask people to “convert” to become a vegan or a vegetarian, but rather a holistic shift. So if someone used to be a big-time carnivore, we say, “Hey, can you go green one day a week, or can you cut down on the portion of meats that you eat on a regular basis?”

Which is why we came up with the name “Green Monday”. The idea is – well, Monday is symbolic to a new start, and at the beginning of each week, let's start a new habit. And of course, from Monday, we hope it will grow into every day – and from food, it will grow into the whole entire lifestyle, to become healthier and more sustainable.

When people talk – when we talk about the term “sustainability”, or when we mention “climate change”, “global warming”, people think of these as mega issues that only major corporations or governments can deal with. So each one of us is quite powerless. So because our impact is so small, people would think that, “I may as well not do anything, because at the end, what does my little change mean to the world?”

However, the way we look at it is, if we can engage everyone to take a baby step and synchronize that baby step to be taken together, then it becomes a giant impact and a giant leap.

So the key is: How do we lower the barrier and make it engaging, make it approachable, make it super easy for anyone to do? But at the same time, they know that if they do it on an ongoing, sustainable, long-term basis, and if they start to spread this among their friends and family, this will create a mega impact as well.

And at the end, governments and corporations – no matter how big they are – they still need the change from individuals.

Well, on one hand, it is a very tough sell because food is such an integral part of everyone's daily habits. And of course, people want to choose what they love to eat. But on the other hand, food is also a great entry point. Because if you can find a way – if we can find a way – to make plant-based green diet delicious, tasty, affordable – and hip, trendy, popular – then it also becomes something that is super easy for a lot of people to jump onto the bandwagon.

So we look at it as a difficulty or obstacle, but at the same time, is also an opportunity. It's also the quickest way to engage people, because you will never forget to eat.

Now, with the rebranding of Green Monday, rather than calling ourselves – “Hey, try to join our ‘meatless movement’,” or “Try to join our ‘vegan movement’,” we simply use the word “green”, which is a positive, engaging, encouraging platform.

And we say, “Even if you do a tiny change, you are still making a step towards a greener world.” So we turn a negative into a positive. We turn what people perceive as a sacrifice into something that they can add value and contribute to the world.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR ENTREPRENEURS

David: Well, this is a – I think people are losing their trust in big companies. And that is not necessarily just big food companies, but big companies in general. The last seven or eight years, too many things have been exposed – how big companies have exploited the system, whether it’s from the food industry standpoint, in the finance industry, you name it. So a lot of those behind-the-scene things have been exposed, and people are losing that faith or trust in these brands.

And also from a second – I think another reason is, these mega companies, they do not know the “pulse” of the new – whether they're Millennials, or the New Age customers. They simply don't know exactly – what are they eating, and what is the trend going to be.

So that gives a huge opportunity to a lot of food entrepreneurs – or nutrition, innovation, etc. – a lot of opportunities. And consumers at the end will vote by the consumption and say, “Hey? You know what? This segment,” such as almond milk, or coconut water, or aloe drink, or whatever that is , “is the feel that I want.”

So a lot of times, the big companies – first of all, by default, because they're big, they also move slower. But second is, they simply don't get the pulse. And again, finally, is people losing trust in them.

Well, it used to be – when we think of “vegan” or plant-based food, it used to belong to the niche. Just the ultra-healthy people, the yoga people, fitness – just that niche group.

But now, people are all very aware that hey, the protein that you're getting from meat – whether it’s through our education and advocacy, or simply from many news that they read – they know that this way of acquiring protein is not the healthy way.

So with plant-based, I mean, there are a lot of companies such as Beyond Meat, such as Impossible Foods. And there are many, many examples that are coming up and using pea protein or other types of plant-based – a lot from nuts, for example – and to come up with these new products. These could be plant-based chicken, plant-based seafood, plant-based burger.

And they taste very much the same as what people are used to tasting from the regular food, but is healthier, and is also nowadays affordable. So this no longer just belongs to that healthy, ultra-healthy sheep niche of people, but rather, this is getting into mainstream.

Now one very, very good example, I think, is the dairy industry – dairy versus non-dairy. There are a lot of data that is showing that the dairy industry is losing market shares significantly, simply even over the last three years.

I just read the news couple days ago that skim milk, the sales of skim milk in the entire United States dropped 13% in one year. We're talking about an entire segment, a sector of product dropped 13%.

That's actually a debacle, basically. It's not a single product or single brand – it’s a whole category of things, because people realize that, “Hey, if I'm gonna drink skim milk, I may as well drink almond milk.” That is lower calorie, and healthier, and also better for – well, there's no animal involved, so no cholesterol.

So what we see is there a lot of alternatives that are now becoming mainstream. So it's not just that tiny, cute niche that it used to be.

Well, what is very exciting is, from an innovation standpoint – and even from an investment or venture capital standpoint – there are so many opportunities that are coming up from everywhere around the world. The food business, or food industry itself, is a mega-business. A lot of these blue chip companies that have been around for 30, 40, 50 years – or even 100 years – these are mega, multi-billion dollar market cap companies.

But now people are starting to shift and say, “Hey, I'm aware that that is GMO food,” or “I'm aware that this food has way too much antibiotics or way too much pesticides in it.” And they want to shift towards – whether it's organic, or natural, or plant-based, or non-GMO – and that is a mega trend that is happening around the world.

And food safety is such a major issue nowadays, because everywhere – particularly in many countries in Asia – food scandal is almost becoming a regular thing that they see or they read on the news. So I think from a business or entrepreneurship standpoint, this is just an amazing time.

Well, I think 2015 or ‘16 is definitely the tipping point. We've been kind of growing and getting up to that point when the mainstream starts to realize the natural food market, they start to come in, they start to try and then ultimately just adopt it for good.

And I think in the US, the last seven or eight years, that momentum has been building. But around 2015 or ’16, that's when we just see that natural food – or healthy food – is becoming the food industry.

When we go to the food – the Expo West, which is the biggest food trade show, based in LA – I mean, not only do all the vendors fill up the halls, but the number of visitors and people who come to visit that is just unbelievable. And it is exceeding any expectations in terms of the organizer of how many people are coming to these trade shows.

And then organic food, right now in the US – Whole Foods is not the biggest retailer of organic food. It’s actually Costco. So from a pricing standpoint, is also coming down to the point that it's becoming mainstream, and affordable, as well.

I was in San Diego not too long ago, and I was looking at organic kale for US$1.69, and I'm like, “Wow! I mean, 10 years ago this would be like $4.99. But now, it's US$ 1.69.” And actually, it even looked better than the version from 10 years ago.

Rich: But what about in Asia? I mean, okay, San Diego, the US – like, what about in Asia? What's happening here?

David: Well, Asia is a little bit behind the curve, but it's catching up very fast. When we started Green Monday and Green Common in Hong Kong, at the beginning, people were like, “Hey, people in Asia are not going to follow this. I mean, this is a ‘Western thing’.”

But of course, before you know it, everyone is saying that, “Hey, I want to go Green Monday. I want to try a ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle”, meaning moving more towards plant-based – not necessarily full-time, but shifting the ratio.

Right now in Hong Kong, about 23% people are adopting a flexitarian diet, meaning through cutting down on the portion of meat, or choosing a day, or two, or three to go vegetarian. They're doing it. That's one out of five – one out of four, actually, nearly 1.6 million people.

So that's – you're talking about a lot of people, are ready to jump in. They just need a platform, and you just need to provide the tools to enable and empower them.

TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATIONS

David: Well, I think number one is: At the end, we still need all the basic skills that an entrepreneur would need, so marketing is always important. Research, in terms of nutrition, in terms of all the environmental impact – I think those are all important. Because the more transparent you are, the more people know that your food is clean, the more they will lean towards choosing your product. So from a nutrition/R&D standpoint, and then from a marketing standpoint.

Now, we still need all the techniques of traditional marketing, but now these people want transparency more than ever. So the more honest, the more frank you are, the more people would welcome or embrace your product.

And then, at the end, we are still talking about distribution. I think that is something that food, or food tech, is very different from other technology. You cannot just download it into your cell phone and eat from your from your mobile device, right? So distribution is still a piece that, from a food entrepreneurs’ standpoint, you cannot overlook – because at the end, people need to find the food at a restaurant, or at a supermarket, a local grocery.

So it is kind of like mixing between innovation, but at the same time, the traditional way of doing business.

SOLVING A PERSONAL NEED

David: I have been a vegetarian for 15 years, and I started vegetarian when I was living in New York. I then moved back to Hong Kong about 12 years ago, and it was very difficult for me to find plant-based food – whether it is going out or dining in. Both was a ultra-difficult.

And at the same time, I always needed to explain to people, one meal at a time. People would ask me, “Oh, so what happened to you? Why are you vegetarian? Where do you get your protein? Are you sure you'll be healthy?”

They showed genuine concern about me, and then I showed genuine reverse concern about them. I say, “Actually, you know what? Do you realize what you're eating is full of GMO or antibiotics? You're eating secondhand antibiotics if you're consuming meats nowadays.” So people are like, “Really?”

I mean, so that has gone on for a long time. And finally, the opportunity came along when a good friend of mine – he's also an entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur – and he happens to be a vegetarian as well. He is a big marathon runner, and the less meat he consumes, the faster he runs.

So finally – we’d always brainstormed a lot of ideas, and finally it came to the topic of food, and then my eyes light up. I was like, “Hey, you know what? I really wanted to do something about this for a long time – both from a selfish reason, because I want to have more choice – but at the same time, I want everyone to join in.” So that was how Green Monday was started.

Besides transparency, I think authenticity is something that's very important. They do want to associate it with a face or someone. That someone doesn't necessarily need to be a mega-celebrity or a superstar, but rather someone that they feel like it's just one of them. And they can see from that person, “Well it's okay to change, and actually, this is a better way to live.”

So we have a couple –myself included – a couple people who are on the core team. So on a day-to-day basis, we are either talking to business or talking to the general public market and telling them that, “Hey, this is a lifestyle that everyone can adopt.”

So authenticity is one – and the other one, I think, is simplicity. People, when you say “vegan”, “non-GMO”, “dairy-free”, and then “raw”, “organic” – there's all these criteria that are from people. And they just say, “Hey, at the end, I mean, I'm not a PhD in food. I just want to eat healthier, but I still want tasty food.”

So there are people who are getting very sophisticated and educated about what they're eating, they would study the entire label. But if you talk to the general – the entire market of just mainstream people – they want something simple.

So that's how we came up with names such as “Green Monday” – or our shop, which is called “Green Common”. It is meant to be so simple and easy – that hey, if you come in, we have done that selection on your behalf. You can trust this choice. We want to make it easy for you. You do not necessarily need to be a PhD in nutrition in order to eat healthy. And of course, the food that I selected are tasty. They're not the type that’s super healthy, but also completely unappealing in taste, right?

So I think these are all kind of the mix that makes our engine work. So for any food entrepreneurs, I also suggest that it should be fun, it should be engaging, and authenticity and transparency. The more they can associate with a person, rather than just a big logo, and a lot of marketing dollars, and billboard advertising – those actually are starting to lose that appeal.

THE SOCIAL MEDIA MEGAPHONE

David: Well, I think usually with transparency, with authenticity, it means taking a long time to build that momentum. But thanks to the age of social media, we have a mega broadcast platform that 10 years ago, we did not have.

If you have to wait for word-of-mouth, wow! How much long does it take to get to seven million or 70 million people? But with social media, it gets viral so quickly. So I think if you have a good cause, if you have a good message, if you have something that people genuinely feel that they can share to their friends or their family, it actually can get viral super easily.

So we have only been around for four years, and we're in 16 countries right now. Even I am amazed and stunned, in a way, by that progress. On a daily or weekly basis, we hear stories from people in Indonesia, in Holland, in the UK, in Mexico who are adopting Green Monday. And I'm like, “Hey, where did we get these people from?” And of course, it's through the Internet and social media.

So I think that kind of compensates for the traditional deficiency, or the disadvantage, of doing it that human, authentic, personal way. Because it used to take a long time, but now social media really helps completely accelerate that.

Now, for example, with our food emporium – our grocery market and restaurant food service – the way I look at our measurement of success, it's not just from a business standpoint. Of course, we need to be profitable, but beyond the margin – beyond the top line, bottom line – the other side of our business is wholesale.

The more people know about these products, the more existing restaurants and existing supermarkets will say, “Hey, I want that product, too. I want that product on my shelf.” So we are also distributing these brands and products into other supermarkets, and also other restaurants. Now, that makes it a lot more scalable, and also scale way faster – because at the end, building a store takes a long time. And of course, it's also capital- and human labor-intensive.

So once you start to spread that out, and then you see that restaurant is using our product, that restaurant is using our product, and that supermarket is selling our brand, too­ – then it becomes a citywide, or soon maybe, a region-wide thing. That these products are simply everywhere, and they're included naturally into the general food spectrum.

So, when I see that, “Hey, people are just picking up that product on the shelf,” or when someone just tells me out of the blue that, “Hey, I've been practicing Green Monday, or Green four days a week for the last six months,” those are all our measurement of success. And the more that happens, the more we know that the whole paradigm and ecosystem is really changing.

Well, at the end, scalability is always the biggest challenge. We cannot scale fast enough. I mean, we want to impact 100 million people – or even one billion, two billion, seven billion people. I think that is absolutely the ultimate goal.

How do we get there fast? How can we reach 100, 200, and then one billion? How do we get there? We're still trying to solve that puzzle, but I think we are on the right direction, and that from the team standpoint is super encouraging.

3 TIPS FOR ASPIRING FOOD ENTREPRENEURS

David: Well, first of all, food entrepreneur or any entrepreneur – I still believe that accumulating business know-how and general business experience is still key. A lot of times, people are super excited – too excited about becoming an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship in general.

And I would actually say that: Hey, do work in a big company – even for a couple years, because that is still a good way for them to see how companies work and what is missing from the big corporations. Because by knowing what they are not doing well, then you know what you can do well.

So first of all, the David Yeung four years ago already has been in business for 14 years, I think. So it wasn't like I was a completely rookie entrepreneur, but rather, I've been doing other business and accumulating business know-how. So that's one.

Number two, I still think is: Think big and dream big – and also be ready to fail. You're not going to get it right the first time, and chances are, there are a lot of things that…

We’re entering uncharted waters, so by definition, it’s a learning and trial-and-error process. So think big, dream big, but be ready to fail – and simply learn from it very quickly, and move on. And I think that applies to any entrepreneur in any field.

If authenticity is so important, then the third one has to be: You’ve got to do something that you absolutely believe in, and that you love. It has to be a part of you – genuine you, and what you believe in.

Rich: That’s awesome.


For more interviews from the "Entrepreneurs for Good" series, check out the playlist here.

Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.


Grant Horsfield

What It Takes To Be An Entrepreneur | Grant Horsfield, Naked Group

Through this episode of the Entrepreneurs for Good series, we speak with Grant Horsfield, founder and chairman of the naked Group about his belief that success in building a business from the ground up depends on far more than being smart, getting lucky, or having relationships in China.

For him, it is about having a big vision, building a team, and DOING THE WORK.


Guanxi matters, but it won’t make your business profitable.


About The Entrepreneurs For Good Series

Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome. It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organziations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.


About Grant Horsfield, Naked Group

Grant Horsfield, a native of South Africa, is Founder and Chairman of the naked Group. Before coming to China in 2005, Grant worked in England and South Africa with more than 10 years of business ownership experience. In 2004, Grant received an MBA from University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Upon graduation, he decided to come to China as he saw China as the place where business opportunities lie.

After spending two years in Shanghai, he found himself overwhelmed by the metropolis and missed the natural beauty of his home. From this desire and need sprouted the concept for naked Retreats, which was launched in 2007.

Grant’s vision is to create sanctuaries that are in harmony with the environment, where people can appreciate the simple way of nature and embrace the naked lifestyle. Grant’s tireless efforts in promoting eco-tourism in the rural areas has not only created jobs, but also inspired pride for the local community.

Follow Grant and Naked
Website: http://www.livenaked.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/granthorsfield?ref=br_rs
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/granthorsfield


About Rich

Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.

Follow Rich
Website: http://www.richbrubaker.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rich.brubaker
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richbrubaker
Snapchat: http://snapchat.com/add/richbrubaker
Instagram: https://instagram.com/richbrubaker
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/richbrubaker

Contact Rich
social@richbrubaker.com


Full Interview Transcript

Grant: I think all business should really come from your own need. So in that case, it was more of like a demand for my personal life just to get out of the city. I always grew up in the country, so – I was a farmer, and I just wanted to get out. So that’s what drove me to kind of get out of the city. And ultimately, it grew from there. More people wanted to stay at our house, and the whole idea sort of developed.

DRIVEN BY BRAND

Grant: I’m really driven by brand, by brand recognition. I made this statement twenty years ago in an interview, where I said: What matters to me is I’ll be sitting in a bar, and over here somebody next door to me – talking about the company that I’ve created, or the product that I’ve created, or whatever I been – saying how it influenced their life or changed them in some way or another. And that really motivates me. It’s like, I want to do something and people go, “I can’t live without that thing.

And we were doing that in the resorts, and it was fun – but the resorts take sometimes five years to realize, and a huge amount of money. So we’ve got seven resorts in the pipeline, and it’s a lot of work doing that, but it doesn’t give me enough instant gratifications. So the Hubs came along, and Discovery came along, and Sailboat is really just a personal escape to the water! It’s hardly a business.

But I think to answer your question, brand ­– and just being able to do something and you look at it, and you say, “Wow, we did that.” And I really enjoyed bricks-and-mortar, but I’m enjoying technology at the same time. And my wife and I get a kick out of it, so at the moment, we still love it.

Smart means nothing. Smarts are only one-tenth of what you need to succeed. Hard work matters, and dedication, and not giving up, and tenacity – these things are so much more important to success. All right? So if you come from a difficult background, so to speak, you inherently really have that. How many second-generation and third-generation hugely successful families have seen successful children? Doesn’t happen. Why? “Because I’m just too comfortable.”

LEARNING FROM FAILURE

Grant: I’ve always naturally learnt from my mistakes because I never listened to anybody. In fact, I still don’t listen to everyone. So typically, I have to fall down, and then figure it out, and go, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

And they go, “We did, Grant.”

And I say, “I didn’t— you didn’t!“ Just an arrogant idiot most of the time. But trying to teach that or mentor that through your company, and try and teach people to not fear making a mistake is really, really hard in China. People are nervous. And I’m a big personality, so when I walk into a room, everyone’s a little bit – even more nervous.

But what we try and do at naked is we’re trying to push, push, push, “Go make a mistake!” And then celebrate the mistakes. Because if we can give that feeling to everyone, that it’s okay to f*ck up, then we will be innovative. We will do cool stuff. If everyone’s just terrified of making a mistake, you’re really going to go nowhere.

So it’s so much easier spoken, like this, to tell you that story. To make it actually happen in practice is really hard in China. It’s just, personality-wise, these guys are not…

Greatest example was 2004, when I closed down e-Bites – was my previous company, it was a big company, I won a big entrepreneur award in South Africa. I sold some technology, I made some money, but ultimately I closed the company because it grew too fast and I made a lot of mistakes. And I chose to take a year doing an MBA after that – not to learn anything from an MBA – it was the greatest excuse to spend time introspecting on what happened. And I spent the whole year, and I wrote every single thesis, or essay, or whatever I had to do, always related to my own experience with my company.

So that whole year was looking back and trying to see, “What did I do right? What did I do wrong?” And then I guess – I now recruit people based on their self-awareness. Because people that are typically more self-aware are just so much easier to work with. “I’m sht at a lot of stuff, and I’m going to tell you all those things that I’m sht at, and it’s okay because I’m quite good at these things.” As soon as I hear that, dude, I’ll find any job for you somewhere in this company. But that’s another trait that’s not very easily found in China.

Rich: Yeah. One of my finance professors said, “There’s only one person better than someone that’s always right: someone that’s always wrong.”

Grant: Yeah.

WHAT AN ENTREPRENEUR DOES

Grant: I should tell you that we were able to sell some equity in naked last year, which is the first time that we’ve ever sold equity in our company. It was a small portion, but it gave us enough money to certainly retire for the rest of my life.

And then we decided to throw everything back in the pot, and build out these Hubs. All of our money. So going and throwing it all back in again, all the chips back on the table, I think that’s – an entrepreneur, that’s what he does. And my mum said I’ll make more money than anybody I’ll ever know – but I’ll die broke!

Rich: Got to keep trying, huh?

Grant: Yeah, so you know. It’s part of a cycle, and I’m not afraid of it. I’m not afraid of that failure, so to speak.

WE ONLY LIVE ONCE. DO IT.

Grant: If you have something, you should do it. You should try and do it. We only live once, and there’s no afterlife, in my humble opinion. So if you don’t try something and you’ve been dreaming of it, there’s something wrong with you, inherently. A lot of people are like that.

That was something that was really important to us from the beginning, was: How do we leave an imprint on someone that they might actually take home and do themselves?

We believe you can’t hard sell it. You really just can’t push your ideals on other people, and in China, they really don’t respond well to any ideals being pushed on them. But they like to follow and copy. So you’re just leaving it there, giving the content, making sure they can read it – we have a museum that showcases how we built stuff.

But China’s going through that learning process, and they’re the smartest people in the world. I believe that. And they will get through it, and then they will innovate, and then they will be better.

Rich: But are they the smartest, or have they just got the best hustle right now? Like, they’ll work through it.

Grant: Yeah, of course. Of course. If you grew up in hardship and difficult times, it drives you harder than anyone else.

I came here with a purpose to try and find something to sell to China. I got a job with a consulting firm in South Africa who brought me here – that was kind of a gig just to allow me to be here and explore what’s available in China. And then I looked at so many products to try and bring to China, but ultimately, supply was always a problem.

And then this idea came along, and I said, “Well, maybe this is what I’m bringing. I’m bringing the African safari or the weekend getaway – which is so normal in my country. So it kind of just–

Rich: So you were already thinking “getaway”.

Grant: Yeah, “getaway” was a personal thing, but the first thing, the most important thing was “sell to China”. Sell to China, not buy from China. Everyone in that year, in those years – everyone was buying China, buying China. You come here, source, buy, sell, to export. We were always the other way. I always wanted to make the Chinese – I wanted to build a brand that China liked.

It was both the best thing we did as well as the hardest thing: trying to do everything yourself. I mean, once you’ve done it yourself once, and twice becomes easier, three times become easier – but it’s extremely hard to do anything in China, let alone build a resort in the middle of the country.

I have many Chinese friends that still can’t believe it’s real, that I managed to do that, because they say they couldn’t – they wouldn’t even be able to do it. And that’s actually more true than anything: A city person would really struggle to go to the countryside and build a resort, with the complications of the village people and stuff like that. But I’m much more comfortable with the farmers and the village peasants than I am with the city people. So you kind of have it easier for me, I guess.

Rich: I mean, it’s interesting. You understand the country more than the city person will. Is that a competitive advantage? Like, as an entrepreneur, you just can see things clearer, you’re willing to put up with pain more, you can talk people different? Is that what makes you unique? Or, is that what made you unique to–

YOU CAN’T HARD SELL IT

Grant: Ah. Yeah, I don’t know if it makes me any better or worse, but it’s definitely a massive advantage that came from Africa and the countryside of Africa. A farmer, or a laborer on a farm, in China is no different from a laborer in a farm in South Africa. In fact, probably the same for America, too. But very few people get to interact with that sort of person, as well as the very rich guy that you’re trying to sell a house to or invite to your resort. So I think the advantage probably I had, maybe, over some first-world country people, is I really related to these guys a lot easier. I enjoyed it, actually. I enjoyed the evenings in their houses, drinking baijiu, making friends – from the peasant farmer, to the village chief, to the party secretary. All of that.

IS CHINA DIFFERENT?

Grant: Is it different from anywhere else? I think it is, because it’s so gray. And the amount of times you get told “meibanfa” [“there’s no way”], or “I can’t help you,” or “There’s no direction for that”, or “I don’t know how to do this”. “You’re a foreigner. You can’t do that.” The amount of times you hit a brick wall and nobody knows the answer, it’s kind of like you get numb to it.

So over the years, I used to get really stressed, to the point that I was like close to having a heart attack. In fact, I had a heart attack, in 2009 – a “mild infarction”, or whatever they call it. And I was really stressed, everything was on the line…

And that tends to happen for any entrepreneur – you have moments where everything’s on the line. But I think it’s a bit like therapy, because if you come out of it, you become the most calm dude in the world. It’s like nothing can faze you. You drive down the road, and someone cuts you off – it’s like, “Hey dude. No worries, man.” Just nothing fazes you anymore. And I’ve kind of reached that phase.

Actually, I’ll tell you a story, just a funny story that’s an aside – you can maybe cut this later. But the hardest thing in business in China is government. And it takes a huge amount of time and energy. And I often ask myself, “Why do I– why can’t I have bigger guanxi (relationship) in bigger places that can solve these problems?” Because it’s a lot harder for foreign companies. The hurdles we get given are far more complicated than local companies, and that makes it quite difficult to compete.

Rich: Sure.

Grant: I think there’s a huge number of examples in Yahoo, and Google, and Facebook, and I could go on and name all their failures. And it’s largely because of hurdles, and it’s difficult.

And yes, China wants Chinese, homebred companies to succeed. That’s why we are not a foreign company. We are a wholly owned foreign company, but the government knows us as Luoxing, and the brand, the Chinese brand is far more important. But still, it is the thing that if only I could not have to have all those hurdles.

Rich: Right.

Grant: There’s two types of companies. There’s the quiet company that sort of operates and makes profits, and it doesn’t like the limelight. It’s in the background. And then there’s the company like naked, which is trying to be a Brand.

And that can also have two types. You can be a really big company where you’re powerful, and you can be a middle-sized company, and then the kind of small company. And a lot of people want to sort of operate in the shadows because it’s a lot easier. You get less trouble. But as soon as you’re in the limelight, there’s a bigger target to shoot at. And sometimes I think that the whole world’s against me here. The government’s against me, and why’s somebody complaining about this? And five-year-olds giving me this trouble, for what reason? Who’s making the trouble for me?

And yes, I’ve had many thoughts of conspiracy theories about “Is naked getting too big now?” And the party secretary was just outside – the Shanghai party secretary – standing outside our door, talking with a whole crowd of people. And my staff were taking photos out the window, and I’m going like, “Oh, sh*t. I don’t want the party secretary of Shanghai talking outside my door. That can’t be good.”

And that’s not a good feeling to have, is it? I mean, we should be like, “Yay! Cool, man!”

Rich: “We’re being noticed!”

Grant: “He might say something in his next speech!” And I’m going like, “No, no more attention! Who’s going to knock on my door tomorrow?” But that’s China. And I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I do think that Chinese companies, too, like to stay out of the limelight. And it’s difficult. That’s why we’re in the opposite trend. We’re trying to make a brand – which is a new thing to China. How many China brands do you know of? There’s so few.

Rich: Right. Especially foreign-built.

Grant: Yeah, well those are very few.

Rich: And not a global brand coming in, but a domestic brand in it’s own right. Right?

Grant: Yeah. Those are few.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you have an outcome in mind, and that’s kind of what you’re driving towards. And if building a relationship is going to help me get to the outcome, then that’s the purpose of the relationship, first and foremost.

However, along the way, you do meet some amazingly cool, nice people. And I’ve made some real, true friends. They’re not a lot, but who’s to say more than five is a big number, or a little number, or whatever the case might be. But I’ve made a few very, very good friends in the process. In fact, people that I count as my best friends in the world – they were supportive either from government-side or private-side. But that would be the same anywhere, I guess, in the world.

But the process of building the relations to get to the outcome? That’s a non-negotiable in China. If you don’t do that, you will fail. Not because it’s like you a friend to – you need to bribe someone or something. It’s not that. There are insurmountable problems every single day in a project that you – no one knows the solution. And if you don’t have someone that’s trying to help you, genuinely trying to help you, you’ll fail. Simple as that.

OWNING THE PROCESS

Grant: At naked, we do everything ourselves. And that’s because there’s a problem giving business out in China. It’s still very unreliable, and you’ll get more failure than you’ll get success. So we have a huge design studio with 35 people. We have an IT department, software coding, 30-something people. We have project management, finance, HR, every single function in a company – even down to construction, we have some people. So we do everything ourselves.

However – now, this is the trick. naked Hub, the whole idea of this business, is to try to change that, and to say that by creating many companies under one roof – literally, under a physical roof – you create a trust. So I don’t want to have an HR department. I want to outsource to that little HR company down the corridor. Because if he doesn’t do his job, I’m going to walk down there and pull his ear – which we can’t do in China.

And the trust of service business amongst China is so weak that, typically, we don’t outsource as much as we should.

Rich: Right, right.

Grant: And I think that a Hub, and the whole co-working atmosphere – we’ll have 50,000 meters at the end of this year. That will be 9,000 members; that’s probably something like 500 companies. You’ll find any company you need under that roof. Then you start to create companies with much smaller people, much lower HR requirements and stuff – just outsource. And only if it’s under one roof, where you can create a little of bit of trust.

I think 50% of the foreigners here are running away from something somewhere else, and that’s why they’re here. And there’s another 50% that are half-decent. But I don’t think that the sample of foreigners here is equivalent to the sample of foreigners in London, or New York, or another city like that. So I’ve had a lot of failure with foreigners.

Rich: Is it a hunger thing? Is it a skills gap? Is it just like a “F*ck you, I’m foreign, and therefore I’m better than the Chinese”? Or they’re just unwilling to–

Grant: It’s all of those things, you know? The whole “I’m better than Chinese” thing – that really bothers me, because I say, “I’m sorry, mate. You’re not.” My stars in this company are not foreigners. They’re Chinese. The people that have done the most for this company, the most valuable in this company, are Chinese people.

And if you don’t create a company driven by Chinese people in China, then there’s something wrong with your brain. You really need to realize that they’re able and competent, and able to do so much more than the foreigner.

But a foreigner with good self-awareness can do well here. But too many of them don’t have that. Too many of them come with a “F*ck you, I know what I’m doing, and you should listen to me because I’m a foreigner, and I know.” And they don’t. Typically, they’re actually here because they’re not that clever in the first place.

CULTURE AND STRUCTURE

Grant: You know, the company needs to have a certain formality to it. And I do everything I can to stop that. I hate it; it breaks creativity. This whole Hub business has been the best thing I’ve ever done because it’s broken up our company into – like, beer is okay to drink at 9 a.m. in the morning, and I encourage everyone to drink.

And I say, “It’s okay to be drunk and do some work. If it’s going to influence your work, then you should think about it – make an adult decision. If you’re a creative person and it’s going to help your work, go wild. Get hammered. I don’t care. You’re an adult.

But we’re breaking up, and people are sitting around us, we don’t know who they are. They’re other companies, and we make friends, girls and boys are meeting each other and having fun things, and stuff like that. And that informality, in a way, is spurring creativity, innovation, pushing us to do cooler, new things – that’s what I’m in business for.

Yeah, I mean we might be bigger, and more structured. And there’s an HR department, there’s a marketing department, there’s a branding department, there’s all the departments, and they all have a VP of something, and everyone has some kind of role. But I spend most of my job trying to break all of that stuff down.

So yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, the first question about being on your own, lonely – it is kind of lonely at times. Most of the people we know work in multinationals and have no advice to offer anyone like me.

But we’d never looked at hospitality business – when we built naked Home, naked Stables, the first two resorts, we still never had anyone work for us who had worked even in a hospitality company. So when we were fitting out the rooms and designing it, it was purely how we thought it should be. And I think that was our biggest advantage, is we came with a completely clean slate.

And now that’s the same in every one of our businesses. I mean, naked Discovery – there’s nothing in China even close to what we’re trying to do at naked Discovery. Yes, the Hub business – there’s a similar WeWork company, but we still go about it our own individual approach. There’s not a WeWork in Shanghai yet to “copy”, so to speak. So we kind of do everything with our own blank piece of paper.

And I think that’s inherently what an entrepreneur is anyway. I mean, most entrepreneurs, anyway, like to do design their own logic and thinking to it.

You know, some days, you have a little bit of doubt and question whether you’re doing the right thing. Some days you think, “Oh, is there a problem with China?” But then you look at the fundamentals, and you realize that this is only going one place, certainly for the next decade, the fundamentals in this country are sound. The people are hungry. And if you’re in tourism and co-working spaces, or you’re in the right end of the curve, you can’t be doing bad stuff, it’s good for the world – everything’s right. So hopefully, when you tick all those kind of boxes, then hopefully the government realizes that you’re good, and that gives you the gap, so to speak.

CELEBRATING SUCCESS

Grant: We’ve done everything off our own skin. We had some early investors a long, long time ago with naked Home – but after that, it was just my wife and I for many years.

But how do I celebrate? I think the more the successful naked becomes, is giving me more freedom to spend doing the things that I’ve always dreamed of doing – which is typically on the water, sailing, and with my kids, teaching them to play the sports that I want to play.

As a company, we celebrate all the time. I think every day’s a party, and there’s a lot of idea amongst us that we should have too many milestone targets. We should just celebrate the journey as a bit of fun along the way, and if we’re having fun, we won’t even realize when we’ve reached a goal.

But in our business, often when the building is open, or the resort is opening, or the Hub is opening, you see that milestone. It’s so visible in front of you.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Grant: We typically always have a party, though. It involves getting drunk and misbehaving.


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