The Golden Principle

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Meet Kan Wang:

Kan Wang is currently serving as the Assistant Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder in Riverside County, California. Kan is also a Lecturer with the University of California Riverside School of Business and Management. Kan holds a MBA, a Master in Computer Science, and a Bachelor in Business Administration degree. He has a passion for developing management methodologies and frameworks to solve business challenges using technology, creating an entrepreneurial culture, and improving organizational execution agility and effectiveness.

Kan’s failure story:

Coming from Taiwan in the 80s as an immigrant family was tough. My parents were always working hard to make ends meet, so they’ve always been the emblem of hard work. As I entered into college, I really had no motivation to complete my undergraduate degree other than satisfying my mom’s desire for me to finish my college education here in the US. Had it not been for that reason, I wouldn’t have stuck around to finish college.

Kan Wang undergraduate university graduation

Instead, my desire was to start working because money had been so important for me and my family growing up. As soon as I was able to work, all I thought about was finding jobs so I can make more money to take care of whatever expenses needed for myself and my family.

Because I was motivated by work and not school, each class I took was just something I needed to check off and get it over with. As a result, there was a huge disconnect between all the material I was studying in college and how they will benefit me personally at the time. I stayed in it just to satisfy my parents, which looking back now was the wrong kind of motivation. I started a part-time job doing testing and programming multimedia training software while I was in college, and afterwards jumped on the first opportunity to start my own web development business two years after graduating. I also thought it was the perfect avenue (and fastest route) towards financial stability – becoming your own boss. My small business consisted of me and my sister; she was a talented graphic designer and I was the programmer. My first client was a hair dryer company called CONAIR, and they hired us to build their company website. I didn’t realize they were a national company at the time, but they hired us and we had our first client. Shortly after that client, we got another client and then another.

This went on for a couple months and I continued developing websites for clients without applying much material and disciplines taught from my business degree. During one of the website development engagements with a client, I learned how their industry worked and the inefficiencies with how they were getting their products in front of their potential buyers. A light bulb went off and I had an idea on how to change that process with my multimedia programming capabilities and developed an interactive digital catalog solution. I had applied multimedia technology and the Internet to a traditional industry, and invented this unique way of showing their product offerings digitally and interactively.

The company liked what I pitched and had me do a presentation in front of the executive management team of the company. That same night, they invited me and my sister to dinner and asked to elevate our client relationship to a partnership. I was floored because the president of this company had acknowledged our work and believed that it would be successful. He asked how much investment I am seeking to make him a partner, and with no experience in negotiation, analyzing finances of a startup, and closing deals as a business, I threw out an arbitrary number of $150,000. By the end of the dinner the deal was done. I don’t know what I was doing, or what I’d said that closed the deal that night. All I remember was it was a huge amount of money to me at that time. Few months later, he acted as an incubator and we moved into his company from our little office in Pasadena. The company provided us their sales team since they knew the industry and could market us better than we did. All I had to do is produce the work. So, the first step was to build and launch the technology for my new partner’s own business at an industry trade-show to debut our capabilities through their presence at the show. We were a hit at the trade-show and at that moment I thought the business would take off from there. 

Few months later reality hit and I realized that they never intended to help us grow; they simply wanted to use the technology to drum up business at the trade show and didn’t want anyone that competes with them to have the same capability. When I stated that I wanted to separate from the partnership due to this reason, my sister and I were threatened. At that time, I was scared because I didn’t know what to do and definitely couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight for anything we’ve built. They eventually wanted a meeting, as an informal arbitration of sorts. Since I can’t afford my own legal representation, they had their lawyer act as the arbitrator to go over the projects we created. As you can imagine, the decisions from the lawyer were that all our creations should now belong to their company since it was created under their roof with their funding. I just said yes to everything that the lawyer said I would be giving up because I had no knowledge about the legalities of business dealings in this scenario. Not to mention I was really scared at the time that they may sue my sister and me. Just like that first dinner where in one night I’ve had the break of a lifetime to get the business off the ground; in this case pretty much overnight I had lost the dreams about what I could’ve done with my innovation. Those memories still haunt me and I still feel saddened that I had to drag my sister through that nightmare.

The predicament I was put through made me recognize that I need to know how the whole business startup process was supposed to work. What I went through with the funding, partnership and the lawyer did not feel right. They stripped me of my own innovations, and more importantly, shattered my dream to provide financial stability for the family. In my mind, that was not how the whole startup story and experience was supposed to be like. I needed to know what happened and why.

I remember searching on Yahoo and going back to my old textbooks to relearn aspects of business. I realized many of the principles from marketing, finance, business law, operations and other business disciplines from those courses I took could’ve helped me plan and prepare better for the endeavor. Most importantly, I learned after the fact that before I start anything, I needed to develop a business plan that would’ve allowed me to know if I even needed a partner or investment in the first place. 

Advice on failure:

At the time, that first business felt like a huge failure to me. However, that experience brought to light that the material taught in undergrad was useful. A lot of classes I took dealt with basic skills where applying it could’ve helped me better manage and maintain control of the venture I started. Also, my innate curiosity helped me understand the ‘why’ of many things, resulting in developing my analytical skills of how to apply the disciplines to various situations and contexts. That’s why I now believe education is important, and every course you take should give you something valuable. When I look back on my education, it wasn’t the educators’ fault that I wasn’t engaged enough to realize its importance. But a lot of times I do feel like educators miss an opportunity building connections between what is taught and what the disciplines actually mean in students’ lives. That’s why when I teach my classes, I make an attempt to relate everything to things that students can relate to in their world, surroundings, and frame of reference. As a professor, I can talk about Walmart, Amazon and Fortune 500s all day long, but students are disconnected because it doesn’t mean anything on a personal level. I want students to recognize how to apply the principles at the time they are learning it. As an educator, it is important that we set students off on the right track so they have good foundations going off to their first career. That means they can walk away from a course and start applying and practicing the skills taught on day one. From there, they can explore their own avenues of building more knowledge because they have the fundamentals that can be put into action immediately.

How it led to where I am today:

To become a better teacher, I have to keep in mind that students have to feel they can relate to the subject and/or principles I am teaching and understand how to make use of them. It is all about the ability to apply what they’ve learned immediately after graduation and not years out after a bad experience in their career.

UC Riverside Lecturer Kan Wang

One practical example I tell my students about is the time I took a speech class as a general education requirement. The one thing I remembered out of the whole course teaching was the statement, “always analyze your audience when speaking.” I’ve benefited from applying that one phrase in my whole career (and personally) ever since. I became a good facilitator, effective speaker/presenter, and a confident negotiator based on that one principle of analyzing how the audience consumes information and to prepare accordingly. In all the classes I teach, my desire is for my students to walk away with at least one principle that they can immediately practice in their own personal life. And with that, that one skill will be theirs and benefit them forever.

Watch The Brew Episode 34 featuring Kan Wang here.

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