From equity analyst to restaurant owner, with Vivian Wong, owner of Verde Mar, a Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong

Episode summary

Vivian shares why she swapped the ticker for tacos.

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Episode transcript

Philipp: Welcome to another episode of In Your Best Interest, your personal finance podcast. I'm your host, Philipp Muedder, and today I’m joined by Vivian. In the last 11 years, Vivian has built 2 brands and 4 restaurants. CNN named her first restaurant, Mr. Taco Truck, as the best Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong in 2010; and the Mexican Consulate even endorsed it for its authenticity. Her second restaurant, Verde Mar, is a full-service Mexican restaurant that also showcases Mexican art and lifestyle; it was featured as one of the top restaurants of flavours of Hong Kong in 2017. 

If that’s not enough, Vivian is also a professional pianist and yogi; in fact, her latest venture, YIPEE, is an online platform for the yoga community.

She’s also a business consultant to the start-up community; a pro bono consultant to various NGOs in Hong Kong; and she’s also been invited to be the mentor at the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. 

Welcome to the show Vivian; that's a huge intro.

Vivian: Thank you so much.

Philipp: Yes, it's really good to have you here today. For the audience, Vivian and I have been chatting a little bit before she came as a guest.

Vivian: Thank you for having me.

Philipp: Referral to us from our friends and Group Deputy CIO, Stephanie, [02:00] which we will have an episode with soon as well. But why is Vivian on the show? Obviously, this is super interesting. 

This background - Vivian, coming from the finance side, where most of us or myself have spent most of our lives in. But also working with some startups myself - it's always super interesting to see people's lives evolve over time, right? Before we talk about more on the topic of entrepreneurship in your case. So what was life growing up for you? Were you always interested in finance? Or did your parents get you to be interested in finance?

Vivian: It's very interesting; it's the total opposite. My whole family - they are in education. My dad is a school teacher, and now my brother is a school principal. So I'm the middle person, getting into the commercial world. I think my childhood was - actually, I was trained a lot in piano. And so my childhood was involved in music, competitions, and performance. 

And then I was told - do I want to continue this professionally and go into academia and stuff like that? And I asked myself; I spent almost my first 15-16 years just doing piano. I do want to have a taste of what it is outside piano, so I said no to my teachers. And then, I applied for college, university, like normally, and then I got into business school. And that’s how my, I guess the commercial life comes in, which is absolutely nothing in my family background whatsoever. They don't invest, they have no clue, they [04:00] can only save cash, and that's the best capital investment method in my family background. 

So I went to business school; it was really interesting how I picked finance as my focus because I had no clue what the financial news was talking about back then. That broadcasting lady talking about everything, and I was like, what is she talking about? It was like an alien language. 

So, I was like, I think that's probably more meaningful if I pick finance, at least I can then understand the news. So I just did that because of that, and that's how I started studying finance. And luckily, after graduation, I landed a job in equity research, and yes, that's how my commercial life started.

Philipp: Absolutely, that's super interesting. So when you do something for 15-16 years every day, right? Like playing the piano and then obviously having to make that decision.

You're still young, but was that your passion? Piano? Is it still a passion? Or was it something that you - hey, I did it for 15 years, I need to find something new?

Vivian: I think I liked it, and I enjoyed it. But I started to play when I was 4 years old, so it's kind of like going to school to me or eating every day. So it's really just part of my life since I remembered what it was like. And when I grew up, then I seriously thought about, OK, everyone is talking about going to academy or not, and I had a chance. 

But then I thought, what can I do? What would my life be afterwards? And I think I was pretty OK with my piano back then. I think being a musician [06:00] or a music teacher or a piano teacher, I think; I will be fine. But then how many musicians can really be a top pianist, like performing all over the world, to be honest to myself? And what do I want to do? 

I say if I wanted to - I'm the kind of person - if I wanted to do something, I wanted to commit to the highest level. So I feel that it's not that easy to be the top pianist, a well-known pianist. And then I thought maybe I want to see what's out there besides music. And that's just that. I didn't really think it through too much because I was just 16.

Philipp: Yes, I like your thought pattern there because it’s already like an analyst. So you became an analyst on the other side because you went through the decision-making process there really well. So why not?

Vivian: Yes. I had to convince myself because I got to bring this news to my teacher, which I don't think they will like that much. But they supported it at the end, and my parents too, so that was critical.

Philipp: Wow, that's good. Well then, you go work for an investment bank as an equity analyst. What was your day-to-day like? What were you covering if you had to tell people what an equity analyst does?

Vivian: Oh, I usually tell people in a simple language. When you go on news, you see people putting buy or sell calls; that's what I do. I'm the person to put that buy or sell call. So my day-to-day, I started really early. We had a morning meeting at 7am, so before 7am, I had to go in and make sure the world is OK, and I don't need to react instantly. 

So going maybe like 6-ish or something into the office, and then we go in the morning meeting, talking about what's good for the day, and then we start off. [08:00] I think equity analysts, I always think I was super lucky because I studied finance; that was probably the most related job. 

I mean, equity is everything I learned in school in that job, running those models, and other financial principles. And I felt that it was super exciting. Of course, I realised that what I learnt in school, I mean on the first day of that job, I already didn't know what to do. I can't even use a Bloomberg machine, right? 

And then my boss asked me to pull some data, and I was like, how? So the learning curve in an investment bank is obviously high because people expect a lot from you. And for such long hours, everyone wants everything instantly and perfectly. 

My boss used to tell me - being an equity analyst is kind of like a top of the supply chain to an investment call. So we analyse raw data, not too raw, and then you put into an opinion and everything. Everyone comes to you for an opinion, whether they agree or not, it doesn't matter, right? But they would like your opinion. And then this opinion will be transformed to a fund manager, and then the fund manager makes a call and then etc. till the end of the supply chain.

So for a young person like me being first out of college, I felt it was quite important. Like people actually asking me for advice, and of course, it can be really frightening sometimes. And I started in a small-cap team, looking over Hong Kong stocks. 

So I ended up finding it an extremely valuable experience to my entrepreneurial journey, I think I would come back to that. And I think a bit after that. I went on to be in the oils and petrochem team, [10:00] covering all the majors Beijing big guys mainly. 

And my boss was the Asia-Pacific oil guy, so I do a lot of the oil guys and other Asian companies as well to assist him. So why I say a small-cap team is so valuable to my entrepreneur's journey, because that sets my tone of, there's no set of knowledge like expertise in a certain industry. 

Every company we decide to launch can be totally unrelated. Today is a toy company; tomorrow's a retail, textile, consumer products. So it's very interesting because you get to see so many things. And that's also why people ask me, how come you can just quit your job and open a restaurant?

Philipp: That was my next question, right? Because obviously, not many, if you have that experience in an investment bank as an analyst, right? You're kind of set for your path, right? So you go like a director, hopefully managing director kind of like the path down that line. And obviously, the pay is really good as well.

Vivian: Yes, for a young person.

Philipp: So how do you make that decision against the grain, as you did already with your piano career track?

Vivian: I would say it's a little bit more difficult than the piano because it involved money. But then, I think, as I said, I'm not afraid of changing, I think this is one of the things. Maybe changing from piano to finance is one change already. So I was like, it's OK to change. 

And I think one of the most important things that influenced me over my years in equity analysis was being an equity analyst; [12:00] we talked to a CFO or even a CEO for a listed company. So I was asking about his company, tell me about his company, the numbers, the prospect, what are they going to do, right? 

And then I go home, and I put the buy or sell call. So I felt like that guy who is running his own business or being in the expertise for like 20-30 years or even more to land a CFO job, or a CEO job, or even is the founder of the company. 

But then, it's me out of college; I'm 20-ish something, that I'm saying this is not a good company, I think you should sell. So I felt that I was not, I'm not qualified, maybe that's the word. I felt that - who am I to tell people this is not the company to buy or  to sell? Or whatever. So that was the operational experience that's lacking in my equity analyst job, and I think this is one of the main reasons that I decided to be an entrepreneur because I wanted to see if I can create something before I criticise someone else.

Philipp: I think this is a very important point, right? Because I think not many people actually think about it that way in that business. Because you are actually making assumptions based on numbers sometimes or based on some kind of higher-level data that you have. But there are obviously people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into that business that you are now telling people to maybe sell the stock on or something, right?

Vivian: Yes.

Philipp: So it's very conflicting.

Vivian: It's very conflicting. And maybe it's also because, as I said, my family background. I had zero exposure in finance, so I think I'm more able to feel something with the whole scheme, not just because finance is one part of the business, right? So maybe that's how I feel I was lacking. I was like, OK, I wanted to do something, I wanted to create something. And the next question is - when? [14:00] So basically, when to quit the job and start doing it. 

And that I think it was in my head for almost a year before I actually quit. Because of course, what you just said about the money, the salary and the bonus, flying in business class, corporate cards and everything. I mean, I know I'm going to lose all that at the moment.

Philipp: You're kind of hooked on that lifestyle, right? So I think that's the hard part where people always, and that's why I always tell people, hey, if you want to do it, do it on the side first, right? If you don't want to take it. But then the other option would be to just cut off the boat when you get to the island, and there's no return, right? That's the other way. Probably better in the end, but harder to do, right?

Vivian: I'm definitely the person who thinks; as I said, I committed; I wanted to be successful. And I think if I do it half-heartedly, it's hard. But having said that, it's impossible to do a side job with an equity analyst job.

Philipp: Exactly.

Vivian: Yes, so that's probably not on the table for me back then. So I thought about it, and then I think there was a catalyst; the catalyst was the Lehman brother's incident. And all of a sudden, everyone knows what happened in the financial world, turning upside down. I thought maybe it's also time for me to make a change, and I just did it, that's all. I didn't try to think too much.

Philipp: And then we can go into what the business is that you went into from there, right? But what was, so you quit your job, and immediately you already had a business plan in the back of your pocket? Or what was the process of getting to that first business?

Vivian: I did have a vague idea because I got this idea of creating something, as I said already, almost a year in my head. So before I quit, I should at least know what to do [16:00] instead of having no plan. And as part of an equity analyst’s training, the best thing we can do is to write reports, to do a business plan; that's what we were trained for. 

So that part is actually quite natural for me. So I think about a lot of things, and eventually, it was actually my boyfriend back then, which is now my husband. He said, why don't you do a Mexican as a career, and we can get some tacos? And I was like, are you crazy? I was actually saying, are you crazy? And it's impossible, right? How do I see myself running a restaurant? 

I like to eat a lot; I cook sometimes. But I definitely don't see myself running a restaurant. So I shut him off, and I was like no, and then I went back to another few ideas. But then, when I do the business plan, as I said I was a bit good at, I can't figure out how to make money in all other ideas. 

And only with this restaurant model is it easy to figure out how to make money and then say, OK, you won't really have bad debt because everyone pays you on time. And you get to pay your suppliers later because of the credit terms and stuff. 

So I was like, maybe his idea wasn't too crazy. And I started to investigate that, and I like Mexican food myself, a lot as well, and back then, there's probably almost none in Hong Kong with authentic Mexican food. 

So I thought that's pretty niche. So I thought that's one thing, maybe I'm good at comforting myself, so I thought. OK, it's so new in Hong Kong, so if I don't cook it right, no one knows. Because they’ve never really eaten or knew what real Mexican food is. [18:00] So I got some time to learn and catch up. Of course, it didn't, because a Mexican came into my door when I opened it, and I was freaking out.

Philipp: Because they were looking for their own food, right?

Vivian: Yes. I didn't think about that. But then I just do that, and yes. But maybe because it's a bit like how I just told my piano teacher, I'm not going to academy; I'm going to do something else. 

Maybe it is the same thing; yes, I'm not going to continue this finance-banking journey. I think I'm dying to create something on my own. And of course, when I make decisions like that, I don't really think this is a big decision, but this is not the end-of-the-world decision. I thought if it doesn't work, it's OK. I get to eat 6 months to 7 months of tacos, and I try to get another job in finance. Maybe not the same job, but I would figure it out. I'm that kind of person.

Philipp: I mean, that's what it takes to also be an entrepreneur, right?

Vivian: It is absolutely.

Philipp: If you just worry about a Plan B or if something goes wrong, then you focus on what's wrong.

Vivian: You never really start your first step; that's true.

Philipp: Yes. I think that's really good advice for everyone out there that wants to follow in your footsteps there, right? And before we get any further and, like, see what happened after, that is, how did you at that point manage your finances, your personal finances, right? 

So you've been an equity analyst, you learned more about finance, probably started investing or saving money from that job, right? But now you're being an entrepreneur, right? So yes, you need start-up money for this, right? You might not have any income for a certain amount of month, so how did you set yourself up to be able to do that from a financial standpoint?

Vivian: I think I was pretty lucky that a couple of years before the Lehman Brothers hit us, it was a good year. So yes salary was good, bonus was good. [20:00] I'm not a big spender, to begin with, so I did save up some money. 

In those few years, I invested in a few stocks. But it's not that easy because we have to apply for compliance and stuff. So it's mostly just a big blue chip that just sits there and waits for it. Because you don't get to do instant things anyway. So not much; it's basically just putting it in a few big blue chips, which is boring.

Philipp: Yes. And then from a cash flow perspective, by starting your business, right? Kind of, did you have a set amount of savings on the side that you know you can draw on? Or did you have an investor immediately to help you start the business?

Vivian: So I did my projections, how much capital I need, how far I can get, the best scenario, how far I can get my money back and stuff like that. And I forked out an X amount of money I need, and luckily that was within my capacity. 

So at my first restaurant, I partnered with a friend from university. So it was not really that I needed the money, but it's more about I need a person to do this together. It's just quite frightening what I'm going to do, so I just got a friend. 

Why don't we do this together and I feel better? And so this just is. So my first project was actually quite small, it's called Mr. Taco Truck, so literally, it's like a snack shop. I wrapped the kitchen like a truck. So the concept was if you are in Mexico or in a lot of places outside Hong Kong, Hong Kong definitely not. But you will see food trucks everywhere. [22:00] And food trucks mean things that are fast but tasty and affordable. That's exactly what I was trying to do. 

So I was selling simple stuff like tacos, quesadillas, stuff that I thought was easy to make. And the investment can keep it a bit lower because I don't have so many things, and I don't need a dining hall, I don't need to hire a lot of servers, because it was more like a fast-food model, right? 

So my approach was one step at a time. I think OK, I got to figure out what it is like to run, to prepare those foods. So more like a Mr. Taco Truck would be kitchen-focused for me, OK. So I actually spent 2 years cooking myself in the kitchen and preparing everything, and that was definitely the toughest time in my life. 

I thought being an equity analyst is tough because I have times when it's reporting season; we worked till 2am to 3am, and then 6am, I'm back in the office, right? And that happens twice or four times a year, so it's pretty often, actually. And so I thought it's fine when I started to tell my family and friends that I wanted to open a restaurant, they all said, are you crazy? It's so difficult.

Philipp: Yes, that's what I always just hear. I'm not involved in the F&B restaurant business, but that's what I always hear, right?

Vivian: Yes. It's so tiring, I mean especially Asian people, they would say you're working in the office with aircon, why are you doing all this? The Asian mindset comes in. And I was like my job was actually quite tiring. 

I thought it couldn't be more tiring than that because I basically didn't really have time to do anything else back then, [24:00] so I thought I should be fine. It wasn't an easy job anyway, so I thought I could. So I could, but then now when people come to me and say, oh, I want to open a cafe, I really like doing my own thing, and I was like are you sure? It's really hard.

Philipp: Now you are the one saying that after the experience.

Vivian: Yes.

Philipp: But did you feel you're more passionate about this than being an equity analyst?

Vivian: I think so. I think I'm passionate about building something on my own, not necessarily a restaurant.

Philipp: Just the process of building a business.

Vivian: Yes. I picked a restaurant, so I got to commit through and do that. Everyone says it's so hard to manage a chef, and they are right. So I was like, I need to know what it is like to be in the kitchen, and that's how I started to do everything on my own in the kitchen and learn my way through. 

So I think it was good because I started to understand what it is really like in this business. It's not just flicking some numbers, obviously. I always say running a restaurant - it's actually pretty much an art, an art of the chef.

Philipp: Yes, for sure. But I'm being blunt here, but like you obviously started the taco truck, right? And from there on, did you grow the business more? Because I'm assuming coming from a financial background, and you said you were crunching numbers at the beginning and having a business plan done, right?

Vivian: Yes.

Philipp: Did you scale this up to multiple taco trucks? Or what was the journey for you?

Vivian: I was lucky. I think my first venture, the small little truck, was, from the first day, it was [26:00] operational break-even. I think it's really because I did my homework right, which I've talked about, the business plan. And so it was an instant success, and of course, I was so happy about it, and within a year, I got all my investment back. And I was like, I’ve got to open more, right? There's so much demand. 

And back then, it was 2012, and Hong Kong rent was starting to be crazy. So I was in a time that I thought if I don't do it quickly, I will miss it because I won't be able to afford the rent. So I made a quick decision, we just went out and then we rented the spot in Central near Lan Kwai Fong. So I thought that was where the action was, right? A lot of people in that neighbourhood. 

So I just jumped in and rented that shop, and it proved to be the biggest mistake in all my entrepreneurial journey because I rushed. But I guess it was a valuable lesson. There are a few things that I quickly point to why it was a mistake. 

First, the location was a bit on the far end of that alley, so there was only one-way traffic. And then the store was quite deep and narrow, which now I learned is really bad for any retail business. And the third thing is I didn't realise that they don't really have space for me to hang more air conditioners and compressors outside the wall. 

Because before it was an office, and I took it up, and I opened a restaurant. And then, in a hot summer in Hong Kong, I'm not able to have enough aircon in the kitchen. And you're basically telling people not to come, right? 

So all these mistakes, of course, I didn't realise in the first time, it was all these years, and that's [28:00] how I realised, but that makes me, I learned so much. I was still lucky, because well, I rented it anyway, so I need to continue to do what I do. 

People still love the food; I'm very thankful. It was more like an operational or a business mistake that just hindered the potential of a business, which on that part, I'm trying to fix. I think the number one thing I cannot fix is really that aircon thing. And I put a lot of aircon style fans in the dining hall, but it's not the same. I'm sure everyone knows it is not the same. 

But then interestingly, I still remember because it’s not just I don't have enough aircon in the middle of the hot summer because the sun will shine directly on the compressor, it will overheat and stop. So in the middle of the hot summer and lunchtime, my aircon will stop working when I have, like all the customers sitting and then they were sweating. And I comfort myself, thank God I'm selling Mexican food, it's supposed to be hot.

Philipp: That's very true; it's part of the experience.

Vivian: Yes. So I fought through that, and eventually, things got better; I'm trying to start to understand what running a business is about. Because I mentioned my first adventure, it was an instant success. But to be honest, I didn't know why. I thought people loved the food, that's all. But yes, people liked the food, but running a business is far more than just that. So does this give me a really good lesson and experience about what it is to run a business, especially when you're going into tough times? 

But then good times don't last too long; then it started to get into the Yellow Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, exactly in Central. [30:00] So everything stopped in Central, and I was like, oh OK, this is a risk that I used to write about in my initiation report, political risk, and that’s exactly what's happened, so OK. 

After that, our business really, that one was not really that good, because I think it's really the neighbourhood thing. So when the lease was up in that Central area, I decided to move, and then I moved to my third location in Wan Chai. And that time, I started to tour the new idea. Instead of Mr. Taco Truck, I wanted to try a food experience because I mentioned that I did truck because I didn't know anything about restaurants. So I wanted to keep it simple.

Philipp: It was a good entry point, a lower barrier of entry into the business with less risk.

Vivian: Yes. And when I don't have the expertise skills of the industry. And when I'm running the second restaurant, I actually had a new partner; he is a Mexican chef. So that was oh my God, that was a wonderful decision because I don't need to cook every day anymore. 

And of course, he came in, and everything was so easy for him. And I think after six, seven months, then he started to tell me I'm really bored of cooking fast food, can I do something else? I was like, of course, you do something else. 

And when he cooked different dishes, and then the customer started ordering, they all enjoyed it, and I can see the potential of running a full restaurant. And now I have a chef, and he can obviously manage all this kitchen experience and operation. 

And I started to learn that my Mr. Taco Truck brand name doesn't match with a full restaurant setting - people don't expect to come in and have a full restaurant. So this is exactly, OK, when I launched my third restaurant, I wanted to fix all that. [32:00] I want to find a shop that is super wide and not deep, and I have enough space to hang as many aircons that I can, and somewhere that is more convenient and easy to get around. So I made a proposal to my real estate agent; I told him that I need a shop in Wan Chai.

Which in Wan Chai is a mix of east and west, but it's basically more catered to the west - is just maybe three, four blocks. The rest, if you pass that block, is very Chinese, so I only have that three, four blocks. 

So I gave him a list of what I want. I want somewhere which is a really wide shop etc., and he basically said what you want doesn't exist. Because it's an old district, and I mean they don't have this, which he is right. Because this old building, they don't really have those wide storefronts; they all are standalone small deep narrow storefronts. 

So I said to him, it's OK, if you don't have it, then I'm not going to open it. I make it really firm with; I only open when I feel that I'm fine. 

Because I rushed in my second one, and I was having such a hard time. And I talked to a couple of agents; no one came back with anything. And another agent came back to me, and then he took me to other places, which totally was not related, and I thought he's wasting my time. 

And then all of a sudden, when I was like, oh maybe, it's just not a good idea finding one in Wan Chai, maybe I should think of something else. And then he called me; he said a pizza shop just left, and that shop exactly fits what you want. 

Oh, I even gave him the number of seats I wanted, so I needed a certain size. And he said it's exactly, this exactly meets what you want, and I couldn't believe it, I was like really? And he said yes. 

And then he asked me to go there. I went there with me and my chef. [34:00] We went there, and we were outside. We were like, yes, this is it. It fits exactly, so how does it do that? Because it was 2 narrow shops combined together, that's why there's a wide storefront. 

And that was so unique in the neighbourhood, and then within 2 hours we signed a cheque and rented the shop. And then we started to, we still had a bit of time overlapping with the two shops, but then, more or less, I wanted to focus on this new model. 

And I think it's also more fun to me just running Mr. Taco Truck for a few years. And I think it's more like progress for myself as an entrepreneur, so I want to do something new, so I started to relocate all the resources in this location. I started to build it like a restaurateur. 

Like not fast food or someone who's just trying to learn what it is or running my own business. I am super thankful that shop proved to be; it fixed all my mistakes. And I did what I wanted to do, and I think the chef also loved the idea that he can cook far beyond just fast food. 

People come in, I can see are they coming for a wonderful Mexican dining experience. What I learned about food all over a year, that at first, I thought I just needed to cook some good food, right? Of course, after so many, it's actually never just about the food; I would say that was a prerequisite. 

But it was so much more, it was more like an experience that you are delivering to your customer, and we had a Mexican experience, and it was good. So I thought that was it, I made it,  restaurant journey – good - check - and as someone who was passionate about building something, not necessarily a restaurant. 

I wanted to move on doing something new; there was the yoga platform coming in to my new, or something I want to start, a new journey. [36:00] So I thought, OK, that if the Wan Chai shop can continue to run and operate everything will be fine. Which it was until, of course, COVID hits.

Philipp: Yes. I was going to ask you, actually, and I think this is throughout your journey that you've been explaining today and sharing with us. You need a lot of resilience too, right? Because there are things that get thrown into your path, that you don't expect or you can't really, not even model for even as an analyst.

Vivian: Exactly.

Philipp: Obviously, COVID is a big one. It's affecting all of us now for a year and a half by the time we're recording this in June of 21. And for restaurants, I assume this was a lot of pivoting, or I don't know how you dealt with it.

Vivian: Yes. I think for us in Hong Kong, our tough times started before COVID; it was a moment of political unrest in Hong Kong, the issues. So my restaurant was located in the middle of the protest route, so every weekend, we got some tear gas coming in and stuff like that.

So we didn't really start doing business; I still remember June 2019, one week before the first protests coming in, I talked to my husband. When I was watching the news, I was like, it feels like the Yellow Umbrella movement. I just feel it when people start talking about what it is in the news, and the people get more and more angry. 

I felt like, oh, I felt like it was coming like that. And then he was like, no, it's just a couple of protests, it is fine. And of course, it turned out, I was right. [38:00] So I was actually able to predict it even before it started. 

I think it was what it called experience coming in; it's definitely, yes. Now I make what experience it is, it’s called pattern recognition. So I just recognise what it was like back then in Central, and now it's going to happen. 

So for us, the tough times started a little bit early, and then when it's finally coming to die down a little bit, and then COVID started to hit. I still remember the first day COVID hit; it was in January in Hong Kong, the first case in January. 

And I think my business started dropping 90%, yes. Really ninety, 9-0%. And everything came so fast, and again I talked to myself, oh, that was my natural disaster risk, and political risk that I used to write on the reports, which we never thought was going to happen, but it happened now. 

So I can't really blame myself because when we write those reports, you can't blame anyone because they told you about this risk, right? So I'm trying to keep my costs down and cut whatever that I can cut in terms of part-timers or ingredients - stuff like that. 

And I basically just kept my head down and tried to pass through that. And I guess one thing at the top this time, of course, we're not able to open for dinner. They tried to close the lunch, but it didn't work because in Hong Kong still a lot of people have to go to work. So eventually, we still have a little bit of lunchtime.

Philipp: Did you also get into the delivery space?

Vivian: There was a delivery platform before, so I've already joined those delivery platforms. [40:00] So I was basically just continuing on that front. But honestly speaking, it's not like you put everything in a box and you are a delivery company. People don't remember you when they want to order delivery at home, because they think you are a sit-down restaurant.

Philipp: Correct, yes. So that switch for the customer is pretty difficult to make.

Vivian: So, of course, I can just pack everything in the box, and I'm a takeaway restaurant, but in reality, it's not. So it was tough, and I think the toughest time is; I actually thought about whether I should just cut the lease today or continue the lease and hoping that things will be returned, and then we can get our deposit back. 

Eventually, we decided to stay on and see what happens. But then, when we talk about the new lease, the landlord is not willing to reduce a penny, so that was super tough. I still remember it was in the middle of the peak of one wave, a lot of waves in Hong Kong. 

And we were not able to open for dinner, and I was negotiating with him on the rent, in the forward terms when things would be better. So I have zero bases to make this decision. I go for all my P&L, all my statements, what number should I plug into that rent, then I can make my numbers right, I don't know? 

And it was almost like I just made a number, and I hope it will work, it's really like that. And he wants this number, I said no, and there was this number, and eventually, we couldn't make an agreement, and I knew he was serious about not reducing the rent. 

And I still remember, I went back to the restaurant, I sat there, and I looked at everything, it was like I built all this, right? [42:00] I enjoyed the ride, I liked it, but I didn't really see it coming, just that it's not really my fault; I would say, right, it's a natural disaster risk. 

But I guess it's no point to blame anyone, so I honestly gave myself two, three hours because I didn't have time honestly. Because he's rushing me for a decision, yes. And I need to make the decision after that; I have a lot to prepare and stuff. 

So I gave myself two hours to be upset and think it through. I don't have a plan to reopen whatever, it was in the peak of COVID, I thought, OK, maybe this is it. But maybe it's OK, I told myself because I did that, it was an experience, it was always with me. Of course, it was like I felt like a pity, but maybe it's OK, I kept telling myself, and then after 2 hours, I was like OK, no time to get upset, I just have to start working. 

And I returned the call to that landlord. I said, then I'm not signing; we are not signing the lease. Then we talked about the dates, the closing dates and stuff like that. And everything happened so fast, and I got to tell my staff, I got to tell all the customers, and then we're closing. 

And interestingly, it's interesting what entrepreneurship is, is now I know, it’s how to manage uncertainty as part of your daily life. You can't really plan anything; you can't have a blueprint like a framework. But the details, you just have to go with the flow and react quickly; it's just really that. 

When I first said that I opened this Wan Chai shop, [44:00] everyone in the property business says my requirement does not exist, and then I got the shop. And I still felt it was impossible; I still felt unbelievable after three, four years in that location, I feel unbelievable. 

And the day that I handed over the keys to the landlord, he has been good to me all these years, so we are still friends. So I tell him honestly, this is still a very good shop. Because I know the moment that I say no, someone will take it, it's how it is in the business world, someone always has money, right? 

So this is not mine anymore. Something that I thought was my dream; it's not mine anymore. And I have to be OK with that. And eventually, it was like that and then telling all the customers that we had to close in a rush, and yes, pass the keys back to the landlord. 

And that was a huge lesson that whole year; we thought in Hong Kong, everyone thought those protest days were the darkest. Oh, it was so much easier compared to the COVID time. I mean, I still remember when I said, oh, next month will be better, next month will be better, then I stop thinking because it's not going to be better. So better just not thinking about it, yes. 

So that was how I wrapped up my third restaurant. But I guess quickly I go through another thing, everything happens for a good reason. I'm a person who believes that to be an entrepreneur, a few criteria you need to have, and one of the criteria is you just have to be in faith. 

Having a positivity in life, that things will be better; else, your life will be so miserable, as I said. We talk about uncertainties in our daily life, right? When you can't be comfortable dealing with concern, no one will be [46:00] comfortable; honestly, I don't think so. 

It's just a matter of fine, whether you can manage the stress or not. So when we talked about  having to close, and then one of the customers came to us, he actually talked to the chef. He was like, oh, he is an old guy, Chinese guy. He said, why? Because I really like the food, I've been eating here for two, three years. My office is nearby. 

And then the chef told him what happened, and I was like, oh, and then I started to talk for like almost 2 hours, I heard. I wasn't in the shop back then. And then that old guy took up his iPhone and passed the chef; this is my location in Sai Ying Pun. Do you want to take a look? 

I mean, it's nothing - like Sai Ying Pun is a much quieter area compared to Wan Chai - but it's nothing like that, but you just take a look? If it's just OK, then you take it; if it's not OK, that's also fine. 

And I still remember the chef probably told me 2 days after because we were in the midst of closing. We don't really have time, let alone open another business in the midst of COVID; it sounded like the stupidest thing to do, so we didn't really act on that. And he told me this, and I was like, really? Oh, OK. 

And then after 2 weeks, I said, did you say someone showed you a shop or something? And he said yes. And then he found out this number, and I called. Because I think we should at least reply, like a courtesy to someone who offered this. 

And then yes, and then it's very nice, and then they sent me some pictures, the pictures look right, and we were like OK, maybe we can go take a look. And we take a look, maybe another 2 weeks later, because we are not in the mood of opening a restaurant, right? 

So I was stalling a bit. I was there, and the shop was perfect. The inside has a high ceiling, very unique, [48:00] and they have a lot of daylight; they even have a terrace. So I was standing inside, everything was so good, except it's empty. 

Someone to run a restaurant when it's empty, it means a lot of money that I have to put in before I can make it into a restaurant. So in the middle of the peak of COVID, when everything is closed, we were like it's nice, but I think we should think about it. 

And then until the landlord calls us are you going to show interest or not? Because if not, then it's OK - I just - maybe we just rent to somebody else and stuff. So it's kind of like a deadline for us. So me and the chef talk about it and then think about the finance, how much money they put in all this kind of stuff.

Philipp: That's actually my question; how do you manage the risk then, right? Because already, like significant parts of your wealth, I assume for the businesses you own, right? So at what point then? How did you manage that risk?

Vivian: I was super tight in controlling cost. I'm that kind of person who runs a business.

Philipp: Which I think is very important in any kind of business. But a lot of times, entrepreneurs are visionary, they love to sell, they love their product, they're actually passionate about that. But then they're lacking the financial skills, so maybe that's where your background comes in a lot, right?

Vivian: Yes, I'm super strict. And I don't like to take on debt, so I don't really have debt. Because I have some investors, so I'd rather take investor money than debt. And I think that proved to be extremely important.

Philipp: That's a good lesson for anyone listening, right? Starting a business.

Vivian: Yes, because a lot of people will say, why don't you go to the bank and ask for money? Yes, all the interest rates, low and stuff. But I don't want to take that risk because [50:00] being an entrepreneur is stressful enough alone. If you have to think about owning other people's money while you are not generating any money, think about this scenario in your life.

You don't have a regular paycheck, and you have this big loan that you might owe another person. It's not impossible; a lot of people take loans, but I don't because I don't want that extra stress for myself. 

So that's my way, that's my style in entrepreneurship, my journey, but yes. And I stick to that. So it proved to be extremely wise during COVID because of the super tight control, it's cost control, and I don't have that. And we have capital reserves, so it has been eating up our reserve, but we still have a bit of money in terms of the company, because it's just tight, there's no shortcut, it's just tight cost control basically.

And then so we still have money, we still have enough money. Of course, I have to go to all the investors and convince them that, hey, we’re in the middle of the COVID, you want to open another restaurant? That's basically what I was doing, right? 

But thankfully, they trust me and my chef a lot because I guess they saw how we were able to manage that; even through COVID, we still have money to invest in another project. And they were like, it's fine, just do it. So we got the green light, and then I still haven't called the landlord, because I need to tell myself: Why am I doing this? Just ask a question, like: How are you going to get around to open this in the middle of the toughest time in our human life probably? 

I was like, yes, I don't know why, and just if I do this, I don't think I would get my money quickly, and then why am I doing this? I am an entrepreneur. I'm a business owner. What do we do? [52:00] good teamThen I went through a lot of things in my head, and then I realised one thing: Being an entrepreneur, I think money is one part. But the sense of why you're doing this in terms of mission maybe is even more important. 

When we started to talk about the closing for the customers, a lot of customers came to us and said thank you, and that they really liked the food, they enjoyed it, they wished we could open again somewhere. 

So people normally won't really tell you a lot of this, but then they come to us; it was super touching. And then we feel like, I feel like it, or maybe I did create something that has value. Remember my first mission of running a business, I wanted to create something, and then he thanked me for that, and I was like maybe, I did that, I did touch some people's heart in that sense. 

And then talking with the chef, chef wanted to continue, I think that's what he does, he loves cooking. And then talking to the team; the team said, we want to continue. So I have the shop, I have the team, I have the chef, and I think I still have some customers. 

So basically, just looking at myself to say yes, and I looked at the bank account, and I was like, whoa, why? And then I realised, I like what I do, in terms of creating something meaningful to others, which in a restaurant is delivering good food, good experience and then being, well I like the food myself too, to begin with, that's how I started because I thought I could eat. 

And I was, OK, I can eat, some people can eat, people who like my food can eat, I can eat. And my staff, who I spend so much time building up this, is another, well it's another journey, another story to talk about. It's really hard to get staff, and I got that. I got a good team; I got everything. [54:00]yoga  

And then I started to ask, maybe it's not just for money; money is an important part. But sometimes, when we do something, it's more like - follow - or you can't follow your heart - like deep down ask yourself, why you do it? What makes you want to do this? And for us, I think we just want to continue to prepare good food for people who like the food. When I get this clear, the answer is easy; it's a quick yes then.

Philipp: You have to do it. And I know we're running against the time here, right? I know we could talk a lot more about all kinds of other things. But when we leave the audience now with something, I think pursuing or bringing happiness to people and also being passionate about it are some of the key themes we touched on. 

But are there any final thoughts or for people wanting to venture out on their own or going into the F&B business that you would give them along the way and to help them out?

Vivian: I think one thing that I was touched about was, what deep down you want to do with your life. Earlier, you mentioned, I'm doing this new yoga app platform, which is one thing I wanted to do because I'm a yogi. I like practising yoga; I think that helps me to deal with my stress being an entrepreneur. 

And I actually just wanted to share that joy to so many other people. So it's become a social mission to me that I wanted to spread yoga because yoga brings me, as I said, it de-stresses, so it brings me peace and happiness. 

So I wanted to tell people, you know what? You should start your journey to find your own happiness. [56:00] And in that sense, yoga can help you; you can start doing some yoga, maybe, you can find yours. And honestly, you can do anything; you can run, you can play golf, whatever. 

But then you can start your happiness journey now, and that is exactly just what I did in the past 10 years. Why did I quit my job and start this food truck? And why do I finally leave this COVID mess and decide to do this again? It’s not just for money, honestly. 

For money, I should stay in the bank and do that job, honestly. But other than that, I think it's about how I feel happier. And when you feel happier, you have passion. When you have passion in what you do, you have the mind to fight anything. You just have to make it work then you figure it out. So being an entrepreneur is a lonely battle; you're just doing it by yourself, but it's super rewarding. 

And a tiny bit that I want to touch. Actually, recently I was reading a book about trading, and that guy talked about the mindset to be a good trader. Interestingly, I found it exactly the same as being an entrepreneur. You have to be disciplined, don't put your emotions before. 

You have to understand why you are doing this, don't chase. And then, don't be afraid to make mistakes. But of course, your mistakes will be manageable. If you put it in a financial sense when you're doing investment, it's exactly the same thing in an entrepreneur’s journey. So I think it's applied to everything in our life. [58:00]

Philipp: Yes. Those are great final words. I think it's a good thing to give to people to start out because you've been through the journey, and yes, going through it.

Vivian: Yes, don't give up.

Philipp: It's not a straight line all the time.

Vivian: No, it's not.

Philipp: Exactly. And there's always going to be some ways that you can manage the risk, but sometimes you just also cannot, right? And then you have to account for that and stay in the game if you're really passionate.

Vivian: Stay positive, open your mind and just don't give up.

Philipp: Don't give up; that's awesome. Thank you so much.

Vivian: Thank you so much.

Philipp: Yes, I really appreciate speaking with you.

Vivian: Thank you so much for having me.

Episode notes

In this episode, Vivian Wong joins Philipp to share why she started a Mexican food truck in Hong Kong and the challenges she faced during Occupy Central in 2014 and  COVID-19 in 2020 as the owner of an F&B establishment.

For past guests, visit stashaway.com/podcast

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Episode contributors

  • Philipp Muedder (Head of Financial Planning at StashAway)
  • Vivian Wong (Owner of Verde Mar)