Small Business

Finding a Financial Comfort Zone


By Sandy Oh My column's theme today is all about money -- how I put my finances in order before taking a leap into the uncertain future of starting a new business, and how I made my plans to survive for some time without income. Clarity on both is essential for any entrepreneur's survival.

In our previous lives, my partner, Fraser, and I were investment bankers fortunate enough to have accumulated a bit of cash in our piggy banks. With money comes a certain degree of freedom -- we had the ammunition to go out and try new things. Frankly, had I lacked the security of sufficient savings, I would never have found both the ability and the courage to launch our online services marketplace, Cozzee.com, and our soon-to-be-launched temporary staffing business, Cozzee Staff. Since casting off my stuffed-shirt job in the corporate world, I've also dabbled in some "alternative" gigs, such as being a small-time actor and an occasional DJ.

STASHING THE CASH. Before taking the plunge to join Fraser and set up Cozzee, I had some serious soul-searching to do. First, I asked myself a practical question: How long I could go without pay? Then I tackled a more subjective issue: Just how long would I be willing to do so? Arriving at the final answers involved a realistic awareness of my tolerance for risk, and an appraisal of my ability to endure (relative) penury and uncertainty.

For example, let's say my piggy bank has a gazillion dollars. Technically, I can spend up to that level. But am I willing to use up the entire amount, or do I want to cap the expenditure at a certain level? Am I prepared to risk being left with nothing, or do I want to limit just how deeply I can dig into my reserves?

I opted for the latter. So, first of all, I put aside a certain amount of money that I invested in the company at its inception. Next, I reserved another amount to cover my expenses for a year without pay. Finally, I also stashed another sum to serve as my backup money in a worst-case scenario: that I'm still without income if those other funds I mentioned have been totally consumed.

How did I decide the amount of cash I would need for the year in question? As I didn't want to feel like a miserable, broke student (I remember those days too well) while building the company, I put aside enough so that I can afford to pay my rent, give a little something each month to my parents, eat and drink merrily, and take a vacation somewhere where I don't necessarily have to share a dormitory space with 10 other people.

FROM CARTIER TO SWATCH. The media sometimes like to focus on ascetic entrepreneurs, the sort who survive on a diet of crumbs while getting their businesses going. That's all very romantic, and I agree that many sacrifices have to be made. However, I'm self-aware enough to know that, if I have to count my pennies before I get my next pint, it'll definitely be time to reevaluate my position. I believe that any aspiring entrepreneur has to be realistic about the sacrifices he or she is prepared to make while pursuing the goal of establishing a new business. Moreover, I'm sure this tolerance varies from person to person.

It certainly helps that I don't have very expensive tastes, especially compared to many other investment bankers with their Ferragamo shoes, Fendi handbags, diamond studs, and rings. Other than being able to eat, drink, and travel, my one weakness is for nice watches. Of course, that indulgence was the first to go when I joined Cozzee.

While I don't receive a paycheck, I have managed to score some material returns from an interesting array of diversions. There is the small sum I receive for writing this column. On other occasions, I ply my skills as a DJ -- my favorite activity -- and spin records at a friend's trendy bar, where I'm rewarded for my efforts with a steady supply of drinks for the evening.

CAGED WOMEN. Recently, my moonlighting extended to a funny stint that I would never have imagined in my days as a banker: A friend who is a TV producer invited me to do a cameo as a teenage gang member in a drama series. Finally, I managed to put the tattoos that I had done all those years ago to good use!

My first scene was set in a juvenile detention center, where one of the female leads, two extras, and I were cleaning a storeroom. The director wanted the three of us playing gang members to be dressed as aggressively as possible, wearing tops that showed off the tattoos. When the cameras rolled, the female lead complained about how some girl has been hitting on her boyfriend. With the wickedest facial expression I could summon, I offered to "take care" of him. When she declined the offer, I went on about how predictable males are, and how they have only one thing on their minds.

I won't win any Oscars for that performance, but I did succeed in keeping a straight face. For a first-time actor, one who is also terminally camera-shy, I guess I didn't mess up too much. I will be receiving a payment for my TV debut -- remuneration that I spent in advance on dinner that evening. Sandy Oh is a former investment banker who writes from Singapore, where she and her partner founded the Internet startup, Cozzee.com (www.cozzee.com). The 29-year-old Netrepreneur writes regularly about the challenges she faces building her unusual business in Asia's young, vibrant Internet scene. You can e-mail her at sandy@cozzee.com


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