The most successful entrepreneurs today - from Zuckerberg to the late Jobs - all lean towards building and breaking fast. It's twice as true in the ultracompetitive Chinese market. However, TED Fellow and Asian entrepreneur Matilda Ho has found considerable success in moving slow and steady. Speaking before her TED Talk, Ho explains how "mindful patience" enabled her to strike gold twice with Yimishiji, China's first organic market, and with her food innovation incubator Bits x Bites.
Inc.: American entrepreneurship is big on fast: Start fast, test it fast, etc. You advocate slow. What is the strategy you call "mindful patience?
Matilda Ho: Most success stories that appear to have taken off overnight take years of commitment to materialize. Mindful patience is knowing how to act when you're waiting. It is patience with intention and persistence.
In entrepreneurship, mindful patience is aggressively listening and relentlessly learning to build your capacity and arm your arsenal - to ready yourself so you know how to catch the right opportunity when it arises and can move quickly. Mindful patience is taking all of the necessary steps to position yourself for success even if this process takes time.
In the good food movement, mindful patience is a persistence to act and contribute even though you know it will be a long battle before the food system becomes truly sustainable. Food activist Wes Jackson famously said this: "If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough."
What have been the biggest advantages to taking the "mindful patience" approach?
In tackling issues as multi-layered and intertwined as food sustainability, practicing mindful patience and immersing in the issues is the only way to find meaningful solutions. And as you take the time to build up your capacity, you are also putting a higher barrier for your competition, making it harder for them to catch up.
Launching Yimishiji online farmers market, we set out with the highest sourcing standard in China, only accepting produce that is free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. That surely has taken us way longer to grow our SKUs on the platform. There is no shortcut to meet this sourcing threshold; we had to go visit farm after farm to find these hidden gems. For example, it took us a year to find chemical-free bananas and six months to find local grass-fed beef that would meet our standards.
This has allowed us to see first-hand that when you take the time to do things right, you can distance yourself from other players.
Now we are seeing our other online grocery e-commerce companies trying to reach similar customers who demand to know where their food comes from. And they don't have the sourcing mechanism and culture to achieve this quickly and effectively.
It's the same with Bits x Bites. Before we launched our accelerator program, we spent six months traveling around the world to build an international and local network of key food tech influencers to gain a deeper understanding of the global approach to food system challenges as well as best practices in running an accelerator. While we are only in the middle of our first cohort to see the full advantages of this approach, the network has already proven immensely beneficial in both growing our startup pipeline and helping our core team build its mentor network and expertise.
As you practice patience and thoughtfulness, how do you quell fears of missing opportunities by being too slow?
Practicing mindful patience is about actively listening and relentless learning so you know how to spot an opportunity and that you can act fast when you see one. And when it's time to go, you go. In that sense, I don't believe we are slow at all. In fact, we have fostered a culture that promotes a habit of rapidly learning and reiterating so we can continuously improve.
For example, in building our online farmers market, we set a goal to complete a prototype within 100 days and we did it. But the learning doesn't stop there; we're experimenting and adjusting our platform everyday. And we apply the same lean startup approach to mentoring our startups to help them rapidly build, measure, and learn to reach their next milestone within 120 days.
Obviously, critics would look at Yimishiji and question the fact that we don't grow fast enough by Chinese standards. We believe with a strong focus on continuously refining what we do and educating consumers, it will one day achieve explosive growth.
You founded China's first food-focused startup incubator. What impact do you want you and your investments to have on Chinese food culture?
Our end goal is to see more brands and businesses succeed by providing safe, nutritious, sustainable, transparent food to the mainstream population. We also seek to see more consumers make food choices based not just on price and convenience but also the impact on the environment. Technology and inspired entrepreneurs are powerful catalysts for making this a reality.
Ultimately, we hope the success of our investments will inspire a new generation of purpose-driven entrepreneurs addressing issues in- and outside the food system.
How do you decide what to invest in?
We look for startups that share our mission to shape the future of good food. Within those, we decide on the right teams based on three critical factors.
First, it's the people. We invest in founders who have a deep passion and knowledge for the problem they're tackling. Second, we look at what problems the founders seek to solve and how technology is being applied. Third, we look at whether they have a viable business model for sustainable growth.
What is the main sign of a startup's potential success?
We look through the financial lens and the strategic lens.
For seed-stage startups, we set a goal to help the teams find product market fit and refine business plan to get their first customers. For startups in the post-revenue stage, we help startups grow traction and expand their distribution channels.
In terms of strategic lens, we look for startups that can inspire and influence other startups, partners, or larger food companies to take part in the food tech space or upgrade their own offerings. For example, it was the innovative products of smaller companies that pushed large food corporations to start bringing HPP juice and craft beer into their offerings in China.
You spent several years as a magician. How has that informed your entrepreneurship? What skills of those are fueling your success now?
Mindful patience is certainly one of them.
I have also embraced a willingness to be different. Magicians are often outliers who see things that others do not. Entrepreneurs are said to be the misfits or rebels, and I have learned to welcome that mentality with open arms. I'd like to think that this willingness to be an anomaly has served me well so far.
I have also learned when and how to be stubborn and focused. Once a magician has set their sight on a goal, they very rarely get persuaded off their path. At Yimishiji, we were not willing to move our chemical-free sourcing standard, even though it took us a year to find chemical-free bananas we could sell. It took us six months to find local antibiotic- and hormone-free beef. This journey has inspired a unique culture at Yimishiji of persistence and not giving in to challenges.
Last but not least, I have seen some magician friends turn their own vulnerability into strength. Instead of hiding it from others to see, they build on their vulnerability and make something of it. From them I've learned to embrace the power of vulnerability as well. Many people consider vulnerability a weakness. Yet, vulnerability resonates with people because it connects us with others. And connection is a necessary component of effective leadership. Leaders who look perfect but courageously admit their flaws and imperfections allow them to be perfectly imperfect. As a CEO, this is the mentality I have adopted to navigate all the challenges and struggles without quitting or letting it go.