Welcome aboard! This is the first in a series of blogs posts about a journey through entrepreneurship. This month: making the leap from employee to founder.
"Welcome aboard, Mr Hui. Can I get you something to drink? Champagne, juice, water?”
I reply, “Champagne would be lovely, thanks.”
Let me introduce myself. I am Steve Hui, and I’m onboard a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore, flying in business class.
I’m the founder and chief executive of iFLYflat.com.au. I’m also known in the media as "The Points Whisperer", a term that was coined after a popular Sydney Morning Herald article.
I’m passionate about reward points and love the many powerful ways points can be used to help people and businesses travel to open new opportunities.
We are a "startup" company specialising in helping businesses to optimise their reward points from all sources, such as credit cards and frequent flyer programs, and use them effectively to fly their staff anywhere at close to zero cost. But more about that later.
We don’t fly economy
Many companies are introducing policies to restrict travel spend or to limit business class travel to specific destinations and seniority, pushing staff to fly economy more often. In contrast, in my role it is in my job description to avoid flying economy if at all possible.
How bizarre is that policy? How can a startup afford to fly business class? It is because we have worked out how it can be cheaper to fly business class than to fly economy.
Really, anyone can do the same. The secret is all in maximising reward points.
The entrepreneur's path
In this series of blog posts (I'll be publishing once per month), I wish to share with you my journey along the path of entrepreneurship.
Related: Lessons of a serial entrepreneur
Have you realised that achievement seems really easy in hindsight? It is really the daunting prospect of "how to" that blocks our brain from taking action to achieve faster.
Where I came from
I’m a kid born in Hong Kong who migrated to Sydney when I was about five years old. I grew up with my Chinese parents in Blacktown in Western Sydney. My father was a Chinese restaurant cook and my mother was a stay-at-home mum who looked after me and my sister. We drove a silver 1988 Toyota Cressida.
My education was a Bachelor of Commerce from UNSW. I then progressed to get my CPA.
My first two jobs were at a wholesale travel agency doing accounting and IT, and then accounting at a home security alarm company. I later moved to Macquarie Bank, where I worked the bulk of my awake "life" for nearly 11 years across three divisions and five buildings.
Working at Macquarie meant long hours, but it was the perfect preparation for my next challenge.
The seed for the idea was planted
The idea for iFLYflat was planted almost exactly seven years ago, when I was setting up a new team in New Delhi and was fortunate enough to fly business class for the first time. On the itinerary I glimpsed that the price of that ticket was approximately $6,800 – my eyes nearly popped out.
Seriously, who pays that much!?
Well, not me. Not then and not now.
Related: Meet the Young Business Leaders of 2014
That business class flight experience opened my eyes to a whole new world of travel. A world of exclusivity, comfort, service, freedom and space. At that point (pun intended) the seed of desire was planted.
Have you realised that achievement seems really easy in hindsight?
Imagine a dream lifestyle of being able to travel anywhere, at any time, in comfort, in business class. It wouldn’t be any issue to spend 24 hours flying anywhere on the globe, and you would probably choose to travel more often.
Asking the boss for a raise because I wanted to fly business class would have been unlikely. So I put my mind towards finding solutions to the problem – how to achieve the same results from an alternative angle.
The mind is more powerful than you realise
When you set your mind to it, it is amazing what your mind is capable of – it just starts to become tuned to finding a solution.
An example: Have you had the experience where you just bought a brand-new car, and nearly as soon as you drive it from the dealership you begin to spot your car everywhere and find it's actually quite popular. You had not noticed it before.
Laying the groundwork
I soon found myself deep in research every night after work, researching the terms and conditions of the local and overseas airline frequent flyer programs, the credit card reward programs, watching out for every promotion and working out all the maths behind points arbitrage opportunities.
I put together points strategies for myself, my family and friends, and talked to everyone about it.
After much effort, I soon found out that family and friends did not share the same obsession about points as me. It took a lot of effort to get them to participate in even simple actions to maximise their points, even though I was "walking the talk" (flying) – showing both that it could be done and that the potential to save thousands on premium travel was as simple as switching a few cards and spending in a slightly different way.
Free advice has no value
Then it occurred to me: free advice has no value. If I wanted people to take action, they needed to feel compelled enough to pay for the advice to attribute a worthwhile value to it.
In an ironic way, the more people pay, the more they will follow your advice as they seek to maximise their return.
So the journey into building a business and entrepreneurship began. That was three years ago.
At the start of the journey, I was protective of my idea. In my mind, my idea is really simple – accumulate the points in the most effective way, and use them in the most efficient way to fly up the front. But soon I realised that the idea itself makes up for 0.1 per cent of the journey; the remainder is all about the effort and style in the execution.
What is your Unique Selling Proposition?
I always think about coffee shops – think about how many coffee shops, carts, cafes, stands are all around you. Sometimes they are operating right next to each other, but they continue to exist and make money.
Why? Because each has a different operation and attracts different customers. Each has their own Unique Selling Proposition (USP). Think about why you choose a particular coffee and your friend prefers a different one.
The same USP can be applied in a corporate role. Think about what makes you different to your peers. What set of skills and attitudes to problemsolving do you bring to the company?
Building a business is hard and building a business is also easy
How did I get to meet and become the trusted person to help the managing directors of top real estate agents, the owner of hatted restaurants, millionaire business owners, models, fashion photographers, lawyers, barristers, doctors, TV presenters, dog kennel owners, video producers, SEO experts, dentists, retired couples, travel agent owners? All fly on points.
Meeting people is easy
It is really easy to meet people, anyone – everyone is inherently friendly and up for a general chit-chat. For me, it's easy because travel is a popular topic, and once we get started talking on frequent flyer points, it is hard to stop.
The key is to have the confidence to strike up a quick conversation and you will quickly get the vibe as whether they are interested. We are all curious humans, interested in learning and discovering more each day.
Don’t be afraid to approach someone for a chat, whether they are CEOs, actors, singers or the janitor – everyone has something interesting to share and you can learn from them.
I really had no idea how I got here, but I know where I need to go
Thinking back to the beginnings and the development of my career, I think,“Was I entrepreneurial? Did I have a big ambition?”
I think one attribute was when I replaced and brought my own keyboard into work, because I didn’t think the work provided one was designed very well. No one else in the 4,000-plus employee company did that.
What is it that makes you a little different to your friends and colleagues? What is your USP?
Back to my trip. I’m on my way to Singapore to speak at a travel conference about loyalty in front of 200-plus people. Three years ago my palms would have sweated and my ears would have gone super-red. Not anymore.
I’m interrupted. “Sir, would you like another glass of champagne or anything else?”
I reply, “A Campari and soda, yes, that would be perfect.”
In a stroke of reminiscence, that very first time I flew business class was on Singapore Airlines – the exact cabin and seats that I am sitting on while writing this blog.
I end with my slight amendment of my favourite quote, which is from Lao Tzu, a philosopher and poet of ancient China: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Next month: Steve Hui writes about solving a business dilemma.
Get out there and fail