Mind blowing stuff about “ghosts”, “unicorns” and missing investors
A lot of people wonder what it is like to be an entrepreneur in China, especially as a female foreigner without external investment or any other financial support, promoting environmental psychology, a field that very few people have heard of.
If the sentence feels like describing a “unicorn”, that’s because it is!
But the unicorn exists and it’s (still) kicking!
I will start by giving some background about this unicorn.
I founded Qingdao QiuTianMei Cultural Consultancy Co. Ltd., or "Tianmei's World" in short, as the first Environmental Psychology (EP) consultancy firm in China studying different environments as context of behavior.
Through all the projects that the company undertakes, it takes into account both the physical environments (interior/exterior design), as well as the social ones (human interaction design) with the aim to help individuals and companies create better learning and working environments.
The focus is to maximize individual potential, while enhancing cooperation, productivity, levels of well-being.
At the same time, the company also deals with behavior change through environmental design.
All the projects are materialized through the work done within “Tianmei’s World” Academy (TMWA), a decentralized “network of classrooms” cross-cultural educational platform, using environmental psychology knowledge with the aim to redefine where and how learning happens, while promoting diversity and inclusion.
By understanding what are the elements that combine to create a nurturing learning environment, Tianmei's World Academy is able to turn any available space (e.g. coffee shops, offices etc.) into an alternative learning environment.
By experiencing the different learning environments that the academy creates, individuals can better understand what kind of learning environments and methods are most suitable for their own learning and self-development needs, apply them in their daily lives and maximize their individual potential against the “one-size-fits-all” mindset.
The platform brings high quality learning opportunities to where the learner is, while helping them better understand Environmental Psychology principles so as to become the proactive designers of their own lives.
It does so by decentralizing the idea of a physical school and creating a “network of classrooms" (e.g. co-working spaces, restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, public spaces etc.) spread around the city where the company was founded, and soon, hopefully, around the whole world!
From a business point of view, what the company essentially aims to create is a “platform ecosystem” (Reillier & Reillier, 2017) in which multiple services dedicated to different target users complement each other and create a new system.
The advantage is that it brings together different people from different backgrounds promoting cross-functional and -operational communication, while solving dedicated problems that each target group faces.
How did it all start?
The idea was shaped throughout time, following some of the systemic problems I’ve encountered along my own journey.
I’ve spent more than 10 frustrating years on the road to self-discovery, changing many jobs in different fields ranging from architectural design to sales and marketing.
One of the things I realized along the way is that very often we talk about the same concepts across industries, but we use a lot of industry specific jargon, thus creating the illusion of differences and increasing the risk of misunderstandings or even conflict.
This happens even more so when we believe that our understanding of the language is the same.
Unfortunately, we rarely express the actual meaning that we attribute to the words we use, meaning dictated by our past experiences and the environments in which we grew up.
Past experiences also affect the perceptions that we have about right or wrong, a very subjective issue depending on where you are coming from.
Yet all of these aspects are the unseen components of communication that often lead to misunderstandings or on a bigger scale even to racism and war.
I came to the conclusion that this problem was created during the industrialist era when everybody had to fit under certain patterns in order to increase productivity and efficiency.
As such, both the economical and educational systems ended up targeting the majority, ignoring individual needs.
In other words, with the unidirectional approach, one either fits within the system or they're considered to be the one with the problem and left behind.
This unidirectional approach focused on productivity and efficiency ignores the part each element plays in the whole, creating defective systems that are not equipped to adapt to the fast changing world in which we live today.
This model is not applicable in current society anymore.
As a consequence, through all the projects and workshops that I design and deliver, I am now on a mission to change the system and how people view education.
In the process I hope to turn the world into a big classroom, while creating better learning, working and living environments for the people and purpose these environments serve.
I start from the premise that within proper environments and with advised guidance, every person is a genius.
What this also means is that I am taking the different pieces of the system that I’ve come across in my professional and educational experience and putting them together like a puzzle in order to create what I believe to be a better functioning system/environment/(Tianmei’s) “world”.
However, even though I enjoy “playing with puzzles", this road often felt like being in "Plato’s Allegory of the Cave".
In other words, seeing a different world and trying to convince those who haven’t experienced the same thing that this world exists is extremely challenging.
It’s like convincing people who haven’t seen ghosts that ghosts do exist.
However, as someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts either, I can completely understand why many people can’t see eye to eye with me and understand what I am trying to do.
They just didn’t have the same experience as I did.
As a result, I decided to create the “ghost” and put it in front of people.
I must admit I also had some inspiration from Steve Jobs.
In my mind I always associated my product with an iPhone before release, before people really got to use it and understand what it can do for them.
Only after people started use it and understand what this phone can bring to them, people began to realize the value of Apple phones.
As far as I am concerned, what I am doing fits the same category.
The allegories that helped me reframe in my mind the challenges I was facing were a lot more: “the black swan before the majority knew it exists”, “the African unicorn”, “the world being round but with many people up to this day believing that it is flat” etc.
The underlying idea is the same, i.e. completely new ideas won't easily become mainstream.
In the end, it was just a matter of identifying my role and position in the whole system, understanding where to start and how I could create the change (aka make the “ghost” visible to others than only myself).
If I couldn’t convince others to join me because they didn’t understand what I had in mind, then there was no investment option either or partnership at a large scale.
And this is where 10 years of frustration, changing different jobs across different industries has come in extremely handy.
In order to create the “ghost”, I had to leverage my cross-disciplinary expertise, become a “one (wo)man band” and figure out along the way “how to play the music”, as building a company from scratch was something missing from my professional experience.
Not to mention that economics and finance systems were never (still aren’t) my strength.
What are some of the “instruments” (roles) I’ve had to play in my “one (wo)man band” in order to create the “ghost”?
The roles that I will describe below are not in any particular order.
In this position I planned and organized events with the aim to bring together people from different backgrounds in order to encourage cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary communication across language barriers.
I got to be involved in all stages of the planning of the event, from the content design to promoting, to the actual implementation.
The years I worked in marketing paid off here, as I had a pretty good understanding of event planning and management as a marketing tool, so it was rather easy to get everything done and further polish my skills.
Even though my photography and video editing skills aren’t top notch, but I did my best to learn as much as I could and improve bit by bit every time.
In the process I also learnt to acknowledge my limitations, accept that I will never become a professional photographer (to be fair, I didn’t see the need to do that, nor am I passionate enough about it) and go for what got the job done within the given situation.
Many people might argue that having good pictures and videos is what will attract more people to join, but my main goal was to be able to create an MVP more than anything and prove that my model works.
All in all, in the end I am pretty happy with the progress I’ve made.
I feel it is a great foundation to continue building upon.
Luckily, I feel empowered by the idea of always learning new things so in order to adapt to the local Chinese social media environment I had to learn how to edit a WeChat Account with all the software related to that, in order to post all the articles I wrote, as well as the event notifications.
In the process I’ve always kept an eye on related information and essentially learned by doing, while improving along the way.
I’ve also experienced a lot with writing and editing styles, and even though I still can’t say I’ve nailed the perfect recipe, at least I managed to define an image and a positioning that works (at least for now).
This is where my years of urban planning studies have come in handy, as I was familiar with graphic design software use.
Even though my eye was never trained to create aesthetically attractive posters, but the skills were enough to get the job done i.e. to create needed ads and additional promotional materials.
Luckily in the process I got to know about the existence of chuangkit.com (a Chinese version of canva.com) and it made my life a lot easier, having multiple ready-to-use templates to choose from.
In order to be able to build a sustainable business model and be able to grow the company in a financially viable way, I saw myself in the position to use my analytical, critical, systemic, design thinking skills to constantly prototype the services and come up with an MVP (actually more than 1 MVP) and understand how it fits into the bigger picture, as well as how it fits into the company’s overall mission.
The hardest part in this position was to hear all sorts of voices around about how I should move forward, what I should and shouldn’t do and then filter what I could use in my own situation.
Especially, since I didn’t have a previous model to guide myself on, nor the previous business experience required to figure things out in a shorter time.
In this capacity, based on all the problems that I’ve noticed along my path, I used design thinking skills to design the company’s services and products with an aim to eliminate the customers’ pains.
At the same time, I also kept an eye on receiving feedback from the customers and continuously improved the services until both I and the customers were happy with the result.
Throughout organizing events, I was able to also observe and do more research about the user experience and understand how to improve the learning environments I designed.
I was also able to see how these could be used as a tool to enhance the user experience in the different spaces that I worked with in the process.
Some of the studies that I’ve performed in this capacity were related to how interior design becomes a mediator in conflict resolution, and how stressful way-finding experiences negatively influence willingness to return to a place.
Based on these observations, I was able to provide recommendations that allowed the venues to improve their user experience, but also further prototype Tianmei's World Academy into the platform it is today.
In “Tianmei’s World” Academy, the events are considered alternative learning environments, so learning is an important element in the planning of the event.
In this capacity I designed and facilitated learning experiences, with a focus on maximizing the attendees learning outcome.
Throughout the events, I designed and guided the interactions and made sure that each participant felt comfortable and confident to participate in conversations.
The greatest achievements in this capacity were:
1 | to hear people who, before attending the events, perceived themselves as introverts say that they don’t know what happened to them that they couldn’t stop talking during the event and
2 | to see people interacting and networking even after the event had finished, not wanting to go back home.
So I am actually very proud of this.
Luckily enough, I also have knowledge about branding, so I was able to keep this issue in mind as well while dealing with everything else.
Even though I am not an expert in the field, the knowledge I had allowed to keep things going.
As such, I am quite happy with the fame that I’ve built for the company and myself so far, even if there is still a lot more work to do.
However, what kept me going in the whole process is the thought that brands are not built overnight and that consistency is the key.
Given the feedback I keep receiving, I also feel that I am on the right way.
In order to be able to come up with the funding necessary to grow the business, I also deal with the sales department of the company.
This is where my experience in sales was extremely useful as I already had the sales and negotiation tools to work with.
Considering that the services and products I designed are innovating existing approaches to learning, there are always a lot of questions to be answered.
As I am the person who knows best the reasoning behind the design, then I am also in charge of the customer service part and answer any related questions.
In order to grow the area of influence of the company, I always tried to find mutually beneficial partnerships that could allow for common growth.
Very often, this meant that I would take the company’s competitive advantage, rather than actual money to trade for services.
Even though it wasn’t possible to use a one-size-fits-all approach to do this, but overall it was (still is) an interesting learning experience.
Hard to believe?
If you find it hard to believe that someone can juggle with all these hats at once, what I can say is that it isn’t easy.
I had my ups and downs, as well as moments when I wanted to give up, but having a clear idea of my overall goal, I was able to kind of figure it out (even if there is still a lot of figuring out to do).
It 's like knowing where your destination is and having to figure out what means of transportation to take to get there, only to realize that the ride is not always the smoothest and that along the way you might have to change a tire, or hitchhike or overcome whatever obstacle you might find along the way.
I may have not done very well, but I trust I’ve tried my best given the circumstances and that others wouldn’t have necessarily done it better than me.
Of course, one of the biggest downsides in all this is that people get to see you everywhere and have difficulties figuring out what is it that you actually do.
For many it is impossible to think that one person can do so many things or see the bigger picture.
It’s hard to know exactly whether I made the right choices or not, but my consolation is that there would have been advantages and disadvantages regardless of whether my choices would have been different.
In an ever changing world, it is very difficult to be too certain of one strategy or the other, as there will always be an element of uncertainty there.
My thought on this is:
Keep going, keep learning, keep open to possibilities and solve the problems as they appear!
I hope that my story will be somehow useful (inspiring maybe) for others to continue finding solutions according to their own situations, and keep going no matter what.
Of course, I also need to thank all the people who have supported me along the way, even if some of them didn't really understand what I was doing.
No matter how much one is willing to work to achieve their goals, the reality is that nobody can do anything alone.
So, if you've read this far, I really hope that you will decide to join my mission by following us on social media and sharing our work with all the people around you.
Let's inspire more people together!