Success as an entrepreneur is all about spotting a niche in the market and then applying one’s skills to exploit it.
Bonnie Chan Woo clearly has that knack and has used it to build a business which combines creative insights and sound commercial sense to ensure each client’s brand message connects with consumers and delivers the maximum impact.
“Our professional advice helps to streamline procedures and processes, achieving a high level of quality and consistency for individual brands in executing the ideas,” says the chief executive of Icicle Group. “We do extensive research to understand what is trending, fashionable and effective, and then assist clients in creating the right assets, content and positioning for different markets.”
This can include input on social media strategies, retail displays, gifts, video production, and how the brand is being managed, plus a detailed analysis of what is giving the best return on investment.
Typically, there would also be a review of all marketing peripherals – brochures, leaflets, and direct mail programmes – to ensure a standard, clear message in line with head office policies, and a close look at decision-making processes and ways to cut costs.
“In doing this, we are not data-driven,” Chan Woo says. “It involves a lot of conversations with clients to rationalise objectives, place the right volume of orders, and get the best mix for the marketing budget. Success is seen in impact, influence, changing the status quo, and altering the way people think.”
Originally from Hong Kong, she went to boarding school in Worcestershire, England at the age of 14 – a transformational experience – before reading PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford University, then returning home and landing a job with investment bank Morgan Stanley.
“In some ways, it wasn’t really a conscious decision; I was at that ‘whatever’ age and just thought it was the right thing to do,” Chan Woo says. “It took three years to realise I didn’t like banking, despite the upside of international travel and working with people who were super-smart and switched on. So, I had to ‘rewrite the script’ by looking deep inside and finding something that was worthy of keeping me awake at night.”
The outcome was to join Icicle, a then small company her father had founded as a retirement project after years working as a senior executive in the printing trade. She applied, following the formal protocols, and was hired in 2002 as business development manager, though in many respects was starting from the ground up.
“I came in to learn how to run a printing business,” she says. “But the role also gave me a platform to be an entrepreneur, with a lot of freedom and flexibility to make my own decisions and explore opportunities for growth. I knew that with the right plan and strategies, I could make a mark.”
Accordingly, the next decade was a period of learning, new ambitions, understanding the competition, and coming to terms with practicalities and limitations.
There were hits and misses, a two-year spell in London from 2007 to oversee the launch of an allied print production company, and a break after starting a family, which also proved a chance to invest in third-party print, new media and app start-ups, both directly and through a specialist fund.
In 2013, though, Chan Woo recommitted to Icicle, organising a buyout and becoming the major shareholder. Now, she regularly starts the day at 5am, often with a conference call to the United States, followed by a stint in the gym. And she holds fast to the personal mantra that everything is earned.
“As an entrepreneur, you will always have good and bad days,” she says. “But I am pleased with progress and confident about the next three to four years. We have a clear purpose and strategy, strong connections, are more resilient through weathering various challenges, and are making a difference for clients, vendors and employees.”
When not focusing on the business, she likes to read and think about issues now facing society as a whole. That can include technology’s evolving impact on the workplace, how society is organised, and how some people are clearly being left behind.
“Others should think about these things too, not just let the day go by.”
On occasion, she is also happy to share her views at public forums, addressing subjects like leadership, change management and women in business, where she feels surer about having a degree of expertise.
“You need to earn credibility before you can speak [to an audience],” she says. “I’m amassing knowledge and accumulating experience, so when I share a stage I have something meaningful to say.”
Reflecting this, she remains an avid reader, tackling everything from history and current affairs to Chinese and English poetry.
She also loves looking at art, especially conceptual and abstract works, which can be groundbreaking and, as such, becomes another source of inspiration. And she firmly believes in the importance of not overlooking the spiritual side of life.
“I seldom eat three meals a day. Fasting helps me connect with my soul and makes the mind hungry as well.”
One persistent ambition is to have more involvement in the creative process, though she’s willing to admit there might be a touch of vanity in that particular dream.
“I would love to write scripts for videos we create for clients, but my job is to stand back and, instead, do the commercial things,” Chan Woo says. “At weekends, though, I like to look through all the footage and might make recommendations about the music, the emotions conveyed, or the cinematography and camera angles to use in upcoming projects. Doing that, I feel really alive.”
BONNIE CHAN WOO’S TIPS FOR CAREER SUCCESS
Think widely “These days, you need to develop a very macro view of the world, so don’t discuss issues with friends and family. Watch the news, be conscious of changes, read widely – including history and science journals – and go to museums.”
Chip in “Whatever field you go into, be prepared to get your hands dirty as you learn and work your way up.”
Find your domain “When choosing a career, know what options are out there and aim to find something which lets you follow your heart and feel a connection to your soul.”
Put passion first “Don’t accept job offers or take a particular path for reasons of money, status or peer recognition. Instead, find work that you really want to do. You won’t have cause to regret that as you get older.”
See the world “Young people in Hong Kong can be very short-sighted and fail to capitalise on all the resources available. For example, they should travel more and apply for internships with top companies overseas.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Delivering the goods.