The moral dilemma of entrepreneurship
Updated: Apr 24
I’ve noticed in my recent conversations with clients that some of them really value having an agent or adviser who understands them and connects deeply to them as a human being on a very personal level.
This is nothing new - people buy people. Everything else in business is just the framework to hold the good feelings and emotions the client feels towards the salesperson/entrepreneur. ‘Everything else’ ranges from paperwork, plan structure, business proposal, profits, client benefits etc.
However, this becomes dangerous when people prioritize their adviser making them feel good over making financially sound and correct decisions. Yes, I think that it is every capable entrepreneur’s job to take their clients’ feelings into account when structuring a business proposal, however, there needs to be very clear lines being drawn in the sand.
I’ve personally seen with my own eyes and ears of cases where advisers lie through their teeth just to make a sale. Did the client feel good? Yes, without a doubt.
Do you – the reader – think this is actually going to benefit the client in the long run?
I think the main difference between successful advisers who are upright in character and sound in principles, as compared to successful advisers who say whatever they want to make a sale, is also precisely what makes them so similar.
They control the narrative with no qualms whatsoever.
When a business person exaggerates the benefits of his product or service just to get a sale and stays consistent throughout without batting an eyelid, chances are he’s gonna get it.
On the flip side, when another adviser delves deep into the technical mechanics behind their product, understands on a deep fundamental level how it helps the client and what the benefits are in relation to his competition, that puts the adviser in a tremendously strong position to actually add value to the client beyond stroking their ego.
Of course, this inevitably puts the honest, capable adviser at a disadvantage, because he will, in the process of being truthful, offend and disqualify numerous prospective clients (plenty of which have high purchasing power).
The lying, unscrupulous adviser on the other hand, may be seen to be at an advantage because of his willingness to sing any tune the client wishes him to sing. At high levels of social adeptness, this allows extremely subtle and effective manipulation of the client into buying the highest commissioned products for the adviser’s benefit, rather than the client’s.
Don’t get me wrong, I need commission. All business people do. It is something we all need to face in the business world. I’m not here to white knight the idea of being above all that. You can never separate self-interest from the interest of your clients.
To take it one level further, in life you can never separate self-interest from the interest of your family and loved ones you would do anything to protect.
Sometimes we want to do good, but if we extend this act of kindness, we may have to go hungry. Sometimes we want to be upfront and honest with the client, but if we do, someone harsher and unscrupulous will lie through their teeth and sell your prospective client an objectively unsuitable and inferior product.
Yet, it is precisely within this very chaos of business, competition and ruthlessness I have found a very clear direction for myself, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
What I've learnt
I would actually argue, in my experience, that the adviser who insists on a path of principle – one that leads to character - to be the one who wins in the end.
(Had to quote Scent of a Woman, couldn't help myself
I have no doubt that there are plenty of people who will call me a foolish optimist, naïve and unaware of the realities of the world for saying so, yet I insist on it.
I’m not here to write and deliver some fluffy exposition to make you or anyone else feel good, I’m just here to share my experience through my eyes, ears and body.
And this is what I have experienced – because both advisers are masters of frame control, it is simply a matter of choice.
If you choose to insist on upholding a certain standard of honesty, yes, you may earn less than a lot of people, but that does not mean you earn very little.
In fact, the adviser and mentor I look up to tremendously for his integrity and expertise, has out-earned virtually every single adviser I’ve met in terms of his sales thus far; regardless of whether they are a director or foot-soldier consultant purely focusing on sales.
Are there other advisers who earn more than him? Yeah, sure. Without a doubt. I can name quite a few off the top of my head (although I’ve never met them personally). Not only that, there are plenty of advisers who are a hell of a lot more marketable than him.
Yet I chose him as mentor and business partner.
Because I’ve never met anyone in this industry as technically proficient, nor have I met any adviser willing stick their neck out for their clients personally and professionally as much as him.
Because ultimately, while all of us may live like we will never die, the truth is, the day will come. And when that day comes, I want to look back and think “Man, you really played the character of Erdem Ong to the best of your god damn abilities and made a hell of a lot of people’s lives better”.
It’s really quite funny that this is the conclusion I draw, because plenty of other advisers I have met command much more presence, bravado and charisma than he does when it comes to speaking and carrying themselves.
But I guess I truly have grown weary of the Rolexes, Mercedes, fast cars, opulence and luxury so many unoriginal, boring financial directors (who are so poor they have nothing but money) flaunt on a regular basis.
In a world where money is so readily available for those who are willing to reach their hands out and take it, it has really made me question why I entered this industry.
Undeniably, and without a doubt, when I first started, it was all about the money.
As a lost, hungry kid looking for purpose, wealth and a better life, I took the first path I had access to – a career in financial services.
I’m not going to delve into the challenges of this industry for someone who entered so blind and unprepared compared to where I am now because that’s going to make this article way too long.
However, I’ll just end it with this:
If you are okay with starting every relationship you have with a lie, then things are a lot simpler. You just say and do whatever it takes to achieve the outcome you want.
However, that’s not what most people really want deep down inside.
In their heart of hearts, they are just afraid. They are afraid they will get rejected for who they are because of their past experiences, failure and shame.
They then let this guide them down the wrong path. Instead of risking rejection by being who they really are, they bottle it up and hide it away.
The liar believing that his self-interest comes before all else, is completely authentic and genuine when he lies, because deep down, he believes that lie – that nothing else matters.
The truthful, capable person believes that while self-interest is an inevitable component of life, it must be balanced with actually caring about something(s) or someone(s) outside themselves and adding actual value in order to truly earn his income, regardless of whether that income comes in the form of commission, profits, social capital, respect, love etc.
Because ultimately it simply comes down to a matter of belief, it then becomes a matter of creatively expressing and marketing that belief in order to benefit either 1. Just themselves or 2. Themselves and everyone that comes into contact with them.
Mathematically speaking, however, no matter how many people the liar manages to con, not everybody will buy his act. He will still get rejected somewhere along the way for reasons outside of his control.
If rejection is inevitable, then the best possible approach is authenticity. Nothing else.
I’m not one to judge because people who do whatever it takes to win usually come from extremely tough backgrounds where life practically gave them no choice - and more importantly, they didn’t know any better.
They didn’t have the benefit of having someone who is in a truly good emotional place to guide them, and it’s not their fault.
But I know that no matter what happens, at the very least, I know myself.
That is a form of wealth nobody can ever take from me.
And that’s more than I or anybody in the world can ever ask for.