Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Singapore insurance news blog

Now that I'm doing a lot of market research as part of my day to day activities, I thought why not put it in a blog by itself. In case you are looking for the same info or are just curious of what's going on in Singapore insurance.

Here you go: singaporeinsurancenews.blogspot.com

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Have you met George? (2)

The next huge change came when we were planning the move to Canada in 1998. The tough part was that my own mom was using me as leverage, telling my dad to exchange my share in her apartment for her permission for me to leave the country. After going through messy divorce my dad didn’t trust her a bit though and I volunteered to be a mediator between them. I asked my dad if he is OK for me to transfer property rights to mom and he was, but he said he didn’t trust that she would give me the permission. They were at a gridlock telling the each other to make the first concession. I thought it’s easy: I would get my mom to write permission first and then I would ensure that she gets the property share. I talk to her and she agreed that it was a good way to proceed. The biggest shock came when after agreeing she went back and said that she’s not going to do it. My trust foundation was rocked.. it affected me fundamentally, afterwards I kept asking myself a question: if I can’t trust my parent how can I trust anyone. It was a fundamentally difficult question which had significant trust repercussions for the coming years.

As the result of this we also had to hide the fact that we’ll try to sneak out of the country so I was prohibited from telling anyone that I might be leaving the country for the fear that my own mother is going to discover that we are leaving and try to stop it.

It was a difficult thing to comprehend for a 15 year old. The only two people whom I told a day before leaving Russia were one neighbor who acted as an adopted mother to me and my girlfriend at the time. And precisely what I told them was that I’m going tomorrow and I might or might not come back. I think it was the biggest shock for my girlfriend who I’ve been seeing for 9 months. Essentially she thought I was joking...

The next day we packed and went to airport. We deposited our luggage and then it came turn to the airport immigration. The official asked where my mom’s permission for me to leave the country is. My dad sunk.., I thought to myself, this is a deciding moment of my life, which it really was. On one side I get turned back and return to my previous life and the prospect of being drafted into Russian army in the coming years. On the other hand there was an exciting prospective of going to Canada and starting anew. We wouldn’t get second chance to try. All of these things passed through my mind in an instant and I said “mother is just outside terminal, she brought us here and will be joining us in Canada later”. The officer gave me a mean look and after checking with her superior gave us a nod. And off we went to Canada.

Canada didn’t seem real for the first while I was there. The fact that my dad up to the last minute didn’t believe that we had a chance to get out without my mom’s permission resulted in me not having a chance to prepare myself, which complicated matters. I would dream that I’m still in Moscow and that move to Canada was indeed the dream. I would dream of army drafters knocking on my door and wake up in cold sweat. The language and cultural barriers were quite significant too. I would have a feeling that everyone around me can speak Russian and just pretending that they can only speak English to make my life difficult. Guess perception is a funny thing when you are younger.

Think we invent shortcut in mind to make life more logical and easier to comprehend. Those ideas came under a lot of pressure when we moved to Canada. It was really a big challenge to adapt and again I stood up to it and faced it. Or did I?

I realized that a lot of times what I was actually doing is absorbing the challenge and moving on, thinking that a passive response is the easiest. I saw the very same approach from my dad when he struggled to find application for his experience and who university masters degrees from Russia. He took it in stride and went for the available choice of a laborer. I saw disappointment in his eyes as he moved to Canada thinking that it’s a land of opportunities and instead discovered that it was precisely the opposite for him, more like a step back.

I went back to last grade of high school in Canada as I was too young for university and to improve my English. Then as my grades were all A’s my dad told me to follow in his footsteps and become an Engineer. The following four years are an absolute blur, I don’t remember much from university. I found it completely uninteresting and not engaging, repeating my Russian high school experience. I kept on thinking to myself, why am I doing this? I cruised along taking as many courses at a time to finish it faster, having an idea that there’s going to be a good job waiting for me at the end…

The wake up came when I graduated from university and discovered that no one actually was interested in hiring and average engineering student without any work experience. I reacted in my normal way, retreating and waiting for the job to come. I started sleeping late and waking up late. I lasted for three months just sending around resumes and waiting for people to reply. At which point I realized that I’m pretty screwed.

I also realized that I’m at a crossroads. I thought of my dad. I respected a lot the fact that he sacrificed his business in Moscow to move me to Canada. At the same time reflecting on his and my experience I saw similarities. All of a sudden I come to realization that if I was to continue cruising along I was going to end up average and struggle through life. I started reading biographies of successful people trying to understand what was going through the minds and learn from them. I didn’t have any role models or mentors and therefore I was seeking the advice indirectly from those books. I found that what differentiated majority of those people is that they tried and were not afraid to fail. The definition of success of course can be argued, but I believe having comfortable conditions in which you don’t worry about food is essential.

With that idea I decided to try get out of the conundrum I got myself into by getting experience and since no one was willing to pay me to get that experience I had to get it for free = volunteer my time in return for experience. I went around looking for volunteering jobs, and to my surprise couldn’t find any neither. Nobody was keen to take a recent grad.

At that point I started to get quite irritated; I came to the local Chamber of commerce and asked for a volunteering job. They said they had nothing… I said I could sort paper clips for all that matters as my only other alternative would be to pay somebody to give me work. Fortunately they were encouraged by my enthusiasm and called me the next day and said that they actually had lots of things I can help them with. That’s how my full time three months stint with them started. I ended up doing quite a bit of interesting work with them, including public policy design and negotiation and membership drives. On top of that I’ve got loads of local business contacts from the Chamber and was able to land a couple of decent jobs as the result. I was on fire and continued getting involved in more and more stuff. Doing projects with government and local non for profits, participating in community leadership programs and speaking about immigration issues to college and high school students. I felt alive again. I was the youngest among all these groups and people looked at me with amazement and that I thrived on that energy and recognition in addition to feeling good about the things I was involved in.

The city we moved to is in mid-Canada, relatively quiet and remote place and I quickly felt like I was outgrowing it. And despite people telling me it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond I made a decision that there’s something more than the city and I need to make the move sooner than later.

The MBA was my ticket out. I studied really hard for GMAT and surprised myself and people who knew me from university with the result. I then spend time diligently researching schools and choosing the one that appealed to me carefully. In the mean time I started writing a blog about the whole experience. To my surprise I started getting a lot of readers. I was excited again, even though I have never thought that writing has been my strength I found myself really drawn to writing and spending countless hours reading other blogs for ideas and style. My writing gradually improved and I started getting even more readers. At the end I was getting more than thousand people from all over world reading my blog monthly. I was on a cloud 9.

The MBA experience was more interesting than my prior educational experience and I came out more confident. Thinking that I want to do consulting or finance in Toronto. Apparently life had added a slight twist to that plan and I ended moving to Hong Kong instead. I felt energized again, trying something completely different, moving away from small Canadian city to an exciting place in Asia. I didn’t even think twice about moving. I just packed and said bye to my dad, who I think was slightly surprised that I didn’t hesitate to move so far.

Since moving to Hong Kong with Prudential though I feel like I lost the thread. The job was going all well and I’m paid a multiple of what I was paid in Canada. I should be happy as I can now afford majority of things that I dreamed off before.

I’ve been in Hong Kong for a year plus and after that moved to Singapore, where I’ve been for a two years. Looking back I feel like life kinda stood still since I left Canada. Like a hamster in a wheel I move my legs, sometimes even run, but looking back the progress has slowed down.

The things have a potential to change though, and since three months ago I've joined AXA. There has been a multitude of new challenges awaiting me there and I'm hopeful that I can accelerate my learning and make a positive impact on the business. More on this later..

Hope you have enjoyed this little trip down my memory lane!

Till next time, 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Have you met George? (1)

I want to share with you something about myself, something that made me the person I am. Trust me, it was not an easy decision. I was debating for a while whether I should reveal some personal things on not. Having given it more thought though I'm hoping that you'll find it interesting and won't use it against me in the future.

My life began in Moscow, Russia. I don’t recall any extraordinary happenings in my earlier days. I was generally a happy kid; although my parents might argue that I was a bit oaf a hand-full, and at times quite stubborn. I remember being told that I was an angel, but only when I was asleep...a

Now that I think of it, the most memorable early life moments included my uncle, he was the most adventurous of the family and always came up with ways to entertain and excite me (from parachuting a pair of goggles when I came to visit him to flipping his kayak twice, once with me in it). He used to take me travelling every summer, kayaking through less explored parts of Russia and camping. It was a blast!

Unfortunately, the end of stability happened early for me, coinciding with some major changes in the country at the time. The wave of major transformation swept across the country ripping it apart and causing some major overnight changes. I was only 9 when it happened and to me those things were more entertaining than anything else. Tanks on a street one day, change of government the next week and snipers on the roofs the day after. The more direct impact happened when the 1000%+ inflation hit, all of a sudden I remember that certain staple foods simply disappeared from our table. At the time I didn’t quite understand why we can’t have my favorite- cheese. I remember having to go to stores to line up for cooking oil and getting a number written on my hand to mark the place in line (1168)...

Then it hit even closer to home, our family rapidly fell apart. It turned out that my dad’s salary went from being quite decent to provide for a family of four to peanuts as he was working for a government research institution. My mom, on the other hand, was giving private lessons in high-school and was doing well. The fact that she became the main bread winner put a lot of pressure on the family. It was unfortunate when it happened, as I was only 11 and my sister 3. I don’t think our family was unique in that respect though, the whole country was going through an incredibly stressful time. 

 I made a choice to stay with my dad and the next thing I remember were the hardships of the next few years. I remember the winter of ’93 was particularly a tough one, I recall having to eat spoiled spaghetti with milk every morning before school and complaining about bugs swimming and being told that those were just sugar bits. I don’t think I perceived it as being a hardship at a time, just thought of it as a peculiarity. Funny how the prospective differs when you are younger and don’t know any better.

Not sure if parent’s divorce affected me much, just remember being sad and not sure why things happened the way they did. Before the split up my mom used to take me and sister on “dates” and I remember being quite irritated after the split-up when I understood that the guy was not “just” a friend. I actually originally stayed with my mom and the guy was really trying to be mean to me and get rid of me. I got the message…

When I think back, I think I really grew up mentally during the period. It was an accelerated school of life. I also recall feeling rather strange at school. I never “fit in” I tried smoking and let that go after a year as I realized that I was doing it for social purpose rather than actually enjoying it.

I’ve never felt like something was missing, my dad tried really hard to provide for me doing some odd jobs here and there. One day he’d be selling carpets, the next day he’d be a courier and the next month would be working as a laborer in construction. It must’ve been really tough for him just to provide enough for us to have food on the table every day. A different set of challenges, to say the least, really puts things into prospective… My granny on the other hand went through WWII in Russia and always recalls being starved and as the result always tries to eat as much as possible as a matter of habit. My dad had his own very tough period in life where everything he was used to went away and he was left with no income and a kid.

I went to a very good school in Moscow and the only strange feeling I had was that my classmates had infinitely more things than me. The moments I recall from my schooling in Moscow were winning marathon and another schooling competition. Other than that I struggled with school, mostly because I couldn’t see the purpose of doing exercises and spending time learning. I was getting all average marks and some teachers actually told my father that I was not capable of learning and he should hope that I become anything in life. Having said that, other teachers saw through my aloofness and said that I was one of the most capable students but I’ve never bothered to study so never got to realize the potential.

I was average student in all areas except math, in which I all of a sudden got near the top of the class towards the end of high school, to everyone’s surprise. To me it was quite apparent thought. One semester I was sick for a long time and accidentally spend more time than usual studying. I passed with a flying colors and realized that it was not only quite easy to do math but also enjoyable to be featured as a top students. That was the very first example when recognition pushed me forward.

The years went by and my dad gradually recovered and found something that could pay for our bills on a more of a permanent basis. He got a stall in downtown Moscow selling books and magazines. It was a small business but a decently profitable and my uncle got involved as well. Together they were able to gradually grow and make it more successful.

At the same time they saw an opportunity for another small business nearby. They didn’t want to be distracted from their own one so they gave me an opportunity to try it. It was selling joke ids (i.e. ID of an alcoholic or an ID for a lazy bum, Russian humor is slightly different from Western one). The business was doing well and I spend summers and time after school running this venture. I found it was one of the most fun things that I’ve done. Considering I was only 13, I had an early start in business world: sales, managing merchandize, figuring out profits. To say that I really enjoyed it would be a big understatement.

At the same time I had couple of interesting side lessons like dealing with mafia one day and drunk special forces marines another day. Police would occasionally pick me up and put me into police station for running the business underage. The normal rules of doing business clearly didn’t work! When I was 14 I learned that gambling is not good after losing a day’s salary in a slots machine, since day I stayed away from gambling. 

This concludes the part 1 ;)) of my journey. 

Hope you have enjoyed it,

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Diamond and dog food shopping.

Today I want to share my thoughts on something that a lot of people, especially of male gender are acutely aware of. A lot of guys have either experienced it personally or know of what’s coming down in couple of years. Its called girl’s best friend and guy’s worst nightmare: diamonds; alright maybe I’m exaggerating here slightly but none the less it usually ends up being a larger than expected ouch to our financial well being.

To start lets get a bit scientific here, if you don’t mind, and understand what are we really talking about here.  Diamond is essentially a very old piece of pencil that has been cut and polished to reflect light. It does help that its also quite strong due to the long time it was sitting there being compressed under earth.

For more info see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond 

It sounds a bit simplistic, and it is. The value of the diamond is actually the marketing behind it.
The greatest gimmick of diamond marketing is that majority of marketing is done to the user (female) rather than the buyer (male). It is then the female who takes up a role of an influencer and tell the guy that she wants a big “rock” as it will reflect on the financial standing and success of the groom.
DeBeers was the company which initiated this successful tradition and marketed the diamonds as sign of love and commitment, really ingenious if I may add. It tricks people into thinking that they are buying a valuable thing, investing in the future. What you are really buying is a piece of personal branding, courtesy of the DeBeers. They spend billions of dollars telling everyone for the best part of the 20th century that diamonds are forever and are signs of love and success.

So here I was, earlier this year, I was finally in the market for diamond shopping. Over the years I’ve heard both sides of the story: girls telling me that they have a “number” in mind, referring to carat and guys complaining that it’s largely a rip-off. I remember watching Blood Diamond movie with Leonardo De Caprio couple years back and thinking… oh man, now I get it why diamonds are so expensive. It did leave me with a question mark in, about origins of diamonds and at least doing my little bit not to sponsor harm when I will be in the market for a diamond.

Where could I find some info about Diamonds? Internet was of course the first choice. Then came a visit to a local branded shops, where I was starting to get a sense about the price and 4Cs: Carat (size), Cut, Clarity, and Color. Its quite a process, I tell you. It made me wonder if all these things were simply invented to increase the value of the stones. And perhaps I wasn’t very far from truth, majority of these Cs did not exist till DeBeers introduced them in early 20th century to differentiate their diamonds (commodities).

OK, let me share why Diamond is really a commodity: there’s actually a significant supply of them in the world, chemically its not unique and to majority of people it looks more or less the same.
So why are diamonds so expensive? The answer is simple: there are essentially price controlled. The couple of very large minding companies controlling the market set the prices to maintain fat margins. That is possible as long as people are buying into this trick: the more expensive the more valuable it must be.

The tricky part is that the resale value of diamonds is actually quite low and if a lot of people tried to resell their engagement rings in the market the prices would drop by half or maybe even 80%. Essentially it’s an artificially created bubble which has been sustaining itself on marketing for a very long time.

Back to my own experience, after doing the preliminary research myself I decided to bring my girlfriend shopping for the ring.  She has never been much into diamonds and I thought it would be a relatively easy task to get something reasonable. By that I mean something that is not going to hurt my savings too bad and at the same time will make her happy to wear day to day.  I was wrong… the marketing pull proved hard to resist and all of the sudden I was getting told again of the two month salary benchmark, where girls tell guys to get them a ring that is at least two months their salary. Guess this is done so that the girl can show to her friends how successful the guy is, or something along those lined.

As my shopping progressed so did my stress level, every time we would walk into a branded shop my heart would skip a beat. “Oh this one shines so bright” and is only whaaa? Tiffany and Cartier were in particular pricey. At the same time the branding is so strong that my girlfriend was telling me that one of the colleagues at work got an Tiffany engagement ring and how happy she was and how other girls were jealous. The part I found particularly fascinating is the strength of marketing. After you buy a Tiffany ring, it looks exactly like any other engagement ring. The dominant part is the diamond, which the company buys in bulk and cuts, just like majority of other brands. However, that one simple world: it’s a Tiffany and the fact that it came in a blue box stays with the person forever and differentiates them. They can keep piggy backing on the company branding.

Actually the concept is very interesting, so lets take a second more to discuss it. What you actually buy doesn’t have a value in itself, it’s a piece of branding. Just imagine a large Blue tiffany box, you throw in your money and in return you get branding. In this world of marketing this is actually what sells the best. And companies love it, because the actual product can be an absolute commodity and the value comes from what’s happening in customers head. They get your hard earned money and in return you get a little piece of happiness, because people around you will now know that you have a successful fiancé and they might even be slightly jealous. So if we think about it, jealousy and perception is the real currency!

Getting closer to my own finale, I finally decided that buying branded ring is not for me. I did some more research and found that there are number of reputable online retailers who sell engagement rings. You could even customize a ring and the diamond that you are getting. And the best part was that it’s almost half the price. I did my careful research and picked a diamond that was exactly the same as the ones sold in Tiffany. It wasn’t easy but the dimensions, cut and all the other qualities were precisely the same. The only part I didn’t get was the assurance of the blue or red box. I will be absolutely honest, I was a bit scared that the diamond was not as shiny or clear, or the setting not as nice as the one in the branded shop. The only thing that kept me less worried is the 30 day return guarantee for the online purchase.

Once the ring was delivered to me though I was more than happy, I kept on looking at it and trying to compare in my mind to all the rings we saw in the shops. I couldn’t tell the difference. I was brilliant with all the sparkle that the other ones had.

Having said all of this, the ring was received well by my girlfriend. Even though I know it’s a piece of marketing that I put on her hand, she likes it. It makes her happy and I’m happy as the result as well. All I’m saying is understand what’s going on, as it will help you make a more conscious decision and hopefully save you some money.

The reference to the dog food was a bit cheeky, on my part. It refers to my previous post in which I mentioned that the price for the premium dog food is actually set by the manufacturer and the user (dog) doesn’t have any way to tell the owner if its really worth the premium. Diamonds are “sold” to us and the price is set on a subjective set of criteria called 4Cs. Maybe next stage would be 4Cs of dog food: color, calories, cholesterol and crunchiness hahaha

Till next time,