Vincent Lee of ‘Can You Brand Me’: The Power of Flexibility; How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic
While going solo in business may mean you don’t have to report to a boss; it doesn’t mean you don’t need a team at some point in the journey. My first few years as a solopreneur were spent doing everything myself. I failed to form and nurture a potential group of people who could help in things like finance and legal advice. You may not be able to hire them or outsource the work to them immediately, but be honest about it. Ask them questions to learn and maybe, barter a service in exchange for theirs.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vincent Lee.
Straddling between two countries he calls home for the last twenty years, Vincent’s residential status as an Oklahoman and his citizenship as a Singaporean have earned him an unofficial title; Okieporean. He is a self-taught graphic designer who found his passion for brand strategy during his career as an in-house marketing professional and later, as a solopreneur; a career change driven by a desire to spend more time in Singapore with his aging parents. With a handful of clients in Africa, North and South America, Vincent enjoys working with small business owners in crafting memorable brands and currently working towards expanding his reach as an author and brand coach.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am from the land of the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’; a 2018 rom-com about a Chinese-American professor who travels to Singapore and discovers that her boyfriend and his family are among the richest in the Lion City. While I am an Asian and a little crazy, which I will explain later, I am not rich like the people depicted in the movie.
Growing up in a low-income family and shunned by rich relatives, I learned to work hard and save money. My father’s gambling habit leading to nightly harassment from illegal money lenders caused much stress to our family in the 80s but looking back, I am grateful. Grateful that in my search for peace away from home, I found genuine friends whom I could lean on. Grateful that with limited resources, I have learned to work with what I have and work hard to achieve what I want to have.
The decisions I have made up to this point in my life may be considered ‘crazy’ by most people — from enrollment in trade school when I have the grades to pursue a college degree, to signing a six-year contract as a law enforcement officer when I could have started my career earlier, to moving to Oklahoma City when Singapore is perceived as the land flowing with milk and honey. That in a nut-shell, explains why I tell people I am the crazy rich Okieporean; a story you can learn more about on my Facebook page.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We are created with two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” — Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher.
When I started my career as a self-taught graphic designer, I was so focused on trying to prove my value by churning out “attractive” design work.
Over time, I realized that an effective design solution stems from how well I understand my client’s needs. While I may be the expert in brand design and strategy, I am never an expert in my client’s industry. Therefore, listening more than I speak is critical in what I do.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s the film “Into the Wild”, adapted from a book of the same title. It tells the story of Christopher McCandless who abandoned all his possessions, burned the cash he had on him, hitchhiked across America, and found momentary contentment with isolation and living off the land.
He kept a diary of his thoughts as he survived for more than 110 days on rice, edible plants, and any wild animals he could hunt with a .22-caliber rifle. While there are varying theories as to the cause of his death in the back country near Denali in 1992, what struck me is one of Christopher’s diary entries, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Christopher took two years to reach that revelation but did not get to live out the happiness he sought for. Carine McCandless later revealed that her brother’s behavior and sudden departure stemmed from domestic violence and abuse while growing up.
I watched that film in Singapore while visiting my parents right when COVID-19 hit Asia. I recalled sitting in silence as the film credits rolled over my reflection on the TV screen. My childhood pales in comparison to the McCandless but memories of the fear of being hurt by loan sharks flooded my mind. There was no memory of happiness during that time in my life and I remember hating my father.
The decision to leave Singapore in 2000 to finish my last year in college as a full-time student was partly triggered by a desire to find my own happiness. I am thankful to be able to say this, that happiness has and will continue to be real because of the people I am sharing it with, which includes my parents.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I wore many hats before ending up in my current line of work. My experience in the creative industry is often retold as three love affairs as I navigate the U.S.’s immigration system from an international student to an immigrant worker to now, a permanent resident (ie. green card holder).
I have had invested in three relationships as I worked for three employers in the first 15 years of my career. The first one died because of the global financial crisis in 2007/2008. The second one cheated on me, or at least that’s how I felt when I was replaced with another person. And I left the third one after obtaining my permanent residency because we have a verbal equivalent of a prenup.
It is not a story of love affairs at work, though it may be juicer. It’s my love story in the form of three employee-employer relationships. And like any human relationship, hearts will be broken as much as lifted up when your legal status as an immigrant is at the mercy of your employers.
While my career path is not considered glamorous with high-budget campaigns, working as an in-house design and marketing person has grown me as a brand designer and fueled me as a brand strategist. I grew to appreciate the depth of a truly powerful brand, one that goes beyond the visible like a logo, a website, or a product. Interestingly, and crazy too, I have in the last two years learn more about branding as a sign artist of a well-known national chain of grocery stores.
More importantly, the experiences thus far have been formative to my character and core values. Losing my first job did not take away the rich relationships I have built with people in and outside of work. Being replaced at my second job did not take away my skills and ability to continue pursuing the career I wanted elsewhere. And leaving my third job is not an act of sticking-it-to-the-man but a desire to step out of my comfort zone, challenge myself, and take care of the people I love.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
The pandemic challenged the journey I thought I was on as a brand strategist and designer.
I have always been passionate about helping small business owners since they don’t always have the budget to hire advertising and marketing agencies for brand development services. Clients’ budget cuts during the pandemic put a dent in my plan.
While my revenue as a solopreneur was affected, coronavirus has not taken away my time, my knowledge, and thankfully, my health. The formulation of a why-so (not a how-to) book about branding was thus conceived in December 2019.
Writing the book has not only allowed me to fine-tune the methodology I used with past clients, but it also began a personal journey of revisiting and telling my own story. I have in the last eleven months gained greater clarity about my identity and brand, while being able to connect with business owners and leaders as I interviewed them for content and to learn from their personal and business stories.
One of the things that I wasn’t doing before is the purposeful creation of digital and evergreen content. While the in-person interaction when working with clients is still vital, such content will allow me to extend my reach. I will still be limited in the number of one-on-one clients I serve because of the depth and uniqueness of each brand. The digital content will be available 24/7 for clients who are not ready to fully commit or has a budgetary constraint.
The release of the book in early 2021 will not be the final destination of this journey. In fact, it will just be another pitstop as I begin to find momentum as an author and brand coach.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
The “Aha moment” came when I was in the middle of the world in October 2019.
Flights into Ecuador early October were canceled as protests and riots in the country flooded the national news media. The nation straddling the equator was crippled as protestors blocked roads and highways in response to President Lenin Moreno’s decision to remove of a four-decade-old fuel subsidies.
I was going to Shell, Ecuador to conduct an initial brand analysis for Alas de Socorro Ecuador (or ADSE), a non-profit organization. Between a commercial flight into Quito International Airport and a chartered one in my client’s Cessna 206 propeller plane to Shell, I got a front-row seat to Ecuador’s 12-day crisis as I learned and uncovered the brand of ADSE.
Fast forward to the “Aha moment”. I was sitting in the house once occupied by Nate Saint, the missionary who along with four others were speared to death by Waodani tribesmen. That event on January 8, 1956, triggered a wave of evangelistic efforts into the Amazon jungles and the work continues through flight services provided by ADSE.
Despite knowing that the cost of my air-ticket and expenses in the country will only be partially covered by my final billing, I took on this project because I believed in what the organization is doing and I know that they could benefit from a better understanding of their brand.
Being in the heart of such a rich history as I lived and worked with the people from the organization and the community of Shell made me realized how much I love the work of brand development, even if I am not financially compensated. After learning about ADSE, figuring out the best way to communicate the discovery to the people within the organization from a different culture and helping them understand the value and power of branding gave me a glimpse into the possibility of teaching as a brand coach.
How are things going with this new initiative?
It’s a lot of hard work but worth every minute of it.
Interviewing various companies at the beginning of formulating the book has led to more conversations with specific business owners. In fact, I am collaborating with one to develop a series aim at generating conversations amongst business owners telling a good financial story. We believe that the way a company manages finances is reflective of one’s purpose and values, which are key components of a brand.
With the goal of de-mystifying the concept of branding in the book and through my coaching services, I developed the B.R.A.N.D.TM System as an easy-to-follow guide to starting one’s journey toward brand mastery. Branding is a complex and tedious process but through the system, I hope to equip business owners and leaders with a tool that explores five core components of their brand. That will, in turn, provide insights to guide and inspire marketing and day-to-day operational decisions.
Revisiting my own experiences has been therapeutic and necessary as I do what I preach. “You have to go deep in order to go far” has been my mantra in uncovering one’s personal brand before developing the business brand. I have fallen deeper in love with the art of story-telling and continue to work on telling my B.R.A.N.D. story as it relates to me. This is one of the ways I am encouraging people to consider doing, as they uncover not create, their own brand.
I have also recently finished co-teaching a group of youth with a former client. He has developed an entrepreneurship program for a college class he is teaching and I have been asked to speak on the topic of branding to his students. That led us to work with a local Police division who mentors at-risk youth and we taught a group of 18- to 20-year-olds a similar program. Our goal is to promote financial literacy and brand-savviness at a young age.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That person is my secondary school teacher, Grace Chong. She knew me when I was in my early teens; a nerdy artsy kid who was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life then. In one of her literature class projects, we were tasked to do a book review. When I asked if I could make a pop-up book for that project even though only a written submission was required, she didn’t stop me. She saw my interest in graphic arts and gave me the freedom to express it. And I don’t believe any extra credit was awarded for the creativity.
When I graduated with a grade that would allow me to continue on the path towards a college degree, she didn’t stop me when I told her I wanted to enroll in trade school. She simply explained the possible outcome and let me make my own decision as a young adult.
She has also been instrumental in my spiritual journey; sowing seeds of Truth in my life when I was not a Christ-follower then. I still address her as Miss Chong and will always make a point to spend time with her when I am in Singapore every year.
In fact, she was whom I consulted when I decided to become an author. She is my unofficial editor, proof-reading my initial manuscript while making sure I keep my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of my faith.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
A book launch is a typical milestone for an author. But with the pandemic still looming over our heads and if no effective vaccine is available by early 2021, I have to rethink how I can host a launch. I love the energy from interacting with people in-person and so, I hope to plan something experiential while respecting social distancing. Would love ideas from the readers of Authority Magazine in this respect!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- While going solo in business may mean you don’t have to report to a boss; it doesn’t mean you don’t need a team at some point in the journey. My first few years as a solopreneur were spent doing everything myself. I failed to form and nurture a potential group of people who could help in things like finance and legal advice. You may not be able to hire them or outsource the work to them immediately, but be honest about it. Ask them questions to learn and maybe, barter a service in exchange for theirs.
- Surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you the truth, even if it hurts. They don’t have to be people who know the industry you are in. In fact, it is better if they know you as a person outside of your business. I have a handful of friends who know me fairly well but I simply assume they will be intentional about checking on me after knowing I have started my own business. Don’t assume. Identify the person, ask to be held accountable, and follow-up regularly.
- Your business idea is nothing original but you are. We can all get pumped up about our idea and think it’s the only solution in the world. However, with enough research, you may realize that someone else is offering the same or similar product or service. When the imposter-syndrome strikes, look at yourself in the mirror for the answer. You are not in the business of selling that one product or service. You are in the business of selling YOU — the one thing that cannot be replaced. There are tons of books about branding, so why bother writing another one? I realize that my perspective and experiences are unique, and I can get excited about weaving that aspect of me into the concept of branding. I also realize that everyone I meet is unique. And learning about them in order to get inspired with brand-driven solutions gives me a good kind of goosey!
- Your business cannot be everything to everyone. We all want to wear a cape and be a superhero. It is healthy to be excited about your business idea and believe that you can do some good in the society and the world. However, don’t try to solve every problem. Growing up in a fast-paced society like Singapore, I am all about efficiency and productivity. But I am also realizing the benefits of focusing on one thing and doing it well. If your business focuses on consistently delivering one desired result for your customers, your process will be simpler and you will gain trust over time. More importantly, your business will not dominate your schedule and rob you of time with the people you love.
- It’s okay to take detours and make pitstops. Especially for a startup and new business, you have to constantly review your processes, measure your effectiveness, and make the necessary changes. Don’t go too fast in the beginning without knowing how to fuel yourself. I find surrounding myself with people who can teach me or hold me accountable, the first two things I wish someone told me, are what fuels me. Don’t be afraid to try a new workflow or strategy. If it fails, you have learned something new. You will not appreciate the speed on a highway if you have not handled a few bumps along the byways.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I maintain a routine of habits every day. Making sure I have my dose of caffeine in the morning shortly after I wake up is a must. I am a morning person but a much nicer one after a cup of hot coffee. I will exercise shortly after that. Going to a gym helps since I work from home most of the time. And when the gym was temporarily closed at the beginning of the pandemic, I make sure I get in a hundred push-ups and a hundred pull-ups within a 30-minute window of time. Staying in touch with a few people is also important to me. We are all relational beings. It can be as simple as putting all electronic devices away and have a conversation with family over a meal. I also enjoy playing a few rounds of Quiplash periodically with friends over Zoom as we limit social gatherings.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Many people are trying to find happiness in the wrong places; from buying and accumulating material things to seeking acceptance or affection from every person they meet. Uncovering one’s personal brand is, at the end of the day, all about discovering one’s unique path to happiness.
I want to motivate and walk alongside someone to identify their ultimate purpose and value in life, which will help them align the necessary relationships (eg. family, friends, co-workers, mentors, customers, clients) and behaviors (eg. career, hobby, processes, habits) in the same direction. And as they seek alignment between their purpose, values, relationships, and behaviors, they can bring along with them another person and do the same. Happiness is not the destination, it is the journey. And that journey should be a fun road trip; one that we call life!
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Simon Sinek and talk about life. But there is one condition in relation to the lunch — I would have to cook the meal.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers of Authority Magazine can follow me on www.facebook.com/okieporean
And if you can identify with the movement I hope to inspire and want to join me on this road trip call life, simply send me a message via my webpage at https://bit.ly/thebrandsys
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!