3 Questions: Shaun Rein

3 Questions: Shaun Rein

This series features career related questions and answers from alumni professional leaders. These posts will provide a quick glance at what motivates inspiring alumni and how they eventually got to where they are today, always using the same 3 questions. Today we check in with Shaun Rein, BA’00

Shaun Rein compressedShaun Rein is the Founder and Managing Director of the China Market Research Group, the leading strategic market intelligence firm focused on China. He is one of the world’s recognized thought leaders on strategy consulting.

He is a columnist for Forbes on Leadership, Marketing, and China and for BusinessWeek’s Asia Insight section. He is often featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Financial Times, Newsweek International, Bloomberg, Time, and the New York Times. He is regularly interviewed by American Public Radio’s Marketplace and NPR. He frequently appears to deliver commentary on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Bloomberg TV, CBS News, and CNN International TV.

He earned his Master’s degree from Harvard University focused on China’s economy and received a BA Honours from McGill University. He is also author of the recent international best-selling book “The End of Cheap China: Economic and Cultural Trends that will Disrupt the World”.

Shaun Rein shares his answers to our 3 Questions:

1- What inspires you in your career?

I love creating something new and doing what others say is impossible.  CMR is the 3rd company I have started. My first company organized 3000+ person dance parties in Montreal when I was still a student at McGill and was a reasonable success. The second one was an education company I set up in China and was a total disaster. I made about $7000 over three years and could barely pay for my plane tickets back home. I was living in a dingy, gosh awful place that my wife (then fiancee) refused to shower in because it stunk and was so grime-infested.  But entrepreneurship, creating something from scratch and getting my hands dirty even if it means sacrifices like living in a rat hole, is in my blood and motivates me far more than money or the perceived security of a large company, so after my failure I waited for the next opportunity to start something. It happened a couple years later.

I started CMR in the autumn of 2005 right after the start-up I was with, e-learning company WebCT, was acquired for $180 million by Blackboard.  After exiting WebCT, I was trying to figure out what to do next, so I spoke with Fortune 500 CEOs and China Country Heads to see what their pain points were when they were operating in China. Very clearly, China was becoming the key growth engine for their firms but many were having problems getting good advice and data. Executive after executive told me money was not the issue: they would pay whatever it took to get current and trustworthy data and top service.

So I decided to set up a firm that was positioned as more expensive than the global management consulting firms. Our differentiating point was that we based our strategies on our own data as most big firms outsource their research. I basically wanted companies to decide when they came to China if they wanted McKinsey, the best global management consulting firm, or CMR because we were the best focused on China.  Many told me (and still do!) I was crazy for trying to compete with the big global management consulting firms. How could a 28 year old without any consulting experience set up a firm and compete against the big players with their expertise and global breadth?

We got lucky and landed key clients like Apple and DuPont in our first year. 6 1/2 years later, I still get giddy whenever a big client chooses us over one of the big firms to do their China strategies and I love when our clients generate huge profits. Some of our clients like KFC now generates more revenue in China than in the United States. Luxury firm Richemont, another client, is booming there.

What inspires me is constantly trying to do something new and different which naysayers, and there will always be plenty in your careers no matter what size company you work for, say is impossible. I like to prove critics wrong. That is part of the fun.

2- What, if any, are the broad patterns or themes that define your career path?

I am a firm believer that all businessmen and businesswoman should have experiences in sales and in public speaking. Most universities don’t teach sales well if at all and many people think of salespeople as slimy, like tricky used cars salesmen. But the lifeblood of any firm is revenue, so all executives should rotate through a sales position. Even if ultimately you do not end up in a sales capacity, having that experience will help you learn how to read other people’s motivations and how to gain support from your colleagues by “selling” them your ideas. I see far too many brilliant executives fail, not because they are not smart or not hard-working but because they don’t know how to read other people and convince them of their ideas.  Getting others to trust you and agree with you is basically what salespeople do, so that experience is critical.

Part of gaining confidence from others is best done by learning how to communicate effectively which is why I think everyone should also be trained in public speaking. Sales and public speaking are two themes or elements that have defined my career. I used to be terrible at public speaking. I almost fell off the stage once I was shaking with fear so much that I decided to train how to deliver speeches and overcome my fears. I now regularly appear on television, like MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, and CBS which has really helped me become part of debates. Here is a clip of a recent appearance I made on Dylan Ratigan’s show about the release of my new book “The End of Cheap China” and how that nation’s economy is changing.  Being able to communicate effectively in front of an audience has been invaluable for me and my firm.

3- What is the best career advice you have ever received or given?

The best career advice was given to me by my father Richard Rein. My father was a ballet dancer with American Ballet Theater and later a ballet teacher at St. Paul’s School. He proudly says he never wore a suit until his second wedding day which happened when he was around 50 years old.  I am not sure I have ever seen him wear leather shoes with closed heels — he is always wearing clogs or sneakers.

But he taught me two things that have always stuck with me as my career has progressed. First, to succeed, one has to make sacrifices and work hard. Anything worth getting is hard to get. There are always smarter more talented people out there so the only way to excel and attain excellence is to work harder and to make sacrifices the others are not willing to make. I have always remember that when running my own businesses. To this day, we try to keep lights off in our offices to keep costs down aside from preserving the environment, and I still take out the trash in our offices as our cleaning lady does not come in everyday. I don’t even have a secretary. Saving these costs lets us free up money for more useful things — like paying our employees better than they would  be paid elsewhere, so they stick with us.

Second, my father taught me that passion, more than money should be the main goal of your career. Obviously you need to make enough money to take care of your family and need to work hard to get there but when you spend so much time at the office and stress stops you from being able to enjoy your family, then something is wrong. Life is too short so you have to have fun. How many gadgets does one really need?  Although my father never got rich, he is one of the happiest people I know because he pursued his passion.

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