Business Over 2am Pancakes

It was 2am on November 29th, 2012. I have a good memory, and it was an important date. I was back in Vegas with Hayes on a soul-searching trip. I had spent the past 8 to 9 months exploring options in life, and I had been looking to the pai gow dealers at the Bellagio to deal me a much needed hand of clarity. But in a strange twist of events this particular night, instead of at the pai gow table, I found myself sitting at the Palms Casino café with Floyd, Hayes, and three boxers. We had just finished working out at the gym, and this was the post-workout meal. Security sat at a table behind me to the right, and the café was mostly empty except for us and one other table.

“So, China Mike,what you got for me?” Floyd popped the question, which caught me off guard because I had no idea of the conversation that transpired between Hayes and Floyd. On the drive out to Vegas the previous morning, I had been dissecting my future plans with Hayes and he had remarked, “But Mike, what can we do with Floyd?”

Subscription models were just starting to trend in the market at that time, so I had suggested that if Floyd was interested, he could set up a subscription plan where fans can choose a combination of limited shirts and hats. Call the three tiers lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight. With 2.2 million followers, even a 1% conversion would be decent money. It was a casual conversation, and nothing more. As an entrepreneur, you brainstorm frequently in an effort to combine real-time market research with branding possibilities. It’s a brain workout I do all the time with my homies, but 99 times out of 100 those ideas never see the light of day.

Hayes had dropped me off at the hotel when we arrived in Vegas, and he said he was going to talk to Floyd. I figured I’d just catch him later for fun and drinks, but around 10pm I got a text to meet him downstairs at the valet. Four hours later, I found myself sitting at the table next to Floyd, and he had just asked me a question that Hayes had not prepared me for. I gave Hayes a quick glance, who was sitting on Floyd’s other side, and he didn’t look at me. Classic Hayes.

My purpose of going to Vegas wasn’t to do business with Mr. Vegas. I had my mind set on going back to China to get back into the music game and to build with my contacts out in Asia. So when Floyd asked me, “What you got for me?”, I really didn’t have anything except a random subscription idea that two crazy people came up with in the desert at 7am.

I literally reiterated the same subscription idea to Floyd, and in a matter of seconds, he said, “51, 49. Go, China Mike.” He tapped himself when he said 51 and then me when he said 49. I wasn’t sure what it exactly meant, but it sounded like American Floyd and China Mike had just formed a company over pancakes at the Palms at 2am. Now, I have never been a business purist; if anything, I’m a rebel and I make it a point in business to break rules, but the inception of this new business venture was wild even for me. Is this how athletes and celebrities do business in America? Will Floyd’s lawyers be sending me paperwork, or should I draft a proposal? When should I get started? And what am I doing, again?

There was no handbook on how to work with celebrities. Furthermore, there were few case studies, if any, on professional athletes starting their own lifestyle brands independent of the big names: Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Puma, Fila, Reebok. Now, I had dabbled with my own clothing line back in 2007 with a few Hollywood tastemakers, but we never launched because I wasn’t happy with the design team I had contracted for development. The brand was coined “Sunn Laundry,” a name I wasn’t even passionate about, and while I had requested certain graphic designs I wanted to produce, these guys had refused to make it happen. Are you kidding me? I’m paying you guys $25,000 and I can’t get 2 graphics of my own choice?

It was a complicated scenario where a middleman communicated with a pattern maker and graphic designer, and the middleman wanted to execute his vision. Or here’s where it always gets hairy: the hired help think they have a better creative direction than the guy funding the project. F*** that. If it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the guy cutting the check is always right. Never settle. Never compromise your vision. If you don’t know something, that’s a different story, but if you have a gut feeling and knowledge of the market, your guess is probably just as good as the hired help’s, if not better. Insist on getting things done your way.

I was raised under the traditional Chinese roof where we are taught to be humble and we are dissuaded from engaging in conflict. Well, after all my years of business, I’ve concluded that following the ancient wisdom can often times be disadvantageous and impair your chances of success, especially if you’re a minority trying to do business in America. As an Asian, we are disadvantaged in both skin color and cultural exposure in Hollywood. YouTube has become a great alternative to traditional casting calls and has empowered a lot of minorities, including Asians, to build a successful following. I applaud this generation’s cultural transparency and creativity, but I condemn the concept of “Fresh Off The Boat”. Growing up in America, non-Asians used to make fun of my friends who spoke English with an accent, so I cannot condone a TV show that profits on one of the most derogatory terms from my childhood memory.

Getting back to the birth of my partnership with Floyd Mayweather. It was not only an extremely unconventional business partnership in the sense of how it happened, but it was also rare for a Chinese-American to join forces with an African-American athlete. There were no more business details discussed after the “51-49” exchange. On the table was a million-dollar blank canvas, and I had to figure out the shortest path to the Benjamins. There were old business partners, too, that I had to navigate through in order to get the company started: Floyd’s business manager, attorneys, entourage, and many other unpredictables. Many of the conversations we had, I won’t be able to divulge for reasons of confidentiality, but I will share the main business insights from my experiences in hopes that they can provide some sort of wisdom in your quest as an entrepreneur.

 


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