“We think of success as only measured by your money. / But, money never lasts. / In fact, it’s only last / on the list of impactful things you can ask for / …So, with that – we need us a plan…” – Wale, The Perfect Plan
Welcome to The Many Faces of Success Interview Series: a reoccurring interview series focusing on success in many forms. From entrepreneurs to writers, to travelers who are just living the life they want to live…in this interview series I sit down with people who are living and defining their own success on their own terms, people who I find inspiring, and whose stories I find interesting enough to share here.
In today’s post I sit down with Heather Ma: an inspiring traveler and young entrepreneur from Taipei, Taiwan. Heather is the CEO & Founder of her company, Solo Singer Life. She owns and operates two hostels catering to backpacking travelers, and a quaint but rather dynamic hotel in the Beitou area of Taipei, perserving some the culture and community of the heyday of Beitou: The Solo Singer Inn, which opened in its doors in September 2012. Her next project is a nearby cafe in Beitou that she plans to open within the next few months.
I caught up with Heather in the lounge of The Solo Singer Inn, where she was able to share her story about her beginnings as an entrepreneur and how travel has inspired her life and business.
[LENGTH: Approx. Read time: 27 min.
This is one of my longer posts here on the blog. Some stuff from the interview with Heather was cut – but I kept what I kept because I liked her story and obviously found it interesting.
Short Version: 4-Minute Video at the Bottom
If you really want a much shorter version of her story, or just a quick gist of it – scroll to the bottom of this post – I’ve included a 4 minute video: a Blackberry Taiwan web commercial she appeared in that tells essentially the shorter version minus most of the details.]
The Backstory: Her Inspiration & Business Beginnings
William: Okay, so you own hostels and a hotel here in Taipei. Can you tell me a bit about your story: how it all got started?
Heather: My story?.. okay.
I graduated in accounting and I was mostly a regular student. I think I was pretty normal, especially coming from a Taiwanese education background which doesn’t encourage you to think independently early on.
But, at that time I think I made a good decision to travel for a year. Because, my imagination was after you start working you won’t have the time and if you have family – it’s even worse: time-wise and flexibility-wise, not life-wise. (laughs)
So, I decided to do that. It took me one year to persuade my Taiwanese parents.
I started in Europe. I spent 6 months in Western and Central Europe and 3 months in Britain, basically because of visas and Europe is also an easy start-point for a young traveler.
And, then I was thinking where else to go.
I bought a one-year ticket, but I wasn’t sure if I could travel that long. But, if you don’t try, you never know. Now, after 9 months I was thinking about where to go. It’s pretty hard – when you have Taiwanese passport its pretty hard to get landing visas or you have to apply for visas. At least back then. Now, its getting better and better.
A friend of mine hitchhiked on a sail boat from England to the Carribean. Because, every year when the trade wind comes a lot of people do that. And, when you have a smaller boat you need a hand, because you need to have somebody to watch the boat 24 hours. So, I tried to do that, but I didn’t succeed because I went there in the Winter and it wasn’t the trade wind season. I walked form port to port and I couldn’t find one doing that. I even bought a sailor’s book on how to tie the knots and all the different things, but it didn’t work out. So, like a regular backpacker I took a flight to Central America.
That was Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. That was a very big difference [from Europe].
For all the travelers its the same: when you go to a very different place it just blows you away. Right? But, in all the different places you can always see something thats seems universal: the values they are pursuing From the rich people, from the poor people, from the developed or undeveloped. I guess if you immerse yourself in a very different environment it always makes your belief in humanity more firm.
So when I came back to Taiwan, there was one thing I was even more sure about and that was I won’t do an accounting job. This was so much more fun than accounting.
Then some of my friends that I met on my travels came to Taiwan. I started to look for a hostel for them and couldn’t find any. At that time Hostelworld probably lists 5, maybe 10 hostels. And a lot of them are either pretty old or it’s the YMCA. So, I’m thinking about: I might just start one of my own.
So, I just started it.
Yeah. You just had the idea and did it?
Yeah. So, I was looking for spots. There was actually one hostel nearby, but they moved away because the landlord just kept on raising the rent. And the place they moved to was not as ideal as before and they also had more problems with the landlord. So, my first takeaway was that I should have my own place rather than just rent one.
I was very lucky because at that time there was the mortgage bubble, the credit bubble. Meaning they trust you a lot.
Oh okay. So it was easy to get a loan…
It was very easy to get a loan and they’re even willing to give you more money because they believe the property value will go up so fast, that they’ll be able to make it back within maybe half a year.
So, I got all the money that I needed. I didn’t spend a penny of personal money because I also didn’t have any money at that time.
And when you try to start something completely on your own – on my own meaning also maybe with friends, but without experts helping you or professional companies backing you – you count yourself as free labor. And your friends.
We did everything on our own. Starting from drawing the floor map, finding construction workers, and overseeing/supervising the construction and then from cleaning, from marketing, from overnight. Everything.
And, I did that for a few years – for two years.
For two years? Just staying in Taipei and running the hostel?
Yeah. And then I wanted to travel again. I went to China to travel for 2 months. That was the first time I could leave for this long a period of time. Because, you know when you finish a one year trip any trip thats shorter than one month is not a trip. Well, it changes, for me right now it’s 2, 3 days or something and it’s a trip. But, I tried very hard to make this trip two months. And China is really – especially when you first go there – its really breathtaking. Its so different. So I was thinking to really know this place you have to live there. So I started looking for a job thats ideal enough for me. So, that I could stay in China.
Two Years in a “Real Job”…. in China
And, I found a job in Education. Market Development.
And the job was very ideal. Not because it’s education. I didn’t know much about education. But I got to travel all over China.
Almost all the businesses in China can be franchised. So, even from dog washing to maybe, maybe just providing pure water. Every little thing can be a big chain. So, education was of course a big thing because of Chinese parents, to them only education can give you opportunity.
So, it was a very good industry to get in. And, also I would say education is relatively milder – in terms of the intensiveness of the culture shock. Because, you’ve heard a lot about all of the things that you need to do when you do business in China. Education is relatively better in that sense.
In those two years I traveled in probably about 100 cities in China.
And, then…. I came back.
Yeah. What brought you back?
I really liked that job, but the reason I come back was because I thought I had to choose one industry that I will love to spend my lifetime in. And I felt I should chose this industry before 30.
So I came back.
Ok. So, what was happening with the hostel when you were in China?
My friend was running it.
Ah, I see. So, two years in China. You got to travel around. Surely you were influenced by that trip somewhat. What were your biggest takeaways from working there?
Well, my boss in China was one of the people who gave me the most influence.
First, he knew I was going to work there for only one or two years. Not long. But he still shared everything with me. He did not hide. Also he knew that I really loved traveling, so he told me – on every business trip, as long as you’ve finished your work you can take a couple of days off and do some personal travel in that city.
There was also once that I represented my company to a University to give a speech, but I screwed it up in a very bad way.
It’s a University in Taiwan, and it’s a very good University. And at that time a lot people are saying that the problem in early education industry was – cuz Taiwan’s birthrate is dropping so there are fewer and fewer kids, so the scale of the school is getting smaller.
Also it’s a free market in Taiwan, so if you’re doing a good job, then your competitor can open a school next door, immediately.
The kindergarten teachers are always the youngest, the least experienced, and the least paid. And, you can think about the situation now. From 0-6 is a key period of your life and you’re going to be influenced by these inexperienced teachers who are probably spending their whole day worrying about their love life. (laughs)
They have all sorts of different problems.
But, in China I saw a good business model in education. And I saw a very good balance between making money and education ideals. So, I thought, “if you can – if theres an opportunity for you guys to go there and see a totally different education market. Its such a good opportunity.” So I went there to the University and I introduced the job side – the market.
But, it turned out the head of the department, is someone who is very… very very high into German philosophical education. She does believe in education – she doesnt really care about the job side, the market side, and so on… the practical side.
So, I was talking about something that she really doesnt care about, so she thinks I’m very unprofessional and I’m bringing wrong information to the school and so on. She as her beliefs. Which makes sense, but I think students need more opportunity.
Anyway it was pretty bad. She said pretty harsh words to me. And I was representing my company. So, after I finished the speech I just emailed my boss and said “I’m so sorry. I screwed up and I don’t know what to do.”
And he just said, “there’s a saying: 一樣米養百樣人 [ yīyàng mǐ yǎng bǎi yàng rén: one kind of rice can raise one hundred kinds of people.] So, we can never please everyone. As long as you did it correctly and thats how it is.”
So, he didn’t blame me for anything. He just gave me a lot of thoughts for work and life. And that influenced me a lot.
Changing Taiwan’s Tourism Industry: A Different Way to do Hotels
Ok. So, you came back from China to chose one industry to stay in. To chose your focus. What happened next?
After I came back, since I was running the hostel previously, it was pretty natural for me to think about running another place. At that time I was thinking about another hostel. But, by then… I was not only a backpacker.
Coming from a backpacker, and then traveling in China I became a business traveler, and after I started working in China, I started realizing that my time with my family is so limited. Even if I spend every day with my family, you can still count how many years to go. So, I decided to travel with my mother, because my father is…. pretty sick. He had an organ transplant. To be safe, he cannot travel abroad. So, I decided to travel with my mother abroad – once a year.
So I also experienced another type of travel. When I’m traveling with my mother, I plan it better and stay in nicer places. Visiting relatively safer, more glamourous places.
So these three types of trips gave me different takes on what traveling and tourism should be like. So, even though I was thinking about running another hostel, I found this place.
And, the first time I saw this place I thought when I left, “Oh my, what a terrible place! I’m never coming here!”
This place? [references to the hotel we are sitting in]
Yeah. Because, its hidden in an alley. There’s no way to find your way. When you first come here it looks so sketchy. When you are carrying luggage you get lost – for 15 years – and you want to kill someone, anyone you see on the street. And, if it rains – because the cars cannot stop near the front door – it will be even worse.
So… I crossed it out .. I said no on this place.
But for some reason, after awhile, I took my friends here. And, they are doing creative jobs, or they are artists, and they gave me a totally different view on it.
“You can say.. its retro, but its historical, it has some cultural, grassroots culture in it, it has all sorts of different aspects”…but no business aspect.
No business aspect?
No, of course they didn’t care about that.
But, it gave me an inkling of.. it gave me a brand new view on this place. And, I started to think “maybe we can have something totally different.”
Also at that time I visited a lot of other old hotels. And I realized that in Taipei most of the old hotels are already destroyed. There are a few lucky ones that are renovated by hotel groups. They are renovated in a completely new way.
And the rest of the hotels are staying there because the owners are probably too old and they don’t like changes. And they still live in the good old times – back when they made a lot of money.
So, I started thinking.. you don’t have to change it completely, you only change the bad parts, but you preserve the good parts – which you don’t see in the new hotels these days – it will give people more confidence in themselves and have economical value because you can raise the room rates.
Also, its another option on urbanization or urban renewal.
So, thats how it started.
So you were going around looking at different hotels that were for sale? This was a hotel before?
Yeah, it was a hotel for 60 years. And, before, when Beitou was its primetime there were tons of different hotels like this. But, Beitou area suffered 2 big changes.
One is the ban on prostitution. Because theres the hot spring, and hotel, and business people, and all kinds of different services and of course prostitution makes the most money. But, about 20 years ago Taiwan put a ban on prostitution.
And then, 10 years ago there was SARS. And it was the last straw.
All the industry in Beitou, because if there’s no tourists, there’s no hotel, no business, no nothing. So there was a lot of construction that stopped in the middle…. in New Beitou area because even if you finish construction there still won’t be tourists.
So, in the primetime there were big and small hotels, but after that a lot of hotels, the small hotels, cannot survive. So they all closed. So now there are – in Beitou there are only two hotels like this.
And one is already agreeing on building big buildings for the real estate developer. And the other one is this one.
So if we don’t do this, then in the future, people won’t have these kinds of hotels.
So, what kind of hotel is it?
I would say because its hidden in the alley. Its very very quiet because its hidden in the alley, so a real estate developer would see less value in developing this. So, the community, the neighbors, they are still pretty original.
I say they are original in the sense of the way they live. They still hang their underwear all around, in front of your window. They are really direct. They really care about you. They wish you the best. If you do something wrong, they come here the first moment and then shout at you, but the next moment they just forget and move on.
So its very easy to live here.
And also, because the cars cannot drive in, its very quiet at night.
A lot of people say its hard to find a hotel where you can still sleep with your doors open. In the morning you’ll probably be woken up by birds.
There are two abandon houses around here. Both are interesting. One is a Japanese-era building, so you can still see some historical culture. And the other one has a big, big tree coming out from the middle of the house.
So, its very ery different.
It’s Taipei, but it’s not Taipei 101. It’s not all the international chain, 5-star hotels. It’s just a kind of forgotten, untouched corner. Which is nothing fancy. Which is as simple as your most basic need.
Ok. So, what’d you do when you bought the hotel? You said you wanted to keep the old that was good and renovate fix the bad.. what was the plan there?
So the plan was this: to keep as much as possible. But once you do it, you know preservation is not as easy as you think.
Especially when you first come into a space that is going to be renovated halfway. It’s hard to decide which part you are going to keep and which part you are going to destroy. Because when everything is renovated the things that you preserve might look terrible, might not fit in.
Also, the problem with old buildings is not its style.. it’s its sanitary or safety part. Very weak roof, or leaking wall, or molded wall, dirty washroom, and so on. All these things cost a lot of money. But after you spend that money you won’t see any result because it’s not visual, it’s not aesthetics.
So, yeah… it was very difficult. We spent a lot more money than we thought. A lot of people that did this say it actually costs more money than just knocking everything down and rebuilding everything. Because when you do preservation you spend a lot of time figuring out what to keep and you have to mark it, because when the construction people come into tear everything off they have to spend extra minutes checking what part I have to take care of. And once these things are taken off you have to find storage. Then after all the construction, when you put them back you realize a lot of things are not functioning and you need to fix them but the parts are gone. Nobody manufactures the parts. So, you might have to use your creativity. You might have to handmake something.
So that’s a lot of extra money you might have to put in.
But, a lot of people come inside and they will say “oh, it looks pretty retro. You have the very old, retro marble floor, you use maybe some old furniture” but being retro is actually not our theme.
“To have the heart to treasure everything we own” is what we want to present.
All the old things, or all the old furniture, or material that you’re seeing. You’re thinking beautiful. You’re thinking retro. You’re thinking it has a meaning of time, history. It’s because our ancestors and our parents and grandparents are using it very carefully. When there is not so much production. When every object is precious and because they treat everything carefully and they treat it with respect. And no matter what we have nowadays – even if its something you don’t like – even if its fast food culture – or, industrial mass production, whatever – If you can treat it with respect, if you can treasure whatever you have, then our offspring can still enjoy the legacy. At least they can see our footprint.
That’s what we want to promote.
A Glimpse of The Solo Singer Inn
Ok. And how long has this hotel been open?
We started last September. The first operation. But it took us almost 6 months to renovate.
And business is going well now?
It’s getting better. Slowly.
What do you do to promote it and get the word out?
Yea, um.. I think we didn’t do a good job in marketing at the beginning. Not because of the content, but because of the speed. We were not sure how much we want to promote this place because its very organic.
We invited 20 artists to come and renovate the place. But we asked them to not renovate it in a designer’s way. Because a designer’s way is very easy to predict. Especially, a designer hotel. Big pattern here, or the thing is red, or the thing is graffiti, or whatever. We wanted them to design a place where they would love to stay in to write, to paint, to work, to live. For a long time.
So we don’t want it as a theme hotel. And we don’t want artists to design it as a museum by putting a lot of art everywhere. So its very very low key.
Even the composition of the artists are very organic. Some people heard about the hotel project. Some are friends’ friends.
But anyway, we weren’t that sure about how much we wanted to market. Which was a mistake. When you’re running a business you promote a half-year early. Early before operation. But we started too late. So at the beginning almost no one walked in. It was only us.
And, also… I think we, the thing we want to promote, is not so as obvious as the visual stimulation. It’s very psychological and mental. So it also takes longer.
We realized foreigners like this place more than Taiwanese people. Because Taiwanese people might think this place is too normal for them. But, for foreigners, especially global travelers, who have seen a lot of cities, and they have stayed in all the nice hotels, but they are all the same. They want to stay in somewhere thats authentic. Somewhere that’s very different. Somewhere unique.
But, reaching out to international travelers takes a little longer because at the beginning its always the local media.
Oh ok. So you have gotten some local media coverage?
We have gotten a lot of local media coverage. Because, as I say, we are the first hotel project thats renovating in a preservation way.
It’s funny because at the time when we did renovation there was a big new headline that urbanization, urban renewal is causing a lot of problems for the right of people to live in their own house. Because there is ruling saying that if more than however much percentage of people agree on the rebuilding thing, then you have to agree.
So they buy people out and tear their houses down?
The law is changing so I’m not sure anymore. But you can think about two parties: one is the real estate developer and of course the goal is the make as much money as possible.
And the other side is either preserving what we had: be it historical ruins, be it our own houses. “Do I have the right to stay in my own house? I want to stay in my own house. I don’t fancy any high-rises. My own humble place is the best.”
So it’s kind of two opposite directions. If the law, if the government, is not handling it well then it’s very easy to have some conflict.
So, there was a big case happening in that time. Our existence – providing another option, providing an opportunity, to also keep the value high, but preserve what we have – destruction is not the only way to recreate – think this concept attracted a lot of people.
“I Hope They Are Not All Like This”: Clientele in the Beginning
Ok. So backtracking quite a bit – what about when you first started, with the first hostel? Did you have to do a lot of promotion around it?
Yeah, also at the beginning we also didn’t have many customers. So we spent a lot of time playing Mahjong inside with our friends so we don’t look so pathetic.
And, I still remember our very first hostel guest was somebody coming from America. Who was a complete couch potato. He stayed there 5-7 days and only on the couch. Watching TV and complaining how bad the TV shows are.
I was really scared. I hope not all customers are like this.
He didn’t travel around Taiwan or even Taipei at all?
Not at all. Usually he’d go out twice a day to 7-11 to get some food and come back to watch TV. Enjoying 7-11 food.
Ok. Well, that’s an interesting vacation.
(laughs). But over time, I guess. Right now the business is stable because we’ve been running it for a long time.
6 or 7 years now.
Ok. And it was always two hotels?
The second one started when I was in China. I came back and saw that they were renting it so I just asked them if they could rent it to us.
Ah, ok. So, you just kind of added it on to the business…
“Ta-Dah! Here’s My Cafe!”: The Next Venture
So what about.. now, there’s a cafe coming? Tell us about that…
Nearby here – its only 5 seconds away. Yeah, I was just planning. Designing is a very painful thing to me. Creation is a painful thing to me. It’s exciting because of the unknown, but it’s also very painful, because you are the one who’s going to decide what its going to look like, and I like possibilities.
So, once it’s done, its kind of fixed.
I like a space with a lot of possibilities. So my design is always very basic. I really hate design that is very ornamental – like a lot of patterns, like burrough style, or some ancient style, strong color. Because it kind of limits the human touch.
I like an empty place, and over time with people bringing stuff in, with people stealing things away (laughs) and with people leaving messages on the wall.
You just like to see how a place organically develops..
Yeah, but its very painful in the process, because you tell people, “tah-dah! This is my cafe!” and it looks so boring. So empty.
So you’ve already secured the place and now it’s just about getting it up and running?
Yeah. Well, we have to start construction soon.
The Cafe, Now.
So what are your plans for construction? Tearing down walls and building walls?
So there’s no extra wall now. There’s just a very long, narrow space. With a restroom and a kitchen.
We are going to serve some simple food. Simple set meal. Mainly tea. Only simple coffee, but more tea options. And, some events.
Interesting. So when do you expect that to be open?
Maybe in 2 months…. and I’ve been saying “2 months” for about 3 months now.
You have a name yet?
Solo Singer Life.
Ok. So, its tied in with the hotel in that sense.
The “Fall” & The Importance of Family
Hmm… lets see what else can I ask about.
What do you expect in an interview? If there’s nothing spicy coming out, you’re not going to stop? “Tell me how hard did you fall?”
There’s some journalists that like to know how hard you fell and they will make you look very glamorous and successful.
Ha. Did you fall? Was there a fall?
(laughs). Of course.
No. I think the biggest challenge was my father’s health. Because he was so hard working. He’s gone to do dialysis for a very long time since I was very young. But you never realize his organ could stop functioning. And when he went for the transplant it was very very bad. There were a few times where we’d get notice from the hospital, where it’d be: “come here to prepare for a funeral” and things like that.
So, when you’re so close to death, it really changes your life.
So what was it actually?
He had kidney problems. And, a long time ago people didn’t know there was Hepatitis B and C. There was only a Hep A check. And for early stage dialysis you need to inject blood… I don’t know how to say it, infuse blood? A lot of people at that time got Hepatitis C. Hep C lasts for a few years and then your liver will get hardened and it will stop working.
And that started happening.. when? When was that?
10 years ago.
Life is very short.
So now you started doing one trip a year with your mother?
Young People. Shaping the World.
Any other traveling that you do now?
I also travel a bit for the Global Shaper Community. That is a World Economic Forum community. A new community thats coming out of WEF. The organization structure is half of the organization are members, and the other half are constituents.
And the member half is the corporates. They have to pay huge member fees. That includes all the big companies you can name: Coca-Cola, McKinsey, BCG, Accenture, etc
Constituents are people that are determined to be beneficial to society or are the driving forces of society. So they have technology pioneers, spiritual leaders, and young global leaders.
Young Global Leaders are the people between 30-40 year old.
So most of the groups are defined by what they do, but there are two groups defined by age, and of course you still need to go through interviews and et cetera. But Young Global Leaders are 30-40 and Global Shapers are 20-30. And they started [Global Shapers] 2 years ago without very obvious instruction on what you have to do as a Global Shaper.
There is the age limit and then there are the hubs. The definition of a hub is a city. So, Taipei is a hub, Tokyo is a hub, Austin is a hub. And every hub needs to run its own projects that are beneficial to your society. To your community.
I was the founding member of the Global Shaper Taipei hub. So at that time I traveled a bit to conferences.
So you go to other hubs and meet with them?
Yeah, depends. Usually, they have a regional meeting. Or they have meetings on certain topics.
I went to Bangkok last year for ASEAN counties. I also went to Geneva for curator training. These were also, I would say, life changing experiences for me.
Especially the ASEAN trip was mind-blowing. Because we are still seeing the mentally that Southeast Asia is slow. People enjoy their life, take their time and work-wise just take it easy. But, its not true. They are doing everything to catch up. Their GDP growths are amazing. Their governments are trying so hard to make a difference. So, it was some picture to me.
Also, meeting the fellow Shapers is a big thing to me. In the meetings I met a lot of big people including the prime ministers of all the ASEAN countries, and also Aung San Suu Kyi, who, at that time, traveled outside of Myanmar for the first time in 24 years. I put a picture of me and Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook. That is when I suddenly had a lot of new friends requests. People don’t remember my name, but I’m the person who took a picture with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Heather & Aung San Suu Kyi
But, actually what matters to me the most is the fellow Shapers, not the big people. Because knowing that someone has a similar background and they’re about the same age, they have so much motivation, they have such a big vision, they’re doing great things and have firm beliefs -it’s really something.
Ok. So what else are you getting involved in? It seems like you’re always asking questions and fishing for ideas. Are there other business ventures you’re interested in?
I don’t know. I love tourism. I think that is the for sure thing that I’ll do for my life. But, I’m also very interested in tech.
I follow tech pretty closely. I’m not an engineer and I don’t know any coding language, but to me tech is really something that’s driving human direction. But how do you define tech? I’m not sure. If you’re not coming from that background, then tech is only about actual needs in your life.
So, I don’t know. I’m still seeking… to see what’s more fun to spend my time in….
For more on Heather and Solo Singer Life, check out TheSoloSinger.com
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