Steps to Renting: Becoming a Landlord

If you remember my previous post about generating additional income, it was quite a long time ago in which I wrote:

My wife and I have talked about renting out our current apartment to generate additional income. But we encountered three problems that have so far prevented us from making any success on this:

  • 1. we like it here and we don’t want to move yet;
  • 2. we still wouldn’t make any residual profit from renting our house out without paying off part of the mortgage principal (something we don’t have enough cash yet to do); and
  • 3. we can’t decide where we’d like to live other than here. Contribution $0. Potential contribution estimated at $100.

So if you like a rental income property (and who doesn’t?), what do you need to get started? Mmm… it’s hardly like we’ve made a start. So let me list the things that I think I would need:

1. Renovation:

We seriously need to do the tiling work in several rooms: the bathroom, where the tiling is beginning to separate from the walls due to the contraction and expansion of the concrete in summer/winter, and the poor workmanship when the place was finished. I also suspect that we need to replace one of the air conditioners in the study.

2. Redecoration:

We’ve got walls painted in a variety of colors, and it’s been a few years. It’s likely that our tastes aren’t exactly the same as our renters. So we’ve probably got a bit of painting to do, as well as other minor repairs.

3. Insurance:

Not sure how to handle that. I know that you can get landlord’s insurance… but what happens if the tenant absconds or worse? Can that be claimed?

4. Finances:

Since our property is mortgaged, the yields are just not very attractive since rents are fairly low in this neck of the woods. We know that we would have some gross profit, but there’s also a landlord’s tax of 10% on the income. So not sure how that would work. I think the only solution would be to pay off some or a lot of the principle. Still a good return on money invested.

5. Renting:

Finding good tenants would be a priority. The neighboring landlord rents his apartment, the tenants there have been anything but reliable. Dirty, filthy,… with problems paying rent. I think tenant screening would be essential to prevent this, even if it meant the apartment being empty longer.

With a sound plan, it might work. Still a few kinks to work out. I do know that the area is very desirable, with lots of chances to find tenants. Of course, that means we’d have to move! A chance to find a new area.

July 4th: Taiwan welcomes cross straits direct flights – but what about all the other problems?

While America celebrates the 4th of July, Taiwan is celebrating its own July 4th – the first direct (legal) cross-straits flights since 1949. Ma Ying-Jeou’s new government recently announced the easing of cross-straits relations, and has brought in something of a warming of cross-straits ties after years of stalling by the previous Chen and Lee administrations.

While it’s difficult to know what the upshot of this will be, it’s a welcome boost for tourist-related businesses in Taiwan, and is broadly a positive development in easing the political strains across the straits. In fact, just earlier this week, exchange controls on RMB (previously unavailable on Taiwan) were eased though not removed entirely.

But will this help to end Taiwan’s current international isolation? I’m afraid that won’t happen any time soon. European governments, including Britain’s, have slowly been upgrading their facilities and services on the island, but a full embassy they are not, and many embassy functions are simply not carried out.

There was a recent announcement that AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) was planning to move its base to Neihu, and plans were announced for garrison quarters in the new buildings. This however was quickly played down; but it’s clear that many western governments are now covertly laying the groundwork to establish diplomatic ties at some point. Such ties remain over the horizon for the time being.

Check out the BBC slideshow.

So this week’s events are just the next step in a long road towards sorting out the consequences of the Chinese Civil War. I won’t be making any bold predictions on peace talks, full-recognition, or any of a myriad of on-the-back-burner issues for quite some time.

Business Start-Up Killers or How to close your business in five steps!

Having been in business now for nearly eight years, I recently had pause to consider why typical businesses don’t succeed in the local market in Taiwan or anywhere. This list includes some of my observations:

1. Poor Financing

Most business owners here in Taiwan budget enough money to open the business, but they base income projections and the related decisions on the most rosy of circumstances in the first three months. The result is often that the business will close within 3 months because the businesses have run out of cash, and haven’t built up enough customers on a returning basis to pay for the basic costs. If you’re planning to open any business, remember to consider several scenarios and prepare for different results.

When we opened our business, we had very low estimates of income in the first six months; and we were financially comfortable with the idea of paying costs until the business could support itself. Part of that was a realization that salaries for the bosses (the only staff at the time) would be token only.

Solution: Always budget for a period at startup in which income is less (much less) than your expectations. Don’t forget to include unexpected startup costs. Be bullish on these because best-case scenarios rarely occur.

2. Missing the Mark

It’s amazing how many business owners only look at the superficial aspects of running a business. Yesterday my wife and I ate in a coffeeshop that had newly opened. The coffeeshop had a great location, and lots of potential. But when we walked into the store, everything LOOKED fine. It’s only when we ordered the food that we noticed the LOOK of the store was quite different from the reality. The staff were untrained, didn’t know how to greet customers, the drinks we ordered were pricy (for that kind of service) and really didn’t measure upto drinks at half the price in better restaurants (no flair), and the management seemed too busy doing the work to notice what was missing: an atmosphere, good service, and passion for the foodservice business. Oh, well.

The restaurant was called O Sole Mio and had a very pretty facade with a decent counter area, and much of the right equipment, too. Its location was on a major route around the north coast of Taiwan just outside Jingshan. In reality, most people would only stop once as we did.

Solution: Focus hard on the quality of the food or service that you produce. Make sure that they are up to scratch. And be your own harshest critic.

3. Location, Location, Location

That’s right. We’ve seen great businesses with potentially good profit margins killed by their locations. Why? Because the location chosen for the business ate up most of the businesses income. The business owner had chosen a high traffic location to maximize the market exposure. Result: he ended up paying over the odds for rent. When it turned out the product wasn’t that great, initial business interest fell away, and word of mouth didn’t occur.

A bakery opened across the road from our community and fell victim to this situation. Worse: the baked goods were quite unexceptional, and there was little reason for customers to cross the road to shop there, when TWO very good bakeries were less than 100 yards away. It shut in less than three months.

Solution: Choose a cheaper location, and create such a great product that people will go out of their way to find you. Once you have the quality, margins, and cash, then rent a mainstream property.

4. Hiring Staff

This has to be the biggest bugbear of any new business. Why? Finding good staff is an ongoing nightmare for our school from the first year that we opened. We have recruited actively most of the past eight years, but many of the applicants have been less than desirable. Even those we vetted carefully and who came to interview and do demos with us were in most cases unsuitable. We hired the best of those interviewees, but in reality only one or two of those we hired had the passion to be an excellent teacher.

Of course, hiring and training are both essential. When you hire new staff, it’s important they be trained properly. This is an aspect we seriously underestimated as we expected our hires to have the same passion and skill as we shared. This expectations have been tempered by our experience.

Solution: you have to be prepared to hire selectively, manage directly, and fire decisively. Poor staffing and staff who are unmotivated and interested only in their salary both will seriously undermine your business.

5. Freebies, Giveaways and Discounts

Over the years, we have noticed that some promotions work and some promotions look like they work. You have to learn to tell the difference.

  1. Freebies – Giving away products and services for free rarely generates a good client-base. Why? Because you will always attract people who like ‘free’, and who will shrink at the first sign of a bill or invoice. If you are going to do freebies, make sure it is tied to something that is purchased. And clearly state that these are introductory offers only.
  2. Giveaways – Giving away products may work for toothpaste and shampoo. It will likely not work for your business. Why? Because you will have to give away a lot of samples just to get some leads. Be careful with what you give away.
  3. Discounts – Discounts also can be used to attract attention, but you need to be careful in how you manage them. Otherwise you will find that you have to offer permanent discounts to keep customers who ‘thought’ that the discounted price was the regular price. Worse, as we found out, some customers will tell others that that is the pricing.

Solution: Clearly limit the duration, type and extent of your promotions. Make sure that your discounts, freebies and giveaways are closely tied to those you are trying to attract. And manage your cost basis effectively enough that you can still have a decent mark-up after your promotion. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to service those accounts properly.

One of the biggest reasons that you need to avoid these ‘killer promotions’ in the long term is simply that you will end up in a bidding war either with your own pricing or with a competitor’s. You should have confidence in your pricing structure. Aggressive promotions will create initial surges of interest, but may undermine the future of your business, the quality of your products, and your reputation.

These five issues are all issues that I’ve dealt with in different situations. They did not all pertain to my current business, but I’ve seen how the effects of these bad decisions can effectively ruin a nascent business, even one that has passed the first two years. Do let me know if you have any additional suggestions for this list.