Founder of Let’s Make Great! 3x TEDx speaker & creator of PROTO
Text and interview by Carolin He
Brian Tam started his company Let’s Make Great! in January 2013, which is a Shanghai-based creativity consultancy company, working to make the next hundred years of innovation happen in China. He is a three-time TEDx speaker and the creator of PROTO, a game about entrepreneurship, designed for aspiring innovators to get a taste of the creative journey. Brian has been in China since 2007 and has been working to drive the fantastic change that is happening in China and the world.
“I am willing to die for creating this dream and chasing it”
The year was 2006 and the news about China was very negative: everything was either copied, fake, poor in quality or simply lacking in creativity and innovation. There was a lot of criticism and Brian did not think that it was very fair. That was when he decided to go to China and see what it was like – “it seemed to be a very interesting place and I wanted to get a taste of the craziness and chaos that was happening in China.” The medium that allowed Brian to go to China was English teaching with the Swedish company EF, but he did not let go of the idea of helping others and companies in China to be more creative.
“I looked for companies that did that, but everyone rejected me of course because I did not have any special qualifications. I was not a designer, I did not have an MBA, I did not speak the language and I was a very introverted person at that time.”
When Brian realized that he could not be hired in a creative company he started to think about starting on his own – and that was just what he did. Six years after he moved to China, in 2013, Brian established his company “Let’s Make Great!”, an organization which helps companies to be more creative through exploring new business opportunities. It can be a new product, a new service, a new brand, a new strategy or a new department etc. – “ We like to do things that have not been done before. We like to call ourselves business explorers.”
Brian and his team – Let’s Make Great!
“My dream is to make a hundred years of innovation happen in China”
I met Brian during an event where he was one of the speakers. Brian is amiable, great at storytelling and reaching out to the audience with his friendly approach. I was curious and interested in his journey and asked if I could invite him for a coffee – and that’s how our friendship started. This is Brian Tam and his career journey and life in China.
Brian was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. His parents are from Hong Kong and they lived in an affluent middle-class neighborhood one hour from New York. Brian went to the University of Maryland and studied International Business. He describes himself as really geeky when he was young and was not a top student.
Brian’s father is also an entrepreneur and started the first Chinese language magazine in New York City. His mother works in an office as an office manager so Brian got the creative drive from his father and the order, structure, and rules from his mother. Brian’s grandparents were also small business owners and entrepreneurs: “So I have a little bit of an entrepreneurial background from my family.”
“My former boss was very influential to me, he mentored me and let me work in his office so I got to see how he was working every day.”
Brian graduated in 2005 and started to work in the B2B marketing department for Choice Hotels International, which owns eleven different brands and has more than 6300 hotels around the world. His former boss was the vice president of the department and gave Brian the opportunity to work directly with him as a special project intern. At that time there was nothing called an innovation department: “It was more like, let’s think five years in the future and plan the business. Let’s imagine what the business can be like and the future potential.” They called it special projects and it was not directly related to the business.
Brian’s former boss was Scottish American and he talked about his time before he started to work. His former boss sailed around the world and got skills and experiences that way: “So I thought alright, if he did that and he is successful, maybe that is one thing I should do.” Thus Brian decided to travel and went to Paris with all the money he had saved up his first year: “ I didn’t get very far and after three months I had to come back”. Brian worked for Choice Hotels International for two and a half years before he decided to go to China.
“It was very clear that Shanghai was going to be the future.”
Brian did not start his company until after six years in China. During these six years, he worked as an English teacher in a learning center for adults and also as an independent corporate language trainer. After that, he joined a small leadership development company for two and a half years managing the office and marketing projects before he started his own company Let’s Make Great!
“Everything was a challenge because I didn’t have any training to do what I wanted to do.”
Brian started a business in an area he had no experience in before so he didn’t know what he was doing – he didn’t know how to price it, market it, explain it etc. “Everything was a challenge and I solved it person by person. Part of my strategy was to find people that I admired and learn from them.” Brian learned and observed as much as he could from these people and would regularly ask them questions about the business itself.
“I would explain my business to people and they would ask me questions. Every time they asked me a question I had to think about an answer. That allowed me to change and tweak my answers so that it would be more interesting and convincing for that person.”
Brian did that hundreds, maybe thousands of times in the first couple of years and each time he got better and better. “Person by person, conversation by conversation, question by question and then I got deeper and deeper into these conversations until they were convinced and said: OK, I want to work with you.”
“I want the world to see China as a creative culture and nation.”
Brian also wants the country and the culture to develop the ability to foster new creative talents, who are independent, critical and forward thinking. “I want all these capabilities to be part of the culture in terms of the society and the business. How do I know that is going to come out? Through a product, so one day I want a new product to come out of China that the world is shocked by and falls in love over, a whole new innovation that changes everything almost like the iPhone did in 2006/2007.”
Challenges and learning in China.
This year Brian and his team have taken a slightly different change in their strategy, focusing on branding and marketing. Brian has on average done more than one event or speech per week, where he works on creating a positive impression about Let’s Make Great! and himself. Due to all the marketing and branding, they now have opportunities that keep them very busy. One challenge for Brian today is to find the right people to join the team and grow the business.
Brian’s biggest learning experience in China was that he got the space and opportunity to discover who he was. “Shanghai is cool because it is very open-minded and if you are not from China, it allows you to experiment. The mentality of not being in my home country allowed me to experiment with who I could be and that was a very liberating opportunity Shanghai provided for me.”
“People come to me for inspiration and clarity.”
Brian is a perfect example and people like to hear his inspiring story: “I had zero ability and I still survived. I think people like to hear that – I want to show people that it is possible.” Brian asks a lot of questions to clear people’s minds – “Clarity allows you to be motivated.” His hobby is people and relationships, so in his free time he does interviews and has coffee with friends and strangers alike. “I just want to understand, learn and talk to more people and see what is going on in their world and if I can, sometimes help them.”
“I created the card game PROTO, which was a response to the idea that what we were doing was so abstract.”
Brian has been working for five years now, building up his business, brand, and team. “I have done so much work and it is just the foundation, we have not even started to build it yet.” Brian created the card game PROTO to escape from the idea of just being a service and built something physical, which could open new doors for them. “A lot of people don’t understand my business, but when you put a box in front of them and say: There is a game in here that is about innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, people suddenly understand.” PROTO is not only a game for companies and universities, it is also a game you can play together with your friends on a Sunday evening.
PROTO is a game about entrepreneurship, designed for aspiring innovators to get a taste of the creative journey.
Brian plans to build more offices in the world and to become a filmmaker.
Long-term, Brian wants to expand his team in Shanghai, open an office in another city in China and eventually a third one outside of China. “Once we have these three offices we will start to develop different business units where we focus just on brands, products, organizations and be innovative and creative in each of these areas.” In the future, Brian also wants to have a whole bunch of products like PROTO. It could be books or maybe an app. Personally, Brian wants to shoot films, make movies and tell stories. “I tell my story and I’m getting better at it, and I’m listening to a bunch of other people’s stories through interviewing – I’m just downloading stuff so that in 5-10 years, I can start to become a filmmaker.” Brian does not want to be a full-time filmmaker, more a businessperson who makes films.
Brian’s suggestion to you, who want to do the same journey
When I asked Brian what he will suggest to anyone who wants to make the same journey as him, he looked at me and said: “That’s the dumbest thing you can ever do, if you want to follow my path, then you must be really lost. The whole thing they should take away from my story is that you have to find your own way.” Brian found his way through coming to China and starting his own business.
“It is finding the challenges that will help you define who you are. I think people are looking for successes, but they are not looking for challenges.”
Brian’s book recommendations
- Siddartha by Herman Hesse
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
I’m happy to have met Brian and to have his support. He once told me that he hopes he will be sitting in a café somewhere in the world and that the table next to him will discuss and be super excited about a new product invented in China.
“I will be sitting next to the table and watching over this and be very happy and excited, not surprised because I want Let’s Make Great! to be the team that was working on it.” – Brian Tam
One day, I hope I will be sitting in a café somewhere in the world and the table next to me will talk and be enthusiastic about a product and I will be smiling and think – I know the guy who has been working on it. I love your passion and dream Brian. You are a true source of inspiration!