Book review: Progressive Partnerships by Callum Laing

Progressive partnerships cover

By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Progressive Partnerships provides a practical road map for securing the partnerships your business needs to thrive.

Remember that guy who traded his way from a red paperclip to a two-storey house? Callum Laing’s latest book Progressive Partnerships begins with the business version of the same story, about a guy who uses partnerships as leverage to get his son a Vice-Presidency at the World Bank and married off to Bill Gate’s daughter. These days, when collaboration and partnerships are crucial to business success, Progressive Partnerships provides a practical road map based on Callum’s own experiences, on how to secure the partnerships your business needs to thrive.

Callum is a keen student of what has gone before him in the world of business books and he has read them all. In that way we are kindred spirits, and one of the key pieces of advice I give to people starting out in business is to read all the classic business books and Progressive Partnerships sits comfortably alongside books like 4-Hour Work Week, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Start Something that Matters. Callum and I were first introduced by David Clive Price (author of The Master Key to Asia) and Callum subsequently interviewed me for The Asian Entrepreneur; I have been following Callum’s career and learning from him ever since.

Callum has been in the entrepreneurial game for decades and along the path of his own success, which includes owning yacht regattas, a nightclub and a fitness business valued at $10m operating in eleven countries, he took the time to carefully observe other people who were more successful than himself and learn from them.

One of the things he noticed, and has described in his book, is that

“successful business people had amazing networks around them. They had the ability to receive opportunities through their networks. They had the ability to pick up the phone and talk to lawyers, politicians and other business owners. They had access to people who could make stuff happen for them, very quickly. When we see people find success time and time again, it is because they have built the infrastructure for success.”

Once this realisation hit home, Callum set about developing a similarly amazing network for himself, which he began by organising business networking events in Bangkok. He started the networking events largely because, in his words: “I didn’t have any money at the start and couldn’t buy the services I needed to achieve the goals I wanted”.  That he didn’t have any money didn’t seem to faze him, and like the guy with the red paperclip he used his networking clubs and the contacts he gained from them to trade his way up what he calls “the value ladder”, just like the guy with the red paperclip did.

“One of the hardest things about starting a business” writes Callum, “is trying to build credibility”. When Callum relocated to Singapore to start Fitness Buffett he didn’t have any credibility, or an office for that matter, and his contact list was thin on the ground. What he did have though, was a ‘vision for the future’, something which he describes as “more valuable than money”. His vision was enough for him to trade some equity to a small Singapore based consulting company in exchange for some office space. Having an office builds credibility, and he added to this by enlisting the partners in the consulting company, which included the ex-MD of Microsoft Singapore and the ex-CFO of Yahoo Asia, to his advisory board. I’ll let Callum pick up the story from there:

“Within less than a month I had an office, an address and an awesome advisory board. Before long I was able to leverage that to get William Easton, the Head of Google Mobile Asia, on board as an advisor (he now runs Facebook Emerging Markets). With all that in place I was able to raise the valuation of the company to US $ 10m, raise the funding we needed to get things kicked off and hire my first full time team members. Beyond that we could leverage those names to attract licensees in multiple countries. Every new country opened our credibility, and our ability to add value to clients grew that much stronger. Today, in twelve markets around the world, we are leveraging on our learning from that business to launch new products in new sectors.”

Callum writes that “strategic partnerships are the single most important and misunderstood element of building a business, and one of the least explored areas in business books” as well as writing that “the single biggest asset you have in a business is your ability to understand and execute successful partnerships”. Progressive Partnerships fills this gap in the business book genre, and throughout it Callum draws from his own experience while explaining how to build partnerships in a progressive manner from scratch. His recommended approach is to make lots of small deals with as many people and companies as you can; the deal to get his office in exchange for equity is but one of many examples detailed throughout the book. “Each deal is a step towards a bigger goal” he says, “every deal you do creates more value and allows you bigger pitches”. In other words, “every deal gives you more credibility” and he goes on to explain how to do this from the outset even for those without money

He describes how to pitch your small and too-good-to-refuse deals through examples and explains what to do when things unavoidably go off-track. Callum’s experience shines throughout the book; “my list of failed partnerships and businesses is way longer than I care to admit” he cautions, “but with every failure I got a bit clearer on what worked and what didn’t”. As Marx once said, (Groucho, not Karl): “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself”, and this philosophy is one of the great strengths of Progressive Partnerships.

Much of Progressive Partnerships discusses how to set up and use networking groups to the benefit of yourself and your business. In this way the book came to me at the right time, just as I was considering setting up a business networking group in Phan Thiet, the seaside Vietnamese city where I currently spend most of my days. Progressive Partnerships  convinced me to set up the English Speaking Business Club of Phan Thiet immediately rather than later. Useful topics about networking groups include how to find sponsors, get free stuff, attract members and monetize your group to ensure its longevity. Of course, not everyone is interested in setting up networking groups and many cities are over-supplied by them, but the techniques that Callum highlights to build progressive partnerships are interchangeable with other starting points. The basic idea is to identify what you have that can give value to others to help you climb your way up the value ladder, and take these steps, via lots of small deals to get to the top.

Progressive Partnerships changed the way I think about my business overnight and in a very practical way. It made me think about what I have to offer and how I can best use my strongest assets, which aren’t financial, to help build my business. When I read about Callum trading his way up from practically nothing to being a successful business owner, I realised that most people don’t know their own true value and the value of their individual vision. In many ways, Progressive Partnerships, like all great business books, arms its readers with an increased confidence in and understanding of their own personal value, and I think this is its greatest strength.


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