James Sun is a serial technology entrepreneur with several exits and is currently the CEO of Beautytap and the Owner of Dramabeans. James was the first Asian male to land a spot on the NBC hit reality TV show “The Apprentice” in season 6 and became the first Asian finalist in the history of the show. After The Apprentice James became the host of his own TV show on The BBC, called “Sun Tzu’s War on Business” where he was tasked with and successfully accomplished turning around 12 companies in 11 different countries in a span of 18 months.
James is a champion of corporate diversity and inclusion, and an expert in the global marketplace and workforce, working with corporations to tap into their diverse employee cultures to not only empower them, but to give diversity cues to the company about how the products they sell are perceived, useable, and best presented to all cultures and ethnicities around the world.
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Serial Exec James Sun: The Necessity Of Diversity Decentralization Empowering Employees & Consumers
Joining us in this episode is James Sun, a serial technology entrepreneur with several exits and is the CEO of Beautytap and the owner of Dramabeans. James was the first Asian male to land a spot on the NBC hit reality TV series, The Apprentice, in Season 6 and became the first Asian finalist in the history of the show. After The Apprentice, James became the host of his own show on the BBC called Sun Tzu: War on Business, where he was tasked with and successfully accomplished turning around 12 businesses in 18 months. James is a champion of corporate diversity and inclusion and an expert in the global marketplace and workforce, working with companies to tap into their diverse employee cultures to not only empower them but to give diversity cues to the company about how the products they sell are perceived usable and best presented to all cultures and ethnicities around the world. Please join me now with the incredible James Sun.
James Sun, thank you for joining me here on the show. How are you doing?
I’m doing good. It’s nice to see you, Chris.
It’s been a long time since we have been in person. I’m excited to always connect with you and hear about the latest and greatest with you. I know you have so much going on all the time with your companies and businesses. You are always coming up with new ideas and doing incredible things. Your story is amazing. I want to go through everything with you. There is a lot that you have to share. The main thing that I think about with you as a speaker is your passion for diversity, for inclusivity and for starting companies that address and embrace that, not only with the consumer but also with the employees. I would love to start a little bit further back. You were the first Asian male on The Apprentice. Is that correct?
That was a show with our former President, Donald Trump.
You know the president.
Yes. With NBC, he had a show called The Apprentice. It was a business show where people got fired where you do different projects. I was the first Asian male on the show. In fact, I made it all the way to the end because he fires someone every week but I made it all the way to the finals. That was pretty cool as an experience.
It’s funny that you think you have to explain to everybody what The Apprentice is because I would be shocked if people were like, “What’s The Apprentice?” It is shocking that you were the first Asian male. What season were you on?
It was the last regular person season before they went to the celebrity version. It was Season 6, the one in Los Angeles.
Six seasons in and you are the first Asian male. You went all the way to the finals. I know that Donald Trump complimented you, said you were an amazing businessman and he would have loved to have you. He said some great things about you. What was your take on that? Did you realize you were the first Asian male on the show?
I watched that show and Survivor religiously. Those are two reality competition shows that interested me. Watching the show, I noticed that there were a lot of great business people and personalities on the show. I never ever saw an Asian guy. I wonder why there was never an Asian man cast because you think about investment banking, entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley so many Asian men that are business folks, yet none have been cast on the show. I thought, “Why not try out for this show since it’s one of my favorites?” That’s how the journey started. I did notice there were no other Asian men. I did not mind being the first but Chris, I didn’t do it because I wanted to be the first Asian man. I wanted to be on the show because I thought it would be cool to see a more diverse cast including an Asian male.
You not only almost won the show and came in second but after that you also got your own TV show on the BBC, is that correct?
I was cast for a show called Sun Tzu: War on Business. It was a BBC production where I got to play the business personality, running the show where I would go in and help a business in a different country. We filmed in eleven different countries. It was an amazing experience, over eighteen months of filming.
The premise was this company is failing and we are going to come in and show you how to turn this thing around.You sometimes need to take two or three steps back in order to go five steps forward. Click To Tweet
It’s a company struggling and we come in and apply Sun Tzu’s Art of War Principles to turn the company around. It’s like East meets West and also using historical knowledge that many generals in China fought with as a war strategy to turn these businesses around. It was in different countries so the audience got to see the cultural aspects of how businesses are done, not only the micro but the macro as well.
Tell us more about what Sun Tzu’s Art of War Principles are and how that applies to business.
Sun Tzu’s Art of War was a military strategy. There was a book written from the 5th century BC about a Chinese military leader that used these principles, which were wise principles in terms of when you go to battle. For example, it would teach that you sometimes need to take 2 or 3 steps back in order to go 5 steps forward. You want the enemy to sometimes think that you are retreating but what you are doing is you’re loading up and getting ready to attack when they are not expecting it. These are the types of battle wars and battle lessons that the book teaches you. We applied it to the business world.
How do you apply it to the business world?
For example, another great principle is that you got to be like water. Water is extremely powerful but it moves and it’s always adjusting to its environment. Instead of looking at a market and a strategy one way, you have to constantly be adjusting and imagine how relevant that is now. In our digital generation, new technologies are happening every day. New competitors are coming up. You got to be constantly adjusting. It’s extremely relevant to how business works.
Those companies that you were turning around on the show were all walks of life companies. They were mom-and-pop stores. Tell us a little bit about what kind of companies they were.
I work with companies that were 9,000 employees in Mumbai, India, all the way to a small clothing boutique in Singapore. You think about the wide and the breadth of companies. Another cool one was a winery that was out of Australia, a lot of us enjoy Australian wine. It covered different industries and continents to apply how culture works within the business. That is something that was interesting, Chris, is that there is the aspect of understanding diverse cultures because every business environment is different. In China, for example, when we were working with a company, a lot of the employees were accustomed to being entrepreneurial. If you applied that to another industry like in Japan where it was more hierarchical even though there are two Asian countries, their philosophies of employee mentality are wildly different based on the culture that they lived in.
They had a great idea to show that off within the show. You have always been about diversity. You have always been an entrepreneur. Before you went on The Apprentice, you were already a successful entrepreneur. Did you have a couple of successful businesses already at that point?
I went on The Apprentice as an entrepreneur. Having had some experience with starting companies, exiting some companies, allowed me to understand what it takes to start something from scratch. It’s so hard to start a company from scratch and make it successful especially in this ultra-hyper-competitive environment. Having done it gave me some insight even on the show and then going on Sun Tzu: War on Business show, it gave me some experience to lay back to. As I also work with a lot of companies and consult as well with Fortune 500 all the way to startups, I see patterns.
There are a lot of patterns. Ultimately, what it comes down to is patterns of people, people’s behaviors, how they think, what things make them click. Even though you might be working with Microsoft who’s in the high-tech business or a small startup that is in the CPG industry or consumer goods, there is so much psychology to your people and to your audience. One of the metrics that I have studied is how to use segmentation and diversity as an offensive weapon to attack markets rather than just an HR policy.
You tap into the people that you already have and you make sure you hire a group that represents the consumers that you are going after.
Let’s think about this, Chris, if you are going to go after the African-American market, should you hire only non-African-Americans? Absolutely not. The best person to understand the African-American consumer is the African-American executive. If you are going to go after the Asian market, should you hire a non-Asian? You should hire someone. Here’s the key, your executive team needs to be having an encompassed wide diversity because we live in a diverse world. Your consumer market is very wide. Therefore, having a collective that is diverse in thinking in their whole approach is going to give you the offensive strategy to attack those markets best.
It seems to me like all of your businesses have been technology companies. Is that correct?
Yes. Mostly all my personal entrepreneur endeavors have been in mobile web, consumer, internet, tech.
What are your favorite businesses that you have started and had success with from the past all the way up to the present?
What I love are the businesses that are B2B2C. There is a business-to-business element. Why I love that is because there’s great cashflow and profitability because it’s predictable based on the B2B part but I liked the C part because what it does is it gives you the scaling multiples that you could achieve. A good example of a B2B2C business is one of the businesses that I have, which is a consumer website around beauty products and discovering new beauty trends. Our business model of how we make money is not from the consumer. It’s from other businesses that we bring into the ecosystem into our platform and leveraging the consumer.
What is the name of that company?
My beauty company is called Beautytap. What it does is that it allows beauty brands to connect with beauty professionals so that they can get very interesting content and reviews written so consumers could discover information about those brands.
It’s a place for you to go and buy these products but also get great advice on which ones are the best ones for you, where you can use the reviews, the comments and the feedback from experts. Also, consumers, other people like you, to figure out which one’s best for you.
Our site has three components. The first one is it’s got beauty professional reviews. These are certified, verified beauty professionals like estheticians, makeup artists and hairstylists. They are reviewing the second component of business, which is brands. Brands sign up and then these folks are independently reviewing those products so there’s a genuineness to it. They are not being paid to get those reviews. It’s independent and genuine. The third component is the consumer. They come on and read those reviews and go, “I liked what that professional said. I trust it because it was independent. I’m going to go purchase it.”
It seems to me like all the companies you have had have focused on representing everybody as a customer base being not just one type of person, of one race or one ethnicity but everyone. I have also noticed that you have put the power in the hands of the consumer may be more than other companies. You have put yourself in the shoes of the consumer in a big way with everything. What were some of the other companies that you also had?
I have another company called Dramabeans. I have had it for a long time. We have now fourteen million users. One of the keys with that company was I wanted to introduce Korean content or Korean dramas to the English-speaking market in the United States. As you can imagine, a lot of US folks might watch Netflix and see the foreign content but they might not understand everything even though there is translation because there is a cultural subcontext as well. We built a community recapping every Korean drama that is extremely popular now on Netflix as a category. We built a community around it. What it did was allowed non-Koreans to enjoy Korean content. Thereby, what I’m doing is making my small dent in the world of promoting my culture and helping other people understand my culture and may not have understood otherwise.
That could have fourteen million people now, which is incredible. I do love businesses that promote culture, understanding, tolerance, education. For Beautytap for example, one of the key things that we are doing is we are disrupting the review industry. When you go to Amazon or you go to a retailer site and you see the people that are reviewing the products, you don’t know what race, size, age they are because there are no pictures associated oftentimes to the review. What we’re doing is we’re putting a diverse element to it where we are holding the brands accountable for not only using executives or hiring executives that are diverse, not only the models that they are hiring but even the people that are reviewing the products to showcase the diversity. The brands love it because the brands could show that, “Our products are for all people.”
Tell us a little bit more about how the companies now whether they be big or small need to embrace diversity and making sure that we don’t forget about who our customers could be and only the customers we have had and how do we expand into other markets. There is a lot of money to be made there if you realize that you can reach other groups that you have never even tried to or thought about before.
I remember working with a great company called Medtronic. It is a Fortune 500 company, publicly listed. They have 104,000 employees. Their CEO brought me in to do a seminar as well as a keynote around diversity but not using diversity in the traditional ways, where a lot of times it’s always about HR policies and making sure that there’s diversity inclusion. I wanted to showcase to a company like Medtronic that was global that you can take your different diverse groups and create a new strategy around not only the HR element of it but how you approach growing your markets. It was a top-line strategy rather than just a policy strategy. We are talking about if Medtronic wanted to go into XYZ markets whether it’s a certain country or demographic, how they could create an internal formulation or a framework to find those right people out of the 104,000 employees that have the cultural experience and also the strategic experience to be able to launch the products or the new businesses within the new markets that the CEO wanted to get into. It was a groundbreaking way of thinking about diversity was an offensive strategy, not a defensive.
You must be watching what is happening in the world in 2020 and saying to yourself, “I told you so.” All the things you have been talking about for many years have been thrust upon businesses now to show consumers that they are thinking about them, they have causes, they are giving back, they have purposes besides just the bottom line for the shareholders. Tell me a little bit about what you think now has happened in 2020 and where the next few years are headed as far as some changes you can see happening that maybe you saw it coming or maybe you can see coming now.
Chris, we are living in an interesting time where there is a confluence of cross-currents that are happening around decentralization and democratization. It’s not only in diversity but it’s in the finance world, like the decentralization of our finances. We are seeing this Reddit effect where it’s the voice of the people and the individual, not necessarily the central authorities saying, ”Do this.” I saw this happening and coming several years ago as if you are on the internet and on Twitter or Reddit enough, you will see this groundswell of people that want a voice. There are more and more people listening to that voice more than the rhetoric of traditional media. When this happens, it gives everyone a voice to keep brands, companies, media, platforms accountable. When the consumer keeps you accountable by being able to get one Reddit story read by millions of people, you are going to pay attention.
One of the best ways that I’ve found to keep companies accountable is not to call their customer service when there’s an issue. Tweet that you had an issue with the company and you will get a response faster from the company than you would be contacting their support and writing an email into their support, which could take days or even weeks. We are held accountable publicly. Therefore, now companies and institutions are held accountable for their diversity standards to make sure that they are giving everyone an equal chance, to give everyone an opportunity to have a voice. Therefore, we are seeing this groundswell of a power shift in our world. You are seeing it on the news. It will continue. Companies that don’t pay attention to this and embrace it are going to be almost ostracized by the consumer.Decentralization gives equal access. Click To Tweet
What technologies and trends are you most excited about when it comes to the technologies? You mentioned Reddit. There are a lot of social things happening, social media tools and things that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, Tiktok and other new things happening now with Clubhouse. Are these things going to stay? Are these things the future? I know you are also into cryptocurrencies. It seems like empowerment of the people is prevalent in everything in society now more than ever before. It’s been fast-forwarded. What are the technologies or the things are you most excited about or that you know people should pay attention to?
This decentralization movement is here to stay. People want to own their data. They want to control their experience. They don’t want the big platforms monetizing their information without their permission. It’s going to go into a permission society and where technologies that allow people to decentralize, empower and get their permission are interesting spaces. One, in particular, I’m very much paying attention to the crypto space around not just Bitcoin but around the decentralization apps out there that are attacking industries. All of a sudden, I can have my information in a decentral way across people that I trust rather than hosting it with just AWS. It’s where I could have my money in a lot of different blockchains that are confirming that I have that instead of just trusting the Bank of America.
Those are the things that I’m particularly interested in. The Gen Z-ers and even the Millennials that are getting older now are going to drive this because the Gen Z-ers are going to buy Bitcoin before gold. That is what they hear about and are used to. We are going to have this transfer of wealth and experience that is going to go to the digital native person that is used to the phone being their access point of not only information but also keeping that information. Decentralization is a big thing that is going to change many industries over the next 5 to 7 years.
You do talk to Fortune 500s and different departments within them but when you are talking to the small business owner, what do you tell them to do? Make sure they are doing now that they need to have as the first thing on their list as far as taking advantage of all of this in the decentralization world but also in the apps or the trends world as far as how to reach the consumers. There are two sides. There is data and money and then there is also the consumer, reaching them and connecting with them. On those two sides, what would be the first thing to do?
I still consider myself a small business owner because I’m always involved with startups. The number one thing that I could give as advice to small business owners and startups is trust. Build trust with your consumers and your clients because building that trust is going to allow you to scale. A lot of companies that try to build a product and get as many customers as possible from day one don’t understand that you need different levels of customers to be able to add on. For example, let’s say that I can get one million customers. If I got one million customers in three days, I could lose them in three days. You want to build these. I guess layers of customers where you go get the first 100 then you build the next 1,000 on top of then you build the next 10,000 on top of because you are building these layers of trust.
When you could do this, use tools like social media and decentralized services. Empower your customers to say, “I don’t own your data. I’m providing you the best service that I can. I will be transparent so keep me accountable on social media. I will answer. Put a review on Yelp, on Beautytap, on Glassdoor, I will respond,” Engage with them to build that trust. Trust is one of the most important things that small business owners can do because the movement, Chris, is that the mass consumer doesn’t have trust with the big guys. As a small guy, how do you compete? It’s to build trust.
What about the blockchain, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies? There are still a lot of people who are categorically opposed to that. They think, “It’s never going to happen in my business, my consumer, my customer. I’m never going to need it. It’s never going to be something that we need to adopt. By the time that comes into my business, I will be retired.” What are your takes on how quickly this is happening? Cryptocurrency and the blockchain are starting to become part of the zeitgeists, everyday news and so many companies adopting it, investing in it as well. What is your take on all of it? I know you are bullish on it.
You want to be careful about the speculation in the industry. There is no doubt about it. If you are trying to make a quick buck, be very careful. I also likened it to the early internet days because I am old enough to have experienced the mid-‘90s to the 2000s and saw what happened to the internet. When it first launched, people were saying it’s only for drug dealers and people that are on the dark web and doing strange, nefarious things by nefarious characters. The internet was frowned upon.
Amazon and PayPal were scary places.
PayPal wasn’t even legit. It’s like, “You are trying to go behind the scenes and doing things. You want information on the internet. What are you trying to do there?” It was almost criminal-like. The internet was looked upon. You are getting some of the same rhetoric in crypto. Anytime a new technology comes around, people are scared of it. Centralized services, media and companies that could be broken up because of it are going to put out a lot of rhetoric against it. You have to look at what is happening and ask yourself is it going to be beneficial for the user? When I saw the internet, I realized that it was giving free access to information that was going to be valuable. I don’t know if you remember this, Chris, but remember we used to have encyclopedias. If you were from a middle-class family, you bought Britannicas, encyclopedias every two years and you had more information than people who couldn’t afford it.
The people who can’t afford it had to go to the library. We bought it and we felt so cool about that. Now the internet allows anyone to get the same information access with democratized information. What blockchain and crypto doing is democratizing the accessibility of financial instruments that may have not been available or only Wall Street got first. Crypto is the first time that the consumer is getting access to something ahead of Wall Street from a financial instrument standpoint. There have been so many scandals, Chris, on Wall Street. I can’t even start naming how many there have been. The consumer’s usually the one that either has to bail out with our tax dollars or holding the bag. The movement of decentralized services, finance, Bitcoin, it’s allowing the consumer to engage in it before the institutions, which is pretty cool to see that happening to give empowerment to the individual.
It seems like this entire conversation that we have just had is all about empowerment, decentralizing and giving people a say and access to other people. I know companies now are hiring people who don’t live anywhere near their offices now. People are able to see things in other parts of the world they never knew about or could see before. Everything’s here for all of us. It’s a pretty exciting time. You have been working in technology and around inclusivity and diversity. This must be your golden era. You must be excited about everything that you are seeing happening even though there are some scary things happening. There is a lot of anger and resistance from certain groups about people’s empowerment, that it’s all headed in the right direction. Ultimately, we come out of this a better human being around the world because of what is going on.
People deserve to get their voice out and have access to information to products and financial instruments regardless of color, social-economic and age. I love the fact that you can have someone young to someone old, someone from different countries be able to be on the same playing field now. None of this changes the same playing field perfectly. If you started out with $1 billion and someone started out with $10, you are always going to still have that wealth gap but it doesn’t mean the guy that has $1 billion should have more access and easier access at better prices than the person at $10. That is what decentralization does. It gives equal access. You’re still going to have gaps but at least the access should be the same.
My whole thing about diversity is it’s not a, “We’re getting attacked.” It’s all about using it as a strategy for the offense. That’s what I have been preaching for several years now. It’s like, “Use this as a string because I know that the best way to make change happen is top-line stuff.” Things that are top line and sexy for executives are that they will put money into things that helped them make money. I’m using diversity and teaching companies and organizations how to use it to make money, not just, “Cross the T’s, dot the I’s and you are legally compliant.”
Now that everybody has access to us as companies and products and it doesn’t matter where they live in the world, you can reach everyone. Anybody who is not understanding that and doesn’t care about certain aspects of the world is missing out on money.
They are way in the past. They are living in the 1970s if they think that they are on an island and they don’t have to worry about what people say on the web anymore.
It’s an exciting time. I’m so excited that we got to have this conversation. We covered a lot. You are passionate and inspiring. You inspire me every time to understand that the world is a small place and everybody’s voice matters. Thanks for reminding me and everybody about the future, the future is now and what all of this means. It’s an exciting time. I hope everybody understands what you’ve been saying. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. Take care.
Thank you. Bye.
About James Sun
Public speaker, published expert, thought leader on diversity & inclusion and it’s impact on consumer and workplace demographic trends, and a CEO who combines practical business experience with subject matter expertise.
James Sun, a modern-day millennial entrepreneur, who’s applied Sun Tzu’s Art of War principles in his business and personal life. These principles have helped him successfully build a quarter of BILLION DOLLARS of business value and exits. He’s succeeded in helping launch 7 out of 8 startups, that’s a batting average of .875! Compare that to the average success of a venture-backed company of 15-20%! He’s accomplished this, by applying the principles of the Art of War. He even used these strategic battlefield tools to gain a spot on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” and became the runner-up against 800,000 applicants. He’s starred in his own international television show with BBC and CCTV the world’s largest network in China where h turned around 13 companies in 9 countries in 18 months by directly applying the principles of Sun Tzu.
He is the founder & CEO of Pirq, a loyalty application for small and medium-sized businesses where he successfully raised venture financing and launched the top 3 loyalty CRM app in the nation. He also created an education joint venture called Idapted Korea and sold for over $45M to one the largest online education training companies. James also ventured into India for his entrepreneurial ventures and helped grow the largest luxury taxi company in India called Meru cabs.
He is also the former owner and publisher of the longest-running Asian-American magazine called Korean and Audrey magazine. His newest projects include being the co-founder of AppZocial – the newest mobile app platform that helps mobilize and socialize trusted communities, and owner of Dramabeans – the largest online editorial hub for Korean drama and Kpop fans.
James graduated from the University of Washington, and he was recently selected in the “Wonderous 100 Alumni Award” (top 100 alumni) which included prominent individuals like Bill Gates Sr. and Kenny G.