So You Wanna Make Money in Shanghai: Business Lessons from the ‘Hai Part 2, 90s Style

Posted on October 23, 2012


Get the Goods Out. foto@me

HOO-HIPPY-RAY! You’ve started a business!
You’ve signed a few deals. Sold some shits. Shaken all those grubby hands. You’ve got it made! You’re on your way up! You’re rollin’ in the hunnies!

In Business Lessons from the ‘Hai Part 1, I’ve described how important it is to have the right attitude. Assholery is everything, if you want to get somewhere in some reasonable amount of time. But every asshole also needs his/ her weapons. Even poor little jerks need the ole boost now and then, you know? So, if you’ve already got enough stinks to start your business, your next challenge is to learn how to manage your as-yet meagre financial resources. In other words, you gotta play the Debt Game.

The Human-Eat-Dog world of business in Shanghai is steamrolled on massive oil-tankers of debt. Indeed, sometimes it appears that people thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with owing tons of money to tons of people. It sharpens the senses, I’ve heard them say.

Intrigued? Here are the rules for kicking everyone else’s ass at the Shanghai Debt Game. And because I think the 90s kicked everyone else’s ass in music, who better to guide us through this biz-talk post than the best sounds of my teen years. Oh wait! I mean I was barely ten then. Ahaha…haha…ahem.

Rule 1: “Sabotage!” [or, Shove it Forward]



(Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”, 1994)

This awesome balls song and mv from – seriously now – one of the greatest 90s fixtures tells it perfectly. (Spike Jones is ridiculously cool.) I’m also reminded of a line from a Bill Bryson travel book. Billy, exhausted and pissed-off by poor service, bad beer and ludicrous prices in a bar, got propositioned by a hooker. “No thanks,” the Billy-O intones. “I already got fucked by the management.”

So your clients have royally screwed you. Twenty reminder phonecalls, twenty different excuses. It’s astonishing how creative people can get when they don’t want to pay. And let’s face it, no-one wants to pay. As Little As Late As Possible is probably coded into our DNA when we’re kids, and I suspect, through those “mandatory” “flu” “vaccines”. They slip some shit in there, you know it.

So what do you do? You shove it forward, because you’re taking it up the back. Your clients’ excuses can be easily repackaged and recycled for all your suppliers. Print out the best 5 excuses and toss a dice to pick one out whenever the phone rings, or a dreaded silhouette appears in the doorway. It’s the nastiest human caterpillar ever. But it’s the only way to survive, as the Ohio-an indie rockers put it, “The Game of Pricks”.



(Guided by Voices, “The Game of Pricks”, 1995)

Rule 2: Make ’em Say They’ve “Never Known a Girl Like You Before” [or, Cultivate Omnipresence]

Now, if you have a limited amount of money, but unlimited places to check it in, you gotta make choices don’t you? You gotta prioritize. And if you do, you’re likely – once the truly essential things like rent and electricity bills are out of the way – to decide who to pay first based on how big a stink they’re likely to kick up.

It therefore doesn’t take a whole lotta of brain juice to figure out that YOU could be the stink-kicker-up that other people pay first.



(Edwyn Collins, “A Girl Like You”, 1995)

Edwyn Collins has taught us that there are cheap, effective ways to make yourself heard. (In fact, he had wanted to make the song available to anyone for a free download, but his label wasn’t having it.) Apart from dressing up like Elvis and shooting out of focus, there are a whole lot of options to insinuate yourself into your debtors’ consciousness (and hopefully conscience). Be creative. Off the bat, I can think of 5 methods I have employed in the past 48 hours:

1. The friendly “just to say hi” email

2. An adaptation of #1, except you’re dropping a mail “just to give you some interesting new updates!”

3. “Oh, could I invite you for a drink?”

4. Tell their friends/ associates to tell them that you “said hi” and send your “regards”

5. Set up competition – so-and-so juuuust bought something similar and are looking to acquire another, and oh! your piece is STILL HERE, all vulnerable and ripe for the taking because you haven’t fully paid, d*psh*t.


Basically, make yourself the girl they all can’t forget – like one of those awful porcelain cat figures in restaurants. Always pawing, always smiling, always there, always impossible to get rid of.

Rule 3: “Protect Ya Neck” [or, Do Not Get Desperate]



(Wu Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck”, 1992)

People in debt are likely to leap into the arms of Super Huge Jerks or Super Stupid Jobs just to get out of debt. Dude, if you got some good shit going on, you will (probably) be successful (eventually). Wu Tang says: Protect Ya Neck! Resist! Rage, rage, RAGE against the dying light! Huge Jerks aka Dungbeetles can smell despo-sweato from a mile off and will come swarming with greasy leers and slick offers. They will ask for 50% – no, 60% off. With international door-to-door shipping included. And could you remodel my website while you’re at it? Oh wait – I thought we said 70% off! I would NEEEVER have agreed to just 60%.

Huge Jerks aka CrapSuckers also have the nasty habit of pressuring you to do stuff you’d never normally do. Like insinuating that they would pay/ buy an even bigger piece/ introduce you to their other friends etc, if you 1) tell them the names and numbers of your suppliers; 2) reveal contact details of previous clients; 3) sell them your first-born son for $10 (excluding discount). As the Clan says,

Ain’t saying cash / bite my style I’ll bite your motherfuckin’ ass!

And then the Stupid Jobs. If you’re an artist, you don’t wanna accept a job designing T-shirts. If you’re a writer, you don’t wanna accept a job editing your friend’s daughter’s neighbour’s gardener’s grandson’s annual school magazine. If you’re Wu Tang, you don’t wanna accept a job doing post-production foley on a detergent ad.All these jobs are fine, honest, work. But if you are not intent on doing them seriously, leave them to the professionals. Concentrate on your actual business, your long-term goals. All these irrelevant jobs will take up your time and energy, and then what if they don’t pay as well? Deviating to make a few bucks will hurt you more than you can imagine. Listen to the Clan. Wu Tang Wisdom is like no other.

Rule 4: “Cut Your Hair” [or, Actually Get Your Act Together]



(Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”, 1994)

Now the Debt Game is mostly about shuffling around, tai-chi-ing your blame deftly and gracefully to every other entity. But it would be remiss of you not to use your BrokeBack situation to do a wee bitta operational trimming. While you tighten your belt and wait for funds to flow in, maybe take the scissors to the unrulier locks in the meanwhile. I know, it’s a concept, right? In fact, it is also massively useful not to go out and put 5 bottles of Dom on your credit card after you’ve inked a deal and before said deal actually pays. I know, also a concept!

However, looking at the hordes of wannabe entrepreneurs waving their sometimes metaphorical dicks around Muse Club and M2, it does need to be said.

Seriously, though, during the tough times, it would be quite a pity if you didn’t use the opportunity to carefully comb through the expense accounts and reflect on budget and expectations. And for fucks’ sake, TELL YOUR STAFF. Tell them. Swallow the pride. Open the damned mouth. Write the stinkin’ email. Sometimes you gotta say it super clearly, cos there are always dense people out there: We are really broke now. Do not choose to restock office supplies now. Do not “take that client out to lunch”. Do not opt for super-express delivery. Maybe do a few things yourself. Like work. You remember that, don’t you?

And if your staff has staff, make sure they tell them all this. Because there is nothing – and this has been scientifically proven – more likely to cause an epic blowup than the sight of five boxes of wine glasses rolling through the doors when the accounts are down to near-zero: “Oh, I couldn’t find our wine glasses and I thought I’d just get these now on special for next year’s possible dinner party!” (Ditto getting a paid intern to sort address labels.)

Advertising looks and chops a must.

Take it from Pavement, one of the 1990s’ greatest – greatest – bands. (Also, the mv. Watch.)

Rule 5: “Groove On, Sexy” [or, Always Look Fabulous No Matter What]



(Deee-Lite, “Groove is in the Heart”, 1990)

No-one loves a loser. If by now you’re still pissed off and taking it hard that your clients are SO LATE in paying, and all these annoying suppliers just KEEP BUGGING you, and can’t ANYBODY just UNDERSTAND how HARD it is for you right NOW?!!! Then really, you still don’t get it. No-one gives a shit. You’re an asshole, remember?

Take a note from Deee-Lite. Groove is in the heart, and so is this disco-ey, hip-hop-lite, G-Funky track, pieced together from a team that included Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and funk legend Bootsy Collins. These good folks are here to tell you that you can still look glam even when you’re broke. Which is important, because the danger of sliding into self-pity is not just that it’s paralysing and disempowering; it’s that it actually causes you to lose business at a time that you can ill-afford to. Success breeds success – stick that in your nose and smoke it. No-one wants to do business with a loser. Your sob story will disgust 95% of your clients; the 5% who shell out from pity will not likely return. And the people coming after you for money? The last thing they want to hear is that there could be a possibility they might not get paid. (That’s the last thing YOU want to hear, yourself.)

So with the debtors, be persistent but ultimately chill. Dangle the wine-glass, smoke the cigar, always look Ab-Fab. But insist on getting paid. Soon, darling? Oh lovely, lovely! How’s the missus and the sweet little girl? She turned five? Oh delightful! Now, you said that you’ll be transferring the funds again when? Exactly?

With the debt-ees, be apologetic but cool. We’re waiting for some funds, most likely next week. We’ll be in touch once we get it. Sorry! Thanks for your patience. Swivel your chair around; then swivel it right back and order more supplies for next next week. It shows that you still have tons of business, and at the same time will make them work faster because they’re dying to get paid. Right? Right.



(Right Said Fred, “I’m Too Sexy”, 1992)

“I’m Too Sexy” has the debatable honour of making both Best-Of and Worst-Of lists, including VH1 (best) and Blender (“Listen and Cringe!”) Personally, I love it. What is there not to love, really, that mv. It holds the meaning to Life. This is a bunch of guys who are sticking it to everybody, having a laugh about it, and then sticking it somemore.

Cos really, that’s what it takes to excel at the Shanghai Debt Game. You’re too sexy for people to resist paying you, and yet too sexy to pay anyone in return.