Ep 2 – Nelson Liem – Exmerce Barter

The Ambition Project – Calgary Entrepreneurial Podcast

The Ambition Project is a video series in which we interview successful and ambitious Calgary entrepreneurs and talk to them about their struggles, what they’ve had to overcome on their journey and valuable insights they have to share with up and coming business owners. The series will premiere on September 18th, 2018. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay updated or stream an episode on Spotify or iTunes.

Nelson Liem: Thanks for having me Jon. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah, welcome , I’m very excited. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah me too , I appreciate it. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So Nelson has been running Exmerce for what? 14 years now?. 

Nelson Liem: Yes 14 years ,So I started the company in 2004 and we operate a business trade exchange providing bartering services for small and medium sized businesses. In Calgary we represent well over 400 companies and by helping these small businesses leverage barter it’s a way for them to reach out to new customers, save cash and turn any sort of excess inventory or capacity into profit. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Great, so before we continue and dive into Nelson’s story and his expertise, a quick message from our sponsors. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Our first sponsor is Symbol Syndication, which is a video production company that I started. We do video production and online marketing for businesses of all sizes ranging from Solopreneurs to Fortune 500 companies. 

Our second sponsor is Gravity Cafe, they have been gracious enough to give us their space, the coffee is awesome, they have live music 3 nights a week, the beer is great it’s an awesome place to come hangout. 

And our third sponsor is limitless furniture, they provided these super comfy chairs, they are also here in Inglewood and were kind enough to let us use these for our show. 

Another sponsor of the Ambition Project is BusinessLink. BusinessLink is Alberta’s entrepreneurial hub.They are a non profit organization that helps people navigate the steps towards starting their own businesses. Just because you’re in business for yourself doesn’t mean you’re in business by yourself. BusinessLink’s team of in house start-up experts are there to support you all along the way. 

Our next sponsor is the Better Business Bureau. Your BBB helps businesses build visibility, credibility, savings, leads, and community through BBB accreditation while funding free marketplace services with more than a million instances of service to consumers every year. Visit BBB.org/calgary to learn more today . 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So how did Exmerce get started? 

Nelson Liem: The whole idea for Exmerce was, when I kind of wanted to start some sort of business I looked at my skill sets, what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing and I’m very much a people person, I enjoy the thrill of sales I suppose and so at the time Ebay was pretty much at its pinnacle and I wanted to create a site where consumers could trade junk for junk or maybe old skis for a bike or something and I thought , what about businesses? I’m sure a lot of businesses have inventory or time that they could trade. And so I did a bit of research and I didnt realize there’s a whole industry called the barter industry. I jumped at the opportunity, at the time I had no kids,wasn’t married ,so I’ll try this thing called being an entrepreneur. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Very cool, it’s been an adventurous 14 years it sounds like. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah absolutely. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So how did you grow Exmerce over that time? What things did you need to do to build a client base as big as you have? Because you have roughly 400 businesses in it now? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah a little over 450 companies that’s currently part of the community. I think the big thing was going into meetings and having that confidence. The important thing was networking just getting out there and trying to touch as many people as I could and again it’s very important to believe in your idea and it goes back to that confidence for myself. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Can you explain how Exmerce works? 

Nelson Liem: Right. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Barter can be a little bit confusing to people, it was to me when I first got started. It’s almost like its own ecosystem, its own currency practically. So how does barter work between businesses? 

Nelson Liem: Right, so when most people think of barter, they naturally think of direct one to one trade. So let’s say videography services in exchange for your website. Now through Exmerce, we use a virtual currency called Trade Dollars to value product and services so whatever you as a business would normally charge out there in the cash world, that’s what you would charge in Trade Dollars through our network. So we essentially help to sell our members offerings to the network and whenever our product or service gets sold, that business would earn the Trade Dollars. Their account gets credited in Trade Dollars enabling them to now start purchasing other products and services with any one of the 450 plus members. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So from the admin side, can that pose some challenges like if people aren’t spending their money? Or what kind of challenges come along with having that currency? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah for sure, yeah absolutely. When considering participation we always tell our members there’s two things to consider when considering participation. One is, can the barter exchange drive you new business? And on the flip side is , what can I buy? Because you never want to be in a position where it’s sell,sell,sell,sell, and then be like “Geez,I have 50,000 Exmerce dollars in my account but have nowhere to spend it.” So for us it’s very important to find a good balance between helping you to sell but also helping you to buy as well. So it’s really about identifying where it is in your business or personal life. Where are you spending cash? How do you leverage this virtual currency to now offset some of those cash expenses 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Right, yeah you guys have been incredibly helpful, you and Kirsten in helping me find things to use my barter dollars on so that’s been great. 

Nelson Liem: Good, good, that’s good to hear 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Now you have a background in corporate sales,I believe you mentioned you worked for Disney previously. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah, I mean so that was a pretty awesome stint. So after university, I had the opportunity to work for Walt Disney World in Orlando. I mean it was the food and beverage industry and to be honest I quickly realized the food and beverage or hospitality industry just wasn’t for me but besides that, the experience itself was first class. I met people from all around the world and it was my first time away from home so that was quite the experience. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: What did you do exactly at Disney? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah , so I was the asian lumberjack. I worked at Epcot and so they rotate you around different stations at Epcot.There’s a restaurant , there’s the popcorn stand , there’s a beaver…like a hut where you made beavertails , at the time I was 23 , it was more of a life experience for me and just seeing how Disney operated on such a first class in terms of servicing guest experience that was pretty cool 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Do you have any stories from your time there that really stand out? Good or bad? Anything crazy happen? 

Nelson Liem: You know what, I think it was just the experience overall meeting people from around the world whether its guests or some of the other colleagues or coworkers that I either roomed with or worked with and that was pretty cool I think that experience helped me to be able to adapt to different situations and different people. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah before I started my business, I sold Cutco knives for three years and I always attribute that sales experience to a huge part of my success in my business because it really teaches you how to engage with people and how to sell your services and the interpersonal skills from sales are huge 

Nelson Liem: Oh absolutely, for sure 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So throughout your time over the last 20 years you built a really strong personal brand and I think that’s something more and more people are looking to do now that they’re realize the importance of that. What have you done to build that personal brand? Because I believe a big portion of the success of Exmerce is because of that. 

Nelson Liem: Right , yeah you know what,I think the most important thing i suppose ,when you’re looking to build your company is identifying and knowing what your… it’s kind of like your court values, you know what’s in here and those values really I believe are an extension of your business.So in building Exmerce i’m a firm believer in operating and running my business with integrity, treating people with respect, customer service in our business is huge.So it always goes back to “how would I like to be treated?”. We try to provide that excellent level of service to our clients. I treat everyone like they’re my own family. You’re like my brother! But I think 

what it comes down to is those core values and I truly believe those values you want to incorporate those values into your business 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So what effect do you believe that’s had on the loyalty of the clients in Exmerce? 

Nelson Liem: Well its huge, its huge absolutely. So it transcends to not just me but the team or the staff that I bring on board as well you know i’m looking for those people that share similar values and ethics as myself it creates a stronger bond and community that we can build and grow our business. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Along the way, mostly while you’ve run Exmerce, you’ve taken on some other venture, not all of them have been quite a hit like Exmerce. 

Nelson Liem: No you’re absolutely right , I think as an entrepreneur there’s definitely a bit of a serial entrepreneur in me, and so top of mind, just some of the projects ; Bazingle, that was a video app, there was ShopnetTv which was a value ad service for Exmerce members. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Is that still going? 

Nelson Liem: You know, we had put it on the back burner just because we just didn’t have man power, just resources to continue to build the business, but we’re trying to resurrect it. There’s this other thing , project called NonoBot which was inspired by my son, it’s a robotics project and I thought it would be kind of a cool project to work with my son on. Those are some of the ventures that I’ve worked on in the past , like you said not all have been successful but you live and learn as an entrepreneur and the failures, you learn from your mistakes. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Can we just touch on Bazingle briefly ? What was that project and what happened? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah so Bazingle was a video app where small business owners could create their own short video using video loop, similar to that of ,like Vine. So when a business would create the short videos they could post offers or deals via the video app and I think the big challenge with that project was just capital. I’m not a mobile app developer and that was definitely a significant cost which prevented us to continue to work on that project. Part of the challenge with starting up new businesses is really simply cash flow at the end of the day. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So you mentioned before that you were potentially going to spread or spreading yourself a little too thin and I know my parents always give me a hard time because I always have new ideas and new things I want to take on and start and work on and i’ve had multiple people be like “No you need to focus”. What advice do you have for people who are really energized by ideas and excited by ideas, but what advice do you have for them on staying focused on potentially one venture? or like more core, several core ventures,instead of spreading yourself too thin? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah you know what , I think when you’re thinking of starting other ventures, you definitely want to surround yourself with other people who have the “Know how” for example ; with Bazingle it would have been great if I had a partner who was a mobile app developer and that could have helped tremendously. Where as we really had to just source everything out. So I think building that core team would be important to perhaps maybe help provide a bit more focus there. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Ok yeah , makes sense . So we’re going to get a little bit deeper here now, a lot of entrepreneurs I think get into businesses and they work really hard and they get really focussed on their businesses and I know a bunch of my friends have kind of the same story that it takes a pretty hard toll on your personal life and it sounds like it has to a degree for you as well. So can you tell us a little bit about that? 

Nelson Liem: Yeah, for sure. Actually, when I first started Exmerce, I was in a 10 year relationship and I was just so focussed on building the business that I completely forgot the importance of nourishing my personal relationship with the girlfriend at the time. And so that certainly was kind of a hard pill to swallow those are things you kind of just live and learn and so from that point I definitely try to find a good work life balance now that I have kids ,especially very important for myself to ensure that I’m not always working. I work 9 to 5 , that’s it, and there after i’m going to spend time with my kids. And also i think it’s important to take care of yourself as well. Going to the gym or just kind of doing your own personal thing because I think as an entrepreneur there can be a lot of stress , you feel like the weight of the world is on you. For me personally I enjoy working out or going for a run ,these are things that kind of help destress me 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Have you found times in your life where you kind of let that slide? The working out or the time with the family? 

Nelson Liem: To be honest , There are times where I might catch myself , when the kids are put down, working , and I could be working until 1:30 , 2 O’clock in the morning and I catch myself “ Oh my gosh, what am I doing working? it’s 2 o’clock in the morning I should be sleeping” So I think there are moments where I catch myself doing it but certainly i’m trying to be more diligent not doing that ,again just trying to take care of yourself first .I think that’s important . 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Did you end up marrying the person ,your girlfriend from the time when you started Exmerce? 

Nelson Liem: No , no I didn’t. I have 2 children , Noah and Noelle. I guess it’s part of my journey, I was married for nearly 7 years, we just recently got divorced. I think that divorce taught me a number of things and I think it’s been a challenge for sure this past year but I think being an entrepreneur and just having that strong mindset and always being optimistic has certainly helped me through this . I think about the perseverance and getting through it but it certainly hasn’t been easy but it’s part of my journey. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: I imagine around running a business and the kids and stuff, that divorce must have been incredibly stressful. What did you do to deal with that stress? Because I know a lot of people have things going on in their personal life and struggles that often really set them back or distract them from their business or their goals even if they aren’t business owners. So how did you deal with that stress? Because I know a lot of people who don’t deal with that well. 

Nelson Liem: Right, for sure , for myself, its surrounding yourself with positive people, surrounding yourself with optimistic people , there’s a saying that goes ‘“you’re the sum of the 10 people you hang around most” so I thoroughly enjoy my time hanging out with other entrepreneurs or people who have a drive and aspiration to create whether its success or some sort of achievement , people who are really go getters, I think I get my energy from that and so that’s kind of helped me to not think about the whole divorce process as well. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: That’s really good advice, just surrounding yourself with positive people who give you energy and makes things better. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah for sure, totally 

Jonathan Hafichuk: So where do you see Exmerce and yourself personally in the future? In the next 10-20 years? 

Nelson Liem: Right, so right now we’re exploring evolving Exmerce into potentially a block chain company , I mean we’re still doing a bit of research on that , the vision for Exmerce is any small business, you’re able to use the Exmerce currency no different than Visa or Mastercard or using regular cash currency because we are our own virtual business currency , so that’s the plan. 

Jonathan Hafichuk:That’s exciting. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah , absolutely 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Very cool . Just to kind of wrap up , do you have any advice for new business owners, people just starting out on whether its focus or what the things they need to think about or surrounding themselves with the right people, what do you think is the one piece of knowledge that you’ve learned in the last 20 years that you can share that’s valuable? 

Nelson Liem: There’s, I mean top of mind, there’s two things that come to mind, I think the first is surrounding yourself with other like-minded people , if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur , find other entrepreneurs that you could surround yourself with , sometimes I feel , why try and reinvent the wheel when someone may have already done it already or maybe they’re hugely successful and you can learn a lot of things from what they’ve done to build their business. And I think the second thing is I think it’s important to maintain that balance in life, I think that work life balance , being an entrepreneur is not an easy thing there’s lots of highs and lows, ups and downs . Still find the time to hang out with your friends or exercise or do things for yourself because if you’re not healthy how are you able to operate your business? Health or mind is not in the right place, it could be a tough go to be an entrepreneur because its not an easy road. 

Jonathan Hafichuk: Yeah, for sure. Great,I think that’s very important, very valuable. Well thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it. 

Nelson Liem: Yeah , my pleasure and thanks for having me.

Subscribe for more of The Ambition Project

Thanks for reading through this episode’s transcript, we hope our discussion inspired you! For more inspirational discussions from local entreprenures, head to our TAP page here, or click on the links below to subscribe on the platform of your choice!

Spotify stream
Youtube Stream
Apple Podcast