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Achieving the Impossible

With Tony Lam

 Published on: Jun 29, 2020

Achieving the impossible can be possible especially when you put your heart into it. Today’s guest is someone who proves to us that perseverance is always key to success. Tony Lam joins Kimchi Chow to share his firsts – first experiences, first franchise, and first time being a CEO. The Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Omni Bev, Tony shares his journey of success and the lessons that he had learned along the way. He takes us through his roller coaster rides in managing his team, working with partners, and going through parenthood. He also dishes out some tips on how you can control the outcomes of your business.

First-generation, first franchise and first time CEO, his life is a story of many firsts. You will hear from our guest about his journey to get him here and the lessons that he had learned along the way. You will experience a roller coaster ride. Please help me welcome, Tony Lam.

Kimchi, I want to thank you for inviting me to your show. I’m excited to be here to tell you about my story and my journey.

Tony, tell us about your childhood experience. What led you to start to launch your first company?

I was born in Vietnam back in 1975 during the Fall of Saigon on April 30th. My father, who was a captain in the Navy for the Southern Vietnamese government, had to make the hard decision about fleeing the country. Having his family, he approached his father and my grandfather said, “You go and flee, but leave Tony. Leave him here because you can’t travel and flee the country with a three-month-old baby with you.” My mom and dad made the decision, “We’re not going to leave him behind. We’re going to take him with us.” They left everything and had one luggage, a suitcase. My aunts and uncles from my mother’s side were able to also go on this trip as well. We fled Vietnam as refugees. We were on a boat and it was a harrowing escape for the family. We were in the Philippines. That’s where we stayed in the refugee camps.

Luckily for us, back in the United States, there was this thing called local charities, the Catholic charities that sponsored our family. We were blessed to be sponsored by an American family who took us in. My family had more than fifteen people that went on this boat. At this time, the American family could only take five people in. They gave us a house. They put food on the table for us. They gave us clothing. We were fortunate to have such a loving family who can take a stranger and provide for us. My father is a stubborn guy. I’m not going to lie. He doesn’t like to live off other people. My father said, “I appreciate everything you’ve done. I’m going to find a job. We’re going to move to the Bay Area. Once I find a job, I’m going to pay you back for the rent and for all the time that I stayed at your place.”

That’s how my father is and that’s what he did. We drove up to the Bay Area and that’s where we made a living. My father got an AA degree. That was the highest education that he got. He was a technician. That’s what his expertise was in. He worked for a lot of different medical companies. The last one that he worked at was at Abbott Laboratories. He would fix the medical devices at Abbott Laboratories. The work that my mother did primarily is assembly work. That was her thing with jobs. One of the companies she went through was Atari, which is one of the very first video game companies out in the market then. She then worked for another telecommunication company called Lucent Technologies back in the days. Both of them are older, so they’re both retired.

I had a pretty good upbringing. When we went to the Bay Area, my sister and brother were also born during this time. All the three of us lived in a poor neighborhood. For the most part, we experienced some hardship. My parents were poor. There was some racism growing up too, but it didn’t bother me so much. I was okay with that. We all attended elementary school, middle school, high school, all in the Bay Area. We all went to college, all of my siblings and I. We all work in high tech. I graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo with a Business degree. I wanted to open a business, but I didn’t know what it would be. My first thing out of college was working for a reputable company, Cisco Systems. Back in 1997, I got to see the highs. The stock split almost 5 to 6 times during the time I was there. Getting out of college and seeing that on paper, you were a millionaire because of the dot-com. I said, “This is amazing. I never thought I would be a millionaire so quickly.

As you know, there was a dot-com bust. All of this money that people were making, I lost it all on paper during that time. I was able to sell some shares and the savings that I did save, I reinvested into the restaurant, Wingstop. I got involved with Wingstop when one of my coworkers, her and her husband, happened to fly out to Texas and tasted this great wing place. They came back and told me about this restaurant and said, “Tony, you should think about opening a business.” We tried this Wingstop and it tastes good. There was only one Wingstop in the entire Bay Area and that was in Oakland, California and it was doing exceptionally well.

That was the number one store in the entire country at that time. My partners and I went there and tasted the product and we loved the product. We said, “Why not? Let’s give this a try. Let’s talk to corporate and see if they would allow us to open this franchise.” Before that, we had to do our due diligence. The due diligence that I had to do was ask people, my friends and family, “What do you think? I’m thinking of opening this Wingstop. It’s buffalo wings.” A lot of them looked at me strangely and said, “Tony, you’re working at Cisco. You’re making six digits. Why would you want to take a leap and go into this Wingstop business?” I was juggling for a moment where I said, “I’m going to be working at Cisco and I’m going to be building a business at the same time.” I was single at that time, so I had all the energy to do that, but there was some hesitation.

People said, “You saved all this money. Are you sure this is the right investment? I don’t see myself eating this as a lunch meal or dinner meal. I see this as a product that’s more for appetizers or for catering events only. I can’t see myself and my family eating this.” I have to say, I was cautiously optimistic about it, whereas a couple of them say, “Are you telling me you’re going to be flipping wings?” I said, “I’m willing to learn.” We flew out to corporate in Texas and met with the exec team. They said, “What kind of experience do you have?” “I don’t have any experience in the food business, but I do have an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m willing to learn, roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.” They were happy with that answer and they gave us a territory from Union City all the way to San Jose.

We signed up for five locations. In the franchise world, the way it works is they give you a territory and they give you a timeframe as to how much time do you have to develop those stores. In our case, we have five years to develop each of the stores that we signed up for. We’re excited. We decided to open the first store in Union City but it didn’t go as planned. In the first year, we lost $100,000. My partners and I are talking to each other. We’re like, “We signed up for five of these locations. I thought that the restaurant business is profitable.” Losing that first $100,000 was a kick in the gut. We were questioning even ourselves like, “Should we continue?” We thought we picked a good location. It was behind a BART station and a notable high school, but at the end of the day, it was the brand awareness.


Achieving The Impossible: Structure and process are what you can initially learn from corporate.

People are not knowing Wingstop, what Wingstop was or who Wingstop was at that time. This is why I tell a lot of people. We decided to say, “Let’s open the second store. Let’s choose a location with an anchor store.” We opened one in Fremont, California across Costco. In the first year, we were profitable. We’re like, “This is better.” Having gone building the first one and losing $100,000 to one that was finally profitable, we said, “We’ll figure out the formula.” The 3rd, 4th and 5th, we chose A-locations and all of them were profitable.

The first store is already profitable because there are more stores and more people know about it. The learning that I had was when you start at the beginning, you’re going to have to promote it significantly with marketing. It’s important that you have allocated a big marketing budget to build that brand awareness, “What is Wingstop? Where are you, guys?” To all the entrepreneurs, when you want to start up a franchise, you want to be able to have a big marketing budget. Have all the stores contribute to a coop to allow you to use that budget and spend the money.

What did you study from Cal Poly? Did you say in business? Did you have an MBA degree? 

No, my concentration at Cal Poly was Finance and MIS, which is Management Information Systems. I also had a Computer Science minor as well. Because of the technical background and the business background, that’s how I got into Cisco. I went the down the road more on the technical side, but I never got to utilize my business side when I was at Cisco. I was at Cisco for fourteen years while I was opening these five locations. Once I opened the fifth location of Wingstop, that’s when I decided that I want to take this on full-time. That’s what I did next.

Looking back, what skills did you learn from your professional career at Cisco that transferred into your entrepreneurship?

If I were to do everything over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I would advise people to go work at corporate. What I learned at corporate was structure and process because you have to have a process in place. Sometimes, when you are on your own, you don’t get to learn that. You don’t have the opportunity to learn that. I worked with different teams. There were cross-functional teams that I got to work with. You learn how to work with people in different departments was another thing. My CEO, John Chambers, is considered one of the best salesmen CEO in the world. Hands down, he was one of my idols growing up, watching him build this company.

Back then, my employee number was 22,000. I think the last count, they’re way over 200,000 now. I got to see the early stages. The biggest thing that I learned too was when I was in network support, I learned about the customer. I learned how to take care of the customer. I went above and beyond what was asked of me because at the end of the day, the people that put you in business are your customers. You’ve got to be able to make sure that they get the best customer service possible. It was those learning that I was able to apply to Wingstop growing them.

That’s a valuable lesson for you. I’m glad that you were able to see that at that time. You mentioned that John Chambers was your idol at that time. Who is your role model now?

I have to say it’s my dad. I looked at his sacrifices and I’m putting myself in his shoes. You have a three-month-old baby and you’re going to travel to unknown uncharted territory. You’re not going to know what’s going to happen to the boat. It’s going to be in the middle of the ocean. To be able to drop everything, knowing that you might not come back in a couple of days or a couple of months is a risky thing. The thing I love about my parents is I’m fortunate they’re still here, but growing up with parents like that, they never push me where I needed to go. They never forced me like typical Asian family like, “I want you to be a doctor. I want you to be a lawyer.” I told them, “I want to go into business.” They didn’t know exactly what that meant at that time.

They were like, “Business? Do you want to work at the bank? Is that what business is?” I said, “No, dad. There are other things than working at a bank.” He said, “Whatever makes you happy. I want you to be happy in life.” There was no pressure whatsoever from my parents. I had a good upbringing where there was a lot of love and support and encouragement on what I did. I thank him for being supportive of what I do. I see it in his eyes when he sees me opening Wingstop and working on all these different other businesses. He does want me to slow down a little bit, but that’s how my brain thinks. He’s always supporting me.

That’s wonderful to have such parents who are supportive and also understand that the key thing is happiness, not money and status. I know that besides Wingstop, you have involved with many companies. You launched another one. How many companies are you involved with? What are the names? How much time are you spending in each company?

Let’s start off with Wingstop. With Wingstop, I have five stores. I’m not going to lie and say, “I’m doing everything on my own,” because I’m not. I have partners. I have a supporting cast of partners who are helping behind the scenes. Everyone is responsible for one particular store. My wife is also my biggest supporter. She also manages the Wingstop. My role at Wingstop is I’m the marketing president for the coop. What that means is I oversee the budget of about 50 stores in the Bay Area. With this marketing budget, I worked with an ad agency. What we do is we go and we spend money on digital media. We’ll spend money on TV and radio ads, digital marketing, and even sports sponsorship. I am more on the strategic marketing level.

That’s how I’m involved with the Wingstop. I also have a couple of other restaurants, Okashi and alaMar. Okashi is a poke shop. What I’m helping them with is more in the marketing as well. How do we get the word out for a restaurant that is independent? This is a brand that my partner and I developed from scratch. I’ve been able to work with them, provide the marketing support to help bring sales up and implement some marketing strategies. That same thing applies to alaMar, which is a seafood boil place. It’s in Oakland, California. We won as the best seafood restaurant in Oakland a few months ago. It took almost five years to get that status. I take my hat off to my two partners, Nelson and his wife, May, because they’ve done a fabulous job with that business. For that one, I’m helping more on the marketing side.

I’ve found my niche, which is the sales and the marketing side of the business. Two other businesses that I have is the ice cream business. I have it with Mavens Creamery. We were able to produce a product, the macaron ice cream sandwich. We were able to get our product into 300 locations. That set the foundation for me to inspire other restaurant owners. As I was putting these phasers in each of these restaurants, I heard the stories of all the different restaurant owners. I would ask them like, “How did you get started?” It was touching because they shared similar stories like mine. They were immigrants and refugees. They too had struggles. I heard all their stories and I was giving them advice through my marketing experience. They would come back to me and say, “Tony, can you help me with my social media? Can you help me with my marketing?” As much as I wanted to help them with that, my time was being stretched. At the end of the day I said, “One day, if I can figure things out and help you, I will.” They said, “That would be great.”

At the back of my head, that’s how I came up with Launch Your First. It is a company that wants to launch your first franchise, launch your first product, launch your first app. That’s how I came up with the company. When I did, I ended up getting flooded with many different requests to help them with their product, getting it to a franchise level or getting the product into a grocery chain. I already had that experience. Nowadays, I’m working with three companies, helping their product or services out. One of them is a coffee company, Omni Bev. Tammy, who’s my partner, we’re a women-owned business. She owns the majority share of the business, but her background is in beauty. She wanted to do something else.

She went to Vietnam and her uncle said, “Tammy, I have this large coffee bean plantation. I want to bring this to the US, what can you do with it?” She’s a brilliant person. She said, “Let me think about this.” She went back, did some R&D and she came up with Nitro Cold Brew Vietnamese coffee. She let people sample it and everything. Everyone said, “This tastes great.” When she heard that, she said, “I need a person who can help me get into corporate offices, retail, as well as restaurants.” I was introduced to her from a mutual friend. We got to know each other a little bit. One of the things that I have to tell you is when working with partners, you want to make sure that you get to learn your partners. Do you work with family? Do you work with your college friends? One of the things you’ve got to do is make sure that the partner that you work with, you get to know them before you enter an agreement.

For good three months, I got to know her as a person and as a businesswoman. We decided to move forward and in a small amount of time, we introduce our product to the masses through eCommerce and we’ve been able to grow the business sales in that short amount of time. We sold out our product not too long ago. People are now waiting for our product and we’re learning because we don’t have enough. We’ve got to do a production run to get more product in, but during this pandemic, this is the worst time to launch a product, as you could imagine. We’ve been able to navigate through these tough times and get our products into corporate locations into three grocery stores during the pandemic. It says a lot that people like something new and there are a lot of coffee drinkers in the world. She found me. She saw my background with Launch Your First and said, “I need your help. I need you to help me get this product to the masses and these different venues. I stepped up to the challenge and I’ve been able to make some good traction since then.

How are you involved with that? Are you an investor as well? Do you contribute money as well as the sweat equity? Do you represent the Launch Your First company and you provide her a consultation? 

We started off as more consultation first, but as I got more involved I said, “This is a good opportunity besides doing consultation work. I want to be part of the company.” I am an investor and I put sweat equity in the company as well. I am one of the founders of the company as well.

If people are looking for you to invest in their business, what are your requirements? 

My biggest thing is when I look at investing in a company, you’ve got to look at the product or the service that they are presenting to you. You have to find out, “Is there a pain point with this product? Is there a product fit?” I have to do some due diligence. I will take the product and give it to my friends and I’ll say, “Can you taste this? Can you tell me what you think of it?” I’ll do my due diligence to see is there a TAM or Total Addressable Market. How big is the market for this product? As you know, coffee is a big market and people will drink these any types of day. That is a check on that piece. At the same time, you might have a great product, but you’ve got to find out if the people on the team are able to execute with the company’s vision. What is the history of the team that Tammy’s putting together? What’s their experience like?


Achieving The Impossible: Investing in a company requires you to find the pain points of its products.

I’ve been in companies where it has a great product, but the team is too new. You might have to spend a little bit more time, but if you want to do the fast track, you want to make sure that the team has a history of success. That is something else I also look at too. Not to say that I don’t look at people at the beginning stages, but it will take a lot of convincing for me to examine, “Can I trust this person to execute on the vision of the company?” The other thing is we got to look at the budget too. Is there enough budget or runway for this company to last at least one year to pay the expenses of the operational, as well as potentially their income? Do they save enough money to take on this risk because the worst thing you want to do is you run out of money and the person is trying to figure out, “I ran out of money, where am I going to get the money to support my family to put food on the table?” It has to be well-capitalized at least a year runway when going into these types of projects.

What is the best and the worst business deal that you have gotten in terms of your capital investment, the number of hours per week that you put in and the percentage of ownership?

The most success I’ve had was probably the Wingstop. I have three other partners, but I own a significant portion of Wingstop. When we first had the first couple of stores, I rolled up my sleeve. Wingstop opens from 11:00 AM to midnight. In the first 4 or 5 months, it was more like 11:00 all the way to 2:00 to 3:00 AM, trying to learn this. I’m the type of person that is willing to put in the time to make it successful and learn from it. My other failures I would have to say is there were a couple of food concepts that I got involved with that I thought we would be able to do well with, but enough due diligence wasn’t done with that market.

Unfortunately, we had to close that business after three years. It was more of a food court that I took over. I should have known better that retail was going down. I tell people, “Don’t think of it as a failure. Think of it as high tuition that you paid.” You paid your own money to get real-life experience of what bad can happen if you make poor decisions. That right there was one of them that I was not successful in. Fortunately for me, I have more successes than bad investments. A lot of people can’t be 100% always nailing the investment piece. For the most part, I’ve been making some decent successful investments.

For all the companies that you have evaluated, what do you think is the biggest mistake that most business owners make? 

One of the biggest things is the passion, the honeymoon stage. You’re passionate about a business or a project at the beginning, but can you sustain that same passion for at least 3 to 5 years, even when things are looking bleak and you’re losing money? You’ve got to ask yourself, “Can you continue with that?” That’s why I ask people because they shouldn’t be. I put six months into it and I’m losing money so therefore, I give up. That’s the wrong approach. Passion is important. You’ve got to be able to keep that passion up. I’ll give you an example. When I was with Wingstop, I lost $100,000 the very first year. I was doubting myself for a bit and said, “Can I make this business grow?” I said, “We just got to keep at it and let’s open the second store and see. If the second store also loses money, then I have to make a decision.” Do I cut my losses and say, “I know we signed up for five, but I’ve lost two in a row?”

The first one I thought was an outlier, it was a one-off. If I see two of them losing money, then I question the business. Fortunately for us, the first one was an outlier and that’s why we continued to open the other ones. Sometimes you do have to make that tough decision and cut your losses, but all I’m saying is don’t make it after six months or even a year. You’ve got to give it some time and some energy into it to see how far you can take it. I’ll go back to my bad investment with the food court. After the second year, I should have cut my losses, but I ended up doing that for three years. I look back at one of the most important things, which is time.

During that time, my wife was helping me with that business. If I think about it, if I ended in two years, she would have gotten her one year where she could spend time with the kids and the family. Unfortunately, she had to go through that torture of having to help me. Even though I was bleeding in that business, she had to go work at least 4 or 5 days a week at that place. Sometimes you have to put your feet down and say, “Sometimes this business is not salvageable,” and cut your losses.

That’s a wise suggestion to cut your losses, but not too soon because you have to evaluate. This is like catch-22. When do you know it’s time to cut loss? For you, you say 2, 3 or 5 years?

You’ve got to give it 2 to 3 years before you put your feet down. The thing was this. We were paying rent at that place for about $4,000 a month. It would’ve been a $48,000 if I ended my lease, which was only three years. I could have saved the headache. She would have had her time back to enjoy spending time with my two kids. At that time, they were only 8 and 5 years old. That $48,000, you can’t pay for time. You’ve got to think like, “My time is worth more than $48,000.” That’s why I tell people, sometimes they’re like, “$48,000 is a lot.” “You’re right, but the stress that goes with it, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses because you’ll make money other ways.” That’s why I found out. If I had $0, I know I can make $1 million next month with another million-dollar idea. There are many different ideas. If you know how to execute it, you can easily recoup $48,000.

Who or what inspired you to work so hard?

When you ask my friends, they know that I think a lot. I have a creative mind. I’m goal-driven. I like to prove the naysayers wrong. When someone says, “Tony, you can’t do that. I don’t think you’ll be able to grow this business.” My thing is I love people telling me that. It drives me to prove people wrong sometimes. I have nothing against them, but that’s how I am. I get that because of my upbringing with my family. You had nothing to start with. You had nothing to lose. You have all this to gain at this point. I’m constantly thinking and working, but I do balance my time. I get to work from home. I have my own schedule. I am my own boss and that’s one of the things as part of being an entrepreneur. You control your own destiny and the outcome of your business. If there’s success in the business, you can pound your chest and said, “It’s successful because I played a big role. I was the one that did this.” At the same time, that there’s a failure, “I will admit I failed.” I don’t sugar-coat and blame other people for my failures.

When people go into entrepreneurship, they have to be able to admit when they’re wrong. If you don’t admit that you’re wrong and you think that everything you do is right, you’re not going to become too successful in that. Everything is a learning experience through your success and failure. What I want to do is to go back to the sponsors who took a gamble on my family, who paid the way to my future, pay it forward. When I meet with these entrepreneurs, for example, how I met you in Asian Hustle Network, there are these young entrepreneurs where they don’t have mentors. I have all this experience where I tell them, “Here are the things not to do. These are the mistakes that I did. I could tell you and advise you to save yourself ten years of the mistakes that I did.” I’m paying it forward for these entrepreneurs when I’m coaching or mentoring them. Even if it’s only a couple of hours, they asked me these types of questions as well, and this is what I tell them.

Tell us about your children’s situation and how did you deal with it when you first found out? 

I have two boys. Damon is ten years old and I have a younger child, Andy. He’s seven years old. Growing up, Damon is a normal kid and full of energy. With my second child, at two and half years old, my sister and another friend had concerns about my child. They said, “Tony, I have a 2.5 years old. I noticed that there’s something wrong with him.” I didn’t understand what it was. Normally, at this age, they should be able to speak the numbers or letters. I said, “Maybe he’s just a little slow.” One of my close friends said, “Do me a favor. Go get him checked with the doctor.” I did. I had him go to Andy’s pediatrician at two and half years old. They diagnosed him and said, “Tony, he’s got early signs of autism.” I honestly did not know what autism was. I looked it up and I was like, “This can’t be that he has autism,” but all the signs pointed to autism.

Being the stubborn guy that I am sometimes, I said, “Let me get a second opinion.” The doctor says, “He’s got early signs of autism.” “No, let me get a third opinion.” The doctor says, “He got early signs of autism.” I go, “This can’t be. Let me get a fourth opinion. I’m going to go to Stanford and I’m going to get a doctor over there, not to discount the other doctors.” I went to Stanford and it took one year. The doctor came back and said, “Tony, you already knew the answer to this because you told me you’ve seen three other doctors. I don’t know why I have to tell you again, but your son has early signs of autism.” It was an emotional time for me and my wife. People, who have autism, what do you do? Because the doctor says there’s no cure for it. It’s a social disorder. They’re not going to be social, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent because a lot of autistic people are very intelligent.

During this time, I’m learning more and more about this. My wife was very emotional. She questioned like, “Will Andy be able to get married?” It was this thing. I don’t think being married is an important thing to talk about but will he have a normal life and everything? These are some of her concerns. As a parent, you want the best for your kids. You want them to have a normal life. We said, “Let’s teach and treat him as a normal kid.” He’s going to be a little bit slower on the speech and everything but treat him as a normal kid and at the same time, prepare him for society, prepare him for when he’s an adult. One of the things that we did was I want to observe other autistic people so I can learn some best practices and everything. For my Wingstop, we hired an autistic kid. We made him a shift lead. He’s been working for us for years.

If you have them focus on one task and not do too many, let them perfect on one, they can do as good as a normal human being. I looked at that and said, “Andy is going to be fortunate in life because I’m building businesses.” At the end of the day, if the worst-case scenario is he can’t get a job, I will create a job specifically for him through one of my businesses. The thing is not everybody is in the same boat as Andy and me. The other thing is there are organizations that have special needs kids and these kids have a place in my heart. I will allow an organization like this to do a couple of hours at Wingstop. I’m not putting them to work every single week. This is maybe if anything else twice a thing during the whole year but give these kids an opportunity to see how the operation works, how to pour ranch into these little cups. I don’t make them work a full shift.

Achieving The Impossible: The biggest mistake that most business owners make is sustaining the same passion they had from the start.

They only work if anything else, two hours to work in the cash register. One of my cashiers will watch over them, teach them how to do that so they can have some work experience. I want to be more involved in nonprofit organizations. Anything related to special needs or autism is an organization I would like to support either monetarily or putting some time to help build brand awareness of that organization. I am working with one in the early stages. It’s called LOLA, Laugh Out Loud with Autism. It’s an organization specifically working with Vietnamese autistic kids. That’s the organization that I’m working closely with at this time.

What would you recommend to the parents if they found themselves in a similar situation where one of their kids has autism? 

Having gone through it myself, if I had someone to mentor me back then of what to do, I would have told them, “Mental illness, special needs, mental health is important.” There’s a negative stigma on that where they turn a blind eye, but you’ve got to give your child all the support that they need to succeed. My son goes to regular school in Special Ed, but after he gets back to school, he also has three hours of ABA. He has a therapist that gives him additional support to train him on his life skills. Don’t ever turn away from help. There are people and organizations that want to help you, but you have to be open to them to help you. You can’t think about, “I don’t need help,” because you have to think about the best for your child.

During the early stages, it’s difficult. Don’t be ashamed that you have a special needs child. There are a lot of times where I didn’t want to go to these birthday parties for the kids. I fear that my child would make a scene and ruin a kid’s birthday party. It took a while before when I’m speaking to my friends, they said, “Tony, you shouldn’t worry about that. My kid was still having an awesome birthday party.” If he’s on the floor screaming, it’s okay, let them be a kid. You’ve got to allow your child to be in a social scene because that’s the whole point. I’m fortunate to be able to have a circle that’s understanding to allow and let him go to a party and do his thing. He’s got to learn from that too that if he’s on the floor yelling and screaming, that it’s not acceptable. We’d have to teach them that that behavior is not acceptable and help them get out of that behavior. He has to learn because when he’s a grownup, you don’t want to be seeing that.

My sister-in-law’s family have one and amazingly, their son grows up and he behaves normally. He attends college. You would not be able to tell because he has amazing progress. I have another cousin who lives in Vietnam whose child experience that. Regarding autism, it is not a disease. There’s just a biochemical in the body that malfunction and that creates abnormally. The important thing I learned from one of my interviewees, I interview him before and he had the same situation. He has a son who had autism and he found out that the first seven years of the child’s life is important. 

At that time, he’s doing well. He was also a cofounder of another high-tech company. He told his partner, “I can leave the company, but I need to focus on my family, my child.” Luckily, his partners said, “We still need you but work from home. Focus on your family. Once in a while, check-in and we’ll get your input or something,” because he’s a cofounder. He has some contribution. He has skilled that the company still needs him. He was able to do that and he found another nonprofit organization to support people and family who go through that. He educates people about that as well. 

I highly recommend to people who are reading this blog, if your child has autism and you found out it early, seek for help. There are a lot of resources, a lot of people who have experienced that can help guide you through the challenging time that you are facing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing. It is not karma. There is nothing wrong, you did in a previous life that gave you this or vice versa to the kid’s life. It’s a biochemical malfunction when the child was formed in the womb. What’s your typical day look like?

I have lots of meetings. One of my strengths is sales. I’ve been able to figure out how to get sales for all my different businesses. The most important thing in a business is a sales piece. I meet with a lot of people that I’m signing deals with. I’ll give you an example. My immediate one is the coffee business. I’m meeting with a lot of brokers and retail chains as well. It’s setting up these calls, giving them samples, telling them about the product and telling them the story. The way I’ve been able to close a lot of these deals is being able to tell the story of how our company was formed.

A lot of these retail outlets, “You have a great product, but can you also tell us the story behind it?” If you can have a great story like that, it’s more compelling for them to keep the product. In our case, it’s a women-owned minority business. Tammy is Vietnamese. She’s a woman and they want to support more of the minority aspect of it as well. You could say that I’m a good storyteller with the business. I wake up probably around 8:00 and I will have meetings all the way until 5:00, have dinner and then go back to the computer to take care of things that I need to execute on.

My workday, if you ask me how much time I’d spend in meetings and work, I would say 12 to 13 hours a day, to be honest with you. I don’t consider that so much as work because I enjoy it. At the same time, you got to be able to balance as well. I will put time for my family and my kids. My son goes to four different practices. I would drive him around during my schedule and everything. I have that flexibility where I don’t have to ask the boss, “I need to step out and I have to take my son to class or whatnot,” but busy schedule, meeting a lot of different people.

Do you know what your family needs from you?

My wife will tell me, “This is the weekly schedule for the kids.” We’re able to help each other out. My wife is supportive. She knows how busy I am and the way we work together is this, I tell her, “Honey, if I told you I free up your time so that you can do what you need to do and take care and help with the family, are you okay with that? Do you want to work?” To be honest with you, she’s doing something that she loves, which is teaching dance. She did that in Vietnam and when the opportunity arose over here, she said, “I want to do that again,” but she’s only putting 4 to 5 hours a week into that. The rest of the time, she enjoys watching my two sons grow up and taking them to whatever other lessons that they need to go to as well. She doesn’t have to worry where she has to work, she could concentrate on helping raise the kids.

Do you see yourself sacrificing your life in exchange for the security of your family’s future?

That’s a tough question. It’s a balance. I’m not going to lie. I am a workaholic. We do normal things as a family. We spend time at the dinner table. I take my son to school. I take him to practice. We go on a family vacation. Even at night, even though he’s ten years old, he likes sleeping with dad. Before we go to sleep, I’ll read him a bedtime story or we’ll talk for a couple of hours. He’s been a first place on the chess club at his school, so he likes to play chess with me as well. What I like about chess is I like to teach them about strategy like, “I need you to out-strategize me on what the next move is going to be.” Chess teaches you about strategy and when he grows up, he needs that skillset.

Is this the first son, Damon?


What does Andy do? 

Andy’s able to speak 4 to 5 sentences. At this time, he can’t hold a conversation, but he knows how to take care of himself. That’s a good thing. He can shower on his own. He can do everything a normal kid can do, but he’s a little speech delay. This thing with me is, he loves to play chase with me. I will play chase with him, spend some time and chase him. I’m getting older, so I can’t run as fast as he can, especially it’s difficult with a shelter in place. Normally, I will take him to the playground with other kids and everything like that, but you don’t want to expose them to take any chances of the situation. He’s full of energy that he needs to release it. The way he releases it is through exercise, chasing around or go to the playground to do that.

That reminds me of one thing. That could be something beneficial for your second son. Sports has something to do with it, the body, the energy moving around. It’s not like constrain and nobody’s watching them or something like that. They feel a little bit more freedom. He could be a good runner when there’s an opportunity to come on up, when there’s no lockdown. Maybe you can have him run or start playing or practice some sports if possible. Practice some sports that gets his energy release. Complete this sentence for me, “Who is Tony Lam? Tony Lam is?”

Tony Lam is a father, entrepreneur, mentor, loving, open-minded, wants to pay it forward person. He always wants to help other people out.

Achieving The Impossible: You control your own destiny. You control the outcome of your business.

What would be your legacy?

My legacy is to be able to inspire young entrepreneurs, immigrants, refugees that you could achieve the impossible if you put your mind to it. If you put your heart and soul, you can achieve anything. You can do that.

Legacy is not about money and how many millions you created to leave for your children.

At the end of the day, I want to teach my kids that it’s better to give than receive. I go back to my upbringing, the sponsors, “I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here, kids, if it wasn’t for the generosity of these strangers.” In life, I want them to pay it forward, help other people as well because what goes around comes around and I truly believe in that.

I would also say, it’s not better to give than to receive because there’s always a balance. If you don’t want to receive it, then there won’t be a giver. It’s equivalent. If you have the opportunity to give, then give. If somebody gives you something and you can use that, then gladly accept and welcome that. How do you want people to reach out to you, Tony?

If they need someone to talk to for some quick advice, they can reach me at [email protected]. That’s my email address. That would be the best way to get ahold of me.

Will you respond to your email?

Yes, I will.

Thank you, Tony, for being a guest on the show. Your story is inspiring and I hope many young Asian American professionals, as well as entrepreneurs, learn from it and try on new things that Tony has suggested. For you, our readers, please remember to subscribe to Asian Women of Power and Asian Women of Power YouTube channel. Until next time, live life loud.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes

"I'd like to prove the naysayers wrong."
"You have nothing to lose; you have only gain."
"Don't turn away from help; there is nothing to be ashamed of."
"Chess teaches you strategy."


About Tony Lam

Because one success creates another. We live in a space where data meets heart. Where intelligent risk smashes the status quo. Where the ability to change and adapt can still honor the past. And, where fresh perspective and creative thinking is always embraced and relentlessly aspired to. Launch Your First was founded by Tony Lam, lead strategist, chief relationship maker, and an all-around good human. Tony’s life is a story of many firsts. First-generation. First franchise. First-time CEO.

Tony’s approach to his work is just as much about instinct as it is about structure. He earned his chops in the food and beverage space through sweat, long hours, and a visceral desire to succeed. He owns and operates five Wingstop restaurants with a staff of more than 100.

Partnered with different companies like Mavens Creamery, and most recently with Omni Bev, Tony achieved his success through intelligent marketing experimentation and having the right sales conversations with the right people, at the right time.

Contact: [email protected]

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