Stories, Taoke (Business)

Chinese Idiom: Digging A Well Before One’s Thirsty

In the Spring and Autumn period, Duke Zhao of the Lu State sought refuge in Qi State because of a palace turmoil. He confessed his mistakes to Duke Jing.  However, Yanzi, a high-ranking official of Qi remarked, “It is too late to make weapons when one is endangered, and to dig a well when one is thirsty.”

We may not literally need to dig a well to quench our thirst, but we certainly need to find solutions for the problems we encounter. Lín kě jué jǐng (臨渴掘井)teaches us to anticipate and prepare for problems long before they occur because reacting when the problems have arisen is too late already.

International Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan foresaw a problem in the movie industry back when he was still on the rise. During the late 70s and 80s, there were a lot of martial arts films being produced, and these have helped propelled the likes of Chan to stardom. Martial arts film, particularly Kung Fu was close to the hearts of the Chinese and it was not a surprise that the genre would have created a cult following. However, he thought that these films were becoming too common, and would soon lose the excitement it once had. Saturation for the genre was inevitable.

That was when Chan decided to deviate from it and gambled on filming The Police Story. While it was still considered a martial arts film given that Chan still displayed his Kung fu fighting prowess, it abandoned the use of traditional Chinese weapons and instead, the film saw Chan wielding a gun as a cop.

His gambit paid off. The Police Story became a blockbuster hit grossing HKD26.5 million in 1985; and went on to win the Best Film at the 1986 Hong Kong film awards. The Police Story was followed by three sequels and two reboots, with each film topping the previous one in terms of revenues. The whole Police Story series was studded with awards and nominations. Furthermore, the film allowed Chan to distinguish himself from his contemporaries. Chan went on to become a global icon in the entertainment business, and still continues to brandish the very same charisma that endeared him to the fans. The others just faded into obscurity.

Chan dug a well before he was even thirsty. He anticipated and solved problem before it even happened. Businesses that failed to foresee potential problems became extinct.

One classic example is the video rental business. A decade or so earlier, video rentals were popular because the prices of the original VCDs and VHSs were still expensive then. Rental costs only a third of a movie ticket and there is literally no limit to the number of people that can watch the movie. There was even a TVC of a popular chain of video rental store. It was a huge success in the 90s that franchising one was a smart business decision.

But several problems were already brewing. First, piracy became rampant and it reached a point that it was cheaper to buy a pirated VCD or DVD rather than renting one. Second, retail prices of original films became affordable with some even costing less than a hundred bucks; and there was no need to return the video at all. Third, the Internet allowed us to download and watch movies online at the comforts of our own notebooks and laptops. So why even rent when you can own?

Suddenly, nobody thought of renting videos anymore! Video rental stores closed shop one after another. The business eventually died. Even the NYSE-listed Blockbuster Video, which once was valued at USD8.4 billion, went bankrupt, and was sold for a paltry USD233 million.

But the idiom is not only about recognizing problems miles ahead; much like a coin, the other side of lín kě jué jǐng teaches us to spot opportunities before others spot them. After all, you are not the only one who is going to get thirsty. And if you could offer others “water” from your “well”, you could earn big bucks from it.

Philippine business is never short of these stories. Zest-O founder Alfredo Yao is one. His new type of packaging was not well received by juice manufacturers at the onset forcing him to manufacture packed juice himself. To date,              Zest-O controls 80 percent of the market share for ready to drink fruit juice. Chowking’s Robert Kuan also saw an opportunity to serve Chinese fast food. He took advantage of the limited choices in industry. His venture paid dividends as Chowking was acquired by Jollibee in 2000—15 years after he founded it.

Digging that well may well be hard work, but businesses or individuals that did dig their well before they were thirsty ended up surviving the competition or better yet, getting ahead of the pack.

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