A Malaysian Artisan Gelato Company Blew Me Off - But That's Okay

One of the biggest things I noticed as an entrepreneur in Malaysia is the difference in the way Malaysian entrepreneurs approach and treat their competition (compared to everywhere else).

Due to an unpleasant interaction (or reaction, rather) I faced recently, I felt compelled to write about this “phenomenon” to share some personal thoughts and raise some questions.

Why are Malaysian entrepreneurs so afraid of a little competition?

Last weekend, I attended a bazaar event at Gasket Alley in PJ. I circled the bazaar until – to my pleasant surprise – I wound up at the booth of a local artisan gelato shop.

Note: Out of respect and privacy, I’d rather not mention the name.

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I cheerily approached, said hello and tried their gelato. Honestly, they were so good, I couldn’t stop gushing over them. Since they are in a sister industry, I debated whether I should mention my waffle cone business and try to strike up a conversation about a potential collaboration.

In those first few minutes, I was talking to whom I’m guessing was the shop manager (because she dressed smartly, unlike the other staff). She was really nice to me, constantly smiled, and made me feel welcomed. It was the reason I finally decided to bring up the topic. 

But unfortunately, that may be a mistake.

I reached my hand into my bag and took out my business card. While handing it over, I briefly introduced to her to my business and what I do. As I kept talking, I could clearly see and sense a change in her demeanor.

In less than 15 seconds, she was no longer smiling and happy to see me. Instead, she coldly said, “Actually, we make our own charcoal waffle cones.”

That’s great! It means you already have a need for waffle cones and may want more [or different types of] cones in the future.

At least that’s how I see it.

But her body language turned cold so fast, I felt my words escape right through her. In a few seconds, I could sense that she saw me as competition and everything else fell on deaf ears.

By the time I asked if they’d be open for a collaboration, she had already put away my card on the table next to her (not her shirt pocket or bag, where she can go back to it later) and proceeded to turn her attention to another customer.

Oh, by the way, I was a customer too. 

Sensing her waning interest, I ended the conversation by asking if I could email them to start a discussion instead. She said yes, pointed to an email address printed on their business card and quickly shifted her attention.

I said my thanks with a smile and stepped away, right after I bought a scoop of their gelato to share with a friend. 

Image: Gelato Messina was my favourite gelato stop when I lived in Sydney, Australia. I still think of it from time to time.

Image: Gelato Messina was my favourite gelato stop when I lived in Sydney, Australia. I still think of it from time to time.

The “ugly fear” reaction

We all seem to raise our fists in the air about community, camaraderie, and collaboration, but I still come across a lot of people with an ugly fear of competition in Malaysia. 

I call it “ugly fear” because the reaction most Malaysians give when they are faced with competition is nothing short of just that – a lot of pettiness and cheap insults.  

It’s such a contrast to how the West handles competition – in good spirit and sportsmanship, acceptance, healthy competition, and some even turn it around to their advantage. 

Why the stark difference?

Because it all boils down to cultural difference and upbringing. Malaysians aren’t particularly great with confrontation so when threatened with competition, they cower in the corner hoping to bring the other party down with petty trivialities. 

In business, you can’t deny your competition. Embrace them. It takes a fair bit of adjusting but it can only benefit you. 

While this has been an unpleasant experience for me, I know that it is probably a solitary one. Not everyone has reacted the same way towards me or my business nor does it represent the establishment in question in particular. 

Upon introspect, I probably should’ve kept my excitement to myself and approach the subject differently. My advice would be to send a friendly email or speak to a business development manager instead – they are more likely to be interested in ideas to grow the business.

Do you have a horror collaboration/partnership story to share? I’d love to hear it in the comments!