I was recently invited to speak at the reunion of Salesforce BizAcademy, a 1 week leadership apprenticeship program.
With students from Salesforce’s BizAcademy 2012 and 2013 Batch! Thanks to Esther from Salesforce, Jael and Ivy from Halogen Foundation Singapore for hosting and inviting me.
I decided that the topic “10 Lessons I Learnt From 100 Entrepreneurs” would be fitting given the nature of my work.
The tech industry is nothing short of amazing. Across the last 3 years I’ve met some of the most most innovative, generous and intelligent individuals who want to make the world a better place to live in. I’ve probably met more than 100 entrepreneurs but the number is mostly symbolic, the lessons are those that I felt are worth sharing.
Here are the notes from my talk
This is a photo of my friend Ellwyn, co-founder of a social enterprise called BagoSphere. BagoSphere trains out–of-school youths to find jobs in Philippines’ booming BPO industry. This is him sitting outside of the classroom in Bago City, talking to his trainees after a blackout.
It takes a lot of effort to build a sustainable company. It doesn’t stop when you’ve launched a product, nor can you just sit back, relax and watch the money roll in. Keeping up in one of the fastest changing industries and making your product indispensable is the hardest part.
I’ve had entrepreneurs come to me at their lowest and with tears in their eyes, telling me about their fears of not making their families proud, that they totally regret making a wrong decision of taking (or not taking) an investment, that they worry they won’t have enough saved up to pay for their kids’ livelihood or get married. These are very legitimate fears.
Making sure you know why you want to start a company is really important. What can you bring to the industry that you can’t while working for another company? Do you see yourself doing this for another 5 – 10 years? What’s the vision and the end goal?
I highly recommend this talk by Simon Sinek about answering the question of “WHY”. In the hardest of times, the answer will guide you through your actions.
Ben Huh, who is Founder and CEO of Cheezburger didn’t just stumble upon being the owner of the world’s most entertaining websites and then earning shit-loads of money from it.
Equipped with a degree in journalism (uh huh, that’s right, journalism), his first company was focused on the decidedly unfunny vertical of web analytics, failing after 18 months. He was $40,000 in debt, but quickly got back on his feet. After working a succession of jobs, in 2007 he started blogging, founded I Can Haz Cheezburger, and bought the site.
When faced with the choice to progress up the ladder, working for someone else’s startup – or become the CEO of the world’s weirdest cat sharing site, he chose the latter.
To this day it still baffles his investors why people are fascinated with an image of bacon on a cat, but what matters is that he understood that the internet allows us to be a weird, imperfect and still love each other for it.
In his own words, “it is only failure when you don’t get back on your feet.”
Good entrepreneurs will never become who they are without pushing themselves and failing from time to time. It’s tough to put yourself out there and let people criticize your ideas, how you’re executing them and then realize you’ve been building something that no one really wants. In fact, it really sucks, but it seems to be a necessary evil – and we need to be less afraid of failing and be more concerned with learning faster.
Life is never what it’s supposed to be. You can always create all kinds of excuses to stop yourself from doing what you want to do, such as the market being too small, or that there isn’t enough money in Singapore for startups, or that you can’t hire good engineers – but at the end of the day, those are excuses.
After spending time speaking to too many wide-eyed entrepreneurs who tell me that they are passionate about this or that , I’ve grown weary of hearing the word passion. I’d much rather listen to what systems they’ve built in place to differentiate themselves in the market, how they’re going to growth into a successful business with limited resources and time.
It’s not that passion isn’t important, I get that, it’s that you have to grow into it sometimes. At the end of the day, we all have responsibilities and people to answer to, so while you chase the dream, also remember that it’s important to put into place the systems that help your company succeed.
Dilbert was just one of Scott Adam’s many pet projects to see if he could earn money writing this comic strip. Turns out, there was product market and eventually he could quite his job at a bank to work on it full time.
Look for that fit.
I once wrote about the 3 types of mentors that you need in your life.
1. Role Model Mentors
Yup, the title is straightforward enough. These are the mentors who you eventually want to be like. The ones you look to and think to yourself, “wow, this is someone I want to be like if I were to be e.g., a manager / activist /mother / whatever I want to besomeday.
2. Peers who are your mentors
“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn
Entrepreneurship is tough. If you don’t have a group of friends who are in it together with you or know what you’re going through, go look for those networks! Luckily in Singapore we have lots of meetups and events for you to meet like-minded folks. Trust me, in down times it helps to have friends whom you can turn to to confide in. It matters.
3. Mentoring those that are seek mentorship
They say that you only realise how much you really know when you have to teach it. That is true when you find others looking to you to learn something from. It’s this kind of pay-it-forward mentality that will increase the average collective intelligence of the world.
CEO really stands for Chief Everything Officer. Especially if you’re bootstrapping. At the start you’re in charge of everything, regardless of whether its HR, Admin, Product Management, Sales, Tech or Marketing.
Toilet flush spoilt? Learn how to fix it.
Can’t afford a cleaning lady? Learn how to use a broom.
It’s not as glamorous as you’d think and you’re definitely not a “rockstar”.
Read: Entrepreneurshit. The Blog Post on What It’s Really Like.
Starting a company is a lot of hard work. As Chief Everything Officer, wouldn’t it be nice if you had someone to share with workload and help you cope emotionally as well? (It’s also a lot more fun if you’d doing it with someone you trust).
A startup is simply too much work for one person. 1 + 1′s efforts are honestly more than two. I’ve met solo entrepreneurs and the speed at which they take action is just too slow.
Find someone who can make up for your lack of skills. You’re a sales guy? Find a technical co-founder. If you can’t convince them of your value proposition, then you might have to re-evaluate your selling skills.
Always pick someone you can trust and would want to hang out with even after work. And sign a founders agreement. Too many friendships go sour because of this.
As a founder you have to balance priorities. Is it the time to go big on sales? Then stop worrying about another feature and start selling like mad. The only goal for a bootstrapping start-up IS TO MAKE MONEY.
If it’s time for you to do sales and meet people, then attend events and sell the shit out of your product. But other times, please focus on building your product, talking to customers and not flirting with girls.
Stay on the fucking bus – a great read.
“…in the first weeks or years of any worthwhile project, feedback – whether from your own emotions, or from other people – isn’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing. (This shouldn’t be confused with the dodgy dictum that triggering hostile reactions means you must be doing the right thing; it just doesn’t prove you’re doing the wrong one.) The second point concerns the perils of a world that fetishises originality. A hundred self-help books urge you to have the guts to be “different”: the kid who drops out of university to launch a crazy-sounding startup becomes a cultural hero… yet the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it. Sometimes it takes more guts to keep trudging down a pre-trodden path, to the originality beyond. “Stay on the fucking bus”: there are worse fridge-magnet slogans to live by. Just make sure you take it off the fridge when your prudish relatives visit.”
Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, wrote an excellent piece on this topic.
“Entrepreneurs: Don’t listen to the “must be not-for-profit if you want to change the World” bullshit. The folks who figure out how to build a truly profitable and lasting company will be the ones that really change the World.”
Without Microsoft making the kind of money it is today, Bill Gates would have never been able to set up his foundation. Neither would Microsoft employees have been able to do this:
The last point is about building something valuable for the community and doing that through businesses. My favourite entrepreneurs, Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) and Jack Ma (Founder of Alibaba.com and TaoBao.com) are examples of leaders that used the strengths of their products to empower millions of people.
Roddick built her empire through her controversial marketing practices emphasizing on fair trade, gave opportunities for native people of the Amazon to work and was a strong human rights activist. She pissed a lot of people off in the process and yet, although she was selling something as “trivial” or “fluff” as cosmetics, people heard her voice and started to echo it when The Body Shop became a global company.
Former English teacher, Jack Ma, empowered a whole nation of sellers by offering a free platform for small businesses to set up shop on e-commerce platform. It was at a time where eBay was in fierce competition to become a leader of the Chinese market, but didn’t think twice about providing a usable platform for the local people.
Check out the slides here: