(Also posted on Medium. I will cross post anything I write, and archive them here.)
It’s been a while since I’ve written about work. Even longer since I’ve gotten on a bicycle.
In so many ways, running a startup is like a race. Some people like to do sprints. Some people like lycra.
More and more, I find myself preferring endurance sports and comfortable clothing — perhaps because that’s the closest sporting analogy I can find for the kind of work that I do.
In 2014, I moved to Indonesia to work on ‘financial inclusion for women’.
In 2015, I completed the ideabox accelerator, worked with no salary for a year and a bit, and worked on finding product / market fit.
In 2016, I finally raised my first tranche of funding. At that time, ‘Indonesia’ / ‘emerging markets’ and ‘social impact’ were three things that didn’t go together.
In 2017, I lost both of my cofounders for personal reasons, and struggled to not burn out myself. I did not succeed.
In 2018, I am still going at it. Wobe is growing everyday. We have great investors. I am supported by a team of hardworking people who are not only great at what they do, but they also believe that we can use tech to bring financial inclusion to emerging markets.
Grit and resilience don’t come naturally to me. I understand them as concepts and I live, to the fullest extent that is possible, with as much as I can muster. I’m also painfully autistic; I simply don’t see risk. Risk is not a discrete concept, nor is it something I can grasp. Therefore, it does not exist.
Early stage startups are hard.
You risk: running out of money, running out of steam, running out of time, running out of energy. Everything needs to be in perfect alignment and timing. You have to fashion a product and a company into existence, and do both really well, in a remarkably short period of time.
All of your flaws are amplified.
Everything needed to be done — yesterday.
Everything is broken. Everything is great.
Like so many startup folks, I decided to work it off. Triathlons are especially popular with us. I suppose if you do what we do for work, weekend competitions that are physically and mentally demanding are just yet another challenge. Another hill to climb. Another bendy road. Another slope to descend.
I did a bit of that, and I’m pretty good at it. But I realised my taste in sports is the same as my taste for business. I need gravel and mud. I need to fly face first into wet muddy terrain. I need to find a hill I’ve never climbed, with the equipment I have, and just pedal furiously.
I feel like I do that everyday at work, and everyday at play.
I’m at home in places where conditions are rough.
I like unpaved roads.
Maybe that’s why I’ve chosen to build a business in a space I care very much about (increasing access to financial services for the unbanked), in a country I love with all of the opportunities and challenges (Indonesia).
The road ahead is bumpy, wet and rocky. That’s when I know it’s time to hit the gravel.
Thank you, friends, family, investors, Wobe team members and our customers, for coming along on this ride. You push me to do better, be better, learn everyday, and do my best. Burn out is not fun. You lose so much time and focus. Growing is so much more fun! I want to share more stories from the trenches, growth, warts and all.
I was asked to speak at a local university’s Young Entrepreneur Network event. Sometimes, I say yes to these things.
For anyone interested, here are the slides.
I wanted to share, mostly, my personal journey — how I got here. I also wanted to share some strategies for thinking about creating a startup if you’re starting from the absolute beginning, like I was.
Click through to see the notes, which contain slightly more info than what’s on the deck.
Happy to receive any feedback or answer any questions. Email address on the last slide.
I’ve been on the internet for a very long time, but my online self really only found its home when I got this domain in 2003. 14 years: enough to see blogs decline into the mushy wasteland that is Medium articles, video in every website we now load, and a million apps to help me connect with everything that we love. I’ve led a hectic online life outside of this blog, but at the end I keep wanting to come back to see what I can do with it.
Lately, I’ve had circumstances that forced some introspection, such as the following:
I want to talk about the unglamorous bits of being a startup founder. 1/many— Adrianna Tan (@skinnylatte) August 2, 2017
Everything worth doing, to me, are still the difficult ones. Sometimes it’s hard to hear through the noise.
Two people, suspended between heartbreak and fury, met on Hong Kong Street after almost 2 years without each other.
Their hearts, recently broken by others, found each other agreeable — even safe.
They made a plan. The universe attempted to foil it. To no avail.
Through long public holidays, expensive flights, an expiring passport and the logistics of homes, broken and renewed, no unfortunate event stood in the way.
I stood behind the multitudes to wait for you: the many sweaty, smelly men waving flags awaiting their Chinese tourists. Me, in my shorts with holes, a top that’s much too big and my hair that’s floppy and flat after an hour on a motorbike to come to see you.
Even on arrival, the universe was determined to place one last obstacle before us: the long amble, actually scramble, along the railing, past the sweaty tour guides, into some tourists, around the ATMs, and then you, there in the flesh.
As with the start of new things, my pulse sped up mostly in not knowing how close I could be. It had just been a few days since I had been with you, and here I was furiously making plans to cancel all of my plans.
There’s a curse on this island for couples who come here together, they say.
What they didn’t say: come as a not-couple, leave as a couple, uncursed?
In the most improbable places, we found fireplaces and each other.
Before long, you would say, coming to Munduk to see me was one of the biggest gambles you had ever taken. Next to Bosnia.
In the first week we travelled many towns, lakes, forests and hills; sat in many cars and planes together, discovered how a plane aisle was much too jauh, so soon.
The odds were long, but our odds are good. And I don’t even like Bali, not one bit. I love us in it.
Like so many people who grew up with the Internet, there have been many incarnations of my online self. To some, I will forever be the queer blogger who started writing about the lesbian experience as a teenager in Singapore in the early 2000s. Some find that courageous; I found it much more difficult to change pronouns than to pretend to be someone I was not. To others, I am a travel blogger who enjoys hiking across Asia on trains, bikes and boats. That is made possible by a blend of courage and stupidity, and it has served me well.
Read the rest of this post here.
What’s it like to be on the spectrum?
It is to be able to do wonderfully complex and abstract things, at the speed of light, yet to be stumped at how to give straightforward directions to others.
To be diagnosed after the age of 30 is to learn quite resolutely: the weirdest feature in my being is not who I am, but what I do not understand. I do not understand what is easily understood by most. But I have done a good job pretending I do.
People expect me to understand because I manage to pass for somebody I am not: well put together. In charge of my mind and body. Able to hold a conversation, fill rooms with hundreds of people. Capable of making inferences and deductions based on fact and feeling. Able to pass for ‘neurotypical’.
In recent conversations like the ones I’ve had to pay a lot of money to have some obvious things pointed out to me, I’ve had to dig into the recesses of my psyche. Things I thought I’d scrubbed out of my brain and consciousness. I did not have to go back very far:
I live in my head, suspended between my thoughts and reality. In my head, I have already raced through the day’s tasks elegantly, solving one interesting problem after another. In reality, I struggle to put on my shoes. Five year old me’s daily problem: no matter how hard I try, I cannot will my fingers to arrange my shoelaces and straps in a manner that makes sense. This still happens to me. In my head, I may have made spreadsheets upon spreadsheets to address every question I have thought of while showering in the morning. In reality, I cannot will an arrangement of words and numbers to show up without brute force. This tires me.
At social events it would be nice, of course, to finally understand how to moderate my speech or behaviour to match what is expected of polite company. But I am interested only in a very tiny set of topics. It helps then to not know what it feels like to pass for social; I have only ever managed to wager a guess. Since I do not know how that feels like, I do not know how to want those things, which is often mistaken for apathy.
It was to have made mathematical calculations of my romantic odds instead of caring for people on an individual level. For that, I am sorry. All of those times people asked me on OkCupid or Tinder what I was looking for and I said ‘an algorithmic match’, I thought it was the only thing to say. And if we actually dated, I was still looking for the algorithms and my mainframe was out of date.
Being on the spectrum means I grapple with simple questions: the one which terrifies me most, even to this day is — how are you? There is a five second delay in which I think, how, am, wait, what does that mean and who am I? Am I good today? Is that the truth? Am I more good than the last time I was asked this weird question? It feels like an infinite loop. Asking me how I am or how I feel, is no different from being asked to reach into the bottom of my soul and finding no difference between one abyss and another. How am I? How do I feel? I don’t know.
In place of feelings, there are patterns.
There is the pattern of ‘everybody is smiling am I more convincing at making eye contact now or am I still failing’. This sometimes looks like I have too many feelings, or that I have none.
There are the patterns of ‘this looks like something which has happened before which leads me to conclude… Something’ and ‘oh shit I got it terribly wrong’. There are few patterns in-between.
I have been lucky to find my feet in a career that skews unfairly towards people on the spectrum, but the parts of it: the speaking at conferences, the socializing and networking, the parties, the world of people talking to and understanding each other, that I shudder at.
To be on the spectrum is to have few tools for anger and other emotional processes. How is someone else feeling? I can only wager a guess. It is to disproportionately over-emphathise (because it seems like that’s what people do), or to do too little of it. For me, it is also to be completely incapacitated in the in-betweens: what is not said. Even then, what is said can also have the same effect when it is said in a different way — that matches another pattern.
It feels like living in a bad torrent. It is a blockbuster movie to everyone else who somehow always finds a way to watch the IMAX version. But yours resembles a pirated movie torrent with an audio track that is 10 seconds out of sync — ahead. It all sounds like gibberish, and there are somehow no subs of the right language and container size and codec. You have to watch it anyway.
Slowly, the other movie is coming into focus.
Maybe I’ll never be able to see all of it in high fidelity, but — I’m told it is up to people like us to find new standards of definition.