I’m a big fan of cocktails. The most important thing with cocktails, for me, is balance.
Starting a company, too, is all about balance. It’s a balancing act from the moment you start it, and it will continue to be until you sell it, leave it, walk away from it, stop doing it altogether, pass it on to someone else.
Resources are limited. Whether you raise $10 million or $10 000, spend it or lose it, it’s that resources are forever limited. Running a startup, to me, is much like playing a turn-based strategy game: when you can make X number of moves on a certain number of tiles, what do you do? Do you maximize for profit, combat wins, or do you play the long game?
I like the long game, as long as it is profitable and as long as I have periodic spurts in which we “win”. That’s almost exactly how I play XCOM.
In the six months since I’ve been in Indonesia, I’ve done just that:
(Picture from Tech in Asia)
- Won best startup at Ideabox Jakarta
- Built up a good team with limited resources
- Built a few technical pieces which were technically progressive for Indonesia (and SE Asia)
- Created a service layer which aggregated the virtual goods, into the cloud
- Did a lot of outreach which validated our product/market fit from a user point of view (we sponsored a lot of low income women’s gatherings, and their food), as well as from a corporate point of view (we found out that what we are doing is actually in high demand among our corporate partners, who would pay us to keep the lights on :P)
- Lost employee #1, to a combination of “I can’t live in Jakarta” and lack of vision-setting in the company, in the early stages. Learned a ton from it.
- Moved too slowly on legals, now starting to feel it. Of course, I can blame Indonesian legal black holes for it (and most of it is indeed that), but ultimately if I had known exactly what challenges were involved, and I know that now, I would have been able to figure out a way to have realistic timelines around it.
- Could not keep the pace with early stage-generalist roles to later-stage-specialist roles. Our recruitment totally is an entirely different process from even a month ago: roles are far more specialized now.
- Related to the above: transitioning current team from the early, scrappy anything-goes as long as it gets done ways - which served its own purpose, and quite well I may add - to a world of domain expertise, well-defined borders and more importantly, roadmaps for each and every single person.
When I started on this journey, I was a single founder not by choice. The truth is, in Southeast Asia it is pretty hard to convince people to leave their well-paying jobs to go no-pay for a potential pay-out with a low probability.
The people you bring on and go on this journey with, increase the probability with what they bring to the table.
Entrepreneurship IS lonely, and you definitely don’t want to go it alone. Just like hitchhiking, it’s great if you find like-minded people who can fix broken pistons and repair the roof when it caves in, and all of you in the car bring different skills to the ride. At the same time, you also decidedly do not want to get into the car with a maniac who may be hiding a pick axe under the seat.
I ran the company for 6 months, flying solo the whole time, but I’m proud to say that I have finally found a co-founder who brings technical and business chops to the team (and also so that I can focus on the things that I’m really good at, like building community and product).
Being the CEO of a company you founded is lonely, and worse, not a good learning experience. So I am bringing in a team of people who I can learn a lot from who, between them have an average of 20 years of tech experience per piece. The youthful stereotype of tech aside, I have learned far more from people who have been building tech since I just started to learn to walk, than from any hipster who has a chip on their shoulder.
Soberingly, what is truly the scariest for any founder is the idea that you don’t know everything. You don’t have a grip on every single metric. You don’t have the a handle on everything. You just can’t. Between running scrum meetings and training people, figuring out finances and funding, as well as growing product and user numbers, you’re pretty much grasping at straws.
I’ve gone no-pay for 6 months. That’s about to change, but it’s a scary ride. What happens if you fail? What happens if you don’t make it? Those are all terrifying thoughts.
You go to meetings with people and they want to know, depending on the time of the day and how much sleep you’ve gotten: why are you so awesome, brilliant, incredible? And in the same day, other people want you to know: you’re so terrible, stupid, and none of this is ever going to work.
I went to a meeting recently with a guy who was terribly good at raising a lot of money, but not seemingly good at running any of the companies. He felt compelled to tell me: women are shit at business, they are too emotional. You’re never going to make it, so why don’t you just come and work with me - because I have it all figured out - and you’ll never have to worry again.
That was tempting, for a second, but whenever someone tells you “you’ll never have to worry again”, whether it’s a business partner or investor or romantic counterpart, it really just means you’ll never get to dream again. Be bold. Be daring. Be loving. Be kind.
All of those things are important to me.
Whatever happens, I want to know that we tried: that we tried our very best to build a business in which our people can do well by doing good.
If anyone tells you you have to pick one, the princess is in another castle.