All posts in 2024
  • Paths

    12 years ago this time I was deciding where I should go, what I should study, at university. I was also four months away from deciding I would try to be happy in spite of my newfound queerness.

    11 years ago this time I was in Kolkata, volunteering with an organization, not knowing I would go on to do that in the future. I was awful at painting walls, and not much better now.

    10 to 8 years ago this time on the road learning Southeast Asia out of backpacks I still carried, before my back went bad.

    7 years ago this time I got back to Dubai from Istanbul to find beetles had infested everything that I owned in the world. It was the first time I learned you could be truly alone in the world.

    6 years ago on the Syria/Turkey border with no money and no clothes. Auto-rickshaws. My first businesses. An annoyingly debilitating illness. Recovery.

    Three years ago I was back in Singapore feeling lost and forlorn when I left someone and a city that had spanned half a decade. Two years ago my life of endless pitching had just begun.

    Today, 30 and in Indonesia on the cusp of everything. Bring it on!

  • The Cult of Busy

    I do quite a few things. Run a startup. Run two non-profits. Mentor queer kids. Spend a lot of time with my family, partner and our dog. Play video games. Paint the house. Cook for friends. Take my dog on long walks. Even, gasp, sleep!

    A lifetime ago on my first entrepreneurial rodeo, I did not know many of the things that I know now.

    I know now, that:

    • Sleep is the most important, ‘sleep for the weak, no sleep till I’m dead’ is just pointless and unhealthy bravado – because I got so close to the edge
    • Health is important. Many of my peers have now had a few attempts at entrepreneurship, and many of us have worked ourselves to the bone and back
    • Focus is everything, and time management is better. There’s no value to working insane long hours when you’re not focused. I have better awareness of my attention span and focus patterns now (short bursts, varied, always have to be doing something insanely fun or difficult, preferably both)
    • Neglecting friends and family isn’t ideal, they’re worth a lot more than most business. You also get better at navigating friendships vs acquaintances
    • Saying no is okay
    • Saying yes to things that matter is also
    • Getting something done imperfectly is better than waiting for perfection
    • Being busy is a state of mind

    Some people are perpetually busy. Maybe some people really are genuinely busy. I try to be un-busy, which is not the same as being unproductive. Even if I’m really busy, I want to never say I am. I will always have time to chat with a suicidal friend who calls me at 4am. I will always have time for anyone. I will always have time for my dad, mum, girlfriend, siblings, nieces. I want to always have the head space to be actively learning new things, instead of blocking anything being of a mistakenly diagnosed case of busy.

    There’s a difference between being consciously un-busy and being frivolous. I suspect I might have some kind of attention deficiency disorder, so I need to be juggling three things at a time. I did not know that before – so felt unproductive, sad, and bored most of my life when shoved into the do-one-thing religion, which never fit. I also got very, very ill when I was busy, in a previous life.

    Now I do lots of things, but I am not busy. I am occupied, but I’ll always have time for sleep, health, and happiness.

    I am awful at calendaring, so I’ve hired a PA to help me do that. Calendaring makes me busy and sad, so I need to outsource that.

    Today, there are a ton of things I’d like to do. There are always things to do. But I would rather focus on the meaningfulness of the things I have to do, rather than on the having to do in and of its own.

    My to-do list might be massive, but I want to never close off my heart.

    If I have to be insanely busy, which is a state I am getting to very rapidly, I want to be purposefully occupied, not and never too busy for anyone.

  • A Sucker Punch in the Gut

    It seemed like a good idea to quad-bike around parts of Turkey, 2009. It seemed like a good idea to quad-bike around parts of Turkey, 2009.

    The difference between travelling alone, which I’ve done plenty of, and exploring possibilities alone, which I’ve done less of (but gotten more from), lies in how much of a sucker punch those decisions give me, specifically in my gut. I don’t follow my gut as much as let my gut punch out a path for me in the metaphorical jungle of life’s decision trees.

    Sometimes, they are very bad ideas. Most times they are good ideas — after a while. With these things, you really never know until you are knee-deep in the slush.

    I was 19 when I set off to explore the world for the first time on my own. I had a one way ticket and 60 days in India. I had nothing other than the promise of 3 large freelance (and then lucrative) writing gigs from Northeast India to Bangladesh. I knew exactly what the next 60 days would be: take a 36 hour train to Calcutta. Locate my contact. Procure a ticket to Dhaka. Follow certain contacts into the far north. Live in a leprosy hospital. Be denied entry into India at its border with Bangladesh; circle back to Calcutta, take a 18 hour train to Guwahati, find a jeep, go to Shillong, find another jeep to take me to Cherrapunjee.

    I remember what it was like to be sitting in the waiting room just before getting on the plane. I looked at my shoes a lot and thought about failure. I got on the plane.

    Those lessons lasted me all through college (which I somehow completed).

    On the eve of my 23rd birthday, I moved alone to the Middle East. No plan, no money, just a crazy idea that I had to be in this part of the world for a year. I wanted to have it all, you see: I wanted to be closer to my then girlfriend, who had just moved to London. Dubai was closer to London than Singapore, and we could meet in Istanbul. All I needed was my backpack, camera and passport.

    What I did not know was how the whirlwind journey through Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey would touch me in ways I haven’t even begun to be able to fully articulate, 6 years on.

    On the eve of my 29th birthday, I found myself wandering along a street in Jakarta as the sky set. The visual of a sunset in Jakarta made me feel terribly alone in a vast universe, on the cusp of the rest of my life. I had come to Indonesia to seek success and wealth, that was the first 10 hours of that journey and I forgot to pack a bath towel.

    None of those stories are winning stories. They should not elicit any feelings of warmth or happiness. They are not tales of conquest meant to provide an origin story for any autobiographical data points. For me, as I lived it, all of those stories were stories of immense loneliness and fear.

    You see, despite the happy reassurances of ‘it turned out okay’, I remember all of those three moments specifically as defining moments in which the dominant emotion was melancholy. Yes, I was happy to have had certain career and life opportunities. Yes, those were the things I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. Yes, I love adventure and wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. But I had never felt more alone in the universe than when I literally stood crying in a phone booth in the world’s wettest place, learning that maybe I cannot have it all, after all.

    Or that I rocked up in Dubai knowing no one, with the love of my life five thousand miles away, spending my birthday nearly alone in a stupid tiki bar thinking maybe I should have thought about this a little bit more. (I celebrated my 23rd birthday with a beautiful Palestinian couple I’d known for two hours. Great people, but I missed home.)

    That I have spent most of my adult life feeling very far away from the people I love, suspended between here and there, utterly incapable of keeping any real connections alive because I always had to be somewhere else at the wrong times.

    I still let my gut punch me about: it rules me. I no longer have to listen to it or follow it — it is me. It has been automated. It keeps me alive! I am quite literally alive today because I did not board a bus or a train for certain locations, because my gut told me so. Suicide bombs (multiple) and the worst floods in history ensued. I was not in them, unlike some of my travel companions.

    My gut is automated to tune in to natural disasters, terrorism and business decisions all at once. My heart structurally resembles cotton candy.

    My gut is never wrong. My heart almost always is.

    My gut keeps me alive. My heart appears to want the opposite.

    On the eve of the third decade of life I will be surrounded by loved ones, friends and family. I am not on a plane this week, which is a welcome change. I am no longer the person who wanders around Gaziantep in the wee hours of the morning. But I am still the same person who could wing it to the moon and back with nothing more than the shirt on my back.

    I was always shit scared. You just get better at turning fear into currency for a life well-lived.

  • 12 Years

    I’ve been publishing on the web for the last 12 years. It was because I wanted to write and publish on the web that I learned to look under the hood and build things. Which is why I do what I do now.

    This is a list of stuff over the last 12 years.

    2003: Stupid and heartbroken at 18

    An Exercise of Faith
    X Weeks of Not Missing You
    Two Weeks

    2004–2005: OMG, I’m gay? Coming out and being ok

    The Eight Ages of a Woman

    2006: Starting to see the world

    Arts and Lies, And
    Other Mornings in Other Places
    Why I Am Still A Feminist
    Amar Shonar Bangla
    Portraits Unphotographable
    A Bus and Chai Story

    2007: Finding my place in the world

    Hungry Asian Woman
    Sudder Street
    Chasing the Monsoon

    2008: Home is Singapore, KL, Bombay and Jakarta. Sometimes On a Boat. It Still Is.

    My City
    Peanut Butter, This What?
    The Country Codes My Girlfriend and I Have Known
    Bombay Burning

    2009: Death at Home. Life On The Road in the Middle East (for a year)

    And All the Roads That Lead You There are Winding
    Ah Gong and I
    There’s Always Chicken Curry at Funerals
    And the Living is Easy
    The Torino Express
    You Asians Have Two Stomachs
    Two Hundred and Nine
    Strange Damascus Memories

    2010–2011: Domesticity & Autorickshaw Races

    We Have No Dungarees, Saar
    The Great Southern Trunk Road
    A Drinkable History of My Family

    2012: The Saddest Year + Going to The Nordics, Hungary and the USA

    Taj Mahal Foxtrot
    The Years of Living at High Velocity
    Wilderness TV
    The Road Less Ridden
    The Places We’ll Go
    Departing Thoughts
    Left & Leaving

    2013–2014: A Slow Recovery Back in Singapore

    Before & After the Fire
    Love, Singapore (the one about lesbian dating in Singapore)
    The One About Having It All
    Over & Over
    74 Weeks Later
    Another List of Things
    I Follow Cities
    An Indian Decade
    Don’t Lugi Be Happy
    The Geography of Hope
    What I Learned
    Video Games & Political Consciousness
    Singapore’s So-Called Moral Majority

    2015: I turn 30, and I am still on the road but something has changed

    To the Mountain
    From Manhattan to Myanmar
    A Tale of Two Cities
    Two Pairs of Pants
    Mee Lay
    Split Language Disorders
    The Manual of Intimacy
    I’m Over Here

  • The Borneo Express

    For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be somewhere else. In all of my childhood day dreams, of which I had many, daily, and often, I imagined being an explorer out at sea. Being a pilot about to set off for yonder. Even the short stories I scribbled all had to do with stowing away, seeing new lands, discovering curious and wondrous foods.

    Reading about Robinson Crusoe made me wonder what the natives ate, and why he never tried to just fit in (rescue seemed like a horrible ending, I hated it); Gulliver's Travels only made me wonder how the Lillputians lived with their neighbours before he came around. In my imagination, if I shipwrecked, stowed away, or was kidnapped to a foreign land, I would quite enjoy the adventure.

    My parents travel in ways few other Asian parents do: cheaply and adventurously. The first time I ever left Singapore, we went to Sarawak. It wasn't a 'cool' story to tell your friends in primary school - no, you didn't go to Disneyland in Hong Kong, you didn't even live in a real hotel, you went to… Borneo.

    Every day we walked for miles and miles. We never took taxis or cars, only buses, trains and boats. No matter how much you sweat, my parents don't care: they've got a backpack full of iced water so you have no reason to be sad! Just keep walking.

    I don't remember much else about those times. Just that they were fun. That they made me. That when my parents wanted to take a bus four hours into the interiors, you learn to sleep anywhere. That when they want you to stop complaining about the hygiene of the food you're eating, even when insects of all kinds have landed on your food, you shut up and eat it and discover the best food in the world, or you go hungry.

    There's a funny picture of me from this era, age 7. I had just showered. My mum had combed my hair in the way she always has: like a nerd. I'm sitting at the table of our 'hotel', looking straight at the camera like the little nerd that I was. I was writing. Writing about the blowpipe I just had the chance to blow! About the shaky tooth that fell out of my mouth on the four hour bus ride out from the interiors. About how my parents calmly put my tooth into their pocket, said nothing, alighted and fed me the most delicious noodles I'd ever had.

    How much of my life is still exactly like that, and how lucky I am to be able to still have these adventures with the two people who taught me adventure and love.

    I'm glad we never went to Disneyland!

  • I’m Over Here

    Love and losing from somewhere else.

    If you were to look into the ISD/STD phone booth in Park Street, when it was flooding in Kolkata one year, I was there. My heartbreak was metered: sixteen paisa per second. Whatever they were saying on the phone, I can’t remember. I just know it was raining and that the men were shouting very loudly outside on the street.

    I was also there, in the little hut in Meghalaya, when you told me you cheated on me with my friend. My heartbreak was still 10 rupees per minute. What do you say to that? I’m sorry, I choose to chase my dreams even if it means being away from you for four months? I hope you liked it?

    When I was still young and living at home I felt the sudden need to live with you. We made plans. We saw the house. We tried to pretend we were 17 and falling in love with each other again. I have the unfortunate luck to only be able to make money or anything of value five thousand miles away. Like some old Bollywood movie on loop, it happened again. Phone booth. Rain in an Indian city. Unsure if the person I loved was fading away, or if the phone line was. Whatever it was, it always cost 600 rupees.

    I am always somewhere else and never here.

    From Madras to Hong Kong, I sipped whiskies furiously, and sadly.

    Today I sat in a car travelling through the mountains of Java, hurtling into the unknown. I was worried about the state of the global capital markets, and about my heart.

    It’s been 11 years since Park Street. I now have a world of communication gadgets and connectivity devices in my pocket. Every sim card, every operator, every spectrum. But my heart is still where it’s always been: firmly on my sleeve. This time it was (almost) free, but it felt just as broken. I have never learned how to reconcile my life on the road with my heart. Turns out nobody likes it when you are away from home 300 days in a year. But I don’t know how else to live. The stock markets tanked, as did my heart.

    The mountains of West Java were a welcome change. I’m happy to never have to step into a phone booth again. One day, just to mix things up, I’d like to be here, not there. But I don’t know where here is.

  • The Manual of Intimacy

    First, meet a girl for the first time on the lawn in front of her house. Sit very closely by each other. Say hello, I'm a poet. What do you do?

    When she replies, I'm an entrepreneur. But I also run a charity. Laugh, and give her whisky, the same one that you've been nursing.

    She comes and she gives you a cigarette, and it makes you feel like she's looking out for you. But really, she's just gone into her house to meet your mutual friend to ask in all seriousness, so… does she like women… at all?

    That friend laughed a little. And did not have an answer.

    She went back out to the lawn to give you another cigarette. And a bourbon. Woodford Reserve. So good, so smooth, all 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malt. There was 10% of her that paused and said, this is a very good idea. There was 18% of you that stopped for a second and thought, what is going on?

    There was all 72% of the man sitting across from you, all love and all happiness and all he wants to marry you, now.

    She went away. She came back. She went away again. You told her: you are worried about how much you like her. Because you are going to hurt her. She did not believe you. She said she did not care because this was just going to be fun, that she also wasn't ready for anything more.

    You believed her.

    You met her at a bar when she got home, right after she got off a plane. She waited two hours for you when you sent him off. She was happy to see you. She held your hand, and you said: hey, you're holding my hand. You brought her to the river and showed her your favourite spot. You tried to be chaste. She tried harder. She went away again.

    When you saw each other again, it was the end. It was the start of the end of the beginning. But you already told her that.

    As though telling someone that you're going to break their heart, makes it any better when you do. As if telling someone all the ways in which you are broken, cuts any less when you cut them.

    And then when you have her completely under your spell. Tell her that you love her. Tell her that you care for her. But you care for him more.

    You're sorry, you love her so much. But. You asked her, is there a but? After she said she loved you too? She said-pensively-no. But there really was one.

    Come over one day and find her worried and afraid, at home, alone. Tell her that you haven't stopped thinking about her. Tell her that you love her. Tell her that you love her so much that when you sleep with him, you can't stop thinking about her.

    Then go back to him and tell her, this isn't a competition, Adrianna.

  • Lying on a Sack of Rice

    I had one of those days today. The day when your to-do list is piled so high that you can't see the end of the tunnel. The day when your caterer cancels your big order a few days before Culture Kitchen. The day when all of your mega business problems are on the verge of getting solved, but almost. The day when you feel your heart pulling in a million directions, but there are no right answers, there never were.

    I find myself having to lie down on a sack of rice quite often these days.

    I work out of an office where the outdoor area has outdoor furniture made out of up-cycled gunny sacks. It's become my favourite place to sit on, to think.

    A lifetime ago I used to travel around India by train. My dad would give me a sack of rice (minus the rice) so that I can lay on it in the sleeper class trains I would travel on, the ones without bedding or sheets or pillows. My backpack as my pillow. My rice sack as my bedsheet.

    Waking up in the morning to find my arms imprinted: 100% Thai Jasmine Rice.

    Today, I didn't have an imprint of anything. But I did sit on my sack for two hours. Trying to breathe.

    Today, I fixed most of the problems, but not all. Maybe the day I fix every problem will be the day I find more to solve.

    Why can't I be superhuman?

  • My Life on a Bike

    Every morning, I get on a bike to work. Except I don't ride it. I bargain with someone on the street, or use an app to book one at other times. Do you want masker? They ask. It's the Indonesian word for face mask. Gak mau masker, makasih pak. Sekarang pergi ke Jalan Hang Tuah bisa? A string of words that I sometimes don't know I know, come out of my mouth. Every morning, I am on the road at a time when the entire city has already decided to get moving. I am in traffic. A lot. You can't miss it, really. I am not a morning person, but I am always thankful for this. This is being on a bike going to work in one of the world's most exciting cities at the moment for what I am doing. This is not having to stand in an MRT every morning for 30 minutes, packt like sardines in a crushed tin box. This is having difficult problems to solve, every single day. Being able to solve most of them.

    I've never been one for job descriptions, but the only one that would truly work for me would be: "Adrianna Tan, Street Fighter". I find peace and equilibrium on the streets of noisy Asian cities. I know exactly where to find the things I need. I know where they are. If they are in buildings, I am not interested in looking for them anymore. If they are not wrapped up in an impossible puzzle, I don't know how to solve them. Somehow the best place to do any of this is precisely where I am, every morning: on the back of a motorbike, travelling over rubbish, driving by someone's wet laundry, turning out of a tiny alley before merging into the big city again.

    I like this life. I like this bike. I like this city. The rest of it, we'll figure out.

  • Swatow

    When my people speak of who we are and where we come from
    We do not say, China.

    When my relatives reclaim our collective past,
    Those words—China—dance on our lips, foreign.

    We do not say China.
    We do not say China at all.

    Instead, we are the people of the coast.
    We are the subjects of the Tang Dynasty.
    We are the rejects of the imperial court, cast out into the Nanyang sun where we sweat with the sons of the land.

    My grandfather was an upright man,
    So upright and uptight his wooden backscratcher formed the curve between his back and the rosewood chair.

    My grandmother would only ever wear a two piece Chinese suit
    Made of silk and cotton. I can still see her, smelling like mothballs
    Speaking, summoning, reaching out to me

    in Teochew.

    What is your native place,
    They ask me from Kanyakumari to Rameswaram.
    In Tiruvanamalai, I finally cave. I say,
    It is not China.

    We could have been anywhere.
    Semarang, Sri Lanka, Calcutta.
    These sea routes go unmapped and undiscovered
    From Swatow to the rest of the world.

    I want Swatow to remain a shorthand
    For the mythical land where I can chase demons,
    Exorcise my grandmother,
    Write poetry and wrap myself up in a giant band-aid of ignorance.
    The less I know about Swatow
    The more the idea of China lands with a heavy plod

    This is a language I speak perfectly
    Without my soul.

  • Split Language Disorders

    It is a well-documented fact: multi-lingual people have multiple personalities. I am no different, though I was only recently cognizant of that. Of how my languages affect the way I perceive myself, present myself to the world. How I trade, make contracts; how I fall in love.

    For as long as I can remember, 'foreign languages' were never foreign to me. They just seemed like perfectly formed words in very different chords. When I started travelling, my language brain and place brain also got inextricably tied up with each other.

    For example,

    When I am home in Singapore, I code-switch. Every ten minutes. English-English. American-English. International-English. Singlish-English. Then I go from that largely English existence to, broken-English-if-I-have-to. Then to Mandarin. China-Mandarin. Taiwanese Mandarin. Singaporean-broken-ass-Mandarin. Then to what I actually consider my mother tongue, which is early 1900s Chaoshan area Teochew language.

    In my 'international English', learned from a decade in a privileged upper-middle class English speaking school setting, I fit in anywhere. My politics are liberal. My passport takes me to any country in the world. I am both privileged and not, in this language. I can become American, Australian, Singaporean. Or I can become this weird hybrid, which is closer to the truth: that I speak in a certain way because I have been everywhere and nowhere.

    But the me that speaks in an affected Singlish accent, that is also all me. It does not come naturally to me, but I have learned its inflections and quirkiness. I have learned how to express anger, despair, annoyance and joy-using the same words-but I have learned to separate my emotions with the ascent or descent of a single tone. With the addition or subtraction of a single suffix. Lah. Lor. Leh.

    Why you so like that leh, means resignation and acceptance that your friend is an asshole.

    Why you you so like that one, means you are still surprised your friend is an asshole, because he isn't often one.

    Why you so like that lor, means you have been an asshole for a while and I know that, but I am still annoyed that you are.

    Why you so like that lah, means I am in equilibrium with your general assholery.

    It's that Singlish that gets stuff done. I pick up the phone and yell at someone in it. No matter the colour of their skin, the understanding is universal. "Eh why you like that can you help me or not bro"

    My Mandarin brain is complicated.

    I literally cannot go to China without having an existential crisis about it. When I was 4, my Chinese teacher in kindergarten yelled at me, saying "why don't you understand Mandarin? What kind of stupid Chinese person are you?" At that point, I decided: not a very good one. I don't want to be a Chinese person, then.

    Eventually, I made peace with it. I learned that my grandparents spoke more Tamil and Malay than they did Mandarin. I learned that the Mandarin that had been plugged into my brain, with all of its accompanying cultural baggage-oh, you should learn Mandarin because you are the daughter of the Yellow Emperor (correct answer: who the fuck is he and why am I his daughter. And why does he speak Mandarin?)-is always going to be a part of my unstable, cultural identity. At this point, the language I keep as my second one is functional. It is sufficient. But that is what it is.

    I can order food in it, and have political conversations. But I do not care about that language-in fact, I hate it. Absolutely detest it.

    Because Mandarin takes a part of me away from who I think I really am, which is, a Teochew in Southeast Asia. The idea that I find no comfort or joy, instead I find downright disgust, at the language I was forced to speak for a decade or more. When the language I dream in, wake up blabbering in, feel happy and loved in, is not even a designated language at all. It is considered a dialect, not a language. Teochew is the dialect of my heart and soul. I live it, love it, breathe it, revel in it. I sound like a fairy with helium in my mouth when I speak in it.

    My English and Mandarin selves are whole identities. My Teochew self is a private, semi-religious self. It is the language I use to tell my grandmother that I love her. It is the language that I use to love, and to be loved in. English feels clumsy in comparison: love in Teochew, is by far a superior experience. Partly because everyone who I have ever loved in this obscure language of mine, has loved me unconditionally.

    It is then difficult to take the language of love in one plane and to try to translate it to another. Especially if it is a language you barely speak. My Indonesian brain is about 3 years old at this point. Half-formed; the other deformed. My Thai brain is a little bit better, but not by much. One time, I tried to date a Thai woman, and I spoke as good Thai as she had good English, which was not at all. It showed me that love, sex and attraction is all about language for me.

    I do not think I could ever love someone who spoke Mandarin to me. Even if I understood it perfectly. It just does not work. It is not my love language; it is my functional language. English, yes. Hindi, somewhat. Indonesian, maybe.

    And as I go off into the big world at large, carrying a pocket full of several languages with different lives, I am also reminded that there is no other language in the world that makes me feel the most love; only the one I speak the least. When I have dreams, more and more it is in that obscure southern Chinese dialect: my dialectical love and life, carried with me in a different passport, in a different time, in multiple other lives and languages.

  • The Lonely Road

    If it has ever occurred to you to start something, you know how lonely that can get. If you do that chronically, you probably over-estimate your abilities, have a high threshold for pain, or you're downright insane. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    Welcome Drew Graham. Let's kick some ass. Welcome Drew Graham. Let's kick some ass.

    For almost a year, I did this alone. I started a company in a foreign country, in a language I barely speak (getting better at it), in the city of traffic jams.

    It was hell. I would not recommend the 'sole founder' approach to anyone.

    (Insert ten months' worth of whinging)

    Yet every time someone asked, 'why are you a sole founder?'

    I found my answer to be somewhere between 'because I haven't met the right person' and resignation. Singapore is not the Valley. Singapore is a land of risk-averse people who would pick a prestigious-sounding multi-national over plucky little companies, even if they paid them more. Singapore is a land of highly paid jobs, insanely high rentals and cost of living, so there's no wonder that few of us choose to make that leap. (Why do I do it? I started early, and there's no going back.)

    Meeting the right co-founder is possibly harder than meeting the right life partner. You pull late nights, need to know you can count on them, eat with them, fly with them, drink with them, hustle with them, and generally spend more time with them than you would with your family. You even get haircuts with them (see pic above for co-founders' co-haircuts).

    That person seemed, for a time, unattainable. :)

    I'm happy to announce that today my friend and fellow hustler Drew Graham has joined me on my journey at Wobe, as my co-founder and all around hustler companion. Our plates are scarily stacked to the ceiling at the moment, possibly beyond, which can only mean great things are afoot.

    Thank you for coming on this crazy adventure with me. I promise I'll pack two pairs of pants, maybe even a map.

  • Mee Lay

    When I was growing up, I thought all families had the same weekend lunches as mine: a giant cauldron of yellow noodles, simmered so long in an anchovy broth that they fell apart when you picked up your noodles with chopsticks. You had to use a spoon.

    Ah ma made them every Sunday, but ah gong made the chilli. Even today, I have difficulty accepting anyone else's roasted chilli in my soupy noodles. Kin Kin's legendary chilli pan mee comes close, but nowhere close to my grandparents'.

    We'd all go for seconds, thirds, and Ah ma would not touch the noodles until she was satisfied we'd all had enough. "I don't like chicken wings and drumsticks, ew. I much prefer the tips." Her life was one of sacrifice, and of idiot grandchildren who ate all the chicken wings because we believed she only liked the tips.

    In love and life, when you have been loved so fiercely, quietly, and sacrificially, it takes years of learning to learn not everyone will love you like that.

    Thank you, Ah ma, for all the mee lay, chicken wings, kiam chye ark tng and pomfrets you made me have. I will be here with you even if you don't know it. I hope in heaven they have people cooking noodles for you, and I'm fairly sure it has an endless supply of pomfret eyeballs and soya sauce. Thank you for teaching me how to love.

  • To the Mountain

    Going to the mountain. Going to the mountain.

    In all of my 29 years, my grandparents had been such a big part of my life that I could have never conceived of a life without them. Like the 1128-episode TV serials they watched, Ah Gong and Ah Ma just went on and on.

    In the background, their voices blended in with the voices of the Chinese TV stars I loved in the 1980s. In our tiny little flat where my parents, grandparents, brother and I lived, my grandparents and I drank tea, ate porridge, watched bad TV and forged a home together on stuffy Singapore afternoons so humid that the air wore thin. My parents were young parents; their parents even younger. My grandmother became a grandmother at the age of 44. She was also my defender, provider of tasty hot drinks, and full-time worrier: the act of not eating rice, at any time (even after lunch), was grounds to bring on DEFCON 1. No possibility of relenting until I had eaten another bowl of rice. This would repeat every hour.

    I was the weird, silent, brooding grandchild, who said little and spent more time in my head than on the playground.

    "I love you, ah girl," she said. "You are my little mouse. So soft, so quiet. I never know what's in that head."

    What was in my head was any of the following things:

    "I'm going to live in a hut on a farm and make cheese, Ah Ma!" (Much further than going to the moon, for a kid from a country with nowhere to go but the sea and large buildings)

    "That sounds fun. Will you make me some?" Ah Ma smiled. She smiled kindly all the time, at everyone, but especially to her grandchildren.

    "When I grow up I'm going to travel the world, Ah Ma!"

    "That's nice, the world has many people for you to help."

    She indulged my fantasies, and believed I could and would do all the things I said I would.

    Everything my brother and I did, no matter how small or mundane, made her wide-eyed in wonder.

    "Wow! You took a bus home successfully without getting kidnapped! Good job!"

    "Wow! You managed to cook instant noodles without causing a fire! Amazing!"

    "Wow! The both of you managed to go a week without arguing! Great job, kids!"

    If you have kids, I hope you believe unconditionally in everything that they dream of. We do too little of that in spite of our modern accomplishments.

    There are certain places where life seems to go on in the way one's forefathers have always lived. Singapore of the '80s was not one of them. My grandparents held different paperwork and nationalities in their lifetimes. My grandfather was a Chinese subject in Sun Yat-Sen's Republic, an illegal immigrant to then-Malaya where he may or may not have been a British subject. He was then, in the 1940s, a Japanese subject in occupied Malaya. With every decade he seemed to switch papers, though not by choice. In the late 1950s, a citizen of newly formed Malaysia, before finally arriving at the citizenship he would take to the grave: a Singaporean, finally, in 1965, at the dawn of the country's birth. Even as a child, I had a vague notion of this: the distance between my parents' lives and mine, was nothing compared to the one between theirs and their parents'.

    My grandparents' world was, and still is, a black hole to me. Ah Gong did not like talking about his childhood in China: he did not appear to like it much. Ah Ma did not talk about her younger days in Malaya much; she did not appear to know that modern Singapore and Malaysia are now different countries. To her, home was Clementi, in the western parts of Singapore. Then there was her old home-in Johor, in another country. She just somehow needed a passport now to see her family. Theirs was a life of the tragedies of war, the chaos of a great fire, the unending struggle with poverty. The fear of unknown elements hiding out in dark corners: Ah Gong was attacked on the head with a cleaver once. He survived and did not seem to think much of it, for he never spoke of it. Their world was foreign to me.

    To all who came to see me at the home I shared with my grandparents well into my early 20s, my grandparents were a constant presence. No one understood a word of what they were saying. They spoke a specific strain of Teochew with a perfect high pitch, in tones so song-like they seemed to have never left Swatow. If you had come to my house to work on a school project or to eat a meal, you would have only known of my Ah Ma as the kindly lady with a glint of generosity in her eyes, who often chattered at you in a language you had never heard.

    I would have translated, "she asks if you would like Milo or coffee? If you'd like to have porridge? What about pork ribs? Noodles?"

    It was as though I shared a secret language with my grandparents, the language of Chinese elves (so high-pitched, so strange, so song-like, most of my friends would say I sound like a fairy whenever I spoke to her). In our world, the one I inhabited whenever I spoke this language of elves and fairies with her, it was a world of love, kindness and happiness. I cannot be angry or upset at someone in Teochew, because the only people who spoke it to me taught me only the words of love.

    Two weeks ago, my beloved Ah Ma left us after a long battle with dementia in which she degenerated and atrophied tremendously.

    When I first learned of the concept of death as a child, I interviewed my family members about their thoughts on death. To my horror, Ah Gong said he hoped, wished, desperately, that Ah Ma would die first.

    "How can you be so mean?" I poked his singlet-covered beer belly, before running into my room to cry secretly. The idea of my grandmother dying, even at 5 years old, even as a passing remark, was too much for me to bear. To me, grandma and grandpa just went on and on. They woke up every morning at the same time. They walked for the same amount of time at the same place every morning. They ordered the same food after the same walk. They took the same route home. They peppered their lives of sameness with jokes and tenderness.

    When I stood in front of her coffin two weeks ago to say a few words about her, I, of course, broke down. Ah Gong, who once said he hoped she died before he did, had in fact been astute and well-prepared. She slipped away, never to return, after he died a few years ago. He made sure to prepare her funeral portrait, as one of the last things he would do for her.

    My grandmother had few friends, I recalled, but she had a world of fans. People came from Malaysia to tell us how she had, as a teenager, refused to let her nephews and nieces go homeless. Despite having not very much, she found them a home. My dad spoke of how, as a child with her as a mother, he was acutely aware of how poor they were. Yet she would make it a point to feed the neighbours' 11 children because their mother had eloped and left home. She had a kind word for everybody, and kinder acts for anyone who needed it.

    After gathering myself, I managed to squeak out a few things about her.

    I used to be ashamed of my full name, I said. My grandparents gave it to me. It's the sort of name that's so full-on Teochew, so obviously old school, that once you saw it you would immediately know where my family came from.

    You're a Teochew girl, aren't you. You sound like you never left the homeland-every time you ask me for fried shallots, I wonder why a little girl like you talks in such a funny, old school way.

    That made me hate my name and my accent, but I no longer do.

    I did not know my grandparents' names for most of my childhood, I said. I honestly thought their names were Tan Ah Gong and Tan Ah Ma.

    Many of my peers in Singapore can barely communicate with their grandparents: the Speak Mandarin campaign coupled with the English-first policy made sure to eradicate any ability to speak the Chinese dialects. I was lucky to have had a window into the world, into my past, through the both of them.

    I don't even need a map to know that Swatow's cemetaries were probably on mountains or hills. The language gives it away. The act of taking the body to its final resting place, be it a crematorium or a burial site, is known as chuk sua. Going to the mountain.

    So to the mountain, we went. You're supposed to follow the hearse, dressed in white and black, and you're supposed to beat your chest and cry and weep loudly all the way to the mountain. But in super urban Singapore, all that we could do was to follow her for 50 metres to the edge of the carpark, before hopping into a bus to the crematorium.

    After the fire.

    When Ah Ma was 26 years old, there was a Great Fire near the house. She, along with tens of thousands of people, would run from their homes in search of safety on a hot, infernal afternoon. Ah Gong came scurrying back to the house from por doi to look for them, panicking when he found nothing but ashes. He thought his young bride unprepared and ill-equipped for the dangers of the world. Yet she had demonstrated uncharacteristic resourcefulness: she had been hiding in a temple with their children for hours, picking that place as it was one of the few landmarks left standing after the fire.

    After. All that was left of her was a box of bones and ash. We took turns moving her bone fragments into an urn. Parts of her bone fragments had the pigmentation of the various medicines administered to her late in life; they were frail and brittle, just as she had been.

    We put her on her shelf. We stared helplessly at her marble engraving. We vacillated between the loving, silly moments with our adorable nieces, and the hopeless sadness that filled us.

    My grandma lived 80 years of her life in poverty and in fear. Her hope and her love overcame all of it. All I can hope for is for all of us who have received her unconditional love to carry her with us in the rest of our lives.

    That our hearts are large enough to carry the world, because she showed us how.

  • Two Pairs of Pants

    I've been selling and hustling for much of my young life. I've learned loads from each part of it, no matter how small or insignificant it may have been at the time. I sold cable car tickets. iPod cases. DVDs. Button badges. Most things, really. In hindsight, they've come together to define what I do today. It's amusing to think of it, really.


    In my teenage years, I spent most of my vacation months hanging out in the Central Business District. Each day, I would sell (under the 34 deg C sun and extreme Singapore humidity) various items, ostensibly for a charitable organization that worked with destitute elderly people in Singapore.

    I was 15. It seemed like a great way to spend my days{, and I made them between $10 000 and $15 000 a day, selling bookmarks to disgruntled bankers and lawyers (I was very good at it). Years later, we found out that the founder bought fast cars with the cash, which is why I now have a bullet point in my own charitable organization (we send girls to school in India)-"we travel by bus, train and economy class, and the only people who get paid are the people who work on the field".

    Lessons learned: it was the first time I learned to sell the hell out of anything, and if you stand in the heat and sweat long enough (12 hours), eventually people will buy stuff from you.

    Button Badges

    With my brother Adrian Tan's help, I designed and made button badges. We ordered a button badge machine from eBay. We had different themes (his was punk music), I specialized in ironic and weird businessy/political/tech buttons.

    People in Kansas seemed to like my buttons. A lot.

    Lessons learned: there is great value in making. I wish I did more of that, and I will be trying to do more of it. Making something with your hands was the best experience ever for a kid of 15, and eBay at the time was revolutionary. It opened up a world of global commerce to me.

    Etsy before Etsy

    Whenever we went on family vacations, I would convince my parents to loan me a small sum ($100?) so that I could buy a bunch of 'craft' items from Bali, Bangkok etc.

    I sold them on eBay for ungodly amounts of money because I would write beautiful copy about "handmade" and "artisan". In 2000. I truly believed it at the time.

    I still have some of those photo frames, notebooks and paintings in my parents' house. When I discovered at the tender age of 16 that all of this stuff was mass produced, I felt I could not see them anymore.

    Lessons Learned: having a product that people want is basic, but having a product people want and can easily access, is essential. eBay and PayPal opened that window, but good old copywriting was the secret sauce, and it continues to be for me in most of my businesses.


    At 17, I came to terms with the fact that I am indisputably queer. I did not panic. I did not freak out too much. I was not bullied. But I also had no idea what it meant to be a queer adult: I did not know any such people, and I did not see them on TV or in movies. It was 2002. I ran a "DVD ring" which distributed queer video content (not pornography!) to other teens who wanted to see people like us on screen. There was no Tumblr. The idea that queer people existed on screen was something that saved my life.

    The movies were horrible, and I don't believe that queer movies have improved since. It was something I needed to do at the time.

    Lessons learned: I cannot do the things that I don't love. I don't love queer movies, and I don't love incremental tech that aims to solve first world or Silicon Valley problems.

    iPod skins and cases

    In the first year of college (2004), I imported iPod skins and cases. I was loads cheaper than anything available on the market-I seemed to know what people wanted, and built the connections to make that happen.

    Emboldened by my marginal success as a 19 year old, I wrote to Waterfield Bags telling them I would like to be their sole Singapore distributor. I had no capital, of course. They wrote back with a very encouraging note and walked me through the process of what I should have if I wanted to do that. I of course, could not garner the resources. But it was the first time that someone had ever spoken to me like an adult. As a young Singaporean kid at the time, most of my life experiences (outside of the home, which was a very progressive environment for me in every way) had been about the things I could never ever do because I am a kid and I am a girl and not rich. 10 years on, just a year ago, I would get on a motorbike and travel a distance to a tiny office in a Jakarta suburb, to bug somebody to give me the rights to sell rather hard to get. He would say yes, and it would become the basis of all of the work I am doing today.

    Lessons learned: Don't pre-judge yourself. You are not weak, inferior, poor, or incapable because someone of where you come from or what you are. Action, like the act of reaching out and saying I will do this, does.


    In 2004, I started selling Macs at one of the Apple retailers, and did so well I was featured in Cult of Mac and Scoble's blog, which brought me a certain degree of international / tech 'fame'. There are many people I know, still talk to, or have met, especially in the US and in Europe, because of these early international tech links. In many ways, every aspect of my adult life has changed because of the years I put in selling computers and iPods. That I run around doing crazy businesses, Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement speech. Learning to sell the shit out of anything, standing on my feet for 8 hours a day. And I mean anything.

    Through my time walking the fertile grounds of Mac stores selling thousands of dollars of hardware a day, often to the extent of forgetting to eat, I developed a loyal clientele of high net worth individuals to whom I became their personal technician. That put me through 4 years of relentless backpacking throughout and after college. I encrypted emails for mining tycoons. I backed up data (there was no 'cloud' back then!), retrieved data from corrupted hard disks, ran around with bootable flash disks with installable OSes and data retrieval utilities in my wallet. I had a FireWire cable in my pocket most of the time. I took apart hardware, put it together, and somehow never had enough screwdrivers. They paid me well for it, and they taught me about charging for what clients should think I am worth, rather than what I thought I was worth, which at the time was, not very much. I got to see every single Southeast Asian market extensively, traveling on $200 for a month (how did I do that?), learning to stretch my dollar. Being a part of the Jobesian / Apple meteoric rise and return in that period changed everything about my professional and personal trajectories.

    Lessons Learned: hustle hard, and do it well; people in general will not take advantage of you. "How much will it cost for the 7 hours you just spent taking stuff apart for me and saving my data?" "Maybe $100?" (Remember, I was 19…) They would laugh and say, here you go. And hand me $1000. It taught me that when I am in a position to reward a young hustler, either financially or in terms of opportunities given, I most definitely will to pay it forward.

    When I was in the middle of all of that, people constantly asked: why? What good does it do? Why are you travelling around India or Indonesia for weeks and months and living like a hobo, instead of taking multiple prestigious bank internships?

    Somehow, I had the weird feeling that it would all make sense. It has only just started to (and it's not like I did shabbily in the time before). I quite simply chose a different path, not because I had so much conviction and talent, but because to me those paths were the only ones open to me.

    I'm so excited to see what the next 10 years will bring. I've spent the last 6 months living in Jakarta, building Wobe and getting to learn every single day about the wonderful place that is Indonesia. What I have now, which I did not have before in my formative entrepreneurial years making buttons and selling DVDs, is a team of hugely amazing, talented, and most importantly, good people, who I have the privilege to lead. Teams are everything.

    I've come to see that these insane plans of mine did not come out from a vacuum. I did not just sit in an office one day and decide, "I should get into (insert generic type of) business". They came from sitting in a 36 hour bus rides talking to people in languages I don't understand (Turkish and Arabic, for example), building and making all kinds of crazy products with all types of crazy people (I once built a website for a West African airline, but they never flew because their leader was deposed to Burkina Faso).

    They came from being told several times a day that I could not have something because I am a girl, a foreigner, or just plain unlucky. A train, a bus, a business opportunity, but having to figure it out anyway because sometimes… you just have to.

    One morning in 2010 I got out of a train from Aleppo, and found myself in Gaziantep, a border town between Syria and Turkey. The problem, as I soon found, was that I had no euros or Turkish lira. I did not have any money except worthless Syrian money. There was no ATM at the train station. I was, in short, screwed. Experiences like that have been far more difficult than anything hard about the hard in "it's so hard to do business in Asia".

    (I managed to barter a ride to the next city.. I think I traded a Turkish kid some notes and coins 'from the Far East' so that he would buy me a $1 bus ticket!)

    Experiences shape you. My formative entrepreneurship taught me about payments, exchange rates, marketing, making, selling and most importantly, customer service.

    The time I had to sleep on the dust outside Trichy airport (long story), when the auto-rickshaw I was driving around South India broke down on an unlit hill. The many times on the road in which I've had to deftly worm my way out of extreme sexual harassment. All of those experiences are starting to make sense to me now.

    I probably spent less on all of that over the past decade than I did on getting a degree. As a child, the stuffy classrooms in Singapore that I sat in and the theoretical problems I worked on, may have formed the foundation for many other things. I learned about hard work, and I also learned about dogged persistence there. But if you told me that all of my childhood dreams, inside those classrooms, looking out into the world and dreaming of a life on the road, doing things in the world, outside of a four-walled environment, that all of it would come true and that reality would be even better, I would not have believed you.

    Thank you to all the crazy ones who believed in me enough, some of you even enough to come along on the ride with me. I pack snacks and biscuits, and two pairs of pants.

  • To the Young Queer Nerds

    Dear (your name here),

    Imagine for a second that the year is 2000.

    Holding hands with your girlfriend in public is either an act of defiance or shame.

    The world is years away from The L Word: nobody knows yet that it sucks, that lesbian life does not have to be "like that". (Bette Porter is bad for you; Jenny is worse.) No one has ever met a married queer couple. The idea did not exist. You're supposed to aspire to cohabitation, no kids, and two sets of power suits. But you don't.

    You are never going to meet the woman of your dreams at the smoking section of the weekly queer party. Definitely not on the dance floor. They can't hear a single word you're saying, and they don't care. They don't care that you've found your major and the internship of your dreams. They won't even remember your name after they've fucked you (badly).

    But it's not 2000, and no one really cares who you hold hands with anymore. Kinda. Sorta. We've made a ton of progress-there are now women married to each other! And you know them, because they write about it on Facebook! Ha!-yet for all the progress in the world, the music never improves at these parties. One day, maybe in 2040, we will have driverless cars and queer clubs which play jazz. I'm putting all my money on the driverless cars.

    I just want to tell you that it's ok if you're badly dressed, somewhat awkward, and a bag of nerves. That your nerdy hair cut is OK, too. The makeup you don't have-you can always YouTube it later. Or not. Someone out there likes badly dressed nerdy girls who don't know how to put on makeup. They'll even listen to you talk about linguistics or Burmese history or app development, too. You'll meet her.

    It's ok to screw up. It's ok to be messy. Nobody expects you to "grow up" any faster than you should. Your friends who are so 'sorted out'? They're all pretending.

    That older woman you love is going to break your heart.

    You're going to let her. Often.

    That's okay, too. We learn.

    Drink good whisky. Toss the vodka orange shit. If you have to drink rum and coke, make sure it's good rum. One day you'll learn that drinking is fun only when it tastes good, and you might even learn to stop just before you are no longer in control of your body, or your thoughts. Two is a good place to start taking stock. Zero if you are driving.

    If the booze makes you want to call or text your ex / the love of your life (who doesn't feel the same way anymore, or ever), give your phone to your friends and tell them to never give it back to you until two hours after a sausage McMuffin.

    It's okay to use an alias until you're comfortable that the girl you're talking to isn't an axe murderer. With girls, that can take anything from two minutes to never.

    Don't stay over unless you want to see her again. Or unless she lives near a cool breakfast place, and it opens early.

    One night stands are boring. But if you have to, and there are seasons for that kind of thing, you need to be ok with learning to ask and to answer uncomfortable but important questions. It's the right thing to do.

    Avoid hyphenated relationships you're not really involved in, like the bubonic plague. They're worse than that. For example, avoid dating your ex-girlfriend's ex-girlfriend. Also avoid accidents: do not sleep with your ex-ex girlfriend's on-off girlfriend. Hyphens are trouble. There are hot, single women out there. You just have to look outside your phone book. No hyphens. No exceptions.

    Eventually, you'll learn to identify the toxic ones before they even come close to you, and your heart won't be needlessly broken anymore.

    Is there a type you're drawn to? Do they break your heart? Maybe it's the hapless artist whose broken spirit you want to save. You need to let her know she's not going to set your life on fire, just for the heck of it, ever again. Perhaps it's the stoic, powerful women in your life who don't appreciate your struggle for parity. It's ok-you're going to be more powerful than them someday. Without stoicism.

    They're going to make you think that it's your fault. It's your fault that you're a slut. It's your fault that there's a string of broken hearts. Sometimes, it is your fault. Own up to them when you can. It might take years before you are sorry enough for everybody. But you tried. And no one cares.

    Quite often, you will meet women who want you to travel halfway around the world to prove that you are really into them. They don't mean it. Don't go, unless you have other things to do there. Or unless you have a fire for her which isn't just in your loins.

    If she wants to marry him, and still see you on the side, leave.

    The world tells you it gets better. It does, and then it doesn't.

    People-and this can be family, insurance companies, government bodies-are not going to take your love seriously. Especially if you are a woman who loves another woman. If you are feminine enough, nobody will like your 'rejection' of masculinity. If you are not, nobody will like your 'attempt' to threaten theirs, a threat which you've made just by merely existing. If you are a woman who loves a woman who was not born one, it's going to be that much harder for you. You will not be invisible for much longer.

    Your family is much more resilient and loving than you imagine.

    Love them back.

    Be young. Be queer. Be the nerd that you are. When you get older, it's the algorithms that will get you laid.

  • Don't Work With Assholes

    There's a wealth of literature out there about this, but it can never be said enough. Too many people work with assholes.

    You see them everywhere.

    The cafe owner that takes a shortcut by hiring an asshole barista? The barista plays shit music at your cafe and nobody wants to go there.

    The startup founder who values talent over attitude? The asshole co-founder or top exec, no matter how good they are at their jobs, is going to screw you over.

    Eventually you realize that you're losing money and that nobody wants to talk to you at industry events anymore. Or perhaps investors or future team members take you aside to say they want to be a part of your dream team, but… that guy is an asshole.

    Assholes don't inspire trust.

    Assholes can sometimes be nice, too.

    People often make the mistake of assuming that the opposite of an asshole is a push-over. It is not. The opposite of an asshole is a decent business-person or partner who brings net positives to the table. An asshole, no matter how occasionally nice, perhaps to certain people, or to most people, has certain characteristics which breed mistrust and disdain.

    At my first startup, I worked with a guy who was a really nice person, and very good at his job-to me.

    I was new to the scene. I had no idea.

    He had ideas, he got things done, he was a good person-to me.

    But he was not a good person to people who could not give him something.

    There will always be people like that.

    I'm talking to a handful of investors at the moment and what I do for each one is to see who has worked with said people before. I call them, no matter how tenuous the link, and say: "What do you think of ____?"

    You don't really have to get more specific than that.

    You can, of course, to clarify some of the assumptions that people might have made, or to get more details on deals gone sour, etc, so that you can make up your own mind.

    But I've found most often that if I am going to be met with silence or awkwardness or worse, with hemming and hawing which can seem unjustified, it's a red flag for me.

    This applies to people I hire and to people I date, too.

    You need to be sure that this person doesn't kick old ladies or torture pets when you're not looking. A good way is to see how they treat waiters and how they respond to the homeless or the poor.

    I don't need you to be a bleeding heart old lady hugger (please don't), but life's too short for anything that isn't "fuck yes, yes and yes".

    No amount of money is ever worth it. That's not idealistic-it's the most practical advice I was ever given.

  • Stress Balls.

    Some time ago, some people (read: entrepreneurs) I follow on Twitter posed a seemingly innocuous question. What drives us, as so-called entrepreneurs, to do what we do? Is it hubris? Ego? Is it an out-sized and unrealistic view of one's abilities? For most of us, choosing this life also means the opportunity cost we left behind, often reluctantly: decently-paid jobs with career growth at startups, VC firms, tech companies, banks, even… bars. There has been no better time to be a tech exec. My friends, and I am sometimes envious of them, clearly smash through the income and lifestyle brackets in the top 1% of the cities they live in, even the world-what we do is such a upwardly mobile trajectory. The lifestyle, with the stock options in soon-to-IPO companies, global travel as part of international "launch teams" in the most successful tech startups, fuelled by the globalizing of venture capital and focus of said capital in my part of the world, is certainly tantalizing. No longer do you need to work in finance, it seems to say, with each job offer and recruitment mail, in order to eke out a nice life for yourself and your family. The stock options certainly don't hurt.

    So what can it possibly be that some of us choose to do this? Even though it's easier than ever before to raise money and do your thing, the fact is no matter where in the world you do this, building a business is just terrible. It's fun, otherwise we wouldn't be drawn to it. It can also be rewarding, otherwise we wouldn't try. But. It's hard.

    I'm torn:

    Between the deluge of entrepreneur porn articles and this shit is hard articles (like this, but 10x more pity): I'm torn.

    On the one hand, having the ability and the opportunity to start and run your own business, even to try, is a damn privilege. It really is.

    On the other, there are so many moving parts. Skill sets you need to suddenly and abruptly become a ninja at. As a founder, from HR (super important) to project development to technical skills to payroll to accounting to taxes to… whatever challenges it throws at you, really.

    The last couple of weeks have super hard.





    Incredibly amazing.

    Many startup founders come across founder depression at some point, and I think it's a real risk you expose yourself to when you put so much of yourself on the line. No matter how well-adjusted you think you are, you need all the help you can get.

    This is my second company. My first, right out of school, was a dev house that specialized in creating innovative marketing projects for advertising and FCMG companies through the then-new mobile and social platforms.

    Pushing 30 this year, doing this at 30 is a world apart from how it was like to do this at 22. I'm sure there are many young startup founders who learn and grow on the job, or perhaps possess a certain self-awareness and ability which I did not have. But. I find myself, this week, making dozens of decisions daily-on the sorts of things which would have caused me a lot of grief, time, money or existential angst, back in the day.

    I have the opportunity, the right teams, and the business partnerships to push through with the sort of tech business I have always want to do: tech, finance and social good.


    Now, we ship. And learn. And ship again. And learn again.

    I love it. I hate it. I love it.

  • A Tale of Two Cities

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a bit of both, really.

    I'm not one for the mumbo-jumbo of the Myers-Briggs test, but I suppose it was striking that when I did it before my startup I rated very strongly as INFP, and yet now I'm very much on the ENTJ spectrum. It appears that having to do shit in a prompt, aggressive way does bring out very different approaches.

    So, startups are hard. You already know that.

    In my case, every attempt to think that through inevitably ends up being a little self-pitying.

    How and why did I decide that leaving my family, and puppy, coming to a foreign place, to work on some problems involving the silos of payments, mobile, commerce and gender equity, was the best life and career decision of all?

    Yet… I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Yes, I know the rates of failure are high, in any startup. Not to mention one with foreign laws, language, culture, and way of life/business.

    Yes, I know that there's only so much hustle can bring you. There's also the regulations and expectations of archaic industries and economies in certain countries.

    But man, it's exhilarating. If shit hits the fan and nothing goes the way we intend despite the best laid plans of man (and woman), then at the least we can say that I now have very specific knowledge and connections in some fairly obscure Asian markets.

    It was a brutal week.

    I lost a kid in the community my foundation does a lot of work in. She was 14. She had dreams. She was vivacious. Perhaps, her undoing, in an unforgiving climate.

    I lost a key team member. To the same brew of inexperience and lack of discipline and foresight. But team before product, and it's never going to be easy.

    Also, some huge gains. Solved some massive business obstacles. Created some solid partnerships. Brought in many valuable individuals to build the team. Net-net, a good week, if a little brutal.

    There's shit to do and a world of problems to solve. A glut of solutions we can create and design, and hopefully do so beautifully, with elegance, sensitivity and impact.

    In late 2012 as I stood on a similar crossroad contemplating major life decisions, mostly relating to the geography and type of work I wanted to surround myself with, I found tremendous opportunities, but I also found my heart had already decided.

    My 30s are to be spent in my backyard. In Asia. In the emerging markets of Asia. Doing as much insane and crazy shit as I can possibly throw at it. I feel honoured to even have a single shot at it.

    I am.

    It was the best of times, and the worst of times. Ask me again some weeks from now. Months. Years.

    I think I will say that there's nothing else I would rather do, and nowhere else I would rather be, than here in the heart of Java, toiling for a dream.

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