Year One

Looking back. My first year was one of the hardest and it also holds the most painful memories.

When I started, I thought I had a good product. I thought it would be easy to introduce my product. I was an engineer. I was never a sales person. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in the new role. But I knew that in order to start my own business, I had to bravely step over the imaginery line and be thick-skin about it and become a sales person. Anyway, like all fresh entrepreneur, I had the utmost confidence in my product. I had the innocent exuberance. I was a dreamer. I innocently believed that it would be easy-going and I thought my product would rock the world Singapore!

Reality bites. Ouch!

After the initial euphoria of clinching one deal within the first day, I really thought I had it made. It was sheer beginner’s luck that a deal was clinched on the first day. This made the coming failures all the more harder to accept. Unbeknownst to me, the next deal will only come 7 months later and at a much discounted price. There was tremendous pressure to lower price after 7 months of drought and failures.

One of the most humiliating expereince came during my first month of doing my rounds of sale. First, I went to this shop whereby I know the boss was at the counter with his back towards me. I was courteous and made my intention known. I went up to the counter, introduced myself and wanted to pass him my name card. Throughout the conversation, he didn’t turn around or look at me. For the whole duration, I was talking to his back and he kept insisting that the boss is not in. Feeling embarrassed, I left my name card on the counter and thank him for his time before leaving the shop.

I don’t know why but I felt humiliated. I had to calm my nerves at a nearby park. I comforted myself and encouraged myself to continue.

The next shop was not any better. The shop owner was wearing a pair of black sunglasses. I again courteously introduced myself and indicated my intention. Without missing a beat, the shop assistant suddenly stood in front of me, and blocked me from her boss. Her body just kept moving forward that I had to backpedal and suddenly, I was out of the shop and the door just closed in front of me.

I was actually very traumatised by these two experiences that happened within the same day. I didn’t expect a fellow human being can treat another in such a callous manner. I was very distraught by the experience that I kept to myself for the whole month. I didn’t step out of my home for the whole month. I didn’t do any more sales. I just kept myself glued to the computer screen and pretending to be busy. It was so bad that my wife began to worry about me.

It took me a month before I came out from my shell. Till this day, I never forget the experience.

When I started, at the back of my mind, I knew I needed to conserve my financial resources (only $20k). Instead of having my own server, was started on a web farm. It was hosted in a US server with many other websites sharing the server. The savings were substantial. You are talking about $10 per month vs $1000 per month!

From the onset, I didn’t buy a car. I didn’t think I would need one. I’ll just take public transport like the buses and MRT. But some of the meetings were at locations not easily accessible by buses or MRT. For example, once I was meeting a potential client at The Regent Singapore. I alighted at the bus-stop in front of Far East Plaza and walked all the way to the hotel. I have to plan it such that I’ll arrive 20 minutes prior to the meeting so that I’ll have enough time to cool down and stop perspiring after the long walk carrying a 3kg laptop. I was still wearing long sleeves shirt, tie and pants. Even though due to the hip dot-com culture then, many people has ditched the tie but I felt that wearing a tie was a necessity as I wanted to show that I respected the client and appreciated the time given to me for the meeting.

There was another time when I had walked from Chinatown Point to Delphi Orchard.

If I had to have lunch outside, I would actually look for those non-airconditioned kopitiam cause I can still order a meal at $2 instead of the $3.50 at airconditioned food courts. If I needed a drink, I’ll actually buy a bottle of “Ice Mountain” distilled water caused it is the cheapest drink in the supermarkets. I would take a bottle from the display shelves because those in the fridge are more expensive by $0.10. Probably for the fridge’s electricity bills.

The first year was probably the toughest. It is also by statistics that 99% of startups will fail and give up. I remember wallowing in self-pity during the last night of the year 2000. The future looked so uncertain and bleak. The sense of hopelessness was very engulfing and self-defeating. While many people were happily partying, welcoming the new year, I dreaded it. All the singing and laughter ringed empty in the abyss of my heart. I didn’t know if I should give up but I didn’t know how. By sheer stubborness and pride, I didn’t want to give up. With a simple decision like that, I became the 1% of startups that survived the first year.

My Little Struggles In Life

Primary School (6 years) I was a student who didn’t understand what exams were when I was a young boy. Until my PSLE, that is. For some reason, I suddenly showed some semblance of brilliance during my PSLE. My result was 406 when the top score that year was 425. My parents were very proud of me then. Looking back, I’m glad that I had once made them proud.

I was from an all boys primary school and I had wanted to continue studying in the same secondary school but my mom forced me to choose a co-ed secondary school. She wanted me to grow up in an environment where there were both boys and girls, which she felt would be more conducive for my development. Maybe she was right. That was where I met my wife. 🙂

Secondary School (4 years) Anyway, my sec 2 results were not good enough for me to study ‘A’ mathematics in sec 3. I knew then if I can’t study ‘A’ maths, I won’t be able to do ‘C’ maths and ‘F’ maths in junior college. Then I may not have a good grounding for the engineering course which I had hoped to study in University. I may not even be allowed to choose Electrical and Electronics Engineering. My results in sec 2 would have defined my future life. I looked at my results on my report book then. I did a calculation. My maths result was actually 49.4 and the school rounded it down to 49. If it was 49.5, it would have been rounded up to 50 and I’ll be allowed to study ‘A’ maths and my future would be secured again. I took my report book and with thundering heart, approach the maths department head and appealed. I told her that I only missed the mark by 0.1. I begged her to reconsider. I was only 14 then. It was kinda unheard of at that time to approach the teacher yourself to make such a request. Many would have brought their parents or just give up. I did it on my own and managed to convince the department head to allow me to take ‘A’ maths in sec 3.

Junior College (2 years) Soon, it was secondary 4 and my final year school results were not good enough for me to get into the junior college (JC) of my choice for the first 3 months. I got a score of 16. The JC that I managed to get in during the first 3 months, didn’t allow me to take ‘F’ maths because my results were too poor. The Economics lecturer also refused to teach for the first 3 months while we were there. She said that most of us would leave and go to another JC anyway when the GCE ‘O’ level results were released. She saw no point in wasting her effort. She was right. I had 6 points (for GCE ‘O’ level, the lower the better) and I would be accepted in any JC of my choice. I left and enrolled in one of the top 5 JC in Singapore. But in the new JC, I was strongly discouraged to take ‘F’ maths as I had missed many chapters for the first 3 months already. Because I wanted to study engineering, I knew I had to take ‘F’ maths for my own sake. Many other students dropped ‘F’ maths after the strong discouragement. I held on and struggled. Truth be told, the teachers gave good advice. I never did catch up with both ‘F’ maths and Economics which I missed during the first 3 months. At the end, my ‘A’ level result was not good enough to get me a place in Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The irony was that I passed GCE ‘A’ levels and thus I was not allowed to retake ‘A’ levels again in my JC. Instead, the students who failed their ‘A’ levels were allowed back in the JC to study another year before retaking their exams again. I was stuck. I was neither here nor there. I was in limbo.

Days Of Being A Private Candidate (1 year) I knew my father wanted me to get a degree. He wanted me to be his son who has a degree among the sons of his brothers who had degrees too. I wanted to fulfill my dad’s wish and thus polytechnics cannot be my choice. I can either study in US college or retake my ‘A’ levels at the end of the year as a private candidate. I enrolled in a private school but also took my SATs and TOEFL. When my SATs and TOEFL results were released, I could have studied in US colleges but knowing that my dad would be struggling to support me financially, I kept the results to myself. It was tough being a private student. The private school was not really equipped to teach ‘A’ levels. In fact, we didn’t even have the labs to do our practicals for Physics. Fortunately, we had a teacher who worked hard and found us a secondary school which allowed us to use their labs at night. Unfortunately, secondary school lab was not really equipped for our practicals but beggars can’t be choosers, right? It was tough studying in the day and then attending practicals for two nights a week. But we cheered each other on. We all felt that we were the outcast of society, the rejected. Nobody will be giving us a chance but ourselves. I managed to enroll into NTU.

University (4 years) During my second year, I flunked 3 papers and had to resit them. All my seniors told me that it was quite likely that I’ll only be able to clear 2 papers. It was quite unheard of to clear 3 supplementary papers. If I didn’t pass all 3 papers, I’ll have to retake the whole of year 2 again. I was worried but I just studied as hard as I could anyway. Miraculously, I passed all the papers. In my third year, my dad had a major stroke and slipped into a coma. He was the sole bread-winner of the family. My mom was distraught but she put up a brave front. I had to be strong even though I was emotionally weak. My dad finally managed to regain consciousness after 2 weeks but he was paralysed on the left side. His speech was slurred but he never felt sorry for himself. That’s the way my dad was. Strong. With the financial aid from my uncles and study loan, my family struggled on and I eventually graduated. My mon and dad attended my convocation. He was very happy. I was glad that I could fulfill his wish. Many years later, after my dad passed away, my mom would remark to me that she thought that my dad woke up from his coma because he was worried about me and my sister. He couldn’t just leave us to fend for ourselves then.

After Graduation I rounded up my good buddies and we toyed with the idea of setting up an online portal selling CDs. We were very excited. We were all bitten by the dot com fever and we met at a cafe after work many days a week for many weeks. We even scribbled our ideas on napkins and behaving like wannabe technopreneurs. It was fun then, all the make-believe. We didn’t have the required technical knowledge to setup a portal so my friend invited another person into the group. He was supposedly good at web development. As he knew that we depended on his technical knowlege, he didn’t treat us like his equals; he treated us as though we were beneath him. Eventually, the enthusiasm just faded away and we stopped meeting. It was fortunate anyway that we didn’t start. Just a few months later, Napster would have swept the world by storm and it would have killed our start-up. But I did learn an important lesson: it is better to depend on yourself than others. From then on, I started studying about web development on my own for the next two years. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but I knew the extra knowledge will come useful. I also didn’t want to depend on others again.

Epilogue My wife would remarked one day that through my life, I never gave up when there were setbacks. I would just quietly soldier on. Maybe that’s the quintessential quality of an entrepreneur.

Dont’ give up.