Year Two (Part 2)

Continued from Year Two (Part 1)

Event 3:
During year two of my entrepreneurial venture, there were always thoughts of quitting. It was especially disheartening when a competitor gets funding and another competitor has huge financial backing. I always wondered then, “What chances do I have?”

It was during this time that a very good friend of mine, M, called from Kuala Lumpur to ask me some technical stuff about web design, hosting, e-commerce, database designs etc. As she was a very good friend, I volunteered that if she needs me to go Kuala Lumpur to sit-in some meetings she has with her vendors, I’ll be glad to oblige.

Weekends were important for my wife and I, due to our work schedules, like most couples, the only time we can spend together was during the weekends. However, during one of the weekends, I left my wife in Singapore and went to KL to help M. It was no big deal since it was only one weekend. I left on Friday and would be back on Sunday. The SIN-KL-SIN bus trip cost me about $80.

M and her business partners, P and K, put me up in a nice hotel. I met with some of their vendors and gave them my opinions on the vendors’ various proposal. I guess they trusted me and found my knowledge helpful, I was invited back to help them again.

The second trip was for one week. This time, I stayed with P and M in their rented apartment at a very classy area. I had also started to subscribe my mobile phone’s roaming service which I did not enable since I started my business. Yes, even the $10 per month subscription fee was worth saving. My finances was that tight.

During the second trip, I got to know P and K much better. I got along with K very well. He was a very patriotic Malaysian. Every time he drove by the Petronas Twin Towers, he’ll proudly proclaims, “World-class!”. K wasn’t pretentious nor was he trying to be a show-off. I could really feel his genuine enthusiasm of his country’s achievement. I had been working alone for too long. I missed the camaraderie of friends and colleagues. I was glad that M was in a team of friends instead of like me, working alone. P had a different character altogether. Compared to K, P was polished and refine while K was rougher on the edges. When K and P are together, you’ll think P was the boss due to the way he carried himself. P exudes extreme confidence (almost on the verge of being cocky) and you can tell that he was used to people listening to him. Surprisingly, K was the major shareholder and thus the CEO of the business set-up. P was the COO.

There was one night, P and M brought me to chill in Bangsar, a district in KL. It was very similar to the Holland Village in Singapore. The night scene was pretty exciting to me. Especially since I had not been to Holland V’s night scene. Bangsar had lots of beautiful people and cars. P was smoking cigars and we were drinking red wine at one of his regular pub. We were sitting at the outdoor area. It was a great place for people watching. The whole debonair lifestyle was very seductive to me – an unworldly geek who had not been exposed to the ways of the glamourous business world. I respected P. I thought he was a great and successful person. A part of me wished that I was in the team and I won’t feel so lonely anymore.

During my third trip, I stayed for two weeks. It was an especially difficult trip as my wife just missed sending me off at the bus depot as she was held up at work. She only arrived when the bus was already moving out of the depot. It was heart-breaking to see her disappointed face from the bus window.

I had to spend another $80 for the bus trip. For all the three trips, I was never paid back for the transportation expenses. Granted, my meals were paid for but the total $240 spent was still difficult for me. I had only a few thousand dollars left in my bank then. My income from my business was very little. In Singapore, there were many weeks when I don’t even spend more than $10 in a week. Even though I volunteered to help M, who was my good friend, but I was not obliged to help K and P. I didn’t tell M how I felt as I didn’t want to make things difficult for her, or put her in a spot.

During this trip, something happened too. P treated me differently. He treated me with less respect. He treated me like his employee instead of his guest. There was once when my advice and idea was totally brushed off. It was like my idea was a fly and he had simply swatted it away.

A few days before I was returning home, K and I were waiting in the car while P and M were running errands, K asked me what I thought of their offer to me, to be part of the team. He said it was only fair that I am part of the team as I’ve helped them for a while already and they hope that I’ll continue to help them. I told K that nothing was mentioned nor offered. K was surprised but quickly added maybe P had not found an opportune time to discuss with me yet.

On the day when I was about to go back to Singapore, P still had not broached the topic yet. Instead, he told me that he hoped that I can be back in 3 days time. I told him the earliest I can be back is one week later after I’ve settled my own business which is pending my attention. When it was about time for me to leave the apartment to catch my bus home, he wanted to pass me some work to do when I’m back in Singapore. He tried to burn the files into a CD but the burner was giving him some problem. He kept trying and time was running late. I told him I had to go  and suggested mailing the CD to me instead. He insisted that I should wait while he kept trying. I was exasperated. Time was trickling away and I was going to miss the bus. I was anxious and getting angry. Finally, when I was about to storm off, the CD was burnt successfully. He risked my missing of the bus home just because he didn’t want to mail me the CD?!! Fortuantely, I managed to catch the bus with just 5 minutes to spare.

On my way back, I was thinking on the bus. The whole experience left a very bad aftertaste. I felt cheap and used. P totally had no respect of me as a human being. I was also confused why the offer was never discussed with me. Did he hope that I’ll continue to help them as free labour? There weren’t many more $80 I could come out of my own pocket. I also had my own business to run even though it wasn’t successful yet. Even though my idea was less ambitious and has a much lesser chance of success, at least it was still mine. I made my decision on my trip back.

When I reached home, I sent an e-mail to them and told them I quit!

Epilogue: Even though a part of me had wanted to be part of the team, to be part of a camaraderie, but the whole experience let me realise that it is always better to work on your own dream than being part of someone’s else dream. It is just not the same. After this incident, I was determined to see my own idea through, whether it succeeds or fails. At least it was my own idea, my own dream. I also learnt that a true man is not measured by his wealth but the true worth of his character.

P.S. I’ve since made peace with both M and P.

The Lone Wolf (Solo Founder)

image

Many, many, many years ago (circa 1996), just after I graduated and started working (yes… that long ago), I had an idea, different from what I am doing now, so I gathered my 3 best pals from university and suggested the idea to them. All were excited by the idea and were fired up to start the business. Many nights, we met in a cafe after work and basically just talked and discussed about our future venture. Like many internet start-ups (who wasn’t dreaming about being a dot com then? It was dot com fever/rush), we doodled on paper napkins and planned the steps we needed to take. We talked about our visions, our hopes, our aspirations and how big we were going to be. We would talk until the shutters came down and the cafe closed. We would then all return to our respective job the next day bleary eyed and yet feel pumped up again when we meet in the evening. It was a very happy time. There was a strong bond and sense of camaraderie among us.

Then it was finally time to start the real work.

Based on our strengths, I assigned tasks for each of us. Even then, I had the knack of identifying individual strengths and weaknesses. The next meeting would be one month later.

When we met again, E brought in another friend of his, J. E was responsible for the graphics and design portion of our internet project. During our many early discussions, we identified web programming as the weakness of our team. At that time, PERL (cgi programming) was the language to use and B was assigned to take up that responsibility. Apparently, E was not confident that we would be able to resolve our lack of technical skill, so he brought in J.

J was a programmer and he was proficient in PERL and web development. The problem was, J already had his company and it was a company of 4. If we collaborated, it would become a company of 8. Too many chefs in the kitchen.

During the many meetings after J joined, J gave me the feeling that he looked down on our team. He felt that our success solely depended on him. He gradually treated us like second class citizens and put us down.

As time goes by, the meetings became more and more infrequent and then they just stopped. I didn’t call for any more meetings because I knew then that the team would have many friction and disagreements due to J’s involvement. He did not respect nor value our contribution. We just quietly went our separate ways.

From that point onwards, I vowed that I would do something on my own and not depend on anyone in future. I started buying lots of books and did self-studying, getting myself ready for my next eureka moment. I paid attention to ideas that I can do on my own.

It took me another three years before a new idea (my current venture) came upon me which I believed I could do it on my own. In between, I read up many technical books and kinda become Jack of all trades but master of none.

The first 3 years of my own start-up was one of the toughest periods of my life. Something about the New Year eves then would always make me feel very blue and down. Even though I may be surrounded by party revellers, I would feel like an island in the sea of people. When people were out celebrating, I would be wondering if it was time to give up. It didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere and I still had bills to pay. Self-doubt was a monster which constantly challenged me.

Yes, working alone was really tough. When I had problems, I had no business partners to share the burden with and I had to do everything on my own. However, I was fortunate to have married a very supportive and understanding wife. It was my wife who held my hand and walked with me through the darkest patch of my life.

But many of the lessons I learnt then made me who I am today. I was trialed by fire.

After many years on my own, I am now very used to making my own decisions, implementing my own ideas and solving my own problems.

That being said, I would encourage people to have a team. The trick is identifying the right partners and managing the ego and expectations of each individual. Usually, with the right team, you should be able to achieve more in a shorter period of time. Working alone, I was usually constrained by what I myself can do.

I don’t think there is a definite answer to the question if a startup should have a co-founder. Different circumstances require different approach. My circumstances pushed me to walk the path alone.

Mabye, just maybe, I was born to be a lone wolf.

Year Two (Part 1)

Storm

Storm by Daniel R Thompson on Flickr.

Year two was pretty similar to year one in many ways. The prospects still didn’t look promising. More competitors joined in the fray. I was still drinking non-chilled bottled water just to save 10 cents. I was still eating cheap meals or plain bread when I can’t stand the hunger. However, there were three events that I believe altered the course of my entrepreneurial life.

Event 1:
I made friend with a contact’s brother, P. He was an insurance agent but was always looking for better business opportunities. I guess my business intrigued him. He had expressed interest in my business so we met up. During our meeting, I told him honestly that it had been difficult for me to get clients. I showed him my business model and told him the selling price of my product. He told me as my concept and product was new, I needed to relate my product to its most similar existing product. Also, he asked me to raise my price based on the similar product. Before I met P, I was marketing my product in a totally different angle (website design and hosting). After I met P, I was essentially still selling the same thing but repackaged my product and was promoting it to the potential clients from a new angle (advertising) which they can relate to and understand. Because of that, I was able to raise the selling price of my product to 3 times the original selling price but it was 50% cheaper than then comparable product (print advertising).

Initially, I was very skeptical. How could I sell my product at the new price when I had tremendous difficulty selling when it was 300% cheaper?!

P also taught me to use Powerpoint for presentation. When I was working as an engineer, I hated powerpoint presentations. I thought powerpoint presentations were very pretentious, ‘wayang‘ and a total waste of time. I thought it was something the suits dreamt up to make themselves look busy. :p

Anyway, P gave me a few pointers regarding the preparation of my presentations. It needs to contain facts and figures like market potential, what my product can do for them, how it compares to current similar products, advantage of my product compared to the similar but non-online products.

P verbally indicated interest in becoming a partner of my business and he promised to join me when I meet potential clients. In the end, P only joined me in one meeting and he just quietly disappeared from my business venture after that. I guessed he figured that my business was not going to be profitable and he has thus lost interest. I didn’t call him. If he was no longer interested, there wasn’t any reason for me to pursue the matter with him. Lesson learnt: No one is more interested in your own business other than yourself.

However, unknown to me at that time. It was fortunate that he recommended that I increase my selling price by 3 times. If not, I would have to sell to 3 times the current number of clients that I have to generate the current level of revenue. Assuming that I’ve 33% market share now, it means I would need to have nearly 100% of the market to have the same revenue which is impossible. If I didn’t increase the price to the current rate, my business model would not have been sustainable.

The powerpoint presentations also helped. It made my presentation a lot more coherent and the clients were able understand more. It was a lot more convincing than before since I’ve included data and facts. This had helped to clinch some deals for me. There were still very little confirmed clients but it was a mark and definite improvement.

Note: This event has made me realised, many years later, that selling cheap is not the only strategy. In fact, competing by price alone is one of the worst marketing strategy.

Event 2:
Met KL, an ex-hostel mate from university. At that time, I still wasn’t sure if I should adopt the new (increased!) pricing strategy. I shared with him my uncertainty. Then he told me about his own entrepreneurial experience. He told me there was a time when his business was going to cease as his company has introduced a totally new web service to the Internet for free. The web service was so popular that it constantly ate up their bandwidth. It was so popular that users from all over the world were using it. When the monthly fix amount of bandwidth he and his business partners bought from the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were used up, they had to pay more to increase their bandwidth. However, as soon as they bought more, the bandwidth was used up again and their website will be inaccessible. They also realise that it was impossible for them to keep using their own savings to pay for the bandwidth. Their savings were limited. They finally decided that the web service would no longer be free. Subscription fee would be required. They realise that all the users may abandon them and stop using their service. To continue providing their service for free, it means a definite end to their business; but the alternative, even though it may end their business, at least there exist a fighting chance. Based on this bleak scenario, the obvious choice was to choose the path that offers a slim hope, no matter how small.

They were surprised that many users were actually willing to pay for their unique web service. Not only did it help to avert the financial crisis, they became highly profitable! Just do the maths, they have users from the world, and they charge a subscription fee, estimate their revenue. 🙂

After hearing that, the decision became obvious to me too.

To this day, KL and I are still in constant contact. We’ve shared many business experiences and remain firm friends.

Year One (snippets)

Birds on Wire

This happened during my first year. Very often I get asked how many staff are there in the company.

Potential client, “How many staff do you have in your company?”

I’ll reply,”Currently, three.”

In my heart, I’ll be thinking, “Me, myself and I.” :p


I had installment plans for my products and services when I started. Another question I get asked by this particular client.

Another potential client, “How old is your company?”

I replied, “8 months now.”

Potential client, “Huh? How can I trust your company, it is so new?!”

I was like,”……”

How do you answer this question when your client’s company was even younger at only 2 months?

-__-“

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, SingaporeBrides.com 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.