We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
2019 arrived with a Little Prince Moleskine notebook from a dear friend. “What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the Little Prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”. I was determined to find out where the well is. 2019 has since been an improbable, sometimes protracted, personal journey. From quitting a day job to couch-surfing a whole new continent, I tumbled in a world where every advance was deeply transformative and enriching. As the end of 2019 approaches, I thought of sharing some of those learnings.
Here they are.
1. Dreams are costly.
2018 has seen Chance Myanmar soaring to new heights. With 40,000 students by year end (currently 200,000+), we were the fastest growing startup in Myanmar. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful, and the team worked around the clock to make sure nothing falls through the crack. Revenue grew by 5x then 10x in a span of months – I was lucky enough to witness all this in Yangon. However, my ambition for a new startup was making all of this much more difficult. To manage two start-ups at the same time (both in very different stages) was a struggle, and I had to reckon with the fact that while I remain passionate about both I can only pick to focus on one. I chose the dream, not the business, and for that I took a step back from Chance Myanmar and became an advisor without a major equity stake. It was a tough call, but one that helped me understand myself and my goals much more.
2. Kindness is strength.
After 2 months of working on the new idea (named Chance.io back then), our team was luckily selected out of 200,000 to go the Hult Prize regionals in Dubai for a 6-min pitch (Hult Prize is the world’s biggest social enterprise competition). While others rehearsed, we were the first to say hi to everyone we met, to volunteer taking photos and to listen and offer pitch advice. It was super hard, because it was easy to play competitive and we knew we are lacking practice. But for us, genuine human connections mattered much more than a competition trophy. We eventually brought the trophy home with everyone’s blessing. Also, fast forward 9 months, some of our best friends are connections that we have made in Dubai, and they have opened so many doors for us. We could not be more grateful.
3. Balance matters.
Smiling, but almost dying inside – that was how I felt for months in a row. Full-time studies, part-time job and working through midnights on the startup was almost killing me. I paid for an expensive gym membership, but went twice a month; arranged meetings, but could not go due to work commitments; studied hard, but lost my scholarship from hurrying to exams after customer interviews. The alignment was simply not there: something had to give. Time management skills has been a lifelong pursuit for me, and I frankly admit, I have got so much to learn still. I did a cold and cruel calculus: what do I care, what do I need, what could be dropped. The result was obvious. The next day I quit my job, suspended my degree, and cashed out my investments. I never looked back on it.
4. Hype is not traction.
We have made it. From Dubai to London, we were the first Australian team in history to be inducted into a massive castle with free food (three-course) and accomodation for two months. Suddenly we were talking to the Australian and Forbes, our faces plastered across social media. It felt surreal and it was extremely easy to get caught up in the glamour and glitz (we made daily vlogs), but as product-led founders, we knew this does absolutely nothing for the business that we wanted to build. It felt like meditation: to try finding that core voice of yours, in a world filled with noise and opinions. We were scared to find out that our core voice is always telling us the unsexy things: that instead of crafting slick slides with animation, we should do another 7-day sprint of customer discovery; that instead of promising a full tech product with next-gen features, we should run a scrappy MMVP to get to that first dollar without writing a line of code. Do we build a business or a presentation? Caught up in all the hype and narratives of the competition, we tried to stay true to what we are really after. Mistakes were made, but we made sure they go hand in hand with learnings. We left with one of the most amazing experiences in our lives, and a sombre, acute understanding of what it means to be a startup founder.
5. Embrace uncertainty.
I arrived in Tunisia without much of a plan. I was accompanied by one of the best local guides I could have asked for, but her presence was not always to be expected. Without being able to speak French or Arabic, I set out to enjoy a mini-vacation by experimenting with extreme uncertainty, trusting in every stranger that I saw without assuming otherwise. I could not control the fact that I knew nothing, but I could try my best to be kind and receptive. This came with its own share of troubles: sometimes despite my best intentions, communications broke down and I would be stranded in rain waiting 4-5 hours for a taxi. However, this was frustrating but never upsetting. Gradually I was able to live in peace with uncertainty, applying myself to positive thinking where every situation became a challenge and not a trouble. I was motivated to communicate, understand, experiment and grow, and this has led me to have some of the most memorable experiences traveling ever.
6. People fold. Get over it.
With an invite into UN HQ in NYC we were promised a lot by different people. It was a great honour to attend one of the most high-profile events I have been to in my life, with a joint invitation from the CEO of Hult Prize and Hult Business School. Nevertheless we felt let down, walking back to our hotel room with a stack of business cards and promises that were never made true. First we blamed others, then we blamed ourselves for it: what have we done wrong? The answer was simple and nonchalant: we realised that none of these people owed us anything. They did not have a duty to help us out. And hence we managed our expectations and became doubly grateful for every assistance rendered, and completely at peace with every promise that didn’t eventuate. This has also forced us to be a lot more self-reliant, because that is the only constant that we can control.
7. In your 20s, friends > family.
Initially I was quite ashamed to reach out to my friends in the States to host me for stops along a spontaneous trip. But I got over it and they responded almost immediately. This has saved me so much trouble couch-surfing in strangers’ places/bathtubs. I was broke but helpful, and being able to talk about feelings and discuss through life experiences with peers was reinvigorating – the one thing I needed after a long day hustling. I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a supportive family, but even such a family would not be able to surround me with such a community of encouraging and handy individuals. Being a stranger in the city, I was introduced by friends to get my first bus ticket, visit the most iconic bars in the downtown area, sneak into an exclusive MIT party, and have an overall amazing social life. This has helped me to stay confident and energetic every day, with an intense focus on my goals. This energy is also contagious: by conveying this positivity through I was able to meet a network of individuals who I still keep in contact with till this day – it is a gift that gives back.
8. Enjoy a bit of complacency.
I arrived in Philadelphia hard-pressed wanting to make a pitch to every person/Uber driver/janitor/waiter I came across. It was taxing and often misdirected. Being laser-focused on growing networks in a country where my Visa would expire after two months made me miss out on the amazing opportunities to reconnect with my best friend since childhood and appreciate the beauty of the city. I decided to reprioritise, realising that as much as you are supposed to “go hard” building a startup, it is ultimately still a career and there are so many other things that you should pay attention to. I picked up simple habits like hand-washing dishes, taking time in shopping for groceries, and dedicating meaningful time to friends and social outings. Instead of defaulting to a pitch, I started by listening and asking “how are you” to others – and I truly meant it. I did not care for my time, because I have always asked so much from other people, it was about time I start giving back. The result was some of the most beautiful and human moments I have had this year, where I understood people on a much deeper level and listened to stories where I have thought about over and over again.
9. Anything is possible, but not just because of you.
My plan to stay in SF went from 2 weeks to 1.5 months. Part of the reason was the fact that the area was so full of opportunities, part of the reason was that I later found out just how accessible those opportunities are. Being a tech startup, we have always wanted to meet with giants in the industry and talk about insights and collaboration. For some reason, I never realised that with a laptop and a pair of legs, I did not have to wait forever for an intro for these conversations to happen. Simple but consistent efforts using emails, phone calls and notes helped me secure a dozen of conversations that I have been dreaming about, from some of the biggest names in the VC and edu-tech industry. But this was a team effort: I was lucky to be supported by a family of friends (who are also top-rate Silicon Valley engineers), who never knew about me until I showed up at their door. From car rides to Caltrain station, to meal prep and weekly pool evenings, they helped out whenever possible without mentioning a thing. A perfect end to my odyssey, I have come in full circle, leaving home in pursuit of business and coming back knowing what it means to be human.
A year of incredible learning, thank you 2019. I look forward to what the new year brings.
There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.– Jack Kerouac, On the Road