The TEN Weekly Learnings of an Entrepreneur #4

Let’s reflect.

Several weeks have flown by, and I am guilty of not getting down to business of reflecting upon my learnings on a weekly basis. (Check out my Medium profile for my reflections. You can find my very first article of this series here.)

Because of my period of absence, I am therefore putting forth a total of 10 learnings (instead of the usual 5) thus far which have characterised my journey. These are learnings that I feel have been rather applicable in the past weeks; which I will continue validating over time.

Here goes-

This has been one of the most acute lessons for me this week. In a nutshell, an ex-member of our community put forth shocking statements to us that accused us of things that we did not do; put us in a position that was highly undesirable; and took matters to an extreme. As painfully libelous as these statements are, we are not pursuing any further action unless warranted as these statements were made in a private context; and we honestly wish this person all the very best. I derived 2 insights from this very raw incident:

a. People will think however they deem fit, and you can’t control their thoughts however best you try. As an entrepreneur who works one’s butt off on this long and arduous journey; it is easy to become extremely infuriated when people tell you certain things that turn things on its head, and leave you wondering ‘seriously? is this person for real?’. As someone who has just embarked on this journey, I can guarantee that there is no worst pill to swallow than hearing that directly from a potential customer — the people who you are taught to love and prioritise above everything or everyone else. You may then feel disappointed — in yourself — where you wonder, ‘have I failed in some way?’ These are the things that you will fight, I am sure, once you are so emotionally invested as an entrepreneur — and when setbacks like these happen.

b. While you can’t control what people think, you can control you feel. Relevant to the prior point, it is only a setback when you let something set you back. In the very same way, if you start sinking into this bottomless pit of self-doubt, it becomes a vicious cycle that only you can rescue yourself from. Being an entrepreneur means you need to be prepared for shit to hit the fan anytime, and be resilient about it. I suppose entrepreneurship is not only about how skilled of an individual you are, but ultimately, at the core of it, what kind of person you are. Take it as part and parcel of this journey, and however painful it may be, embrace it. But don’t wade in your misery for too long — feel it, fight through it, and move on.

A third insight is linked to the last (tenth) learning point in this article.

If you ever think that community management is going to be a walk in the park, think again. I used to think that it’s going to be easy talking to 50 people and providing that personalised touch all along the way- but it is challenging. If 50 is already tough, what about 500? So, don’t belittle ‘community managers’ because it is certainly not an easy task to ensure that the community is going the way you want it to go.

I believe one of the main takeaways for me about community management is finding that sweet spot between being personal and being a representative of your business. Too much of either, and we have some form of disequilibrium that affects the way you run the community. This sweet spot is pitched between your unique degree of emotional investment in the people who you look to serve; and a sense of stoic neutrality that you also have to adopt as a spokesperson of the business. I think I was disproportionately inclined towards the personal side of the spectrum, and that in itself had consequences to be managed. So, my current hypothesis is that adopting a full-on, personalised approach in the context of community management may not be necessarily the most efficient; and hunting for the sweet spot means knowing what to compromise and what not to.

This becomes apparent once your community starts to grow. You realise that a personalised approach is not exactly the most scalable, and it gets exhausting after a while. So, there needs to be some form of communication system that adapts to such shifts, and be able to convey a salient tone and message throughout. Consistency is key, and yet tricky as well. You just have to figure it out, learn from your mistakes, build, and grow.

This is one of the key learnings I gleaned from these past weeks. Often, there is an understandable obsession with traction. Simply put, how many users do you have? What is your week-on-week user growth rate? Is it as exponential as the average 7% daily user growth rate achieved by PayPal back in the day? I think one important lesson I learnt is that while sales and distribution channels do matter, an early-stage entrepreneur often seeks various ways and means to grow the business — with growth being contextualised in terms of user count. The key questions then are: how are you growing? Is it purely organic? What is your customer acquisition cost? Is your growth strategy scalable? It will be expensive at the start, and it is a pain that you have to bear with for a while as you figure things out along the way. Still, I believe that at an early-stage, echoing the sentiments of Sam Altman, what matters is making a product that people love.

It doesn’t matter how many users you have, if what you make does not command a base of fiercely loyal users who you are sure that what you make is bringing some form of value to. And you can tell if what you are making is useful; simply via feedback, or observable patterns of user behaviour. Sure, Peter Thiel talks about achieving ‘escape velocity’; but I think it is often misunderstood as spending loads of money to scale rapidly especially early on. My point is, I believe in the indispensable role of marketing; but the priority of an early-stage entrepreneur should be not repeatedly checking what my user count is every minute or so (as how you may be checking your email inboxes or Instagram notifications) but about really confronting an honest question: am I making a lovable product that people will use? A great quote from Mr. Altman will be, ‘focus on 100 users that love you, not one million who kind of like you’.

Even as the community is growing, I always remind myself to not be caught up by the numbers. While every rapid increase in number brings about a shot of dopamine, I am always prepared for some to leave because they may be here not for the product, but for some giveaway campaign that we are having. That is a trade-off to be borne, and the only solution is to create a product that matters and is loved — even if it is only 100 people, that suffices. My hypothesis, therefore, is that being small is not a sin. And when you try to work on an idea, it is always better to first start with a small, niche community that will serve you well to effectively scale in the future.

Some people are going to tell you things that you did not expect to be an issue — but is, in fact, an issue to be examined and studied. Feedback is an essential component of everything you do, and all you need to do is ask. And when you ask, you will get some unexpectedly interesting insights, and things that you realised you could have performed better in but neglected over time.

There needs to be a fearlessness to feedback, and do not be afraid to get them. There will be people who will not be bothered to respond to your queries (and even block you — speaking from personal experience as when people left our group, I will ask them for feedback on where we can improve upon and eventually get blocked most of the time. Did I get reported for spam too?). But it doesn’t matter — just ask and you will get some answers. As if you never ask, you will never know.

That applies not only to your customers, but to your team as well. I believe there needs to be a climate of honest communication and candid feedback. Are you the bottleneck in some way? Solicit opinion, and work on it collectively as a unit to bring everyone to greater heights.

This is not an advice to be paranoid, but rather, a fundamental state of mind that may serve as a useful reminder to not be overtly comfortable with your current situation. There is always something to be improved upon somewhere, and it is difficult to discern where unless you find ways and means to do so. Related to the prior point, it could be via feedback. In my experience, I became slightly satisfied with how things were being run after a while—and I slowly descended into an uninspiring routine of sorts. In my opinion, that is not especially ideal as habit kills drive. It is always possible to reinvent something, and improve a certain touchpoint somewhere along the way.

A mentality of always striving to better oneself and some aspect of the business is crucial to constant innovation. Simple principle, yes, but easy to forget (for me, at least, when you get caught up in so many things).

I remember I saw this this quote somewhere, but at the moment I can’t seem to concretely attach it to a person or name. But, I remember that this made a lot of sense to me — you are not a business unless you have some sort of proven revenue model in place. Otherwise, it is just an idea.

That probably goes against a widely held belief (historically at least) that startups are granted some form of leeway to postpone revenue generation till much later; and heavily rely on capital funding from other sources. But I think that thinking about and taking a tangible step to implementing some form of a revenue model pays great dividends to advancing your vision as a business. It could be experimental, particularly in the early stages, and while scrappy, it is worth it. I don’t think it is ever too early to start thinking about ways to make money, because there are several ways to do so and I am optimistic that someone — just someone — will be willing to take a chance on you SO LONG as you hustle and seek out the available opportunities. They are out there for the taking, and you just have to try.

We tried, and we got something valuable out of it. Ultimately, it is an ongoing process of experimenting, iterating, and re-iterating.

This is an intriguing but in my opinion, excellent exercise to carry out; courtesy of Brian Chesky. It is essential to put yourself in the shoes of a typical customer or user, and start scaling up from a 1-star experience to an 11-star experience. As ludicrous as it may sound, this slightly absurd way of thinking may actually help to take your experiences to greater heights. In our context, what will an 11-star experience be? Focusing on the whole social, bartering experience, it will go along the lines of something extraordinarily mindblowing:

i. Adele confirms a trade.

ii. Adele receives a super friendly message from the other party saying that they can meet immediately, and that a limousine will be arriving at her doorstep in 1 minute to pick her up to send her to the meet-up location.

iii. Within the minute, the limousine arrives; and Adele gets escorted to the vehicle by 2 buff bodyguards.

iv. Adele realises that she has the whole vehicle to herself, complete with food, entertainment and music.

v. Adele arrives at the meet-up location having thoroughly enjoyed the limousine ride.

vi. Stepping out of the vehicle, Adele receives a queen-like reception where thousands of people are cheering for her and chanting her name ‘Adele! Adele!’. Several ask for Adele’s autograph. The media is present to witness this event.

vii. The same 2 bodyguards present a chariot pulled along by a white stallion for her to mount. It takes her to the trader who welcomes her with a lot of confetti, a warm embrace, and a bottle of champagne.

viii.They exchange items, and the item she receives is in perfect condition.

ix. Adele gets invited by the trader to join her on an exclusive trip to Mars together with Maroon 5.

x. ‘The spaceship is already here. Let’s go’, Adele is told.

Yup, that’s a thought experiment. The key is to find that sweet spot between the doable 5-star and slightly absurd 11-star experience, and make it exceptional.

This is another key learning for me, inspired by Reid Hoffman and Mr. Chesky yet again. There are many ways to scale, but I believe the most powerful way to do so is to do things that do not scale. That may mean doing everything pretty much manually at the start, and painstakingly engaging in actions that are ‘unscalable’. But, there is a benefit to this. That is, by genuinely handcrafting an experience, you understand the nuts and bolts of every touchpoint; and you are able to subsequently refine it with an eye to detail.

With every unscalable thing that you do, you unlock yet another door to scale. I think that is a beautiful dilemma to be aware of, especially we think of ‘growth hacking’. I believe there is no easy way out, and you just got to work hard at doing the least efficient things at the start (for us, it will be locating our early adopter users on buy-and-sell marketplace apps such as Carousell by reaching out to each and every one of them via a message, at the risk of spamming them. That’s the raw opportunity cost that you need to bear). Only when it becomes painful, and when you start growing, will technology come into the picture.

And that is why we are going to launch a beta version of our app soon in late June to early July 2018. Join our sharing communities at t.me/fliccxchangers (trading primarily apparel products) and t.me/fliccbooks (trading books) for exclusive access to it.

This is a key reminder to oneself when the going gets tough. Resilience is such a key ingredient, which needs to be part and parcel of an entrepreneur’s blood for success to come by. It is important to brave the storm and continue walking forward, even though there may be people who do not believe in your cause and may even just want to see you fail. You are what you make yourself to be, and ultimately, I believe that you have a choice. The choices that we make shape us and our lives — and what we choose or decide to do is vital to how the journey will be like.

In the words of Dharmesh Shah, ‘success is making those who believed in you look brilliant’. Therefore, remember that there are people pining for you and rooting for your success, through thick and thin. My job is to make them look not only good, but brilliant. They are the people who are deserve the true recognition.

So, choose the positivity and the love over the negativity. Leave the naysayers in the dust. Embrace and reward the believers.

I just read this excellent article titled ‘Laziness Does Not Exist’ by E Price. Her points really resonated with me, as it told us to critically evaluate a person’s actions and behaviour based on his or her situational context. What conditional factors exist? What barriers exist? We should examine these issues carefully, as everything — everything — has an underlying reason.

This is quite applicable to the first learning point of this piece, relevant to the statements made by a particular ex-member of our community. My first instinct was reactive, in that I was furious and so many irrational thoughts were rushing through my head. But when I composed myself, I realised that Price’s approach made a lot of sense. There are bound to be reasons that motivated this person to make such statements, and instead of attributing it to this person’s personality or character (which was the first thing we will instinctively do), it may be worthy to think about the situational factors involved. Is this person going through a hard time? What’s going on in this person’s life?

As Dan Millman (Google ‘Peaceful Warrior’) said, “the ones who are hardest to love are usually the ones who need it the most”.

As we live our lives, let’s not judge; but treat everything we see with a base sense of curiosity — and empathy. Let’s ask more whys and whats.

And yes, that’s that.

I know this has been a pretty long article, but I had a lot of thoughts — related to entrepreneurship and on a macro scale, life — that I wanted to put down especially after going missing for a few weeks. Here’s a summary of my 10 learnings again:

1. Prepare for misunderstandings or even hate. If they so unfortunately happen, treat it as part of the battle.

2. Community management is tough. Prepare to be challenged once a community starts growing.

3. Traction DOES NOT MATTER. What matters is making a product that people love.

4. Get feedback, even when it hurts. You just got to ask.

5. Assume that something can be done better somewhere. You need to discover where.

6. “You are not a business unless you are making money”

7. Think: what’s an 11-star experience?

8. In order to scale, do things that do not scale.

9. Always stay strong, and persevere. You owe success to no one, but yourself, your team and those who believe in you.

10. Be curious and empathetic, instead of judgemental.

Let me know what you think, and yes, I will make time for coffee.

May all the positive energies be with you as you fight your battles, and live life to the fullest!

If you liked what you read, let me know by applauding! ;)

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Alden Tan

I design products for a living in Singapore 🇸🇬 Also, I like to write and think about how to inspire a better world.