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"There's No Such Thing As An Original Idea" & 9 Other Lessons M'sian Startups Taught Me

“Are you crazy? How’re you going to survive without a steady income?”

That was what majority of my family members told me when I told them I wanted to quit my job and do something of my own. Ever since I graduated, I have always worked in a corporate Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) environment as a marketer. As a typical Gen-Y, I always struggled to stay focused and seeing my colleagues work through the night (even though they have children at home waiting for their return) made me constantly ask myself, “Is this what I really want to spend my whole life doing?”

I mean, working in a super fast-paced FMCG environment is fun and there are tons to learn, but I’ve always felt like I’m a small cog in a giant machine working for a typical corporate. I desperately yearned for something more and despite all the negative feedback that I’ve gotten from my family members and peers, I took the leap in May 2015 and resigned without a backup plan, hoping to find freedom with enough savings to keep myself well-fed (I f*cking love food) for about a year and a half.

In this day and age, what inspires me the most are the enormous tech startups that have shown the ability to grow at lightning speed. I thought that the most logical action forward was to learn how to code!

Image Credit: http://www.innovationiseverywhere.com
Image Credit: http://www.innovationiseverywhere.com

So I quickly signed up for MaGIC’s Web Development Bootcamp, a 9-week program that takes you from a person who has absolutely no programming knowledge to a person empowered with coding skills. I thought that even if I do not want to be a developer by profession, I revel at being able to communicate seamlessly with developers that I may someday work with.

It has been almost 1 month after my graduation from the bootcamp, and in retrospect, I have never made a better decision. The bootcamp has empowered me to be able to create Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) fairly quickly and also given me the ability to communicate way better with programmers (who used to just speak in some inconceivable and foreign language). Joining this program in MaGIC has also opened up so many opportunities in terms of meeting like-minded and inspiring people.

If you’re reading this and wondering what kind of things have I learnt in my journey so far, here’s a list of the top 10 most impactful learnings I experienced.

1. The Tech Startup Explosion Is Very Real

Image Credit: Cezary Pietrzak
Image Credit: Cezary Pietrzak

While most of us are aware that MyTeksi is the most successful tech startup born in Malaysia, there are way more successful tech startups from Malaysia than most people realise, most of which I was completely oblivious to before getting involved in the startup community.

Some of the Malaysian startups that are experiencing a promising degree of success are
iFlixKFitKaodimGoGetRinggitPlusTextbookAsiaSoftSpace, FashionValetPiktoChart.

2. The Malaysian Government Is Doing A Lot For The Tech Startup Community

I never really developed a deep interest in Malaysian politics until the last General Election. Like many others, I was always surrounded by people that had negative perceptions on the mismanagement of the country.

My short involvement in the MaGIC community has changed my view on this; no government is perfect and while there are some pressing controversies and scandals surrounding the ruling government, they are also heavily supporting the startup community by setting up agencies like Cradle Fund & MaGIC.

One of the most notable things include the reduction of MSC’s qualifying criteria to allow tech startups to enjoy the same benefits as some of the biggest tech companies in Malaysia.

3. Life As A Developer Is Tough

Programmers hard at work (Image Credit: Jeremy Ong)
Programmers hard at work (Image Credit: Jeremy Ong)

Seriously, developers and programmers do not get enough credit for what they do. Before attending MaGIC’s Web Development Bootcamp, I have always wondered what was going on in the minds of the techies I meet. Well, now I know, the bootcamp made me cringe every single day and is one of the top 10 hardest things I have done in my entire life, but boy, was it rewarding. Now I see developers in a different light, they’re cool and super-intelligent people.

So the next time you are hiring a developer, treat them as such. If you treat them like assembly line workers, the quality of your software/project/website will decline. They tend to be introverted so sit them down regularly and talk to them, understand them better and you will find it extremely rewarding!

4. You Don’t Need A Lot Of Financial Capital (What You Really Need Is Human Capital)

Brilliant startups rarely have enough capital, but they almost always have an awesome and committed team. Awesome people are everywhere in Malaysia, the key challenge I faced was finding a team member that shared the same vision. When you’re from a business background like I am, it is absolutely necessary to obtain a superb technical co-founder that believes in your startup!

This is especially true in Malaysia in the context of finding technical co-founders. We have brilliant ideas but most of us lack access to the talents who are capable of executing these very ideas (which is the basis that MaGIC’s Web Development Bootcamp is built upon).

So if you already have a technical co-founder who shares your ambition, cherish them like they’re your one and only love. Otherwise, keep looking!

5. Dealing With Your Boss Is Tough, Building A Startup Is At Least 10 Times Tougher

Image Credit: www.entrepreneurfail.com
Image Credit: www.entrepreneurfail.com

If you think that dealing with anal bosses and clients is tough, building a startup is WAY harder. At least you get a stable pay check, clear work direction (most of the time) and clearly defined roles. Conference speakers and articles on the internet often discuss startups as if they were simple projects, like the ones you work on in universities or even colleges.

Remember the friendly sales guy, your mean HR lady and the dorky finance dude? Working on a startup means you have to take on ALL these roles at once! The bright side is that working on a startup, you learn the ins and outs of how difficult it is to run a startup. Building the first product—hard; fundraising—hard; finding the right partner—super hard. Even with great support from MaGIC and my mentors, I have yet to discover the point at which life becomes easier.

6. Work-Life Balance Is A Mythical Unicorn

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”
– Alain de Botton

Running a startup is very much like giving your life away. Your startup becomes your life, and very soon you will be working weekends and weeknights voluntarily. Be ready to get rid of the sense of entitlement. You’ll soon realise that the experience of running a startup is cold and cruel.

Image Credit: http://philipbloom.net/blog/worklife-2/
Image Credit: http://philipbloom.net/blog/worklife-2/

The experience is exhilarating and life gets very tiring at times, but it is also oddly gratifying. There is nothing like spending days and nights building your product, launching it into the market and having your first subscription or order. That being said, it is important to find time to rest and recuperate.

7. Have Enough Money To Survive For At Least 1 Year (Then Multiply It By 3)

People tend to underestimate the costs of creating and running a startup, which is especially true when you come from an employment background like myself. Many fledgling founders do not have at least a year’s worth of savings to free their schedule up to do months of unpaid legwork.

The reason I suggest multiplying your savings by 3 is because there are bound to be tons of costs that you may not foresee as a first time founder. Examples of these costs include data gathering, prototyping, marketing costs, legal fees, and self development.

If you have enough seed funding to kickstart this process, good for you! You can outsource these tasks, but keep in mind that managing the project according to your specifications is a gargantuan task and executing these tasks would probably be more expensive than initially budgeted. Identify key roles to hire, and in-source it for better management.

Image Credit: http://sv.tie.org
Image Credit: http://sv.tie.org

If you are bootstrapping a business that operates at a loss in the first 6 months without any seed investors, funding comes from you and/or your partners. I suggest assembling a team of like-minded people and budget a bigger chunk into self development and tools to help with the team’s productivity instead. Your team members should also be relatively stable in terms of finances so that they are able to commit themselves fully into running a startup.

8. Balance Product Development & Networking

Most startup founders dive right into it focusing a lot on their vision of the product and burn through 100% of their resources on product development. In my short exposure in the community, I discovered a pattern. Founders of early-stage startups allocate equal amounts of time into networking and development. Have a working calendar to effectively allocate half your time attending events and the other half into developing the product.

Having said that, it is also important to be more selective with attending events. Having a clear goal on why you want to meet people can help guide your decision-making process. Are you looking for investors? Or are you looking for a potential co-founder? Ask yourself these questions and start narrowing down event selection.

Be open, you can learn so many things from just talking to people at events. More often than not, these people can teach you something or you can derive some sort of strategic benefit. You never know who you might bump into at such events. Don’t be shy, identify people who can provide valuable insights and value. Add them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter!

9. For Your Startup To Grow, You Have To Grow

Graduates from Code Division (Image Credit: Jeremy Ong)
Graduates from Code Division (Image Credit: Jeremy Ong)

Rather than focusing blindly on building and growing the company itself, a new founder is better served spending equal time and energy to improve his or herself. When you pour tons of resources and time into building your business and it fails, the only thing that stays with you is the learnings that you have derived from the process of building it.

Everyone says they are busy, but founders have to cut through the clutter and eliminate lesser tasks by focusing on meeting the business’ and their own bigger goals.

“If you really want to know where your destiny lies, look at where you apply your time.”
– Mark Cuban

This gets back to saying ‘no’ to many people and focusing on what you hold true. Stress on the importance of focusing on what you are building and make it really good at what it does. This also includes developing certain skill sets and mental fortitude as a founder that will assist you in future endeavours.

10. There Is No Such Thing As An Original Idea Or A Perfect Product

If you think you have an original idea, the chances are someone has thought of it before.

This is a cold hard truth that I have learnt in my journey but should not be taken as a discouragement to start something of your own. The key is to have a stronger team, which leads to better planning and execution.

Case Study: Friendster & Facebook

Image Credit: http://arayofray125.blogspot.com
Image Credit: http://arayofray125.blogspot.com

The presence of a booming social media platform like Friendster did not deter Facebook from doing the same thing. Facebook started off as a Friendster clone and by focusing on key engineering hiring (stronger team), it improved the user experience to be more intuitive and developed APIs to encourage other developers to leverage on the platform Facebook provides (planning and execution).

Even right now, Facebook pushes multiple update patches per day that “improves” their product based on user data that they have collected.

Perfect Product = Innovation & Constant Improvement

To reiterate, there is no such thing as a perfect product, or even the likes of it. Once this has been understood, then it will be easier for you to understand that there is…

…no such thing as a perfect startup. All successful startups are built upon heavy refinement and optimisation of processes over a long period of time. The key is to start somewhere and learn along the way.

This article is originally titled “10 things I learned jumping into the Malaysian startup community” and you can read the full original article here. It is republished with permission. 

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