How to survive in a startup

It was past 1AM. Everybody was home except me. I was anxiously trying to finish the financial reports and other due diligence requirements while waiting for those calls from the other side of the globe. I had two all-nighters that week and the week prior. I was in an office, with a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit that can only be turned on and off using pliers, with a toilet home to cockroaches at night, and with cheap tables and chairs with refurbished computers and malfunctioning mouse and keyboards. I was using a fully-depreciated laptop installed with a cracked version of MS office and some virus too. It was lightyears away in comparison to the fully-furnished cozy office I used to have in my former career with a leading pharmaceutical company where after promoting to a key management personnel level, I did the unthinkable – I resigned and joined the uncertain world of startups with a huge cut in perks and pay.

It was just a month before my wedding which I supposedly be prioritizing on that time. Juggling my wedding preparation errands (I didn’t hire any wedding planner and coordinator) and the company affairs proved to be more difficult as we were in the middle of fund-raising for Series A and completing the first year-end audit for the Group. A day before my wedding, I was actually in the office, finishing monthly financial and investor reports as well as payroll. On the week of my honeymoon, I was more beside my laptop than my lovely wife. I am so fortunate to have a wife who understands the demands of my job (good thing she’s also a CPA!). Good thing I was blessed to have a fully-dedicated team and supportive bosses. I wouldn’t survive that big challenge without them and I am forever grateful to them.

Shortly before end of April 2015, our efforts paid-off. We closed the largest Series A in the Asian region that year with the backing of some reputable investors of the world! Everybody was happy and proud. The spirit was so high. But for me, happiness meant finally having a full 8-hour sleep after a home-cooked dinner consisting of chicken adobo and a cup of rice (Finally am freed from eating fried chicken and kariman from the convenience store downstairs!).

Zero to One by Peter Thiel (love reading this while sun bathing at Mui Wo beach)

Hong Kong is where the action is. We then decided to finally establish the Group’s headquarters in Hong Kong. It was just five months after I got married and moving away from my pregnant wife was one of the hardest decisions I made. I moved to Hong Kong and officially labeled as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) leaving my pregnant wife to let herself drive to work every morning and every night – battling the everyday Manila traffic! It was my first time to work full-time out of my home country. I was alone in a new environment, cannot speak Cantonese and first time I experienced winter in my whole life (minus the snow). It was even harder then because I don’t know how to use chopsticks!

Years have passed. We successfully concluded Series B. The Company grew in multiples. There were turnovers here and there – from the Board, the management team, country leaders and at all levels – as we scale and grow our business. Hitting revenue targets every month was like an obstacle course to finish especially when you are dealing a rapid cash burn.

It was not easy. I’ve worked for Big 4 audit firms, a global bank, and a leading pharmaceutical firm in the past and I can say that working for this startup is the hardest yet most rewarding experience of my whole career. It stretched me out of my limits and comfort zone. It gave me the confidence and abilities that I wasn’t aware I possess.

Many people think working in a startup is cool. Cool because you are creating the future. You are trying to change the status quo. Leading the paradigm shift in the way we do things everyday and anywhere. But the truth is, it’s a really an uncertain world. To embrace uncertainty is a thing many people are not willing to do. That’s primarily the reason why only a few succeed.

Many are called but only a few can last the game. We’ve seen entrepreneurs and founders come and go. So with their startups. A lot of my friends asked me how I survived all these years. Let me tell you my secrets for surviving in a startup world:

1. Lose Fast, Win Slow

When you lose, admit it. Accept it. Think about what happened and learn from it. Then move on. When you win, savour the moment. Spread the euphoria to people around you so it’ll last enough to make everyone excited and motivated to hit more wins.

2. Ignore the noise and focus on your thing

People will gather around you, the media will be there to get a piece of you and fellow entrepreneurs will go ahead and join the bandwagon losing their focus on the very reason for their existence. Don’t be like them. Filter the noise from the music. Listen only to what your mission and vision say. Focus on your stuff and let success gravitate towards you.

With the Dalai Lama at Boracay

3. Simplicity is beauty

If you are bootstrapping still, you work for your own money. If you are funded, then you have a work because other people funded you. Either way, be a minimalist. Spend only on things that matter and on things that will help you create the impact you want to create.

4. Leave your titles at the door

A startup is a ground zero. It’s basically nothing until it becomes a big thing. Don’t put a Boeing 747 engine inside a tractor. It will do more harm than good and will leave not the just the tractor broken but as well as the crops dead and withering.

5. Rejections are just delayed acceptance

The best salesmen in the world are those who pitched 10 times and lose 11 times. Rejections are inherent in the game so don’t stop. Keep on fighting. The pot of gold is sometimes just three inches away from where you are digging now.

6. You cannot do it alone. Get help from people better than you and different from you

If you think you can do everything alone, then you are nuts. You need a partner, a team or basically a person other than you. Even the word “success” is filled with double “c” and double “s”. When you add team members, add people better than you and different from you. Listen to them and work with them. You’ll be amazed how a simple collaboration and teamwork can bring.

7. Look beyond the numbers. Think about value.

Profitability is not a numbers game. It’s a value game. The numbers are mere results getting people feel the thing called “value”. Step into your customers’ shoes and have a feel whether you are really delivering value to them or not. If not, then find a way for them to feel it and change their lives for the better. Don’t assume that a sale is a sale unless it is validated deep through your customer’s perception of value.

For as long as I have this rock-like desire to make a difference and change the world, I’ll keep on grinding. I am still a work-in-progress though. An unperfect specie trying to blend to the current environment while silently trying to change it.

I know I have a long way to go and it doesn’t matter. What matters is I made the first step. Have you?