#Asia 5 important lessons in 5 days


“Hi, my name’s Robert, did you know the average Filipino family only manages to save 48,000 pesos a year?”

The whole room fell silent and one of our mentors could only remark,

“Wow, seriously?”

That entrance was the height of our experience at the inaugural 1337 Ventures Alpha Startups Bootcamp in the Philippines… and it was barely 20 minutes into the first day.

28 of the best startups in the region were handpicked to participate in a program that included product development, marketing and mentoring.

It was a week unlike any I’ve ever experienced, a rollercoaster where it felt like all the emotions a startup founder could experience… on speed.

One moment you felt indomitable, like you had just unearthed the next unicorn, and 3 seconds later you would be banging your face on the table from sheer desperate frustration.

But through all the highs and very low lows, these were five lessons I picked up in the five days where I had the privilege of sharing and learning with some very cool mentors and people.

Don’t be the first. Be the last.

Do you remember a website called W3Catalog? No? Altavista, maybe?

Well, I bet all of you remember this website though … Google.

Prior to 2000, search engines were the darlings of the dot-com boom. Since W3Catalog, over 70 search engines were launched with varying means of indexing and searching the internet’s websites.

Many of them are now relics that gather dust. When the search engine market consolidated towards Bing and Google, Google ended up capturing almost 68% of the global search market. Now, Google has a finger in almost every tech industry you could think of and probably a few you have not.

As cool as it may have been for W3Catalog to be the first search engine on the internet, being first doesn’t necessarily mean you disrupt the status quo, and disrupting the status quo doesn’t necessarily mean you dislodge the incumbents.

The lesson learned from this is that it doesn’t mean anything to be the first. The only thing that matters is that when the market you are in eventually begins to mature and consolidate, you’re the last one left standing.

Being last doesn’t mean you’re any less innovative than the ones to come before you or the ones that inevitably come after you. All things being equal to begin with, it’s all about the execution because…

Your idea is sh*t

I had just finished our first round of pitching, and as I looked up from the laptop, the mentors looked somewhat puzzled and asked, “Um, what exactly are you trying to solve?”

In front of him another of our mentors only said, “Take note guys. This is what happens when you get too cocky.”

Their blank stares, my sweaty palms and flushed cheeks. These are all images etched into my mind, because even if you think your idea is so amazing that it should sell itself, it won’t. In fact … your idea is probably sh*t.

And that’s ok.

I know, as a startup entrepreneur, we’re all a bit nuts. We’ve all probably given up opportunities to work in cushy jobs in the tech sector, or in management or even in academia (like me), because we believe we can create the best solution to a problem we’re passionate about.

This mentality is somewhat a necessity, but is also a double edged sword. Having fought through so much adversity, sometimes the blinders can come down at the wrong time, then we put our solution on a static pedestal and stop listening to others.

But, always fight that urge. One of the most critical skills I learnt in the bootcamp was simply to listen – completely and wholeheartedly.

Be voracious about seeking feedback from people who have trodden the startup path before you, relish criticism as opportunities to improve, and seek advice from everyone, even if you don’t always take it.

You won’t know which idea will give you that first win until you’re smack bang in the middle of it, but for now…

Your idea is sh*t, and you’re an idiot until it isn’t.

Speaking of ideas…

Hypothesise. Validate. Repeat.

One of the most valuable things I learnt was on day 3 of the bootcamp. Our mentor introduced us to a product design methodology used by Google for all of their acquisitions called the Design Sprint.

We powered through the five stages, taking 2 hours instead of the supposed 5 days. In the middle of it all, just after I had spent 7 minutes madly scribbling on a mind map stretching almost 4 pages in length, I came to a realization:

All startup methodologies boil down to three fundamental recursive steps.

Business development as a formal process has been around since the 1970s with the current vogue being the Lean startup methodology. Lifted from the lean manufacturing methodology popularised by Toyota in the 1990s, it advocates building experimentally based on hypotheses, releasing continuously, which validates learning, and then doing it all over again.

Hypothesise. Validate. Repeat.

In essence, it is iterative development and continuous learning. The trick is to spit out a product along the way that people will pay enough money for you to continue this process indefinitely.

Which reminds me …


That money ain’t yours

In Philippines, the obsession at the moment is to get funded. The more the better. This might be due to the distinct lack of it.

But what a lot of founders forget is that funding doesn’t make a company rich, revenue does … lots of it. All funding comes with caveats. Even a microfund given by your mum has the minimal expectation that you won’t use it like an idiot.

When that money comes from a VC (venture capitalist), the expectations are even higher. The money they gave you is not yours to do what you want with, and it’s probably not even theirs. VCs manage VC funds, where startups are an investment, and so a positive ROI (return on investment) is expected.

So, should you decide to take that cheque the VC is waving in front of you, you had better work hard for it. The more you take, the higher the growth expectation. So don’t bite off more than you can chew!

Coincidentally, if you are at the stage where funding is actually needed, make sure you know what dilution and down rounds mean before you dig yourself into a very scary hole … or get fired…

Speaking of hard work …

The Grind

I remember when I received the acceptance email for this bootcamp. It had a small line in it, “… be prepared to work classroom hours.”

It was routine for us to leave the venue at 5pm, then continue working until the wee hours of the morning. I am sure it was a calculated move to determine who was truly invested in their idea, because no one else in the world will care as much about your idea as you.

That’s not to say don’t have a life or a relationship, but there’s no doubt that startups are hard and the grind is real. Simply working long hours isn’t enough, however, and I found this out on the final day.

The night before our final pitch that would determine the winners of the bootcamp, I tweaked my pitch deck incessantly, rehearsing the speech over and over again in front of my partner. I completely forgot, however, to address the questions that occurred during the Q&A.

I was working hard but not smart. I had become a Zombie Founder.

This reminds me of a passage I read in an article by Mike Maroney of Entrepreneur a couple of years ago.

Hard work and smart work alone are not sufficient for business success — ingenuity, vision, risk calculation, and luck, among others, all play roles — but both are essential, and it’s time to stop treating them as if they were mutually exclusive. Young professionals and budding entrepreneurs must work smarter, harder, longer and better — because their competition already is.

1337 Ventures Alpha Startups PH Batch 1

Some of the coolest guys and gals I will ever meet in my life. Thanks for everything peeps, I’ll never forget the experience! Always be hustlin’, always be hustlin’

In the end, we didn’t win, but we learnt a lot, met many cool people, and are all the better for it.

So maybe startups aren’t the be all and end all of everything.

Special shout out to our mentors Bikesh, Athi and Jason from 1337 Ventures. I will forever be grateful for the tools you’ve given me to be successful and the doors you’ve helped me open.

Give a man a fish and it feeds him for a day, teach him how to fish and it feeds him for a lifetime. Here’s to a lifetime of eating fish!

This article was originally posted on RET.asia, where its founder, Robert Li has started a series of articles talking about the ups and downs of startup life.

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