People buy what they value

“I don’t have money leh. After 15th?”
“Ok.”

2 freaking dollars. They don’t have 2 freaking dollars.

Side note: The “leh” is an affectation of Singaporean English speech. It’s appended to most sentences as a sort of finishing element. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything.

Collecting money can be tough

I was tasked to collect mess fees from non-specialists in my unit. I was a lance corporal in the military. I was 20 years old.

In case you’re not familiar with military terms (I know I’m not…), the “mess” refers to the place where soldiers eat. Specialists refer to sergeants and above, until you hit officer ranks. For the purpose of this article, non-specialists are recruits (just joined), privates, lance corporals and corporals (ranked in that order).

I can’t remember why mess fees were needed, but I was to collect them from non-specialists (in my unit only). The specialists have their own specialists mess. The whole military compound had a food hall, which was free. Then there’s the non-specialists mess (which we hardly visit, but maybe other units frequent). Then there’s the specialists mess. And then there’s the 1 stall just outside my unit (the men in my unit preferred this than trekking all the way to the non-specialists mess).

Anyway, I was sort of favoured by the S4. I type bloody fast and he gave me paper documents which I was to transform into digital Word documents and save into a floppy disk. (Haha! Floppy disks! It was 1997.)

Yes, some of those documents were sensitive. No, I can’t remember anything. Torturing me will be a waste of your time. Have I mentioned it was 1997?

As a reference point, the S4 was the officer in charge of logistics and was one of the highest ranking officers in the compound. He had his own personal clerk. When his clerk left (the clerk finished his mandatory period of service), his duties were somehow passed on to me. One of those duties was to collect mess fees.

Coincidentally, I was the treasurer when I was in the Chinese Orchestra in secondary school. My advice? Do not be directly responsible for other people’s money if you can help it. I couldn’t sleep when I found the money I had on hand was different from what the record books said. I was about 15 years old. Good grief…

So. Recruits and privates were to pay $1, lance corporals to pay $2, and corporals to pay $3. The men were good-natured enough, but getting them to cough up money was a pain…

Why the 15th? Well, I was to get the money to the mess hall by the 10th of the month (I can’t remember the exact payment date. Let’s go with the 10th). After several months of failed attempts to submit on time, I managed to persuade the mess hall people to let me pay after 15th. This was because the army pays everybody on the 15th.

Granted, we weren’t paid a lot. It’s about a couple of hundred dollars a month, depending on your rank and length of service. $2 was maybe 1% or less of your military salary. But in absolute terms, $2 is nothing. The men typically spend more than that at the canteen every day.

Recession? What recession?

People pay for what they value. The men didn’t value the mess that much. Hence the reluctance to pay.

People still buy the latest iPhone, even though they still own a perfectly working previous version. People still go on vacations. People still go to expensive restaurants. The price isn’t the issue. If people value something enough to overcome the price, they’ll pay for it.

Here’s an interesting observation. I had little trouble with the recruits, privates and corporals. The recruits and privates were new to the military, and as a lance corporal *ahem* I was able to get them to pay up. The corporals were people who were going to the university after they finish their military service. They’d pay up so that I’m out of their hair or they don’t want my life to be miserable or whatever.

The lance corporals were from the hardier sides of Singapore. Polytechnic students or with lower education status.

Now I’m not saying the education status was the cause. I’m saying the attitude is different. The lance corporals were negotiating the terms. (My own rank was a different story. I was eventually promoted to a full corporal).

Once it was after the 15th, the men didn’t give me any more excuses. They’d just pay up. They weren’t trying to make my life difficult in the first place.

On military, startups and entrepreneurship

Do you know why there are so few entrepreneurs around? Because it’s uncomfortable to be one. Keep this notion of “comfortability” as you continue to read, since it’s going to be a running theme.

On surviving enormous weights

I slept late last night. Or more accurately, I slept in the early morning today. I do that a lot. One, because I work long hours. Two, because it’s really quiet between 11pm and 2am. I also went to bed hungry.

I lie on my bed, and my last thoughts before I drift off to sleep are typically a combination of the following:

  • What can I do to improve my products/services?
  • “I can work on that piece of code for the product first.”
  • “Wonder what functions do Excel users use? Or what development teams do to support their users? I want to work on practical aspects for the guide, but where and how can I get that information? Nobody’s willing to tell me anything.”
  • What else can I do to create some cashflow?
  • What else can I do to make my customers’ lives easier?
  • What wording should I use for my Google ads?
  • What should I write for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What can I do to improve the copy on the sales page?
  • What can I do to market my products/services without being pushy?
  • Who should I interview for the next issue of my magazine?
  • What videos should I create? How can I do them better?
  • I’m hungry

Last night, faced with the enormity and weight of the tasks ahead of me, a new thought came to the fore. I’m damned lonely. Running an IttyBiz is lonely business, because no one around you understands what the **** you’re doing. (There’ll be some swearing, because it’s the only appropriate response. And that hunger can drain your will and self-control like nothing can.)

So the “I’m damned lonely” and the “I’m hungry” thoughts met one another, and decided to wreak havoc on me. I started sobbing. Silently of course. After a few minutes of self-pity, I reined in my thoughts and emotions and calmed down. (Some might say I shouldn’t “air my failures“, so to speak, but I’m just telling you the truth of what I’m going through. I’m not really failing, I’m just not succeeding enough. Now there’s positive thinking for you!) A new thought came up. “Let’s go to the library!” I don’t know where that came from.

I woke up the next day, hungry of course, and decided to just freakin’ go to the library. Maybe it’ll improve my mood. I just published the April issue of my magazine, and for the 1 or 2 days just after publishing an issue, I would usually feel completely drained. Have you ever launched a product? There’ll be a lot of marketing, blog posts to publish, emails to sent, people to inform, processes to check, and so on. Now imagine doing that every single month.

On military

Anyway, if I’m going to the library, I might as well read some business books or something. So I found this book, Start-Up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Generally, it’s about how the culture and history and geography of Israel made the Israeli military a force to be reckoned with. And subsequently, also made Israel a country of entrepreneurs.

Did you know that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) helped with the design of rules for Singapore’s own military forces? I didn’t know that, and I’m a Singaporean. The authors wrote that the 3 countries, Israel, Singapore and South Korea are similar in that they’re close to hostile or larger countries. All 3 countries share a strong sense of “self-preservation”, of independence, and thus built a strong military force. However, only Israel created a strong entrepreneurial spirit in her people as well.

Although Singapore’s military is modeled after the IDF – the testing ground for many of Israel’s entrepreneurs – the “Asian Tiger” has failed to incubate start-ups. Why?

Further on, the authors wrote

Singapore’s leaders have failed to keep up in a world that puts a high premium on a trio of attributes historically alien to Singapore’s culture: initiative, risk-taking, and agility.

And all three attributes require a person to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (as paradoxical as it may sound).

Today the alarm bells are being sounded even by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for three decades. “It’s time for a new burst of creativity in business,” he says. “We need many new tries, many start-ups.”

That’s “tries”, not “guarantees”. It implies being uncomfortable, at least for a while. And most people only want to be comfortable.

On foreigners

Israel welcomes immigrants, especially those who are Jewish. Singapore has, well, Singaporeans actually, have issues with immigrants, or what is termed “Foreign Talent” (yes, capital F and T). From what I’ve heard, many Americans have issues with immigrants to America too. One of the reasons is fear. “They will take our jobs! They will feed off our welfare system!”

Singapore and America require immigrants to stay for a while (about 2 years?) before being considered for citizenship. Israel issues citizenship on arrival.

Maids (hired from countries such as Philippines or Indonesian) are fairly common in Singapore. I’ve also heard of a story where a girl was so “comfortable”, that at a buffet spread, she simply points to the food she wants, and the trailing maid behind her would get the food for the girl. Spoilt child, or privileged times? Recently, there’s also a wildly spreading photograph of a Singaporean man in military uniform walking in front of his maid. The maid was carrying the man’s military backpack. I’m ashamed I have to give this as an example of how Singaporeans are too comfortable in their lives. (UPDATE: I’m not sure about the maid carrying the military backpack part. Might be a stunt. But the “comfortable Singaporean” point stands.)

Being a startup founder or entrepreneur is uncomfortable

You’re probably a programmer, or a person working in the technology department. You might be considering becoming a founder of a web startup that will then make millions of dollars. I’m here to tell you it’s going to be uncomfortable. Can you stand being uncomfortable?

You will need to think about making money. From Day One. Not about how cool the application is, or how many users you will get, or how much people will be talking about you. Make money, or sink.

Venture capital or angel funding is not going to save you if you can’t make money. If your startup or business cannot sustain itself, you’re screwed, because it will fail eventually. Because no one’s willing to pay you to sustain it.

On ramen profitability

There were a few times when I tried to explain my plan to a friend or family member. The short-term plan is to reach ramen profitability. After I explained it, the friend or family member would say “That’s not enough! What about savings, health insurance, [insert reason]?”.

Do you know what “ramen profitable” means to you? It means you no longer have to worry about living expenses. Given some margin, it means you can eat whatever you want (oh foooood… uh, sorry.), buy whatever necessities you need, and basically go about your life without worrying too much. In some sense, it’s like financial independence.

But what it really does is give you something that no man can give you, no amount of money can buy: time. You can then make the startup/business better, which generally means more profit without much more work. Or you can create another startup or business if you so wish. Or you can work on that novel (which, let’s face it, is probably not going to make you a lot of money, but gives you much satisfaction). Or that painting. Or volunteering at a shelter. It gives you freedom.

And nobody around me understands that. Of course, the long-term plan is still to make sure I get all the savings and health insurance and whatever finances in order. People see a fixed monthly income, that might possibly increase every year. They see the ramping up of income as “unsafe”, “insecure” and “uncomfortable”, especially since it starts at zero (then to ramen profitable, then to, well however high you want as long you’re willing to work on it).

I had to change my lifestyle so I can work on my business. I’m willing to be uncomfortable, at least for the short-term. I walk whenever I can to save on transport costs. My body aches, either because I’m sitting for too long, or walking for too long. I have this lingering ache right now on my back between the left shoulder blade and the spinal cord. I am frickin’ uncomfortable! I have bread and peanut butter for dinner. Every day. For the past few months. Sometimes, I throw my hands up and just get a proper meal of rice, vegetables and meat. I have lost friends because of the decisions I made. I’m serious about this.

How much are you willing to fight for your dreams? How much are you willing to give up for your goals? How much are you prepared to be uncomfortable?

P.S. I’m working on the “bread and peanut butter” dinner thing. I’m sick and tired of being continually hungry…