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…

My BarCamp presentation disaster

It was the longest 15 minutes I had ever lived through in the recent decade.

It was the 5th BarCamp held in Singapore, on the 27th March 2010. My friends were attending, and one of them said it would be great to present. And he bullied me into presenting as well. It would also be an opportunity to build what the social media people were calling the “personal branding”, so I thought “why not?”.

BarCamp is an event where people gather to give presentations, hold discussions over shared topics and generally share ideas. I’m sure I gave the wrong definition, and you can find more pertinent information yourself.

Well, I don’t have a lot of presentation experience, so I had my work cut out for me. I needed a topic first, and I also searched around for presentation advice (Andrew Lightheart dishes out good tips).

For over a week, I prepared my notes, mostly in my head, because it didn’t feel concrete enough to be fleshed out into presentation material. I watched some TED videos to hopefully gain some of the presenters’ charisma and flair. I researched on what BarCamp attendees were (probably) like, to better speak to them.

Well, 3 days before the event, I scrapped my notes and begun anew. Covering many ideas, my polymath nature sought to teach many things and will surely achieve nothing for that group of people. I even wanted to juggle (thank goodness I didn’t), to emphasise a point.

Eventually, I settled on what I previously wanted to write an ebook about, “Discipline and Deflection“. And here was where I willingly and knowingly made a mistake. On the day of the event, I put up “Discipline and Deflection” as the topic for voting (attendees voted on the topics they most wanted to hear about).

I’ve studied blogging and writing tips before. I’ve even studied Internet marketing techniques. What’s the most important thing to note? The title. In this case, the topic title.

Surprisingly, the topics most sought for were HTML5, entrepreneurship, and start ups. There’s also a small undercurrent of interest in non-tech stuff. So, understanding human interests, my topic should preferably have included a number (preferably odd, better if it’s prime because they irk the human psyche), plus any keywords involving “HTML5”, “entrepreneur”, and “start up”, plus the usual attention-catching words such as “sex”, “violence”, and “relationships”.

So my ideal topic title should have read “7 tips on using HTML5 to discipline yourself to focus on being an entrepreneur and creating start ups, while deflecting distractions about having sex, doing violence and still have a healthy relationship”. But I’m not a bombastic writer. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you would probably have noticed my titles aren’t any stand-outter. I mean, “Why are signals from passive optical networks split into 32?“? That probably bored the typical adolescent student to tears after hearing the title.

And the typical adolescent student, aged 18 years or so, comprised maybe a third of the attendees. Probably because it’s held at Singapore Polytechnic. So I decided to ignore all those tips and appealed to curiosity instead, and simply stated “Discipline and Deflection”.

Zero takers. Unless you count that one vote from my friend.

Discipline and Deflection

Well, it was still early in the morning. And my friend got selected for speaking, so the bunch of us went to support that friend. He’s talking about “A Hacker’s Guide to Financial Independence“.

Hacker Guide to Financial Independence

Much attention, many questions, and much follow-up after his talk. He’s good.

I went back to check on my submission. A couple more sticker votes, but the morning slots were all taken up, so I’ll have to wait till the afternoon to know if I’m to speak. I had fun with the morning sessions, and was nervous at the same time.

Lunch came and went.

And practically everyone went for the Aikido session, because, well, it’s Aikido, and there’s a hot chick doing the demonstration.

There was this mounting feeling of stuttering somewhere between my heart and my throat. You know that feeling where you’re nervous and when you speak, your words fall over each other and you can’t quite string together a few words to form a sentence? Yeah, that feeling.

I checked the submission board again. My topic was still there. All the early submissions were already assigned a time slot, and mine was the only piece of paper on the left side of the board, bravely and defiantly challenging anyone with a mote of curiosity to vote, like a weed growing unabashedly amidst a rose garden, like a smudge of dirt on a pristine white wall.

My thoughts were scattering like a flock of pigeons chased by a playful child, and my feelings were fluttering like a butterfly from flower to flower. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find my friends. There were only 4 (5?) rooms for presentation, and somehow, my cognitive powers failed to accomplish the simple act of locating my friends. I wandered the corridor, and flit from room to room, neither really listening to the presenter nor brave enough to stand along the corridor with my thoughts (and the reminder that my submission was still on the board). Which was ironic, since I was going to talk about focussing and distractions.

It was mid-afternoon, and I finally found my friends when they emerged from a presentation room. There was one presentation at the 4pm slot (about publishing and ebooks), and then all the interesting topics would have been covered. Mine was still on the board. I had half a mind to wrench my submission off the board and end my misery there and then. I left it as is, and we went for a coffee/tea break.

After our break, I went (yet again) to the board. It’s not there anymore! I’m not sure whether I was happy or sad at that point. I went to the master list of presentations, and it wasn’t listed. Did someone tear down my submission? I went to the rooms, and found my submission pasted onto the door of room C.

Room C presentation
[I added the subtext because from my friend’s comment, it wasn’t clear what it was about. Not that it cleared any confusion. But my mind was in a confused state then.]

I was assigned the 5:30pm slot, the very last time slot of the event. I didn’t see any of the organisers at that point. The master list wasn’t even updated with my submission topic (everyone else’s was, even the other 5:30pm slots), even though it was selected. The sessions my friends and I wanted to attend were all attended, save the ebook publishing one at 4pm. And my friends, good people that they are, decided to stay the entirety of the event just to attend my presentation.

At about 5:20pm, we went into room C. There were perhaps 7 people in the room. I sat down some 3 rows away from the presenter. I could tell he was palpably frustrated and dejected, because he was going through his points and slides with taps on his keyboard filled with unmistakeable resignation and anger. I believe it was on something about sTeam, and he was asking for help with user interface design. Well, he still had 1 person responding to him with questions, if nothing else.

Then it was my turn. Yeah, after reading over a thousand words, you finally reached the point where I’m going to talk about my presentation.

My friend wanted to help assuage my feelings of unhappiness by standing up and introducing me. That actually created the opposite effect. There were 10 people in the room, excluding me. 4 were my friends, 2 were standing at the back (probably ready to sprint to another place), and 4 were seated.

Vincent presenting at BarCamp
[thanks to Aaron who took this photo]

I started with “getting started“, with references to Merlin Mann. No one knew who Merlin Mann was, or Inbox Zero (which Merlin was famous for), or maybe they were too tired or scared or found it bothersome to raise their hands. I said it wasn’t necessary that you had to buy a moleskine to jot down your notes. That you don’t need a killer app to organise all your notes so you can finally start on that project of yours. You can just start.

Then I talked about Seth Godin and his latest book Linchpin, that people have difficulty finishing projects, of shipping. That there’s a resistance, the lizard brain that’s giving you the final obstacle to completing that project of yours.

It was at this point that the 2 people standing at the back disappeared. I don’t know. Who could blame them? The topic being discussed next door was “The Future Of XXX” where XXX starts with “P” and rhymes with “corn”. I was starting to inherit (even more of) the frustration and dejection from the previous presenter in that room.

I continued with my accidental discovery of disciplining myself by “adventuring”. I took a 5 hour long walk from the centre of Singapore to the east end of Singapore, which was approximately 21 kilometres in length. There was a point in that journey of mine where I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and a long stretch of road with empty grass on both sides of it. And that was the last part of my journey, and I likened it to the 17 mile mark of the 26 mile marathon, where marathoners start to doubt their ability to go on. Breaking through that point, to continue on that long stretch of road, was a key to developing discipline.

Out of the 4 attendees seated (who were not my friends), only 1 was listening. The other 3 were just there for the free electricity and wireless connection. I had only 1 listener (so to speak). Celine Dion was singing “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” in my mind, where I remembered how destitute I was when I started writing this blog. It was one thing to know that the rough estimated number of people reading was only 1. It’s another to see right in front of you, only 1 person listening to you. To be frank, I was getting ready to FTS.

Suppressing that urge to just walk out of the room, I told a story of Garion, a young sorcerer, trying to move a rock. Which I wrote about before in the discipline and deflection article. I talked of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion:

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

Then I mentioned the concept of duality in mathematics, that of changing a problem from one form to another. And solving one form of the problem is equivalent to solving the other form. Graphs (in graph theory) have a dual form. So do sets of linear inequalities or equations. And proof by contradiction is an example of proving the alternate form of the original statement.

“Perhaps the discipline to focus is the dual of the deflection of distractions?” I proposed. “Solve one, and you solve the other.”

Then I brought in Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who talked about this separation of the self from the genius (That’s a TED talk, and it’s awesome. Go watch it first before returning here to find out more about my mishappening), the source of inspiration and creativity.

I continued something like:

Why don’t we take this further? We separate the body, the mind, this genius, and this consciousness that is us. The body does the thing you want to do, the mind focusses on the task at hand, the genius providing inspiration and creativity. And the consciousness that is you? You go deflect all the distractions that’s coming your way. Because when you’re focussing on the task, there is, by Newton’s 3rd Law, an equal and opposite force trying to distract you.

There will always be distractions. Even if you take out Twitter and Facebook and email, there will still be distractions. Twitter and Facebook are just distractions to your real distractions.

Even if I put you in a room with no outside connections, you will still face distractions.

I’m hungry. Where’s the coffee? I need my caffeine. The room’s too hot. The room’s too cold. I don’t want to write with a pencil, where’s my pen? They are all going to laugh at me. This will never succeed.

The distractions ultimately come from you.

The distractions ultimately come from you. That’s why it has an equal and opposite force to you focussing.

Well, I ended with trying to convince the lone listener (and maybe my friends too) that the future depends on you finishing that crazy project you’re passionate about. That game you’re creating. That art you’re painting. That book you’re writing. That software you’re coding. That building you’re designing. That invention you’re thinking of. That race around the world you’re doing.

I asked if there were any questions, and not surprisingly, there were none. It was 15 minutes since I stood in front of a room that’s 2 tutorial rooms combined, which made the audience that much silencer. I sat down beside my friends, tired, strained and completely drained, and they didn’t know what else to do. Then I suggested we go over next door to see what the XXX was about. It was full and standing room only, not surprisingly.

The anguish and frustration and nervousness and humiliation and embarrassment and anger that built up since 9:30am that morning, and crescendoed at 5:30pm, was finally over. I wished I had never submitted in the first place. I wished the votes were more decisive, either more so I know I’m gonna speak, or so much less that it’s impossible I get to speak. I wished the organisers had ignored the votes and chosen some other topic. I wished the audience veered towards content (like you) instead of bombastic titles.

But I stayed. Because as Hugh MacLeod said,

this is totally stupid. this is utterly moronic. this is a complete waste of time.

i’m going to do it anyway.

Because Elizabeth Gilbert said that, even if what we did was not inspiring, not magical, we should be proud that we have the sheer stubbornness to keep showing up. To do our part.

My friends and I went for dinner. I was barely succeeding in trying to keep my spirits up. A friend recorded my session, but I didn’t have the strength to go through it or even put it up here. Then we went for dessert. I went for the ginormous ice cream mudpie. Females aren’t the only ones who can drown their sorrow in ice cream you know…

And that was how I spent that Saturday at BarCamp. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go curl up in a corner and wallow in self pity.

Discipline and Deflection

Meditating by the sea

“Discipline and Deflection”. That’s the title of the ebook I’m working on. I started with the idea that perhaps, just maybe, I could write about how I dealt with (coding and non-coding) interruptions while still completing projects (I wrote a bit on that here). That I could help you, in case you happen to want to know more about that.

As I thought and consolidated my points, every single point seem to revolve around the idea of self-control. Without self-control, any life-hacking, GTD-esque, productivity tool you have is useless. Because without self-control, you won’t have the discipline to use those tools and actually do what you wanted in the first place.

When you have something important to do, you need to focus. This actually has 2 parts. You need to concentrate on that one task, and ignore any interruptions (including other tasks). It turns out that there’s lots of advice on this, and that it’s hard.

So I don’t have like “47 tips on making your browser work better”, or “12 essential tools you must have on your computer” or whatever number that’s popular right now. I only have 1 (which is fine. I mean it’s the number one!), or 2 (it’s the only even prime number!) things to tell you.

It’s just self-control. And there are 2 parts: discipline and deflection. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance.

Sound like one of those New Age concepts? Perhaps.

Let me tell you 2 stories first…

Distractions and Newton’s 3rd Law

Garion was learning to control his power. Before this, it had always been spontaneous. He just thought it, and it’s manifested in reality. But there had always been some impetus, some urgency, to which he was forced to perform those acts of manifestation.

Now, he’s mindfully controlling what could be done. And his task at hand? To overturn a large piece of rock.

The first thing he noticed was, while he can concentrate on visualising the overturning of the rock, small peripheral happenings around him kept distracting him. A bird’s song. The buzz of a bee. The smell of the flowers. The coolness of the breeze. The light from the sun.

Finally he managed to ignore all the distractions, and was thinking about how to overturn the rock. Maybe he could lift it at one end? That made sense.

So he bent his will to lifting the rock at one end. Sweat beaded his brow. His hands were shaking, as though he had been physically lifting the rock.

Finally, Garion collapsed onto the soft grass in exhaustion. The rock simply would not move! After resting for some time, he got up and tried again. This time, he had a plan. Instead of slowly lifting, he would mentally grab hold of one end of the rock and flip it with one mental heave.

He visualised holding the end closest to him, and then he heaved. The rock flew off into the distance. Garion smiled in satisfaction.

Garion also realised he’s waist deep in the ground.

He didn’t brace himself against the impact. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Flipping the rock upwards meant he was pushed downwards.

[this short story is paraphrased from the Belgariad by David Eddings]

The One Finger Punch

Chen Min was intrigued. How had that frail studious man defeated that ferocious brute of a man with just a touch of his finger? Chen Min had to find out.

“The essence of the skill,” the academic explained, “is balance.”

Suppose the total force was 10. If the attacker used 7 points of force, one just needed to use 3 points of force. If the attacker went all out, one merely needed a touch of a finger.

Matching the attacker’s force of 7 with another 7 would upset the balance. Sure one might still come out the better. But one had used an excess of energy to do it.

The academic, even though he’s not trained in kung fu, had agreed to teach Chen Min the skill. He took Chen Min to a spot beside a waterfall. It was noisy. The water splashed into the deep end of the pool. The leaves were rustling in the mildly strong wind.

And he told Chen Min to listen for birds. “What birds?” And 3 birds flew from a nearby tree.

Then he brought out a bird from the cage he carried and handed it to Chen Min. His instructions? Without holding onto the bird, with his palm open and the bird standing on his open palm, stop the bird from flying away.

Needless to say, the bird flew off without giving Chen Min any time to react.

Then the academic took another bird out from the cage. He held it in his hands. Chen Min could practically see the bird bending just a fraction of an inch downwards, in preparation for taking off.

And just as the bird was pushing off with its feet, the academic lowered his hands slightly, just enough to counter the force from the bird’s downward movement. Without the force needed to push off, the bird couldn’t fly off, and it stayed. The academic smiled, and lifted his hand and the bird flew away. Chen Min’s jaw dropped.

Chen Min stayed at the waterfall place, sat down, and concentrated. He focussed all his senses. He was watching intently at the trees. He was listening intently at the trees, desperately trying to ignore the rush of the wind and rustling of the leaves. He still couldn’t make out the chirps of the birds.

He thought maybe there weren’t any to begin with. And a few birds promptly took off from the trees into the sky. “I can’t do this!” and he slumped onto the ground.

Chen Min was enjoying the breeze, and was drifting into day dreaming mode, when he heard a chirp. He jerked back up, and tried to listen again. The chirping was gone.

He tried to understand what was going on. He was lying down, enjoying the breeze, not thinking about anything… and he was totally relaxed!

He sat back up with his legs crossed in meditative position, and slowed his breathing. And relaxed. And the faint chirping could be heard.

The key to maintaining balance in the One Finger Punch wasn’t to focus intently with one’s senses. It was to let go.

[that’s Chen Min, a kung fu master depicted in a comic book. Yes I get inspirations from comic books.]

Final words

Those 2 stories are part of what shaped my thoughts about self-control. Now, clench your fist. Then relax your fist. Now imagine your hand being in a clenched state and in a relaxed open state at the same time.

That’s what my ebook is about. To be disciplined enough to do the task you set out, and be relaxed enough to gently deflect interruptions. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance. Self-control.

I am also compiling a list of tips on handling interruptions of the I-want-to-focus-right-now-without-interruptions kind. This will complement the ebook, which will talk about deeper concepts (and so takes more time and effort to execute. Nobody said this was easy…). The compiled list will be freely available as a download for everyone.

If you want to contribute a tip on how you handle interruptions during your work, your studies, when you’re coding, anything, just put in a comment or contact me. I will include your tip in the list with attributions to you. Or you can tell me which awesome programmer I should be totally talking to, and asking that person for tips.

And finally, buy my ebook when it’s out. *smile*

Disclaimer: I’m not versed in New Age, Zen, Buddhism, and so on. I am not a health professional. I have some interest in those topics, only insofar as curiosity puts me. I’m just a simple man who happens to read a lot on a variety of topics.

[image by Neustock]