The street fighter guide to starting a business.

Posted by on Mar 26, 2016 in views | No Comments


I was recently asked to share some startup tips at a job fair (ST Jobs Express 2016), and after having initial reservations (just who on earth would want to hear me talk about startups? My last name’s not Zuckerberg or Trump!), I decided to accept the opportunity, and share whatever I’ve learnt from my own humble journey in starting and running a small creative setup. And I decided to deliver it in a sincere, real and attainable manner. I told myself, if I can be of any help to just one person, it’ll be absolutely worth the thick-skinned weekend. I was also looking forward to learning from the other speakers.

After tinkering over what I should share for a couple of weeks, this was what I shared (including excerpts of my slides). Would love to hear from anyone your views on this topic, and I’ll also be grateful if you can share your opinions on my thoughts.

So here goes:

SEC NETWORKING FOR WEBSITE.001In trying to find one quality that summed up all my years of running a small creative setup, I could only think of one: that of being a street fighter (suits my “bengish” image well, isn’t it?).

I’ve always thought that in meritocratic Singapore, two words have been made truly scary: “creativity” and “entrepreneurship”. Ironically, in precisely trying to encourage these two qualities, our government have instead made them too big and difficult to achieve.

We’ve been constantly drummed-in since young then need to be “creative”, think out of the box, and when we grow up, strive to be an “entrepreneur”. So much so that the more you reinforce their importance, the more elusive and difficult they become. This has bred a society that either believes you belong to the “creative” camp, or you don’t. That is just not true.

In my view, creativity is in everyone. We all have to solve problems in our daily lives. It’s just that being creative carries the image of being an artsy person, with flair for colours, music, the arts etc. How many times have we heard parents or teachers telling their child “That’s a nice drawing! You’re so creative!”? That, in my opinion, is a load of bull. The truth is everyone is creative. You have to be, in order to solve everyday problems!

Likewise, becoming an “entrepreneur” is not as hard as it’s made out to be. Entrepreneurs are shown in the news as suit-wearing, creative, out-of-the-box rare breeds who took great risks and succeeded against all odds. Actually, you don’t have to possess great acumen or guts. All you need to do is to know yourself fairly well, be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. And above all, know how to fight!

Yes, you need to fight! For your dream. Your vision. Your happiness. Fight with those that say you can’t succeed. That your ideas are naive. That your dream is just that – a dream.

Most importantly, you need to be ready to fight with yourself. You won’t have a chance to disagree with your boss or colleagues, and throw in the towel. In a startup, you fight with yourself, your own values, principles, decisions and vision. And you must emerge a stronger person after every fight.

So if you’re ready to fight, let’s get on with it!

The first thing you’ll notice is that you’re facing yourself every single time. You’ll have to be aware of your strengths, and weaknesses. How you react to good times, and respond to the bad. And you’ll have to level up, every single time you face a challenge.

In the start up journey, you’ll also notice that the “quit” button is disabled. Unlike being an employee, you can’t just resign from your job and throw everything else to your colleagues to handle. You can’t declare sick or go on leave hoping your colleagues or boss will take over your workload. You can’t just walk away. There’s no quitting.

So if you’re really ready, let’s proceed to the first step: choosing the character with the right attributes to start and last the fight.

In my opinion, there are 3 core attributes you need to become a start up street fighter:

Do you have the passion for something that makes you smile if you do it everyday for the rest of your life? Your passion can be virtually anything. If you love animals, do you have an idea of how you can turn that love into a business? If you love to eat chicken wings, can you transform that interest into work? If you enjoy making a difference to kids, how can you turn it into a meaningful startup?

Having the right heart also means that you have the belief that you can truly make a difference to the world. Because once you have that, you’ll be able to overcome all obstacles to strive towards it.

The heart is the food that nourishes you when you have nothing to eat, the energy that keeps you going when you are tired. And the currency that enriches you when you have no money. And the best thing is, it keeps enriching you even when you acquire monetary wealth, and it’s like a moral compass that keeps you on the right track.

The second core attribute is having the right knowhow, skill set or experience. This attribute keeps you grounded and helps to validate your dream, so that you know it is practical and not unattainable. And if you have the right passion, and also the right skill set, that would be a good start, because you not only know what you love, but also how to deliver it. That leaves us with the third and last attribute:

This sounds like the most fundamental attribute when it comes to a start up, but in my view, not the most important. To start any venture, you’ll need to put in some funds. And I didn’t have this attribute when I started…

When I started out, I had plenty of raw passion, a little bit of experience and knowledge, but zero dollars in my pocket. I suppose I was a little naive then. Looking back, I now understood where this bravado came from: I was determined to follow my passion (in the creative line), and I believed I could make a difference to the world. So much so that having no money didn’t deter me. I had literally nothing to lose.

Through the years, I realised that the more one have, the more risk averse one would become. I had the chance to speak to a few good friends who expressed interest in stepping out of their employed status, to start business ventures. They are all successful people who are currently enjoying successful careers. All have stable families, and adequate savings and funds. And all possess great skill sets and knowledge. Despite these wonderful attributes, even with some financial security, they are much more risk averse.

On reflection, I realised that what most of them lacked (or lost) was passion. After working for many years and progressed to senior positions of management, they have become jaded and lost the drive to push on further in their current paradigm. Most didn’t know where their interest lie. Without this fire, despite having the knowledge and funds, most didn’t have the extra push to take the start up plunge.

In a way, as we grow older, we lose the naivety and bravado of youth. And we all tend to think a little too much. Too much SWAT analysis. Too much skepticism about how this worlds works. Too little trust in fellow human beings. A case of too much thinking, too little action. But sometimes, without closing a door fully, and forcing yourself to look for another opening, it’s hard to spot a door that’s even slightly ajar.

So, with the 3 core attributes share and explained, the million dollar question is: where are you at?

Do you already have a passion? Have you accumulated some valuable experience or have a special skill set? How much funds do you have to start with?

Let’s look at a few scenarios:

If you have all 3 attributes filled up, perfect. But then you wouldn’t be here, isn’t it?

Or are you filled with fiery passion, but do not have any knowledge or money? For a start, you possess something quite precious. Passion is not something that can be learnt or bought. While knowledge can be acquired, and money can be earned.

If you really believe in a cause or your vision, it’s easy to convince someone else to lend you some funds through your determination. The only caveat is, without knowledge or experience of the real world, you wouldn’t be able to validate your dream and get a sense of how practical your vision is. Getting the opinion of someone experienced is essential.

If you possess deep knowledge, or have a great skill set, but have not discovered your passion, and lack funds, then I’d suggest you try to discover what makes you tick. Find what you truly believe in, and set your path towards that goal. Or partner with someone with that passion. Together, try to convince someone to invest in your project. Or keep working till you discover what where your passion lies.

If you have the passion and skill set, but no money, have no fear. This is a very good state to start with. Because you believe in what you do, and you have what it takes to deliver it. In short, you possess the ability to enable your dream. Do it right, with the right values, and in time, money will come.

If you have the funds, but no passion or knowledge, then it’ll be great if you can find a partner with the right passion, and also someone with the skill sets to enable it. Or better still, buy or invest in a small and promising company.

All in all, a good state to start, for me, would be to have plenty of passion, enough knowledge to begin with (but not so much so that you lose that rebellious naivety, and just enough to keep you hungry to keep learning), with enough funds to start.

Your passion will keep you going in rough and lean times. Keep learning, and keep learning every single day. Follow your heart, and journey along with the right values and principles. And eventually, you’ll find that money will come looking for you. But never, ever lose that passion that you started with.

So, where are you right now? Think about it. Assess yourself. And assess your current situation. And it’ll become clearer if you are ready for the fight of your life.

With the sharing of these three attributes, I’d like to wrap up with a glossary of some terms of this street fight. Remember their meanings, for it’ll keep you in good stead when things get rough:

Finally, I’d like to end this sharing session with one last scenario – the humbling defeat:

Like it or not, you’ll get punched up, roughed up, you’ll stumble and fall. But tell yourself, it is not about how you fall, but how you get up. You can choose to continue. You can choose to restart all over again. But remember, you can never ever quit on yourself.

Good luck, and fight on!

Leave a Reply