I learnt to run a startup, and then I learnt again.

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Perspective | No Comments »

My iPhone wallpaper for past 1 year

It’s nearly 4am and I found myself wide awake, reconciling the TODOs and meetings for tomorrow and couldn’t get back to sleep. These days I can hardly define what is the clock that my body follows. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for any of what has happened during the past 2 months.

The low-down
Back in Nov 2012, I and my partner, Andy, started TGM Tech, which is a subsidiary of TGM Corporation – now more than a hundred-strong group. Only 6 months into the game, we connected with James and took the plunge together to form what is now Silicon Straits Saigon (website WIP).

Building own tribe
We went from a lean 5-member team to a still-lean team of 20 today in barely two months. We were incredibly lucky to have in-placed a very effective talent scout process that allows us to put together the amazing team today. Everyone single one of us is a misfit ourselves but these pieces somehow fit together one way or another. That’s a 4x growth and obviously it is still something I came back to pat myself every once in a while.

I learnt to run a “start up”
Because of the very different path that I took, I only graduated less than 3 years ago; only trained in engineering; have never worked in a big company; worked in one small startup for a year. When I decided to “come back” to Vietnam, I hardly had a good idea how things would be. Most startups were formed because of an innovative idea and/or technology, we didn’t. Most startups start from zero balance or some form of positive cash investment, we didn’t. Most startups in Vietnam don’t have an office, we did.

In a sense, TGM Tech was not really a start-up in the traditional definition being thrown around these days. We figured out the hiring process early, we created a fun working culture, we partly solved the revenue math, we renovated the office into a much better one just 3 months into the run… not without lots of help from overly-supportive friends and partners all around. We stayed true to the vision of creating not just “company” but a place we can call our own; I stayed true to my gut feelings and guesses (phew! it worked!).

Of course it’s not rosy all the way, we made mistakes, we fixed stuff and moved on. There were many ups and downs. There were times when the next month’s cashflow is unpredictable and frankly it’s really scary. I learnt to trust the process, go with the flow; I learnt to stay detached with the occasional tough choices needed to be made. And it was still not enough to prepare for what’s next.

And then I learnt to learn
The problems started to get a lot more abstract a lot more quickly. In the beginning it was simply trying to get enough people to deal with the increased workload, then it became maintaining the right balance between headcount and project pipeline. Soon, it became guarding the current team’s vision and working culture with 300% fresh personnels. We now have a slightly more formal responsibility with board as well as partners/investors. Adding the office relocation and renovation to the mix as we already ran out of space a month ago (that, by itself is an excellent tale to tell).

Whatever we thought we knew about running a company didn’t cut it anymore. We merely problem-solving’ed as they came, one at a time. I needed to see things in a new light, I needed to see things from 10,000 feet. The issue was how to fly high. I was trained with 1s and 0s, not with big words like “strategic direction” or “service differentiation” or “productivity optimisation”…

So I made them up as I went, I learnt to question and take small concrete steps for any abstract issues. I learnt from shoulder-rubbing chances I got with the big boys who are many years more experienced than I am. I learnt to not jumping up and down on unexpected situations.
Most importantly both me and my partners learnt to deal with the down-period by looking beyond the fact and stay positive.

There are times when thing would have to get much worse before it gets better. Most people failed at seeing beyond the obvious and let their will power down.

It is not easy staying positive or neutral during tough times but the rewards are always exciting. Like people said, rainbow after the rain.

It does sound cliché but it’s true that when you are in the “trough” zone, it’s difficult to look beyond the “mountains” and expect some day you will be “up there” again.