Learning to Build & Learning to Sell: The 2 Concepts You Ought to Learn If You Are Running A Startup

I wished someone had let me read Dan Shipper’s article on Why Are You In a Rush when I was starting out on my first website as a 17-year-old high-school boy. Many young entrepreneurs, according to Dan’s observations, seem to be in a rush because they believe their idea is The Next Big Thing and become so focused on their artificially set time-constraints that they “ignore doing the one thing that will help them the most: building tangible skills”.

My friend, Alan from Startup Chile once told me the following: There are only 2 things to focus on in a startup, Building and Selling - Everything else is peripheral.


Why Learning is So Important

I wished I had taught myself the different parts of building and selling on the Internet more aggressively earlier on. It took me several unsuccessful attempts to finally realise that the most important investment I can make is an investment on myself.

Warren Buffett did say that knowledge is like compound interest; it builds up from reading 500 pages every day. In my interpretation, knowledge learned is cumulative and will build upon what you already know. If you believe that you are in the online entrepreneurship game for the long-term, the best investment you ought to give yourself is learning how to build and learning how to sell successfully online.

Learning How to Build

The first step in launching any online project is to build the website, web app or mobile app. If you are a non-technical person, the first instinct is usually to find a technical person to partner up to build the online product.

I would strongly suggest that instead of finding a technical co-founder, you learn how to code and prototype your idea out. It will not be an instant process nor will your prototype look fabulous, but the process of learning how to code will build a very strong foundation for you in understanding how to build for the web.

You may simply discard this advice of learning how to code and just hustle your way to finding a technical guy. Unless your good friend happens to be a good coder, I would tell you that the journey of finding a technical co-founder is a long and tough road.

A lot of non-technical guys will also dream of raising millions of dollars of VC money because they read about all the awesome startups on TechCrunch raising so much money. I usually tell everyone to STOP reading TechCrunch because TechCrunch emphasises the wrong points in a startup by glorifying the act of raising millions of dollars as an end-goal. Besides, TechCrunch is focused on Silicon Valley and you are most likely not based there. Read HackerNews instead and all of Paul Graham’s essays especially this piece where he defines a startup.

Read deeper into the blogs of Silicon Valley founders and you will soon realise that without a prototype built, it is very hard to raise any funding as a first-time founder. Traction is the key to raising funding as a first-time founder and this is what you should be working on before you even consider going to VCs or angel investors for money.

Learning How to Sell

The next thing you need to learn after the ability to code, is to learn how to sell what you created. I used to naively believe that once you build something, people will flock to your product like hot cakes. Turns out that more likely than not, most people won’t care about your product. This comes to the question: is the product you build what other people want?

If you are thinking of launching a startup, it is imperative that you read The Lean Startup. Instead of writing a 30-page business plan, do it with a Business Model Canvas. Experiment with what your customers want and learn how to reach them and sell to them.

You will soon realise that selling online is pretty much a marketing funnel and there are many things that you need to do to optimise that funnel. Some startups might choose content marketing as a start to their marketing funnel. Some might then use gamification to increase engagement level. Either way, you ought to know about cohort analysis and A/B testing to see what works best in optimising your funnel.


What Will You Learn Today?

There are tonnes of things that you need to learn if you would like to stand a chance of succeeding with your startup idea. Nobody said the journey will be an easy ride. The point is to start learning every day because your lessons will accumulate over time.

Oh, and not forgetting, if you are impatient and can’t wait to launch your startup with your friend right now, do read up about shareholder vesting. Investing in your learning is the single best thing that you can do for the long run. Start investing in your education. Good luck with your learning.

Do you agree with my opinions? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. If you enjoyed reading this article, kindly subscribe to my email list for further insider posts like this.

Image Credit

A Very Inspiring London Taxi Driver

[This blog post was originally published on my old blog on the 22nd of December 2011 when I was in my final year of University College London. The database to the old blog was partially damaged during the migration to my current web host. I am republishing this thanks to my good friend, Daniel who would like to share this post with his family and friends on his weekly e-newsletter. This London cab driver still inspires me to this day and I am now browsing through his book here in Malaysia.]

2 weekends ago, I had an appointment to meet a friend in a bar somewhere in Soho. I was running a little late and decided to simply take a cab there to be on time. I rarely take cabs around here but this cab ride is definitely the best cab ride ever as the driver is simply the most amazing cab driver I have ever seen.

London Black Cab

Once seated and knowing where I want to go, the driver started talking. I normally just like being left alone to just wander off in my thoughts but that night I was just being nice and decided to talk along. After a minute or so of small chat, he told me about the little project that he does in his cab. His little side project as a cab driver is to ask his passengers wise words of wisdom or quotations that people live their life with. So he told me there is a clipboard with a piece of paper at the back seat next to me and asked me to write out a quotation that I live my life with.

I couldn’t really think of any fancy quotes from famous people at that time so I simply decided to write the quote that I subscribe my life with:

Dream Big, Dream Differently, Chase The Dream.

Once I wrote down the quote together with my age and occupation, he told me that he has been collecting quotes for some time and had compiled all these quotes into a book. Yes, you read me right. He published a book from his little project in his cab.

Black Cab Wisdom Book Cover

I was utterly impressed with what this guy has done with his life and after browsing through a few pages, I asked the driver if I could purchase the book off him cause it is simply inspirational what he has done. Here is a guy who drives a cab around London at night, and he is still creative enough to come out with an idea to make driving a cab a more enjoyable journey by having interesting conversations with his passengers. Not only that, he managed to publish a book out of it and uses it to supplement his income as a cab driver! I honestly think this guy deserves some special accolades for showing initiatives in his life. He is just so different from any other cab drivers. He comes along with an absolutely positive energy and spirit and throughout the journey you can feel that in him. And not only that, he makes the mundane cab ride interesting and rubs off some of his positive energy to the passenger.

Check out some of the quotes that can be found in the book:

Black Cab Wisdom - Quote 1

Black Cab Wisdom - Quote 2

Black Cab Wisdom - Quote 3

Black Cab Wisdom - Quote 4

I’ve already bought an extra book off Amazon and given it to my friend who I met that night in the bar. And I am so impressed with this guy that I won’t even think twice of purchasing more of his books should the need arises for me to give someone a gift.

He runs a blog called Black Cab Quotes and you should buy his book, Black Cab Wisdom: Knowledge from the Backseat. Do support this kick-ass inspirational taxi driver! It just shows that no matter what you do in life, you need to take the initiative to be different in life.

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8 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Signed My Scholarship Agreement

Some of you are aware that I was awarded the Sime Darby Foundation Scholarship after my A-Levels and I am currently serving my 5-year scholarship bond. A few days ago, I commemorated my 7th month on the job and I would like to spend some time writing about the things I wish I was more aware of when I was 19 years old before I inked my signature on the contract some 4 years ago.

1. The Scholarship Value is a Very Large Amount of Money

When I signed my scholarship agreement in mid-2009 to UCL, I just knew that studying in the UK is expensive. What nobody tried to put into sense to me was, IT IS VERY VERY EXPENSIVE.  For my 3 years of studies in the UK, it is worth about US$150,000 (RM450,000) as it covered tuition fees and living allowances.

The scholarship value could buy a double-story detached house in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur or a massive bungalow in one of the smaller towns of Malaysia. With starting salary of about RM2,500-3,000 per month (~RM30,000 per annum) for a fresh graduate in Kuala Lumpur, it is worth nearly 15 years annual salary for a fresh graduate to fund the cost of studying in the UK.

2. The Scholarship Bond Period is a Very Long Period of Time

My scholarship bond period is 5 years and many people will say that it is short compared to other scholarships’ bond period. But 5 years is a very long period of time. It represents 50% of your twenties. Being tied down to a single company in a single location for 50% of what is supposed to be the prime of your life removes a lot of freedom associated with your twenties. You cannot just simply move to a different country, company, job type or lead an alternative lifestyle because you have essentially tied down your future to that job.

3. You Will Change a Lot After Going Through University

Your interest and aspirations will very likely change after going through university, regardless of where or what you studied, with or without a scholarship. What you thought would be a perfect job or opportunity as a late teenager may differ from your point of view of a perfect job as a fresh graduate. Your horizons will broaden and your interests change and you will feel like doing a different thing post-graduation. With a scholarship bond, you will be placed in a job that requires your skills due to business demand and sometimes you may not fancy the job role, company, industry or subject matter any more after university.

4. It Does Not Make Business Sense To Sponsor A Student for Overseas Education

It costs about RM400,000 to RM1 million to sponsor a student to US, UK or Australia for studies. This does not make business sense to any organisation at all. A simple returns on investment calculation will suggest that you need to create discounted business value throughout your scholarship bond period over the amount invested on you for the investment to be worthwhile.

It is highly unlikely that any scholar could generate that much business value from an entry level position during the bond period. If it makes business sense to sponsor students abroad, all the big firms would be doing it. Besides, the risks are high as many scholars fail to perform at school and at work. That is why most scholarships are given from the Corporate Social Responsibility budget i.e. in other words, you are a charity.

5. Your Parents Want What is Safe for You, Not What is Best for You

This is perhaps the biggest revelation to me. Your parents will tell you they want what is best for you, but really, what they mean to say is they want what is safest for you. Your parents will urge you to take up the scholarship while playing down the long bond period because that is the safest option. It’s an overseas education experience versus working experience tradeoff.  You get immediate benefits while deferring the payoffs to a later date. You get a free US$150,000 education without having to worry about money and you are sorted with a job after graduation. That is safety to most people.

6. There Is No Free Lunch In The World

When I applied for scholarships post A-Levels, I viewed scholarship bodies as banks giving out free money for me to go study. What I definitely forgot to factor in was banks DO NOT give out free money. They give out loans and you are expected to pay back what you borrowed plus interest.

In many sense, the scholarship bond has taught me a lot about debt and its crippling effect if not used properly. When you buy a house or car on loan, the bank essentially owns the purchase because it is a collateral by itself. In a scholarship agreement, you are essentially a resource to the organisation and can be deployed to any business unit according to the business requirements. The unfortunate part is, your deployment may or may not be to your liking.

7. You Are Very Lucky

If you received a scholarship, the first thing you should do is count your lucky stars. Do not even try to rationalise that you deserve the scholarship because frankly you don’t. Winning the scholarship simply says that you fit all the criteria that the scholarship bodies are searching for. I’m sure there are many other smarter people who just do not fit the scholarship criteria.

8. Pray That You Join a High-Performing Team with a Good Boss

This is probably the single biggest factor in whether you will feel happy serving your scholarship bond. Getting into a high-performing team with a great boss is really a matter of luck. If you found a good fit, you will be able to perform on your job. Very importantly, be nice to the HR personnel handling your scholarship file. They know which departments fit your personality and they know the vacancies available in good teams.

The corporate world is not created equal. Good bosses and jobs with good prospects are not found everywhere. So far, I can say that I’ve been one very lucky guy to join a dynamic team in HR Systems pioneering HR Analytics in the Group. We are probably one of the earliest companies in Malaysia to dabble in HR Analytics and being a pioneer in your industry is almost always a good thing. I can only count my lucky stars every single day that I’m serving this bond.

Now don’t try to misinterpret this by saying that I’m not grateful for the opportunity to study abroad provided by the scholarship. The fact is I can’t be grateful enough for the opportunity. I would have had a very different life and would not be able to expand my horizons meeting all the interesting people in London and travelled extensively across the world had it not been for the scholarship.

At the end of the day I think the scholarship decision is really about the positives of having an overseas education versus the negatives of being tied down with a scholarship bond. I wished I was more aware of the other side of the scholarship coin so I could better appreciate my university experience. This Singapore Scholarship Guide I bumped into a few months ago is pretty useful and talks about roughly similar topic in greater detail.

In Economics, it is a basic assumption that people optimise their utility (happiness) subject to their constraints. This is not always the case in real-life because the rationality and perfect information assumptions do not always hold true. I can safely say that in my case, there is no way I can optimise any further with my career so far.

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