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6 Lessons from 6 Years of Tech Entrepreneurship

Six years ago today, me and my co-founders armed with our combined PHP20,000.00 of paid-up capital, officially filed and received the SEC registration papers of MaroonStudios. It was a momentous event, to say the least, as it signaled that we are now finally part of the exciting world of tech startups that before were just mere articles we read on TechCrunch and TechInAsia.

Although we have been moonlighting various IT projects before that moment, there’s something extra special with being an official company: we are now legitimate, and we felt ecstatic realizing that literally, the sky is the limit for us now. Flashes of fancy sports cars, business class trips to/from various parts of the world, and a corner office with a nice view of the Manila skyline came to our mind.

Little did we know that we were all in for a treat… Truly, we have realized the hard way, that entrepreneurship is not, and will never be, for the faint of heart. In my 5th anniversary letter to shareholders, employees and business partners, I shared that only 10% of new companies in our industry survive past the 5-year mark. I wonder what’s the statistic for those passing the 6th year mark.

I also can’t help but wonder what’s the statistic for businesses (especially SMEs) surviving global pandemics. With the COVID-19 global pandemic still well underway, wreaking havoc across the whole world and showing little signs of slowing down, businesses of all shapes and sizes are now rethinking and reimagining business plans, revenue projections, and P&L forecasts. Many things are still uncertain, and many fear, myself included, that the world after all these are over will be forever changed. We only hope that it will be for the better.

And so, amid this once-in-a-generation global health crisis, allow me to “celebrate” Maroon’s 6th birthday by trying to share a few nuggets of wisdom that I have personally amassed through the many ups and downs of my life as a startup entrepreneur. It is my hope that in my own little way, these lessons could help fellow entrepreneurs out there, regardless of where they are in their entrepreneurial journeys.

Life is short: Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

When I was personally contemplating whether I should start MaroonStudios with my co-founders, or stay with my generally relaxed corporate life, I was reading the biography of the great Steve Jobs when I stumbled upon this quote.

With the average lifespan of humans at 79 years, we have a very limited time here on earth. And that time we still have to divide across many different responsibilities, opportunities and priorities. And so, it goes without saying that it is very important for us to make the most of the time that we have in this world. As millennials say, YOLO (you only live once). And given this limited time, we ought to make it count by really deciding on the things that we really want. We can never be anything and everything to everyone. Choices and compromises need to be made. There is a reason why the greats are great for singular things: Einstein in Physics, Mozart in Music, Jordan in Basketball.

For my fellow entrepreneurs, I know that most of the time, we are bombarded with opportunities from all directions. That is why we are entrepreneurs in the first place; because when other people see problems, we see opportunities. Unfortunately, with our limited time and energy, we should know which ones we need to say YES to, and which ones we have to say NO. Otherwise, we do not only risk burning ourselves out, we also risk the health of our existing businesses, and worse, our relationships with our loved ones.

“Sho Shin” or the beginner’s mindset, will make or break a business.

The first time I heard about Sho Shin is in an entrepreneurship class for SMEs organized by some of our country’s best businessmen. The person who shared the concept should be more than qualified to do so: he just grew his business 15x in a span of 2 years, which is virtually unheard of any way you look at it (and no, he was not pre-revenue in the beginning, so the number is really impressive).

Basically, Sho Shin is a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, which literally translates to “beginner’s mind”. Wikipedia defines it as “referring to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.”

In business, I believe that a beginner’s mindset is crucial not just to its success, but even so in its survival. As entrepreneurs, we are mostly achievers, accomplished in our own right in the respective industries that we hail from prior to venturing into business. Most of the time, that expertise and achiever status is our primary driver why want to do business: because we know a lot about our industry, its potential, and our capabilities, we establish our own enterprises to maximize our impact and further our expertise.

However, as many of us should have already experienced by now, entrepreneurship is a very, very humbling experience. As literally the first employee of the business, we are the ones who in the beginning would literally open the lights, clean the floors, repair broken appliances, collect from customers, and negotiate with suppliers. If you come from corporate with a nice little office and an assistant, all those flashy things are replaced with a dimly lit, cramped office with a leaking faucet and a clunky laptop.

Sho Shin allows us entrepreneurs to barrel through these challenges and just move forward. With a beginner’s mindset, we should be able to accept everything as a learning process and keep our egos and pride in check. We may be experts in our respective fields, but in starting (and maintaining) a business, we all start from square one.

There are no billion-dollar ideas, only billion-dollar executions.

Silicon Valley often celebrate next-generation, billion-dollar ideas from Ivy Leaguer entrepreneurs and Wall Street guys. I believe, however, that we ought to celebrate more billion-dollar executions.

Thomas Edison himself once said, “Genius is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration”. Ideas are useless without the blood, sweat, and tears of countless entrepreneurs, investors, partners, and employees. Ideas are useless without creative planning and strategic thinking. Ideas are nothing without timing, opportunity and a little bit of luck. Ideas without hard work are just dreams.

In MaroonStudios’ history, we have served various businesses of all shapes, sizes, age, and geography. That has come both as a blessing and a curse because as their digital transformation partners, we have first row seats to how effective they have executed their new process/product/innovation ideas.

Sadly, we have observed that some of those businesses, albeit starting with promising ideas to improve either their internal processes or to better serve the market with a new product offering, have come up short in execution (some ran out of money, some got distracted with other shinier things, some just gave up when the market response was lukewarm) and failed massively.

This is in contrast to the most successful business people of our generation. Although a handful is indeed pioneers of new, exciting ideas that have changed our lives forever, they could not have done it without years and years of continuous effective execution. Mark Zuckerberg could not have made Facebook a global juggernaut without effective execution. Bill Gates would not have been the world’s long-reigning richest person without methodical execution at Microsoft.

If you still are not convinced, just look at the reverse. Case in point: The We Company.

Your beliefs shape your actions, and your actions shape your results.

In another entrepreneurship class, a former boss and now fellow entrepreneur shared with the audience this simple phrase that has stuck with me forever.

The message is simple: if we want to change what is tangible (ie. results), the transformation needs to come from somewhere deeper (ie. our beliefs). Alternatively called our Mental Models, the argument is that as emotional beings, Mental Models are strong drivers of humans’ way of forming our actions, both toward our peers, and our subordinates, and thus directly affecting the results that we see.

And so, understanding our personal Mental Models or beliefs, and also of the people around us, we are able unlock a whole new and more effective way of problem-solving, and decision making. Do you have a problematic employee or a pain-in-the-a** customer? Perhaps it is best to understand the beliefs underneath their actions, as their actions fuel what you observe on the surface.

In the past few months of learning of the concept, I have tried (and succeeded) using this approach with employee 1on1s, with problem-solving sessions with my teams, and also with winning key customers and accounts. I can now honestly say that I have a much clearer picture of people and relationships because of it.

What gets measured, gets managed.

Despite our engineering background, me and my co-founders are unfortunately not that interested in the nitty-gritty of our business. At least in the early years. We learned, the hard way, after losing hundreds of thousands of pesos in government compliance problems, after multiple failed project deliveries and angry customers, and after multiple employee resignations, that the only way we can really take control of our business is to be able to measure things. This realization is a huge irony especially considering that we are in the business of transforming companies to become more data-driven.

Today, after almost a year of continuous iterations and learning, all aspects of the business are now managed through a Scorecard System. We measure performance across Business Development, Operations, and Finance & Admin, with metrics that we have defined as leading indicators of the achievement of our quarterly and annual goals. We have removed the guessing game, and we now can manage things accordingly as issues arise. I can only imagine the things that we could have accomplished further had we used this systematic measurement for management in our earlier years.

Excellence is mastery achieved through continuous improvement and perseverance.

I hail from a school that has Excellence as one of its primary values. With all my achievements in school and in industry, I honestly believed that I am an excellent engineer and professional, and so I may probably be an excellent entrepreneur in no time, too.

Obviously, entrepreneurship taught me otherwise. I failed, and I failed a lot, throughout a good chunk of the last six years. Many partners and employees lost their faith in me and my abilities. Many customers have chosen to walk away and not continue business with the company. A lot of money has been lost because of wrong decision making and strategies. I was an utter failure, at multiple points in my entrepreneurship career, but I decided to march on.

Stubborn as I am, I tried to learn from all my failures and mistakes. I persevered and yearned for more opportunities to learn and improve. And although I will not dare say that I am already excellent at this point in my entrepreneurship career, I would like to think that I will eventually get there through perseverance (aka. just not giving up).

As final words to my rather lengthy post, I hope that these humble lessons and realizations through my years as a small business owner and tech entrepreneur inspire my fellow entrepreneurs. Our journeys may all be difficult, crazy and lonely at times, but at least we can have the comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our miseries. 🙂

2 replies on “6 Lessons from 6 Years of Tech Entrepreneurship”

Congratulations James! You passed the test, the challenges towards a purpose driven life. Through the ups and downs, you remained humble, hopeful and still inspired. I pray that you ll be able to rise above every challenge. Just dont forget to always call on God, the Almighty. Nothing is impossible with Jesus Christ! God bless you and your team! We love you!

Thank you very much po, tita Cecile, for the kind words! I will definitely continue praying and working hard. God bless you din po and I love you!

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