This is the first contributed post on running a startup, by Rauf Fadzilla.
As the startup craze swept across the globe and began its relentless foray into Asia, igniting the minds and passions of the young while at the same time grabbing the attention of the gray haired men in power, a frenzied gold rush erupted.
Straight on the heels of my work in digital (which included some of the earliest incarnations of mobile web technology), I found myself delving head first into the startup scene.
As my mum is Singaporean and my dad Malaysian, I had experienced the best of both worlds: Malaysia with its large and segmented market, Singapore with its global positioning.
I thrive on ideas and love building companies, following my favorite brands the way fan boys follow rock groups or pop musicians.
I love brands and making a mark on the world, setting movements ablaze and finding new ways of doing things. I also have a keen interest in the mind, human development and the philosophies and theories behind things.
I also love the flexibility and agility of running a startup
I consider myself privileged to have seen the progression of the information age as it unraveled into what it has become.
From volumes of encyclopedia Britannica to Encarta and then Wikipedia, from floppy disks to CD-ROMS, flash drives and the cloud and from dial up modems to the Wireless Internet, technology grows exponentially and leapfrogs from that which came before.
Nations in the South East Asian region, eager to catch up to their more developed counterparts in the West, were realizing that it was not the big lumbering corporations with their bureaucracies and reams of red tape that were the main contributors to growth.
Where the multinationals and large corporations slashed jobs at an alarming rate year after year, it was the startups and SMEs that provided employment and contributed to the economy.
A startup will only be able to thrive on the mindset that ideas are a dime a dozen.
Execution and timing are often the deciding factors in the battles, large and small that are a staple of the startup life.
They will mean the difference between being a winner or a statistic.
With governments across the region eager to jump on the startup bandwagon, the slow realization now dawning on all players involved is that a shift in mindset is also key.
The rise of all things entrepreneurship and the romanticism of the cult of the entrepreneur, with its cowboys and spirit of rugged rebellion, belie a simple fact that anyone who has fought a day in the trenches will tell you.
Starting up is NOT a bed of roses.
The startup life takes grit, courage and a sense of humor.
To this day I contend that not many things in life will teach you as much about yourself as running a startup.
Growing up in an International school environment with a mum that devoted her entire life to education, I naturally developed a keen interest in learning and pursuing knowledge.
Less of a techie and more of an ideas man, I did however end up teaching myself front end development (UI/UX), being influenced less by an interest in engineering and more by an interest in making things that people love to use.
My love affair with the startup scene led me to enter hackathons, participate in conferences as well as mentor teams.
At the same time I developed a great base of friends and contacts on both sides of the causeway. My involvement with Yodaa came out of one of those relationships.
The idea was unique enough in the sense that (for such a straightforward premise and the prevalence of home/centre tuition in Singapore as well as Malaysia) I had not encountered a platform to connect students to the tutors they required.
As someone that loves minimalism, it was the simplicity of the idea that appealed to me.
We decided that our relationship would be one of adding value to a world increasingly built on the economy of connection rather than mass production.
A simple but profound idea
Yodaa’s journey was no different. The young company faced a long and arduous road but in the span of 3 years, has managed to beat the odds.
With no resources, no customers and no clear business model, the startup pitched and put things together, always looking ahead when the boat rocked sideways.
Just like many startups, Yodaa failed on multiple occasions, lost partnerships, hit stumps in the roads, going through multiple iterations to nail down the specific nuances parents faced when finding a tutor.
Even then, the learning was not over.
Yodaa again had to try and discover the most cost effective (and socially effective) channels to reach out to parents, all while guarding the integrity of the brand.
With different parties being involved at different parts of the process and for different reasons, the ability to prioritize has also been essential.
The company had to manage expectations from people. These did not just include customers and stakeholders but also the team.
Holding a unified vision and consistently motivating your people are skills that everyone at every level of a startup needs.
The real definition of entrepreneurship is being able to thrive in times of challenge.
Listen and lead
As a startup it is important to remain flexible and to not get too attached to ideas.
Life can throw you a curve ball at any time and it is as important to know when to quit as it is to know when to soldier on.
It is also important to understand that quitting is not the same as giving up.
Sometimes a certain idea or direction is (or has become) not viable and instead of trying to change a situation, startups need to adapt (in startup speak this is knows as a pivot).
Know that your initial idea is most probably going to change over time.
The best startups are aware that the ability to listen is one of the make or break factors that will influence how you fare.
Knowledge is power
Yodaa took a proactive approach to problems, staying close to customers and the feedback channel in order to be the first to know whenever something was off.
We live in a world where data is all around us.
A data driven approach helped the startup solve many of its problems, employing numbers as well as user testing and then heading back to the drawing board to put findings into practice.
Yodaa also spoke to veteran founders as well as other startups and investors with each of them bringing different perspectives from different parts of the value chain.
Go with your gut
Although its important to listen to your customers and let the market/users determine your direction, you have to balance that out with charting your own course and sticking to your guns when you have to.
Steve Jobs was right when he spoke about how people sometimes do not know what they want until you show it to them.
Sometimes you have to be as diligent in shaping the market and bringing it in the direction you want it to go as you are at listening.
Tim Ferriss (author of the 4 hour work week) has a thought process which follows along those lines, creating products which he would like to see in existence, scratching his own itch if you will, with the mentality that if he wanted it, there are probably others out there that want the same thing.
Remember that many great companies have been built this way, including Skullcandy.
Carve out your territory and expand gradually
Just like Malaysian property giant iproperty which filled the need (at the time) for a local property portal and then branched out into neighboring countries by acquisition, you should begin small.
Focus is key.
Remember that the startup is an insurgent and guerrilla warfare is the best tactic that you can use.
Raised on Glenn Doman’s early learning method and home schooled by his lifelong educationist mother, Rauf has a strong passion for knowledge, has helped build a school in a far away land and has also made it into the finals at a Startup Challenge organized by the Malaysian Ministry of Finance and MaGIC for his prototype virtual eLearning platform. He is also part of the team at Yodaa connecting students with the tutors they need.
All opinions expressed in this article are contributor’s own and do not reflect opinions of Jules of Singapore.
Also published on Medium.