When I first read TechCrunch’s article on Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s death, I didn’t think much of it except that it didn’t mention anything about the cause of the death. It usually means only thing, and my suspicion was confirmed by hacker news thread.
What I particularly noticed about the thread was discussion of failure and stress of founding a startup and other suicides by very smart folks. It also reminded me of earlier tragic passing of a co-founder of a Y-Combinator-funded company and the article I read on WIRED magazine about two AI scientists committing suicides almost in identical ways.
Gene Kan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Kan
This one also struck me pretty hard, who updated his resume before he took his life. It said, “Summary: Sad example of a human being. Specializing in failure.” If an accomplished person thinks his/her life was sad example of a human being, how should the rest of us feel?
I would never know why these guys did what they did. But for me, I have one thing that would prevent me from thinking about it. It’s my kids and my family to an extent. It’s a double-edged sword. On one side, it’s the reason for not being able to take huge risk, but on the other side, it’s the reason for my sanity no matter how shitty my life is at any given moment (and my life right now isn’t all that spectacular).
Also, we should also keep things in perspective. In grand scheme of this universe, we are just small part of green/blue spec called Earth. You shouldn’t care about and be afraid of failures/rejections. Who cares? People will forget and move on. I think it’s courageous and commendable to just try. Regardless of outcome, having tried something sets you ahead of many others.
Just remember the following quotes.
“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”
Also, especially this one.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Today I have had the most productive conversation with my wife (which is shame because I think she has a lot of good insights and look at things from different view points). It was inside the car, while we were driving to Lawrence Hall of Science, which is an awesome place all around.
I had to leave my most current job abruptly, and knowing the reasons behind it, she asked me what’s the most important element angel investors look before making an investment. It was an easy question to answer – the team, of course. And she wholeheartedly agreed. She said she experienced exactly the same at her Korean school, where she teaches grade school kids, and at Korean American Community Center, where she worked before working at the Korean school.
The Korean school she teaches at is part of a church (I am an atheist, but I welcome all religions), and thus their curriculum is not directed or regulated by school district. She said she and a few other teachers like to try new ways of teaching kids. Their attitudes were just like those of tech startup founders. Failure is okay, since you will learn more from failures and apply it to the next new idea. However, she said there were other teachers who are very resistant to trying new things even if they are not the ones implementing or preparing the experiment. Not only do they waste time, they also put out the passion brought on my good teachers. So, she understood how important the team is. Not everyone in the team needs to be super smart, but it’s important for the team to be open to experiments, not be afraid of failures and support each other.
She said she saw the same thing at the Korean American Community Service. She worked there as an office manager until our first child was born. The community center reached the peak while she was there, because she said everyone was open to trying new things – services or classes or whatever – to serve the community better. And most of all, they had the full support from the head of the community center. She also said amazing thing about leadership. Good leadership is not about leading, but creating an environment for team members to innovate. You shouldn’t try to make everyone follow your views, thoughts or directions, but instead give team members freedom to experiment, learn from successes/failures and move forward. I was like DANG! That’s the most insightful thing I heard from my wife (again, I should have more conversations with her) . :)
I told her that’s the exact operating principal for tech startups these days. I couldn’t believe we were in such unison! And it got me thinking about our education system. Many people are concerned about our failing education system, and WE HAD THE ANSWER ALL ALONG! Apply “Lean Startup” principal to our education. Encourage teachers to take 20% of their time to innovate. It’s not possible without school district’s support, but if there is, it’s totally doable. And have Lighting Talk or Lesson Learned sessions with other teachers so that they could learn from others’ successes or failures. And pivot if an idea didn’t work out. Or perhaps we need an national website for teachers to share their experiments and lessons learned from them. I truly believe this HACKING FOR EDUCATION will save us, and put our great nation again in leading position.
Paul Graham, a successful serial entrepreneur and my biggest idol, just published another thought-provoking essay – After Credentials.
Interestingly, he was referring to a New York Times article on Korean education system. Having grown up in Korea till 16, I had experienced it myself and am in complete agreement with him. I was an odd kid in Korea. I didn’t like following those customary rules just because they had been practiced for many hundreds of years. I hated cramming and being judged by test scores. And it’s so true that a college degree plays a large role in one’s career and life in Korea. Since graduating from college is pretty much guaranteed, once you get in, you are set. Therefore, there is a lot of emphasis in GETTING in to a college, no matter what you major in. So, it’s safe to say that most kids do not major in what they wanted.
Korea is a country RULED by large companies: Samsung, Hyundai, etc. They employ 100’s of thousands of people and venture into all kinds of business, from cars to hospital, theme park, and consumer electronics. Working there means job security, so many college graduates want to work there. Thus, just like what Paul said, credential and pedigree matter A LOT. Also personal connections. It’s sickening.
It’s one of the reasons why I like the US and the Silicon Valley. Like I mentioned about Obama, it’s the land of infinite possibilities. I’ve worked at many start-ups, and I know that all of them were filled with people from all different backgrounds, and that included educational background. Once you leave your first job, you are judged on your skills, not where you went to school. It’s so true for engineers and also sales folks. Even in the Silicon Valley, the larger a company is – like Intel and Cisco – the more your credential and pedigree matter.
Raising two kids, I think about what values I bestow upon them. As an Asian, and perhaps the way I was raised, I highly value education and have been sending them to a private school. But as I also grow older, I wonder if it’s so necessary. Of course education is important, but I am not sure if sending them to a private school is necessary. Because, there is so much more important than just learning – creativity, positive attitude, ingenuity, etc. I really want my kids to understand that there are a lot more things valuable than good grades. I want to encourage my kids to be entrepreneurial, try new things, and not be afraid of failures. Do your best and don’t worry. I hope my parents could have taught me something different. I don’t blame my parents at all, but I can’t help but to imagine how things would have been different if I were taught different values.
Today is the inaguration of the 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama.
I left home a little after 9AM, and the Vice President, Joe Biden were just taking an oath. A few minutes later, Barack did and started his speech. He was still making a speech when I arrived at work, and I stayed in the car listening to the speech until the end.
On the way to work, I was thinking to myself that how extraordinary today was. I used to say that while both Coasts are quite progressive and tolerant, because of more conservative center, I would never see either a woman or non-white president in my lifetime. But, I was proven wrong, and I am very glad I was. Though, I am sure dismal failure of Bush’s presidency helped a lot. He has a lot of work ahead, and I feel sorry for him since he is taking office in the worst possible time.
Also, it made me glad to live in America. This would have been only possible in America. Barack is half black, and his middle name is Hussein for Pete’s sake. We are sometimes critical of America, but despite of all the negative things we see and say about America, there is no better country thatn America.
Only in America, we have people from everywhere, every possible country, and live together with relatively small number of problems. Only in America, a minority with Muslim middle name could be elected to be the president. When other countries wrote us off, we showed them we still have what it takes and what makes America great. Only in America, truly anything is possible. America is the land of risk takers and pioneers. It makes sense that the center of creative and innovation is in Silicon Valley, in America. Current economic downturn shall pass, and when it does, America will come out stronger than before.
I need to read through my emails better. Especially when it’s written in Korean, I tend to just glaze over and that gets me into trouble. Anyhow, there was an email from Bayarea K Group about some economic forum being held in SF, sponsored by a so-called “Wall Street Journal of Korea.” I didn’t realize what it was about, but I later found out that it was a part of annual meeting by KAEA (Korean American Economic Associations).
The forum was a panel discussion and there were three panelists, one Korean British and two Americans (one of them Berkeley professor). They all talked about what went wrong and what “definitely” caused today’s economic downturn. Though, it was quite educational, none of the three could predict when and how the economy would get better. They couldn’t even agree on what monetary or federal policies should be implemented to jump start the economy. When economists do not know, then you know we are in deep sh*t. There were a few things they agreed such as stimulus plan, what kind and how. But, I wanted to ask about rising national debt and falling value of dollars in the Q&A time. When it was over, though, I became completely disinterested in what they had to say. Because it doesn’t matter how intelligent they sound if none of their suggestions didn’t get executed and most likely they weren’t.
Funny thing was a survey questions by KAEA (or could be that newspaper). It was asking very specific questions about exchange rate, gas price, when the economy would turn around, etc. Geez. When even economists do not know, how can we? But, I also found out that that only applied to us.
The rest and majority of participants were all “distinguished” economists from Korea. I didn’t know that, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it from their conversations. They all just talked about each other’s hair style, alma mater, etc. Really? Is that why you flew all the way from Korea? I did ask a few folks what they thought about the whole economy, but they had the typical “you are not worthy of my conversation” attitude. Wow. Most of these guys were from higher education institutions and public research groups, and none came with their own personal money. At the end, they all talked about where to go and drink. No wonder Korea’s economy is so f-ed up (well, besides the whole global recession thing).
That phrase, Never Give Up, is so simple and commonly used that it is beginning to lose its meaning after several times hearing it. A few weeks ago, I saw a glimpse of Randy Pausch’s last lecture on PBS. The title of slide was “Never Give Up”. I have heard about his last lecture at CMU before, but never actually watched it. For strange reason, it piqued my interest this time and I decided to search it on YouTube and watch it fully. It was a bit long, but didn’t feel like it. I strongly recommend it.
What a great speech! On the face of death, he stared at it squarely and decided not to let it control his life. He was making the best out of the hand he was dealt with, and having fun at the same time. He actually lived longer than doctors predicted. I think it was because of his positive attitude even in the face of death. There are many memorable moments in the lecture, but I just wanted to mention a few things.
He said he’d faced many brick walls in his life. Interestingly he said that a brick wall is not there to stop us, but to test us how badly we want it. It’s a natural elimination process. Those who don’t want it badly will give up easily and go away. Those who want it badly will find a way to get over the obstacle. That is so true. It goes with what he said about never giving up. He mentioned a few times when he faced a brick wall, but did not give up. Eventually things worked out, and it taught him tremendous lessons.
He also said that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. An opportunity can come from anywhere at any time, and those who prepared will reap the benefits. He attributed a lot of his success to luck, but he also worked very hard, often till wee hours of the day. It is the very same thing many founders of successful startups mentioned in Founders at Work. They all worked hard, but there were many external forces they couldn’t control and thus things could have gone any direction. The reason why they were successful and many others who were equally smart and worked hard didn’t was because of some lucky chances and opportunities.
My personal story
I definitely feel lucky to have found a job in this economy. I thought I was one of a few unlucky ones to be unemployed at the worst possible time, but it looks like there are many that have been affected. While I did my best everyday searching for a job, my new employment definitely has a lot to do with luck, having a good friend and being at the right place at the right time. However, until I signed an employment agreement, it was complete emotional roller coaster ride.
The previous company I was working for closed its doors in August 2008. I took a few weeks off, playing with kids and decompressing from the hectic start-up life, and started to look again since early September. Things went down south really fast in October when stock market started to tank in the wake of bank failures. Recruiting activities suddenly came to a halt, and response rate dropped significantly. All existing conversations stopped because many companies froze hiring. I had a director position I was interviewing for, and while the VP of marketing at the company kept dragging me along and telling me I was the “leading” candidate, they finally dropped the position in November. The first interview was in early September, and quickly I went through the second and third round of interviews successfully. In the beginning, the VP promised he’d make a decision by the end of September. When September passed, he said he had a problem scheduling interviews for a few folks. Mid-October, we even negotiated salary level, and he said he should have been able to make an offer soon. Then he wanted to check with the board of directors since economic condition had deteriorated. He came back saying the board was negative about hiring more, but when I asked about possibility of contractor position instead, the VP said it would be possible since he had marketing budgets to use. Then finally, VP never got back to me, and that was the end of it. Throughout the whole process, I was quite anxious to land something and I tried really hard to control my urgency to call or email every five minutes. It was tough, and when it didn’t finally come through after all that time, it was quite devastating. While I was going back and forth with this company, I had gone through final interviews at a couple of different places, but they didn’t work out either. I also had a few opportunities to lead very early stage start-up companies (a few people, in need of funding) where I’d have to work without salary for sometime while raising funds in this tough time. But, just as in my last start-up I founded, supporting family took precedence, and I had to turn them down. After watching Randy’s video though, I wonder if I had given up on the first start-up too early. I hit a brick wall (actually several of them), but I gave up at the end.
Anyhow, everyday was quite hard. Whenever a recruiter called, a bit of hope sprung up, but it quickly died away when I didn’t hear back from them further. I sometimes got several calls from different recruiters for the same job. Since companies stopped hiring or slowed down dramatically, recruiters were hurting, too. I frequented local libraries, looking at different job boards and applying to various positions. I tried to utilize this time to get back to programming, but I couldn’t focus with this dark cloud hanging over me. I reached out to everyone I could think of. Many tried to encourage me by saying kind words such as: “Hang in there, it will work out”, “You will find something soon”, “Unemployment does not represent who I am”, “It’s good time to spend time with family and kids”, etc. But, deep down, it still hurt and I could not help but feel I was losing my mojo. It was just bad timing, but blaming everything on external force would only make me complacent. I couldn’t allow that. I had to be on my feet, always proactive.
However, more than anything, it was a learning opportunity. It was an opportunity to appreciate many things I took for granted, learn how to live frugally, and be thankful everyday. You realize how many things you don’t really need. We had to cut down our expenses drastically and live in a very lean way, but it was definitely manageable. I also found out who my real friend was and who was not.
I can’t sugar coat current condition and say things will get better soon. I don’t believe, as many experts agree, things will get better soon. Definitely not for a while. I can’t offer advice on what would work and what would not, since I was a complete nerve wreck myself and couldn’t keep positive attitude during the whole time. But, if I could offer a bit of advice to those in the job market, it would be the followings.
Never Give Up, because things will always work out at the end if you keep trying.
Keep positive attitude, which goes a long way when talking to a recruiter or during interviews. If Randy Pausch was able to keep positive attitude and had fun in the face of death, I think we all can.
It may sound strange, but many people have expressed the same opinion.
NOW is the best time to start a company.
I was reading an article from the latest Wired magazine, “Back to the Garage: How Economic Turmoil Breeds Innovation” which gives an example of Tom Siebel who started Siebel Systems in 1993 when economy was faltering then. He was able to hire good software engineers relatively easily and cheaply. He also got an office space quite cheaply as well. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend who is a VC partner (I consider him a friend, but I am not sure if he does). He said this is best time for VC to invest in a company as well. VCs do have money from funds they had raised before the meltdown. Because of downturn, valuation of a company would be lower.
I had the same opinion during the first Internet bubble burst. Historically those companies that survive the economic downturn usually come out as the winner. During the bubble, it was very difficult to find good engineers and sometime companies hired people who could barely type. But when the bubble bursted and companies either closed or laid off many people, the pool of available engineers grew. VCs certainly still had money then. I was quite certain even then that economic downturn would be the best time to start a company.
Due to my unemployment, I frequently visit FuckedStartups.com a lot. There are certainly many layoffs going on. This was all prompted by Sequia Capital’s warning to their portfolio companies a few months ago. Where would all the laid off engineers go? I’ve been searching for a while, but no one is really hiring. Even those who are hiring are taking their sweet time interviewing many folks. However, Americans are quite ingenious. In these tough times, someone with a good idea will hook up with others in similar situation and start a company together.
It also reminds me of the notion of “Creative Destruction”. History of Silicon Valley is filled with successful companies born during the bust time following boom time.
Me? I have more pressing need to support my family, so I am going for a full-time employment. I can’t start a company when my family relies on me for financial needs. But, when my wife starts working, that would be a different story. Look out, world!
Ample amount of free time gives me an ideal opportunity to read up on books (when I am not slacking off watching TV or browsing the web). However, I find myself always gravitated towards business and entrepreneurship books the most.
I am involved with a professional organization called “Bay Area K Group“, and while it mostly consists of 1st generation Koreans, there are few 1.5 generations. Most members speak Korean exclusively, so if you don’t you don’t feel fitting in. I actually had an interesting discussion with another 1.5-gen Korean American, and he said broad Korean community (including 1st gen and beyond) has been having problem uniting, because of sutble (or quite large) cultural and language differences. Language makes up huge proportion of a culture, so it is probably safe to say language-induced cultural difference.
Anyhow, one of 1.5 gen guy I met there was in exactly the same situation as I was two years ago, operating a startup by himself. He talked about his concerns, and I could totally understand because I had gone through the same before. It’s just too hard for one person to continue. That’s one of many things I had learned when I did my own stuff. He’s been doing it for two years, and I really command him for such effort. While talking, he suggested a book called “The Monk and the Riddle“. I just finished reading it – it was an easy read since it was short, and it’s another kind of book altogether (different from Founders at Work).
It gives a good overview of what VCs are typically looking for. There is no shortage of information about that, but this one stuck because it was told in a story. I could also relate to the main character – there are two main characters, a Virtual CEO and an entrepreneur, and I am talking about the entrepreneur, not the Virtual CEO. In the book, what struck me the most was about doing what you want to do instead of doing what you must do first and doing what you want to do later. The latter is how 99% of people operate. They feel that they must work, hold a steady job and support the family. After they retire, they feel like they could pursue what they want to do (Book continues on the subject and talks about how a company must have a mission other than making big bucks since the mission keeps the company going when things get tough). Another book called “4-hour Workweek” also talks about “Deferred Life Plan” where you do what you must to do so that you can pursue what you want to do later. The problem is, by the time you retire, you are either too old or too sick to enjoy what you want to do later. It’s not necessarily money, either, while there is nothing wrong with it. But, everyone says that more money brings in more worries. Make enough money to live nicely (how nicely would depend on your lifestyle), and do what you want to do.
It struck such a cord with me because another successful entrepreneur told me the same. I wrote about him before. He had founded and run successful start-ups in the past and he now lives in a property with more than one-acre land in a super-rich town called Atherton, CA. After the shutdown of previous company I was working for, he and I had a chance to talk privately before presenting our success with Korea market to a company that bought the assets and intellectual property. I was seeking some concrete idea or wisdom from him, but I didn’t get satisfactorial answer from him. Rather, he asked me why I want to start a company. I told him it was for wealth (money) and accomplishment (fame). He told me starting a company is a lousy way to make money (9 out of 10 fail) and there are different ways to seek fame (Hollywood for example). Then, he asked me what I would want to do if I had enough money. I told him I would like to make a difference in the world by setting a self-sustaining charitable organization. He said I should pursue that idea. However, I didn’t get it at the time. I think I get it now, but it still feels unreachable and undoable. Always in the back of my mind is how I could support my family. How can I support the family running a non-profit, charitable organization? Isn’t it something that social study graduates or millionaires or politician’s wives do? I still think it’s a very noble idea and I would definitely do it when I had “enough” money, but I am not sure if that’s something I would do while having to support my family. It’s just feels impossible….
But, there is also another thing I enjoy, and that is being a leader or being under the limelight. I’ve certainly enjoyed it in Korea, being a class president for three years in junior high school. I’ve also founded and ran a Anime (Japanase Animation) club at PENN. In my first job out of college, I assembled an Ultimate Frisbee team, which won the first place in recreation league in Washington D.C.
At any rate, I am about to start a job at a mobile application company, and I am quite excited about it. As I have mentioned before, I have been following mobile market and I am quite gung-ho about it. Even in downturn, I believe mobile market (in addition to gaming) will be way better than rest of the economy. I have been wanting to go into mobile market, and I am taking an opportunity to dive in head-first, as I do in many situations. I feel that this might be the place where I can get the best of “want” and “must”.
I have finished the book. I skipped some chapters that I didn’t find interesting.
I had this belief before, but it was confirmed in the book. Most of successful startups are childrent of acccidental success. Most founders didn’t set out to build these big empires. Most of them were quite surprised at their own success. How amazing.
There is also something that I can’t let go. It’s the role of chances and luck. In any given circumstances, we can make any number of decisions. I remember Sliding Doors, less well known movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was a sappy movie about fate of love. The movie diverges when Gwyneth misses a train and when she catches the same train. It comes together in a hospital, where two parallel universes converge.
Anyhow, right now where I am is the result of sequence of decisions I had made. Some major, some very minor. We make decision all the time. I am writing this essay instead of getting ready for bed. There are external factors that affect me, and I may or may not have caused it…. Also a decision I make would affect others. I wonder what may have happened if admission committee of University of Pennsylvania rejected and I had gone to Virginia Tech instead. Or if I decided to stick around at Topspin instead of going to Korea and working for Samsung. Or more recently I put off looking for a job to help the bank sell assets and IP of the last company – GigaFin Networks – so that the business would continue. And now I find myself in worst time to be without a job. I made the decision not knowing what would lay ahead. Is it just bad luck? What about writing this essay at this moment? Would someone read it just by chance that may cause whole different chain of actions tomorrow and in the future?
Bottom line is that you don’t know. Just like many of the founders said that the reason why they were successful was because they didn’t know any better. They were too naive to know how hard running a startup would be. And they didn’t give up when perhaps they should have. Sometimes is ignorance is indeed bliss. You can’t be paralyzed by past and what-ifs. Make whatever best decision you can make at the moment, and go for it!
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
I’ve recently picked up a book called Founders at Work. I thought I’ve heard about it when I was trying out my start-up in 2006, but it has copyright date of 2007. It is a collection of interviews of founders at various (successful) start-ups.
There are definite similarities between all these successful founders.
Most of them were singles when they started companies.
They all started early, mostly around college period and sometimes in high school.
Because they started early, they were all inexperienced and naive. Yet, most of them got funding from VCs. That seems to contradict conventional belief that VCs bet on a jockey, not on a horse. Big difference? Working prototype. They all had products and prototype already working.
Most of them had gone through some tough times during the life of the start-up.
Their first idea rarely worked. Many have gone through multiple iteration of ideas to get it right.
Most had good partners and co-founders that supported each other in tough times. They all persevered, and made it at the end.
They all attributed a lot of their successes to luck. It’s not that they didn’t work hard and only waited for Lady Luck to smile at them. They worked really hard, and while things could have gone many different ways, some things just fell into place….by chance.
I haven’t finished the book, but I have to wonder if I had given up my company way too early. There were many additional obstacles; like having to support the family and having no committed co-founder (my partner left in less than six months). Though, I don’t regret having started a company. It was once-in-a-lifetime experience. Another thing the book said was that start-ups tend to require more than professional commitment from employees. People say you don’t get in to business with friends, but start-ups do need friends because of its high emotional requirements.
Nevertheless, it’s very interesting book. I wish I had read this book before I started my company.