Founders at Work – Part 1

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.

  1. Most of them were singles when they started companies.
  2. They all started early, mostly around college period and sometimes in high school.
  3. 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.
  4. Most of them had gone through some tough times during the life of the start-up.
  5. Their first idea rarely worked. Many have gone through multiple iteration of ideas to get it right.
  6. Most had good partners and co-founders that supported each other in tough times. They all persevered, and made it at the end.
  7. 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.

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Follow your dream?

Should you?

I had a conversation with someone who has been quite successful as a serial entrepreneur. Since I have a lot of spare time, I wanted to pick his brain and get some pointers what I could follow his footsteps. His brief answer was that he just had been lucky, right place at the right time. He also said there are some people who are cut out to be a leader, founder, and entrepreneur. And, most people are not. He said God (whichever god depends on your religion) has set out a path for everyone. People have different strengths, and he doesn’t believe in working on improving weaknesses, but reinforcing strengths.

One of the books I like is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. One principle in the book says that the state head must know how to utilize his generals’ strengths best. If a general is good at offense, he should be deployed in offensive position. And if a general is good at defense, then in defensive position. You can’t blame a general for not doing his job if he was assigned with a job he cannot possibly do well. It makes total sense……

So, what if your dream is not in line with your strengths? Or what if your strengths are not enough to reach your dream? Books and TVs are full of stories about people following their dreams, persevere, and actually achieving them. How about others who have followed them but never made them? There are many athletes, both professional and Olympic, who in spite of their best effort do not make it at the top. What about those countless artists and musicians? When do you realize that perhaps your strengths are not in line with your dream or just not enough? What do you do? Then, is it about different levels or definitions of success? Should an athlete be satisfied with making it to the Olympic teams?

It’s especially meaningful to me since I have two kids of my own. As a parent, I would tell them that they could be anything they want to be. Would I be setting them up for big disappointments? Shall I just tell them that there are different levels of successes, and they should set low goals? Jack Welch is famous for setting “stretch goals”, which may not be applicable for kids, but I really ponder over the whole thing.

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Learn from others’ mistakes

I am in mid-30’s and along the way I’ve made my own share of mistakes. Of course, in retrospect if I knew differently or better, I wouldn’t have made those mistakes. A wise man once told me that a smart person would learn from others’ mistakes, and it is so right. Come to think of it, I used to discount most proverbs and old sayings as whatever, but now I think they are true in general cases (perhaps more than 70% of time). They had become what they are from hundreds of years of observation, and I think that’s pretty powerful.

So, I just wanted to warn people, especially those who may want to work for a local company in mother land (non-American descendants and/or 1.5 to 2nd, 3rd generations), about possible consequence of their action. If you plan to move there permanently, none of it would matter.

First and foremost, don’t do it unless there is a good reason for it. Chances are you will be faced with vast corporate/local culture shock. Unless their culture could be considered positive or you are sure that you can spin it positively or you can be completely submerged in the culture and later plan to work for a company that targets the market, don’t do it. In addition, if you want to come back and get another job, it would be hard to conduct phone and/or face-to-face interview from overseas.

Second, make sure it is a world-renown company where you are absolutely sure that skill sets and experiences can be viewed positively when moving back to US. Remember, how the company is perceived can be very different from views/experiences inside. It is crucial,

Third, if you really want an international exposure, go to an American company who is looking to send someone there so that you would at least be guaranteed a job in US. Like I said, it would be though to arrange and do phone and/or face-to-face interview from overseas, and you are likely to have to come back and start looking. It wouldn’t apply if you have rich parents or uncle from whom you can live off for a while.

Remember. Always learn from others’ mistakes.

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In transition, stuck in the middle

So, I have been interviewing at a bunch of places so far, but no offer yet. As I am faced with a rejection after rejection, it’s hard to not to be discouraged. So far in my career, I’ve never had this much problem finding a job, and it’s both shocking and depressing.

I can attribute this situation to one thing: Stuck in the middle. I am still in the career transition from engineering field to product marketing, and companies assess that two-years of experience in marketing is TOO LITTLE and two-years away from hands-on technical work is TOO LONG. Those companies I have applied for product marketing position selected a candidate with a lot more marketing experiences. Those companies I have applied for technical positions thought I wasn’t technical enough. It would seem difficult to find a marketing position unless I have someone who can sponsor/champion me in a company.

Obviously, this is the lowest point of my life. And in times like this, you come to know who is really your friend and who is not. Well, mostly. I think some actually pretend or give you a lip service, but don’t really care. I’ve spent two years in Korea to transition my career, and if I don’t continue down this marketing path, those two years would seem like a total waste. I have been given a lot of advice from good people. They tell me I will definitely find something I want soon and something good is waiting for me just around the corner. I should stay positive and confident. It’s just matter of timing. All those interviews that didn’t work weren’t meant for me. They are all good and I am grateful for them, but….

But, I can’t help but feeling that walls are closing in. I see kids grow up and they need certain things like new clothes, camps, school, etc. Savings depleting too quickly…. Also, I hate being not settled down. Without a job, it feels like everything is up in the air. Tension is there, and so are silent worries. Everyone is on the edge, and it doesn’t help current situation much.

I don’t really want to stay in the East Coast, but I may need to stay here. But, if I didn’t want to stay in the East Coast but get an offer here, it can’t be why all other interviews didn’t work out…. I used to believe that I am in control of my own destiny and I didn’t believe in fate…., but I don’t know. I am so sure now. Maybe I have a little control over my destiny, and for some reason it’s been all mapped out for me…..

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Identity Crisis

I hear that Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui was picked on at middle and high school….for his shyness and perhaps accent. While high school is probably most miserable time for everyone…well for most except jocks and popular kids, it was probably his mental state that made everything worse. Watching his video tapes and pictures, I couldn’t help get feeling that he was really disturbed, troubled and just mentally ill.

I came to US when I was 16, starting high school as a sophomore. I tend to place high expectation on myself, and it was another case of it. I should have started as a freshman, but with enough credits brought from Korea, I wanted to graduate in three years. Geez, what a mistake. I mean I knew how to read and write English, but not as close to speaking or understanding spoken English. Not only that I had to adjust to new culture and new ways of life. I ended up staying extra year as senior to ready myself for college, and it was a good thing since I went to an Ivy League school. It is actually interesting that my first choice was Virginia Tech and visited the school in cold, cold winter of 1992. Anyhow, high school was pretty tough for me, too…. A few kids picked on me, but I didn’t think much of it, really. Come to think of it, I don’t remember most of my high school life….

College was much better, in terms of student’s tolerance. Most kids were acceptive of others and different things or culture. I’ve hung out mostly with Asian Americans, most of them 1.5, 2nd or higher generation kids…. Most of them were going through identity crisis. They were immersed in US culture and everything about them except looks says they are Americans (mostly Caucasians). I identified with them. My parents are very Korean, and I sometimes feel invisible wall between them and me. I love them, but since they moved to America in their 40’s, they cannot change their way of lives. Funny thing is that even though I thought they were really Korean, when they visited Korea, they found themselves counting days to come back to US…. They themselves had become 1.5 generation without knowing!

When someone asks me, I always answer Korean American or Korean descendant. I have characteristics of both culture, and that’s who I am. I cannot be completely Korean nor completely American. Unknowingly, my parents also had become Korean American, too.

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Google Interview

In my quest for a full-time job, I submitted numerous resumes to Google. I also had a friend of mine working at Google to forward my resume for me. Since Google is in completely different industry than my background/experience, it was a long shot. I did web search on Google interview, and most were for technical questions. I didn’t find any for non-technical interview.

Why Google? Not only it is the hottest company, but Google is in best position to challenge many old business models. Is Google an ad company? Perhaps… 99% of its revenue is from ads placed in Google sites. Google is also trying to expand ad channels into radio, TV and games. However, I think its technology can be used to really revolutionize computing. I am not a big fan of Microsoft or its monstrous operating system or its bully tactics on competitors. Linux and general Unix flavors are all stable because their kernels are small, efficient and do whatever they are supposed to do well. Microsoft’s operating systems are kernel plus too much junk. Anyhow, it won’t be long until we have pervasive connection to the network and an efficient computing device with solid-state storage, small OS and a web browser. Most applications would be available online, as many so-called “software-as-a-service” promises. Key is to have applications available offline as well, and it would be just a matter of time until it is possible.

Anyhow, back to my story… I did get a phone interview scheduled. It was supposed to be about 45-minutes long. Since it was for a product marketing position, I did a lot of research behind Google products and their business model. But, the interviewer completely threw me off with unexpected questions such as how Internet would change in five years or how search would change in five years. I never recovered from them and I totally bombed the interview. As expected, I got a “Thank you, but no thank you” letter soon.

I was disappointed, but not so terribly, since I was rejected in the first interview. Then strangely enough, I’ve received another “first phone interview” email from the same Google recruiter who had sent me the very first phone interview request. I was pretty sure it was a mistake and sooner or later they will find out. I pretended as if I never had a Google phone interview and replied the email. Surprisingly, I had another “first” phone interview scheduled. This time, it was with different interviewer and I did alright….perhaps because this interviewer asked different and perhaps more relevant questions.

Since I would be in the SF bay area for a personal reason the following week, I asked whether they could arrange an on-site interview. From what I have heard, Google interview takes long and I honestly didn’t expect them to arrange it so quickly. They did, and I came in for an interview. Interview schedule was long, from 11 AM to 4:30 PM, talking to 6 or 8 different folks. I saw on the schedule that one of the interviewers was going to be the person who interviewed in the very first phone interview…….and gave a thumbs down. Most of interviewers asked a little about my experience and a lot of hypothetical questions….like if I were a product marketing manager of this product, what your marketing plan would look like, how would you make it better, etc. They also dig deeper based on your response….like computerized GMAT questions. I don’t know if you could really prepare for such interviews…. You have to think so quickly on the feet. It could come from mostly your relevant experiences…..and background…..and knowing what works and what doesn’t, etc… Of course, the first phone interviewer….who I wasn’t sure would recognize me or not. But s/he asked the same questions…. It could be that s/he didn’t recognize me or that s/he wanted to see if I prepared for him/her. I don’t know if it was the pressure to win this person over, I did the worst with this interviewer.

Overall, I enjoyed the challenging conversations… They were fair and seemed like questions they all have to answer day in and day out. It would have been fun and rewarding to work for Google. In retrospect, though, I think I should have been more forthcoming with what I have been doing since my last job. I just told them I enjoyed spending time with my family. I didn’t mention anything about my own business venture……, but I was afraid that I could be seen as a quitter, a failure, or someone who would quit anytime to pursue other ventures…. Oh, well…. Hindsight is always 20/20….., but who knows what really caused the rejection? Perhaps it was to do with all my answers.

The next week, I got a form “Thank you, but no thank you” email…..once again. This 2nd chance came out of nowhere and I was so lucky to get an on-site interview scheduled so quickly, but I couldn’t capitalize it. I am so depressed about it. But, no time to waste. I need to find a job quickly.

Off I go!

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Who am I?

Hi!

I don’t know why you want to read my story, but I felt a need to chronicle my journey somewhere…albeit anonymously, and this day and age Internet would be a good place.

Who am I? Let’s see what words can describe me….

Man, in the 30’s, married, tall, two kids, wife, Asian American, 1.5 generation, aspiring entrepreneur, used to be an engineer, now trying to be product marketing professional, wears glasses (which asian americans don’t?), wants/likes something different, independent/foreign films, athletic (or I think I am), etc.

That should basically describe me…

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