“The reason I’m standing here today is because I’m an accidental entrepreneur,” Chok Leang Ooi, Co-founder and CEO at AgilityIO, and Mentor at 500 Startups, told the sell-out audience at this week’s Echelon Malaysia 2014 in Kuala Lumpur organised by e27.
AgilityIO, which offers design and development solutions for startups, has grown to 150 employees in just four years and now has offices in New York, Singapore and Vietnam.
Chok grew up in Malaysia during the 80s and 90s, but has been living in the US for the last 15 years. He said in his school days, the answer he would always give to the question, ‘What do you want to be?’ was ‘Engineer’ or ‘Lawyer’, but never ‘Entrepreneur’.
Then, in the late 90s, he decided he wanted to go to Silicon Valley and work with computers. But when he finally arrived there, people were leaving the Valley en-masse to head to Wall Street instead. Chok did the same, putting his Silicon dreams on hold and setting his sights on New York.
He joined Goldman Sachs around the time ‘people started disappearing one after another’ because of layoffs, and he himself followed a few months later. He describes the moment he left as a ‘relief’. The approaching doomsday of the bank gave him a lot of time to reflect on his life.
“Was this all worth it? Yeah, we were making a lot of money, but everyone I knew was depressed and very, very tired. We didn’t feel what we were doing was meaningful in life,” Chok said of that time. He had come to a crossroad.
He immediately got an offer from another bank, as well as one from a startup co-founded by Sam Altman, who is today the President of Y Combinator. Joining the startup would mean taking a 50 per cent pay cut and moving to Mountain View, California — today famous as the home of Google.
“I thought about it and said, F**k it. And I moved,” he said.
Chok described Silicon Valley of the time as an amazing melting pot of investors, designers, developers, founders, etc., all of whom really believed in what they were doing. Another noticeable difference from Wall Street was that failure was not frowned upon. Failure was the battle scars that eventually bred success.
Developers like Chok were in high demand, or as he described it, they were like ‘hot potatoes running around the Valley’. Here he met his Vietnamese business partner Trung Ngo, who he said is one of the most brilliant tech-minded people he has ever met.
Lesson 1: Seize the opportunity
“As a startup, you should always be in a constant state of war. Things will always go wrong, so be prepared for it. Successful startups keep their eye on the ball, pay attention to competitors, and they’re always ready to pivot whenever the market changes or an opportunity presents itself,” he said.
Lesson 2: Don’t be complacent
He believes that ‘complacency is the quickest way for a company to die’, which comes back to the message shared on the slide in the top image: Just f***ing to it.
A similar message was shared during Anthony Tan‘s talk on the story of GrabTaxi (also presented at Echelon Malaysia 2014), when he encouraged the audience and industry at large to ‘Stop complaining and start fixing shit’.
Lesson 3: Don’t give up
Chok shared one of his favourite quotes from a friend at secondary school in Malaysia:
“An entrepreneur is like a duck sitting on a pond. You look confident and calm on the surface, but deep down you are kicking and screaming like crazy so you wouldn’t sink.” — CST, Perfectsen
On the good days of the startup life, nothing is better. But on the bad days, the bad news just doesn’t stop coming.
“There’s no hole big enough for you to sink into,” he said, adding that not enough people adequately describe just how painful the startup life can be.
Chok couldn’t sleep for days during the low points. His health suffered and he became hot tempered. Like many entrepreneurs, he came across the now-legendary book The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, which helped him understand that every great entrepreneur goes through such testing times.
“It’s a right of passage that every entrepreneur has to go through,” he said. “Keep in mind that the world’s not going to end. Take a breather, clear your mind, and move on.”
“But most importantly, don’t give up,” he added.
Lesson 4: Sell that shit
A lot of entrepreneurs place too much emphasis on the product and not enough on sales and marketing, which Chok thinks is a big mistake. It’s true that product should always be number one, but you should also learn to market it.
How do I sell it? How do people discover me? How do I advertise on social media? How do I position myself? These are all questions startups need to address.
Lesson 5: Get off your a**
“Too many entrepreneurs try to run their entire business from behind their desk,” Chok said. Not having enough time to go to networking events isn’t an excuse.
“When my business was about to go under, I knocked on every single door I could find. I literally forced myself out the house every single day so that I could attend every meet up or conference I could get my hands on,” he added.
Also Read: 4 tips to make yourself pitch-perfect
He once event traveled 14 hours just to have a 30 minute meeting because he was willing to pitch to anyone that would listen.
“We’re getting so used to all forms of electronic communication that we sometimes forget how powerful it is to just sit down face-to-face with somebody,” he said.
Which of Chok’s five lessons do you think is most important? Let us know in the comments below.