Many go into the start-up arena with their own ideas about entrepreneurship. From the glamour and allure associated with “being your own boss” and “making the world a better place” through technology, to the supposed freedom of coming and going as you please, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking entrepreneurship is one’s ticket out of the regimented 9-to-5 life and into business fame, fortune, and all the trappings that come with it. Until they realize things are not always what they seem.
While there’s no real blueprint to guaranteed business success, there’s definitely benefit in looking to the experiences of tireless Southeast Asian entrepreneurs who’ve put in a great deal of sweat equity and gone from Point A to Point B. Here are five things they wish they knew before starting a business:
1. Evaluation is a two-way street
Finding the right investor to work with entails the same level of discernment you would give a potential romantic partner—the first VC that comes your way may not necessarily be the right one.
According to serial start-up entrepreneur Aldo Carrascoso, choosing the right investor can literally make or break you. Well-versed in working with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, the founder of global payments start-up Align Commerce says, “Attracting investors is one thing, but managing angels, VCs, and your board is a totally different ball game. Some investors can either help or even hurt you in the long run. Make sure that the evaluation is two-way—you should also be evaluating them.”
2. Validate your idea first
The fundamental thing for start-ups is to deal with uncertainty, says Hung Tran, founder and CEO of Vietnamese start-up GotIt!.“You don’t know much about your users, products, and market, so you have to learn really, really fast to make things clearer,” he says.
Before writing a single line of code, Tran asserts it’s vital to validate one’s idea to see if there is actual demand for the product or service. “I’ve seen many people come up with an interesting idea and jump right into building it. Most of them end up with a product or service that no one wants. Make sure your idea is a solution to a problem that many people have,” he says.
3. Be prepared to multi-task, even if you don’t want to
When Matthew Cua, the founder of Philippine based start-up SkyEye, started his drone manufacturing business, he was surprised to find that he was spending as much time on administrative tasks as on the technology. “Accounting and financial work both in the company and in complying with government requirements were way more than I expected and is constantly a challenge,” he says, adding that he’s had to learn these skills in the process.
4. Execution is more important than the idea
Entrepreneurs often think good ideas are great businesses, but Carrascoso points out that some of the most mundane ideas resulted in some of the greatest companies in the world, while some of the greatest ideas never saw the light of day.
“Execution is more important than the idea, the team is more important than the execution, and no one should be irreplaceable,” says Carrascoso. “I’ve learned to always focus on people first—form a great team that has the capability of executing on any idea versus obsessing on an idea with haphazard execution and then attracting a team to fix it. Focus on culture, mission, vision, and values,” he adds.
5. Learn to adapt to the culture of your market
In a region as dynamic as Southeast Asia, it’s very important to realize that culture from one country to the next can be extremely different. “You have to think hard about your assumptions from the very beginning,” says Michael Lwin, the co-founder of Koe Koe Tech.
Having grown up in the United States, Lwin shares that starting Koe Koe Tech would’ve been easier if he could have already “uploaded knowledge on cultural differences between the East and West.” In the end, Lwin shares his ignorance had its benefits: “I grew a thicker skin. I learned how to have grace under pressure. I didn’t have these traits at all when I started out, and I wouldn’t have cultivated them if I didn’t take my lumps along the way. So I’m glad it was hard because I think most people only really learn something deeply when it wounds them in some way.”