Learning to love the hustle

“Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” — Harper Lee

While KIMOJI tells a compelling story about how its million-dollar minute crashed the Apple App Store and has Kanye West as its voluntary product ambassador, running a start-up almost seems like a piece of cake. A novel (well, maybe with a little copy-and-paste) idea with a viral marketing push and we’re all set for massive funding. It almost feels like whatever’s needed to catapult a start-up lies in marketing. My colleague once told me, if Fiji can convince people to purchase water that doesn’t taste any different at a premium price, if Starbucks can sell a $7 concoction of milk, sugar and coffee, imagine the possibilities when we have a product that is really a cut above what’s on the market.

Having just graduated from a Social Science faculty in University last year, I have never been well-acquainted with anything that is business-related. Even after attending a few classes in Business school, I left University thinking one unit of marketing and advertising → hundreds of units in sales. When I was referred to a tech start-up a year ago, I eventually joined only because I was completely sold by the founders’ vision, and their version of a better society with less rent-seeking behaviour and more equal opportunity. Thinking in business terms has never come naturally to me. After sitting through countless conference calls, I still cringe at business lingo like ‘core competencies’ and ‘best practices’.

Ever since I got baptized by my family as a ‘working adult’, supposedly with energy to spare and an eagerness to share and receive new information, I’ve taken work way out of the office. I talk to lots of people about my tech start-up over drinks, if they aren’t already curious. Some of them marvel at the creative space I get at work, while most of them ask questions I don’t have ready-made answers to. You didn’t study tech, you don’t know business, why the fuck are you even working there? You know start-ups fail all the time, don’t you? You are taking a huge risk here, are you sure it’s worth it?

When they have a look at the product, they are quick to compare and spot ‘inadequacies’. I’ve been told multiple times that the product is bull. And in between comments like “This other app has this, why don’t you have it?” and “Maybe you should consider changing this”, there is an omnipresent checkbox for advertising: “How many people know about your app? How come I haven’t seen any ads?” To which I reply: “Well, for now, we’re just keeping at it.”

Our mobile-dependent daily lives, to which businesses have incredible accessibility, have us wired to oversimplify innovative success. We are annoyed every time we receive a push notification from a photo-editing app or an email from Skyscanner, yet we’re so quick to suggest ads as a surefire prop for driving avant-garde ideas.

In relatively new industries with low barriers, especially in the tech start-up space, people have also become quick to pick new products apart. The entire idea about design thinking and UX can be quickly grasped, and the concept of user perspective is amazing, but at some point in time, we have to realize an unequivocal truth — there is no way we can dick-ride everyone. Staying true to a vision may sound like corny cult talk, but having a vision will keep people around.

From the outside, a start-up will always feel like an irrational idea, and what goes on behind the scenes is either oversimplified, misunderstood or both. We tend to think about the success of any start-up as a result of a coin flip that is askew — heads and it loses, tails and it loses more. To an extent, this is true. Start-ups are in it for a very controlled shot at success. We have a very small window of opportunity to overshadow the international conglomerates running the show. We’re small-time gym trainers from a godforsaken town challenging Floyd Mayweather to a boxing match at the MGM Grand.

Yet the people in start-ups stay in them for a reason. I’ve never studied Business, I spent four years in University annotating completely biased media trying to understand international politics, I read Murakami and dream of writing my own book, and now, I’m working in a tech start-up. As much as I’m in it for the knowledge, I’m in it for the hard work, sweat and tears, and all the unseen that goes on behind putting out a product that people will find reasons to hate. It’s undoubtedly humbling, even oddly poetic. This is why graduates from top-ranking Universities in the world are flocking to occupy the economy seats on a budget flight even when they hold the keys to a cushy bank job which easily affords them a seat in first-class.

I’m not going to lie and say that there aren’t instances where I’ve questioned my choices. I sat across the table from a great friend and listened to absolutely rational advice, which concluded with my need to find a new job. There are days when I feel like I’m not doing or earning enough to support my retired parents. There are days when I scroll through my Facebook feed and see peers spending weekends out in Koh Samui while I’m cooped up at home figuring out the best way to write a copy. But the fact is — I saw this happening the moment I signed up to work in a start-up. And I’ve learnt to be okay with it.

As the world begins to see a sea change in favour of small tech companies, set in motion by long hard slogs at a distant vision, people are learning to join and love the hustle. And no, this change is not just about viral marketing and advertising. This change began small, like a stubborn child who believed that he could fly, who then devised a plan to build an aircraft, who then carried others along with him.

So the next time our buddies tell us about their experiences in an exciting new start-up, let’s give them a pat on their backs and be thankful that we know people of a dying breed: people with a backbone to stand for what they believe in.