My entrepreneurship story: Chasing an eventual failure?
This article reflects my experience as a young woman chasing after her dream and how a recent wave of unforeseeable challenges has reshaped my perspective on whether the journey is worth continuing.
Over a year ago my first ever technology startup was founded. Ten months later, my partners and I celebrated an executed partnership with a commercial real estate investment firm. Last month, I bought an emergency flight to Saigon, Vietnam to handle the liquidation of my parents’ 30-year-old company that was on the verge of bankruptcy.
CaliforniaLinx, a commercial real estate data platform, was founded while I was working for another company. For about a year, the concept of weekends did not exist, and a 100-hour work week was the norm. I started my Monday to Friday at 5 am reading through status updates, answering questions and delivering feedback to my development team in India. At 7:15 am, I left the house for my day job and devoted the next 9–10 hours to the overhaul of a struggling division. The startup night shift began at about 8:30 pm and lasted until past midnight for database construction, module building and Skype calls with India. Weekends were the treasure days where I got to sleep the full 8 hours before diving into another 10-hour marathon of spread-sheeting and platform testing. Everyone asked where I found the energy for such a schedule. “Adrenaline”, I said. And Red Bull, but mostly adrenaline. Adrenaline from the excitement of seeing my vision executed, my dream and the taste of success became more real each day. I was fearless and relentless. The 99% startup failure statistic didn’t faze me. I was going to be among the 1%.
September of last year, my partner and I were asked to become exclusive consultants to a family office operating in the commercial real estate and venture capital fields. We quit our day jobs and accepted the offer for the perfect alignment of interests and limitless potential of opportunities. The consultant gigs proved to have seamless synergy with the building of our technology startup. I managed the due diligence process for all potential venture capital investments, and my partner structured capital stacks for the commercial real estate deals. This opportunity provided us invaluable knowledge and gave us access to people that we may otherwise never have met. My partner with his direct access to the commercial real estate community was able to build a strong network of users for our platform. I had daily conversations with venture capital firms, angel investors, serial entrepreneurs with a track record for all to envy, and most of all, a direct and personal contact with those who validated my wild decision to shoot for that 1% — smart, driven and fearless founders who risked everything to chase after their passion. Everything was right.
We launched the Beta version of CaliforniaLinx in October. The next four months zoomed by like a roller coaster ride with surge days full of user sign-ups and activities and dreaded days with silence and crickets. We filled our weeks with user meetings and phone calls, collecting every single piece of feedback and opinion from every sign-up, dragging ourselves around town in the horrendous Los Angeles traffic to have a sit-down with any prospect who would spare us 15 minutes. User feedback ranged from “This is a great platform!” to “I don’t understand why I should use this.” Some wanted more features. Others wanted less. A few wanted a completely different product. We churned out new data, features, and even a completely new interface to accommodate almost every single user’s request. We changed directions multiple times on our target market and flagship product. We fought and argued over design vs. functionalities, user experience vs. data construction and in general over the lack of clarity in where the heck we were heading.
Six months after working with the family office as consultants, we were offered a partner seat in the investment firm. Yet things also went rocky on this side shortly after. Our firm acquired 4 properties in the past 6 months. One of them caught on fire from a neighboring building’s gas explosion, one month after closing. A quarter of the building was burned down, with an estimated repair cost of $1.5 million. Due to some technicalities in execution timeline, our insurance did not kick in on time to cover the fire. Our phones were ringing day and night, with lenders and investors screaming on the other end. We were on the phone day and night, screaming at insurance agents and attorneys. After 2 months of sleepless nights, unbearable anxiety and maneuvering through every possible path we could to clean up this mess, we were able to obtain the proper coverage to begin the repair.
Late this April, I received a call from my parents asking me to return to Vietnam to lead an accounting audit for their company since their chief accountant had quit. With CaliforniaLinx in need of a more focused direction and the fire crisis somewhat resolved, I decided it would be good to take a step back from the 2 ventures for a short period of time to reflect and get more clarity. I’m not sure why an accounting audit in the hectic Saigon was the way to do it, but I booked a ticket and flew back to assist my parents.
The audit unfolded an irreversible financial catastrophe. My parents’ company had 2 operating entities, a plastic bag manufacturer and a distribution partnership with Heineken in Vietnam. The beer distribution business was clean and straightforward. The plastic manufacturing company was what took down the family business. Similar to the U.S., plastic is considered as an environmentally harmful product in Vietnam, and hence, subjected to environmental tax. However, when the environmental protection tax law was passed in 2012 in Vietnam, the plastic industry took a dive due to non-uniform enforcement of the tax in the market. Some businesses enforced the tax, some enforced half of the amount, and the majority decided not to. The confusion created chaos and destabilized the market for 12 months, leading to major financial losses for many businesses.
In response to the crisis, the government put a halt on the tax implementation in some areas and products. My parents’ tax consultants advised that due to the imported materials being used, their products were exempt from the tax, similar to the majority of their competitors. The market continued to operate normally, with these products sold at a lower price, without the environmental tax. Everything was good until this year audit, when the tax authority decided that our company now owed 5-year worth of unpaid environmental tax with penalties and interests on every single plastic bag that had been produced since 2012. This demand, once paid, would bankrupt the company. We looked to the law for a fighting chance. No attorney, unfortunately, would accept our case to repeal this finding since a head-on fight with the authorities was not desirable.
For the next 45 days, my brothers and I spent every day from morning to night detangling a 30-year-old business and prepared it for liquidation to a buyer who was willing to purchase its long-standing brand. We laid off 80 employees, some of which had worked for our family since the day the company was founded, some of which I had known my whole life, whom children went to the same school as me. I haven’t hired one full-time employee for my startups, but have cut the income source of 80 families. I haven’t built one successful company, but have taken down the sign that has been prominently displayed for 30 years.
Standing in front of the long journey ahead of 2 newly found startups and losing the family business I had believed to be infallible, I can’t help but doubt every decision I have made in the past 15 months. Was it a cold glass of water to wake me up to face the 99% failure rate? Should I have stayed at my comfortable six figure paying job and enjoyed my normal sleep schedule and wine-tasting excursions every weekend? Am I chasing an eventual failure?
These questions haunted me every night since I got back to the States. Self-doubt and insecurity overtook the confident and fearless self 15 months ago.
As I was writing this piece, I heard laughter in the living room. I left the office to investigate the source of the annoying and untimely happiness. It was my parents, cracking up to a Vietnamese comedy on YouTube. “Is this for real? How could they be laughing at this moment?” I decided that a serious sit-down with these unexpectedly happy folks was overdue. Airplay disconnected. Jasmine tea was served.
“Aren’t you guys devastated by what just happened? You lost your legacy, something you have built from the ground up for 30 years.”
My mom smiled, “Of course, we are sad. You are right. We just lost something that meant a lot to us. But you are also wrong. We didn’t lose our legacy. We founded the company 7 years after Vietnam was completely wrecked by war and poverty. In a volatile economy of a slowly developing country, we continued to build up the business and had created a brand that is widely respected. We provided a stable life for 80 families for 30 years. No one can take that away from us. We did it, and that’s something to be happy about.”
My dad chimed in, “When we first started, no one wanted to buy Heineken or my plastic products. Heineken was too foreign and expensive. Your mom scootered around with 2–3 kegs of Heineken in the back seat to do ‘special promotions’ to restaurants around the city. ‘Special promotions’ meant ‘please just take it for free.’ I think all the restaurants in the city knew your mom. She was pretty ‘scary’ at begging people to take her ‘promotions.’ She was relentless.”, he laughed. “Five years later, she became one of the largest Heineken distributors in the country. They even sent her on a vacation to Germany and Holland as a ‘thank you.’ Heineken is now the biggest beer brand in Vietnam because of partners like her.
“In the beginning, no one wanted my plastic products either because they were too low in quality. I didn’t have enough money to buy better gel beads (materials used to make plastic bags), so I ran around town to bigger manufacturers and convinced them to sell me their expired beads and unused spillage on their factory floor. I personally cleaned up the beads, melt and recycled them to make better quality bags at a cheaper price than these bigger manufacturers. They eventually found out, yelled at me and refused to sell their leftovers. But it was ok. By that time, I had already taken over half of the plastic market in our district. I could afford to buy new beads and better machines myself.”
“Everything was very hard at first, and it stayed hard the entire time.”, said mom. “Different challenges at different times. We stopped dealing with not having customers and started dealing with unhappy customers, from not having enough money for hiring to dealing with too many employee issues, from competition, market shifts, inflation, and environmental taxes (she smirked). It never ends. We just got much smarter at resolving them.”
“Why did you do it then? Why not choose something easier?” I asked.
“Just like everything else, there is always another choice. We chose this path because we wanted more than what the other choices had to offer. We knew what we would get with the easier choices. We didn’t know what we could have with this choice. It could be more, like we wanted, or could be way less, so we took a chance. It was a tough ride, but at least at the end, we could sit here and say, ‘We did it.’ rather than ‘What if…’”
Now I remember. I remember why I quit my job, why I chose to sleep 4 hours a day for a year, why I told myself to always say “Yes” to every challenge. I was sick of wondering “What if”.
A user who hasn’t gone onto CaliforniaLinx for 2 months came back this week, bringing with him 2 additional sign-ups from his co-workers. My partners and I are engaging a data scientist to guide us in our new data analytic features. Our CRE properties performed over expectation in Q1. We are starting the financing of 2 newly awarded deals.
When your odds are 1%, there is no time to waste on “What if…”. Just do it.
This article is a personal reflection of my own experience. It is shared as a small testimony to the incredible journey that past and present entrepreneurs have taken to pursue the unknowns, to create and contribute. It is not meant to be a political statement or an endorsement of any mentioned brand. If you have questions regarding any information in this article, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.