Why I Sold My Startup
On September 1st, Carousell’s acquihire of the Watch Over Me team became public knowledge, and so did the decision to sunset our personal safety app Watch Over Me, and open source the technology we’ve built.
Since then I’ve gotten a bunch of questions about the exit.
There have been a few questions but a general one that has been hovering about has been “Why an acquihire?” followed by “Why an exit to Carousell? That doesn’t seem very sexy.”
In order to answer that question I’m going to have to take us back to 31st December 2015.
I was fresh off my the celebration of my 28th birthday in Koh Samui, lying in a shack by the beach with two of my closest friends. In the past couple of years, I’ve made it a habit to take vacations out of the country with people I love from my birthday throughout the New Year for some Reflection and Relaxation. So as I straddled the precipice of 2015, and looked forward into 2016, I asked myself a question I ask myself every year:
“Are you doing what you’re meant to be doing on this earth right now? And if you aren’t, is what you’re doing now going to help you get there?”
Every year, I get a different flavor of answers — often there’s a little doubt. Sometimes a “yes” with absolute certainty. Sometimes a “wait and see”.
That day, the answer was a clear no.
No, I most certainly was not doing what I was meant to be doing on this earth.
As most of you already know, Watch Over Me was launched right after a major traumatic event in my life — an event that made safety a huge priority.
I decided to work on it with my cofounder James because there was so much anger, so much pain in me, just so much negative energy that needed to be channeled somewhere. I chose to work on it because I needed to not feel stuck. I needed to feel like I was doing something with all this, and that something beautiful can come from tragedy.
And something beautiful did emerge. Truth be told, it’s been such an incredible, if at times crazy ride.
In the past 3 years (yes, it has been 3 years), we have supported over 240,000 people worldwide, most of them women. And even saved some.
When you sign up for Watch Over Me, there’s a personal email from me welcoming you to the community, sharing my story, and asking you to share yours. I often get replies and my team forwards me most of them to read and reply.
The past 3 years, every time we read a “Thank you for helping me feel safer.” “I used it walking home alone the other day and feel much better”, I’ve felt we’re on the right track. And I’ve powered through and powered on. And it has been an amazing journey, full of ups and downs, but an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
But there are two sides to every story.
What many don’t know is that for the past 3 years, I have also been struggling with depression, anxiety and what my therapist calls “retraumatization”. Until last year I told no one. Not my family, not my closest friends, and to be honest I could barely admit it to myself.
You see, the story of my kidnap attempt was tied so closely with Watch Over Me that it became really hard to differentiate the two. Soon enough, each time I had to tell the story of Watch Over Me, I would have to relive something that I would much rather put to rest.
With every pitch came an inevitable “why did you start it?”
With every startup event came “Are you the girl who got kidnapped and started an app?”
With every social event that required me to meet someone new came a “Oh my God, I’ve heard about you and your app.” Followed by an inevitable request to tell the story.
Suddenly, a project that was supposed to be the vehicle of my survival and release, became my prison.
FACT: I am so, so much more than that girl who got almost kidnapped… But suddenly, that was all I was.
My identity, the kidnapping, was bound so tightly with Watch Over Me that no one, myself included, could distinguish the two.
But what about our mission?
I asked myself that question countless times. When we started the company, and the mission that the entire team rallied around was about using technology to help women remain safer.
But I was starting to feel that we were straying from our mission.
If the mission is to help as many women as possible, I started to realize that my privately held business wasn’t necessarily the best way to go about it. A business requires revenue, and requires profit in order to sustain itself. To be fair to my investors, at no point did they rush me to monetize Watch Over Me. But as CEO, I knew that some form of revenue stream would be necessary to increase valuations (or even just maintain them).
But then another pressing question came up…
How do you put a price on safety?
There is no price. I didn’t create an app to help company track their truckers, to help nursing homes track their elderly residents, or to help parents track their kids — there were already a ton of other amazing businesses and apps out there doing that.
I felt trapped and I knew I had to make a decision. There were 2 stark choices, both on opposing ends of the spectrum:
- Basically suck it up and keep going because that’s what entrepreneurship is about. “You’ve gotta be tough and resilient” — words you are always hearing as an entrepreneur.
- Quit. Shut it down. Any cash you might potentially make from this will be funneled into hours of therapy treating your PTSD anyway.
So what do you do in this situation?
In the end, we came up with a middle ground.
My investors and I came up with a solution that would help take my team — the real people behind Watch Over Me — to a different level and give them great exposure. And in order to truly serve our mission, we collectively decided to do something radical that has hardly been done before — we decided to open source our technology. It might not be much, but it’s a step, I feel, in the right direction.
In the past week, I have had emails from countless organizations, startups and nonprofits, who are eager to take Watch Over Me on and to keep it alive, for free for our users and to continue to support the open sourcing efforts.
The team members who have decided to move on to joining Carousell are happy they are working on another service that serves millions of users worldwide. The moment I knew it was the right fit was when our team met with Siu Rui, Lucas, Marcus and one of their early employees Victor. Their openness and candidness helped me feel that this was going to be the best possible home for a team that has truly stuck by me through thick and thin.
I have a great team, and I have been fortunate enough to have a cofounder and great investors who were more than understanding and supportive after what I had shared with them.
I share all of this so my circle of friends and my network knows what happened.
I also share this as a message to any entrepreneur out there who might be struggling with the question I first asked myself: “Are you doing what you’re meant to be doing on this earth right now? And if you aren’t, is what you’re doing now going to help you get there?”
The truth is, we all have different kinds of missions. And there are so very many ways of achieving these missions. My biggest learning from this journey is that the best missions are those that not only tap into just a part of us, but rather the ones that fully tap into the core of who we are.
As for what’s next, the world is full of opportunities. But here is what I know for sure:
I’m excited to continue trying new business ideas and am passionate about pushing the prospects for women in technology in Southeast Asia and the world.
I hope to continue to play a constructive role in this very exciting ecosystem and as much as this has been a hard process, I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons, and the people. And most importantly, my team who put up with my experiments with leadership, always nudged me to be the best possible version of myself and stuck by me the moment I told them what was going on, not budging through seasons of uncertainty and job insecurity till the very end.
- Jinny Wong, one of the best CTOs a founder could ever hope to work with. Constantly constructive, a brilliant developer, and a strong ass leader and teacher. It has been a real honor working alongside you for the past 18 months.
- Edmund Hee, our brilliant Data Scientist in-training. At one point when James had to leave the company, you were the only developer left standing in the company and there were only 3 of us. You doubled down, picked up the slack, worked obscene hours just to support the business, as I scrambled around to hire a new CTO and a fresh team. The end of 2014 rolling into 2015 was a rough one, and I could not have done any of it without your support. As far as early employees go, you’re top notch.
- Alla and Cynthia, for continually supporting me first as friends, and then as team mates, continually contributing to the growth of the company. I will miss laughing with you guys every day, our girls’ nights, and sharing our law of attraction and manifestation stories.
- Abraham, Amelia, Raymond and Edward — for all that trust you put in me — flying all the way out here to Malaysia to join our young team, and pushing through, pushing me every day to be a better leader, a better CEO. Abraham walked up to me one day after a particularly grueling meeting informing everyone about the decision to sell and what might or might not happen next and said, “Xinch, I trust you. I trust you will take care of us.” I will carry that moment with me as a reminder how trust cannot be taken for granted, is not something that is given away easily.
- To my cofounder James, for responding with care and compassion when I first went to you in Old Town in Taman Desa, to share with you the struggle I was going through.
- To my investors Hiro, Shinji, Hide, James Tan and Khailee — for rallying around whatever decision I chose to make, and supporting me and believing in me in the process.
- To my friends and family (you all know who you are) who sat through hours of my inner conflict, debating and 3 years of my startup journey. I owe all of you a big party and many hugs all around.
Love, puppies, unicorns, and do what makes you come alive! :)