Entrepreneurial Readiness

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I remember when I told my colleagues at work that I would leave Google to pursue an MBA, people shared my happiness, but they were also surprised. Given the hands-on, creative, entrepreneurial image they had of me, they always imagined – almost expected – that I would leave the corporate life for the garage life, to start my own company. Yet that path was not any consideration for me at that time. 

Today, things are different. I am 31 years old and after multiple stints in the corporate tech world (which for me is anything that is 1 to 100, not 0 to 1), I finally feel ready. In the following I am going to talk a little about the notion of “Entrepreneurial Readiness.”

Experiential Readiness

I strongly believe in the notion of experiential readiness. Entrepreneurship has been and still is a very hot topic. It’s a popular thing to do. After hearing all the “dropped out of college and then started a successful company” stories, it’s just so natural to imagine yourself doing the same. But do you really have the right experience to do so? 

When college students ask me whether they should go an start a company straight out of college, I advise against it. I strongly believe there is a lot to be gained and learned in working in the corporate world for a few years. You learn about organizational structures, incentive systems, management styles, company goals, resource allocation decisions, as well as all its daily challenges around bureaucracy and politics. Not always fun experiences, but insanely valuable ones. These experiences are important for when you are actually starting your own company. The more you know, the less likely you are to make wrong decisions that could kill your company. 

There is plenty of studies that suggest that those who are successful founders are not straight out of college, but on average in their 40s (Harvard Business Review claims its 45 years). You could argue this is because they have a better network or are more credible when they go fundraising. While I think those are valid arguments, I believe that at its core it’s their experience that makes them more likely to succeed.

Motivational Readiness

There is a second type of readiness which is motivational readiness. Speaking from my own experience, I was not ready to start something after college, not ready after Google, and also not ready after my MBA. I always aspired to be an entrepreneur, but there was a gap between that aspiration and my readiness for it. I could have forced it, by throwing myself at it, but I always knew I still had to nurture that readiness. 

Things are different today. I am willing to take the risk, willing to take that salary cut, willing to work those extra hours, willing to not be protected by a strong employer brand anymore, willing to have to watch my expenses, willing to fully throw myself behind something I believe in. That’s a level of motivation that had to be nurtured. 

At Google, as exciting as my work was, it was always a small contribution to the whole. In the context of the entire company, my work was meaningful, but insignificant. This nurtured my desire to be in work environments where my contributions would matter ore. At Ofo, I would sometimes work until 5am, writing contracts for global deals we were doing. I was doing this enthusiastically, but I would still go to bed and wonder what it would be like to put all that effort into my own idea one day, not someone else’s idea. If it wasn't for those experiences then, I wouldn't have that readiness now. 

Financial Readiness

I think there is a third type of readiness for people who are considering entrepreneurship. It’s financial readiness. I think at different stages in your career, you will be optimizing for different things. 

The first few years of my career I was optimizing for safety. I wanted to work for a big brand and build up my reputation. I wanted that organizational support and mentorship. That came with a safe salary, and little equity. But it allowed me to build up savings that would later help me finance my MBA. 

Today, I am optimizing for different things. I want to maximize my upside and gain experience building something from 0 to 1. And once there, I want to grow a brand from 1 to 100 so that it, too, can give organizational support and mentorship to others. And for that, I know that I will have to live with a 60%+ pay-cut, or with many months or even years without accumulating savings. But that’s fine, because today I am finally ready to exchange these conditions for the upside – the financial upside, and the experiential one. 

By the way, you might have noticed that I didn’t use the word “start-up” in my article. To be honest, I don’t like that word. It’s overused, and to me, the notion of “starting something up” doesn’t embody the longevity I hope to instill into any of the business ventures I aspire to found. 

 Some sample names of successful entrepreneurs who weren't college dropouts. 

Some sample names of successful entrepreneurs who weren't college dropouts. 

China Musings #12: China's rise among the world's leading tech companies

Today, 8 out of 20 most valuable tech companies in the world come from #China. 

In the context of China, it would have been unimaginable in 2005 that the most valuable companies would be companies not owned by the government. Yet here we are, with 8 of them among the global tech elite. Just five years ago, China was represented with only three companies.

In 2013, this list had three other countries in the mix (Japan, Russia, Korea). Today, however, the list only has American and Chinese companies. An interesting development considering that in other industries, the largest players are rather distributed globally (think of car manufacturers, pharma, energy, and retail). The same cannot be said for the rapidly-growing tech industry. In a connected world where a tech company can achieve hyperscale in 3-5 years, having a huge homogeneous home market with deep pockets as the install base is proving to be a huge advantage.

Aside from the USA-China duality, the other major noticeable aspect of the list of the world’s largest tech giants is that it clearly shows a divide between top-tier companies and those further down the ladder. In fact, there is not a single company with a valuation between $200 billion and $450 billion. The top seven companies on the list account for 81% of the total value of the list, and they are all above the $450B mark. These include behemoths like Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft, but also two big Chinese companies as well (Tencent, Alibaba). Meanwhile, the bottom 14 companies muster up just 19% of the value – a fact that underlines how hard it is to vault a tech company into the upper echelon of the market.

And it looks more and more likely the next battleground in the coming decade will be between the tech giants from US and China. We live in interesting times... so, in all seriousness, what’s your China strategy? No matter if you are a business an individual, you just cannot ignore what’s going on in China.

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Thriving at the intersection of "it's hard, but it feels so damn right"

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A simple thought on how to think about whether you are at the right spot in your life. 

I was on the phone with my friend Matt the other day who is in LA hustling on his start-up. He was sharing how hard things are, that he barely gets to be social, and that it feels like a massive roller coaster day in and out – yet also how right it feels what he was doing. 

I was fully able to empathize with him because my situation wasn’t any different. Living a life between continents and in unknown cultures is really hard. It comes with a lot of loneliness, setbacks, unfamiliarity and self-doubt. Yet in spite of all this hardship, it still feels 100% right. 

Both Matt and my situation made me thing about this intersection of doing something that is really hard, but where you are able to bear that hardship because it feels so damn right. It’s this feeling of not wanting to be in any other place, not wanting to do anything else. It’s almost as if that hardship wasn’t taking away your energy, but it was fueling you. Being at that intersection is like the moment when your sail and the wind are aligned: you gain speed, you move ahead, you become unstoppable, nothing seems impossible, everything starts to make sense. 

Are you at that intersection? What would it take to get there for you? 

In my opinion, you don't get to that intersection by going towards what is hard. Just throwing yourself at hard things doesn't instantly make things feel right. But you ought to go towards what feels right. Often times, the "what feels right" is what is hard. It's those things that we normally shy away from because of all sorts of blockers we have (risk-averseness, fear of failure, judgement of other people, etc). Yet once you defy those blockers and walk towards the "what feels right" you might find yourself at that intersection sooner before you know it. 

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Investing in your differences to become unique

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Up until the age of 20, I had never lived outside of Germany where I was born. I had visited many countries, but had never lived in them. So during all the years growing up in Germany, my life was often about trying to “fit in.” Assimilation was my agenda, denouncing my differences was my goal. I was never in full denial of my Iranian identity, yet I certainly sought to find acceptance by trying to be more like the people around me. 

A turning point for me then was the first time I got to go abroad. In 2008 I went to Buenos Aires to study, and being there had a profound impact on me. The people I met found it fascinating that I was a Spanish-speaking, Persian-looking, German citizen. People wanted to be friends with me. During my time in Argentina, I realized for the first time in my life that being different wasn’t a bad thing, it was a great thing. That’s when I decided to not be in denial of my differences anymore, but to invest in being different. 

I realized that the more different I was, the more unique I was becoming. 

This, was a paradigm shift in my thinking. And it was the trigger that led me to make many of my life decisions. That’s why I invested in languages, traveled as much and far as I could, restlessly moved around the world, and continuously challenged myself to learn new skills (my ritual question here “when was the last time you did something new for the first time?” Don’t have an answer to it? Then it’s time to pick up something new). I made the world my playground, and pursued things that would add richness to my character. 

I am sharing this, hoping to encourage others – especially younger people – to not only fully own the parts of their identities that are different, but to also invest in all the parts of their lives that will allow them to be even more different. After all, why fit in if you can stand out? Why be one of many if you could be unique? Why follow others if you can be a trailblazer? 

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China Musings #10: Shanghai vs. Beijing

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Ever since I embarked on my journey to China, I got to spend a lot of time in between Beijing and Shanghai. With about ~24M citizens, each of these cities is about the size of Australia. Yet the cities couldn’t be more different from another in their character and vibe. The following is my take on Beijing and Shanghai based on experiences I have had this past year. 

Beijing – think of it as the ultimate Chinese city. With all government offices located there, it is the seat of power and politics. It’s also all about culture and history: the city has an extremely long and glorious history with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall and The Summer Palace. Beijing people live and love the history of their ancient city and are kind of set in their ways and lifestyles. They have almost an imperial love and facility with bureaucracy, politics and process. Because of that, Beijing people are people of the past and it’s “old money” that rules – also, it’s a city of relationships more than anything. With the best universities located in Beijing (think of Stanford, Harvard, etc. being in the same city), there is a massive output of talent and with that, entrepreneurship and start-ups. 

Shanghai – the ultimate cosmopolitan city. In a culture which stresses thousand years of continuous history, Shanghai is an aberration among Chinese cities. Development occurred almost entirely within the past 150 years from fishing village to a global modern city. Shanghai people love modernity and are proud of their rapid ascent. They adopt and embrace the change, thus making the city a hotbed for radical ideas, fashion, and money. It’s a financial hub with ultra modern state of the art infrastructure, excellent public transportation system, a stunning skyline and endless subway lines. Consequently, Shanghai is the city of “new money” and people are rather bottom-line-oriented. 

In my experience, foreigners who go to Beijing are very serious about China (language, culture, experience), whereas the foreigners that go to Shanghai are more cosmopolitan. It’s reflected somehow in the distribution of embassies (mostly in Beijing) and MNCs (mostly in Shanghai). Further, a major difference is the layout of the cities: Beijing is landlocked, while Shanghai is adjacent to the ocean. And while Beijing is dominated by highways cutting through it (there are six “ring roads” that circle around Beijing and people refer to those roads when they share their address “I live close to 3rd ring road North East exit..”), Shanghai’s highways are elevated and thus allow for easier mobility throughout the city. 

For me personally, my time in between both cities has taught me how your surroundings can bring out different sides of you. I feel different when I am in Shanghai compared to when I am in Beijing – measured in energy levels, creativity, lebenslust.

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China Musings #9: Learning Chinese

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Learning Chinese is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. There is no alternative to rote learning – spending hours and hours writing the same character over and over again. For an English speaker learning French, there are prompts. “Police” becomes ‘police,’ and ‘garden’ becomes ‘jardin.’ But a foreigner has no such guide into Chinese. Police is ‘jingcha’ and garden becomes ‘huayuan.’ And for every word, you have to learn various components: character, tone, sound and grammar (or lack thereof).

CHARACTERS – Chinese characters are core to the language and provide a rich link with the past. The characters represent complete ideas rather than just sounds, like letters. Pronunciation of Chinese words might change over the centuries, but the written character remains unchanged. The character for ‘fragrant’ may be pronounced ‘xiang,’ ‘heung,’ or ‘hong,’ but the character always means ‘fragrant.’ Characters keep history alive as they remain recognizable across thousands of years.

TONES – The pitch of each word affects its meaning. ‘Mai’ for instance, with a falling tone, means ‘to sell.’ But ‘mai’ with first a low falling and then a rising tone means precisely the opposite, ‘to buy.’ Even Chinese people find it confusing. At the Shanghai Stock Exchange brokers use slang to make sure to not mix up buy and sell words. There are four tones in Mandarin (and nine in Cantonese), so imagine how much difficulty this adds.

SOUND – Many words sound exactly the same or confusingly similar. Often Chinese people have to go to great lengths to define a character taken out of context. For example, it would be perfectly normal for someone to introduce himself with “Hello, I am Li – that’s the ‘li’ with the sign for tree on top and a seed underneath” or “Hi, I am Mrs. Wang – that’s the ‘wang’ used in ‘boundless oceans’ not the one that means ‘king.’”

GRAMMAR – The link in China between daily language and the past is strengthened further by a lack of tenses. “Mao Zedong is a good leader” and “Mao Zedong was a good leader” are not distinguished. Things that in our language are extinct, remain alive in Chinese. Imagine the confusion when you want to order boiled water (past tense; to make sure it’s clean), but then get boiling water (because it’s hard to express the past tense). Without the separation in language or thought between what ‘was’ and what ‘is,’ China’s past seems to merge into its present.

Chinese language is extremely sophisticated, representative of its rich history and profoundly tied to Chinese identity. Being part of that exclusive five-thousand-year-old club gives the Chinese a sense of separateness and self-esteem. It can occasionally develop into a sense of superiority, but no more than anywhere else. The language provides a permanent rigid connection to a past, while the society is changing and adapting at a pace never seen before.

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China Musings #8: How Didi took over Uber China

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This is first post in a two-part series about Didi. The first post will look back at Didi’s past and how they won against Uber China. The second part will look at Didi's current "War of the Century" against Meituan.

To most, ride-hailing company Didi is known as “the Uber of China,” a description that conveys the notion of Didi being a mere copycat of Uber. Yet the first time I felt that there was real innovation coming out of China, was the day I got to visit both companies back-to-back.

This was two years ago, and I remember starting the day feeling disdainful towards Didi, “the copycat,” yet sympathetic towards Uber China, “the original.” By the end of the day, my emotions had completely flip-flopped: I was deeply impressed by how Didi was building a ride-hailing experience with the Chinese user in mind, but doubtful about how Uber was trying to take a proven US product and push it into the Chinese market.

As so often, any company’s ability to succeed internationally largely depends on the degree to which they empathize with the needs of the local users. Take Beijing for a example, with 22M citizens it’s among the world’s ten most congested cities (8 Chinese cities in the top 20). From 2002 to 2017, in just 15 years, the number of cars quadrupled (!) from 1.5M to 6M, leading to a wide range of regulations (limited supply of vehicle licenses, exorbitant prices, long wait times, certain days you are not allowed to drive, etc.).

During their war with Uber China, Didi had launched a total of six or seven different services, ranging from carpooling and car rental to inter-city buses – all services that were addressing the actual transportation needs of the Chinese beyond just ride-sharing and thus giving them a perceived and actual edge. Even Didi’s name was empathetic towards the commuting pain that locals felt: in Mandarin it means “beep beep,” like a honking car (note: it also means “little brother”).

Now the truth is that there were other factors at play like for example that Didi was a homegrown company. For Uber, burning $2B in China was a big deal, yet for Didi (and for their investors TenCent and Alibaba), spending $2B to win at home was nothing. For Uber, China was a big opportunity, for Didi it was life or death.

In the end, Didi beat Uber China, and acquired their China business in exchange for $1B and a stake of 17.7%. Since then, Didi has grown to 400M registered users and 4M drivers, and delivers 25M rides a day in 400+ Chinese cities – roughly TWICE as many as Uber and all the other global sharing apps COMBINED. The acquisition further cemented Didi as the planet’s most valuable startup (for now), with a $56B valuation, speeding past Uber, whose most recent round saw its worth fall to just $48B.

Despite Uber’s stake in Didi, the two companies are in a fierce battle on global stage. Didi’s recent acquisition of 99 Taxis in Latin America was a provocation of Uber whose two largest markets are Mexico City and São Paulo. While still loss-making in China, Didi is poised to enter this battle with about $20B raised (more money than any VC-backed startup ever) and cash reserves of $12B.

A personal anecdote: our meeting with Uber China started with their off-the-shelf “from bits to atoms” PR story, and then ended with a picture of four women in miniskirts advertising open roles on their team. What actually did arouse us (non-sexually) was seeing CEO Travis continuously run back and forth hectically. About 18 months later, during my interview with Ofo, its co-founder asked me how Ofo can be successful outside of China, to which I responded with a lot of the aforementioned empathy points while also trashing Uber China. Clearly I had not done my homework, because he was actually an ex-Uber China employee and considered the “rising star” of the organization. He still hired me and we both found out later that he was actually supposed to host us at Uber China that day, but that Travis was in town and had pulled him into meetings.

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China Musings #7: Dealing with Pollution

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The first time I experienced the infamous Beijing pollution was during a 2-day layover on my way to North Korea. As we were were leaving Beijing, I remember asking a classmate who had previously lived in Beijing: “if you knew today that those four years of living here were going to shorten your life expectancy by 6 months, would you still do it?” The question led to a lively discussion as we were headed to the airport, yet we never really reached a conclusion.

Little did I know that two years later I would find myself asking the very same question as I go in and out of Beijing. While the overall situation in China has become better (NYT: Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China Is Winning – https://nyti.ms/2GhlOll), Beijing still far from being a welcoming and easy place to live – environmentally speaking.

The picture is from two weeks ago during a sandstorm when AQI levels hit 1,200 – which is ranked hazardous (the “green zone” is anything under 50). Eye infected, lungs filled with dust, and just generally feeling shitty. Now I wasn’t going to write a rant about the pollution, but I wanted to share the ways how I have seen people adapt and become creative around this issue. A few anecdotes from my many visits:

  • There is a brewery in Beijing that offers a discount on one of their beers depending on how high the AQI level is (the more polluted, the higher the discount).
  • I have seen real estate agents offer air purifiers as a way to rent out their properties: “rent this unit and get a complementary XiaoMi air purifier!”
  • There are plenty of bars and restaurants that advertise with "we have clean and purified air!" on their internet listings as a way to attract costumers.
  • The company I work for recently launched a new line of merchandise products... among them a branded respiratory mask (apparently some restaurant chains sell branded masks too).
  • Our employee kitchens have respiratory masks stocked right among all the snacks and drinks (...Snickers, potato chips, respiratory masks....). Ours cost, but other companies offer them as free perks.
  • Just as you would expect, some beauty brands have released entire pollution-dedicated product lines like face masks or "Anti-Pollution Emulsion."

While I still don't know the answer to the question I asked my classmate back then, I remain naively optimistic about the regenerative capabilities of my lungs.

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