5 Lessons I Learned From Starting a Company in Asia and Brought Back to the States
It was a snowy and frozen January in northeastern Pennsylvania, and all I could do to drown my post-holiday blues was daydream of beach adventures and subtropical weather. It was 2010 and I was unemployed, living at home with my parents on unemployment checks and buried under $100,000 of student-loan debt.
A few short weeks later, I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to start a new company with an old friend. I had $400 in my savings account, a credit card with a $1,000 limit and a burning desire to build a successful company. I know it sounds crazy, but looking back it was probably the smartest decision I have made.
Launching my company, Wafflehaus Media, in a foreign country, thousands of miles from family and most friends, was an enormous challenge. But the year I spent in Southeast Asia taught me a few invaluable lessons about a business launch that I still follow after returning to the States to start a new company. I share them below:
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1. Keep living costs as low as possible.
Starting a business takes time. I believe it can take at least two years to get a new venture humming along profitably. Because every dollar counts during the tenuous early stages of a company, an entrepreneur should live as frugally as possible.
Moving to Asia lowered my cost of living to roughly $700 a month -- which afforded me the use of a swimming pool and the services of a cleaning person. I was living in a high-rise condo in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A short walk from my apartment was a farmer's market with all the exotic fruits and vegetables I could ever want. With the money saved on our relatively frugal living costs, my partner and I were able to bootstrap our business ourselves.
I now live in New York City, which has a much higher cost of living. I still maintain a frugal lifestyle by New York City standards, spending roughly $3,500 per month. Note that a change in prices can spell life or death for a new company.
2. Don’t be afraid to overdeliver.
A low cost of living and negligible overhead costs in Malaysia allowed my partner and me to take risks we would not have been able to assume in the States.
Our relative financial security enabled us to overdeliver services to clients. As a result, our business could grow primarily through word-of-mouth and client endorsements.
Providing a portion of services to clients for free alleviated some of the pressure to be perfect and enabled me to learn on the job about web development, user experience, marketing and sales.
Today, I keep a tight grip on the finances of my new company, Student Loan Hero, but still strive to exceed users' expectations when possible. I also am still heavily involved with all aspects of the business, from app development to social media, because of the experiences I gained in Asia.
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3. Structure the schedule around productive times.
Being an entrepreneur means not being confined to a 9-to-5 schedule -- and that’s especially true if your clients are half a world away as mine were in Malaysia. Starting a business in Asia often meant making sales and customer service calls in the middle of the night.
In fact, my partner and I often worked from bars and nightclubs, since they had the most reliable Wi-Fi.
Today, I maintain a more traditional work schedule but still make sure I structure my days in a way that lets me to be as productive as possible. I schedule most of my phone calls and meetings after 2 p.m., which lets me focus on proactive, value-adding activities during the first half of my day instead of management and maintenance-related tasks.
4. Don't neglect a work-life balance.
Living in Southeast Asia dropped me quite literally in the middle of a tropical paradise. I visited beaches in Thailand and the rice paddies of Bali. Traveling gave me the ability to unplug from the startup grind.
I still recognize the value of having a work-life balance even in the bustle of New York City. If I find myself becoming distracted, I take a walk or go to the gym to clear my head. I may even call it a day entirely.
My experiences in Asia taught me that it's OK to have off days, as long as I realize how to manage them and optimize my schedule for productivity, not time spent. Now I know I can take a break if I need to because I'll make up for the time later on.
5. Embrace a do-or-die attitude.
The biggest challenge of moving to Asia to start a company was missing out on the support and social circle in the States I'd taken for granted. Being an entrepreneur can be enormously stressful, and my partner and I had to navigate many challenges on our own.
That said, removing ourselves from the safety net of family and other friends forced us to focus on profitability and constant growth. While I'm grateful now to be closer to loved ones, I still try to embrace that do-or-die attitude of having to succeed at all costs.
Being an entrepreneur means embracing risk, and moving to a foreign country to start a business is one of the biggest risks a person can take. My time in Asia taught me that if you want freedom from the shackles of a corporate job, you're going to have to fight for it. I still am.