I sat through several presentations by start-ups for ACE start-up grant yesterday as a panel member. As with all the past presentations, some were awarded, some rejected and some were invited to make further clarifications or adjustments to some aspects of their business plan before re-submission at another session.
Was glad to meet again one company that I had evaluated and provided feedback several months ago, and see that they have made significant inroads in their implementation in such a short time. I sense they will do well going forward with the energy that they have.
Meanwhile this week, the recently reconvened parliament debated on many issues, including encouraging start-ups. The start-up environment has changed quite a lot since I started my first venture 16 years ago. There were no start-up grants then that I could apply for. We pitch for funding from friends, family and those brave enough to trust their money on a yet-to-be-proven bunch.
There was no Blk 71 Ayer Rajah start-up friendly environment that we could hitch upon for a quick launch. We used part of a learning centre as a make-shift office and even converted a door from the office that had collapsed and turned it into a table, supported by two short cupboards.
Dr Koh Poh Koon cited an example of a local start-up, shopback being rejected for government support. I didn’t get to evaluate Shopback’s application so I do not know the circumstances on why they did not get the support. As a panellist for the past 4 years evaluating probably over 200 cases and mentoring some, there are many reasons for rejection. Some come with half-baked ideas that they struggle to articulate. Some could not communicate their ideas on paper or do not provide sufficient information that they do not even make it past the secretariat who sieves out the many proposals to allow only a few through for the panellists to evaluate at each session. Some do not meet the funding criteria for various reasons while some lack originality. The reasons are many.
Anyway, rejection is the name of the game for new entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. We have had our fair share of them – rejections from would-be investors, from government agencies, from customers and even from people we wanted to hire. One top graduate of a polytechnic applied for a job. When we offered, he turned us down saying that there’s no future working in a small start-up! Another took up the job and then resigned a few days later when a better offer came, paying an administrative bond that we had imposed on him. He said that he didn’t want to tarnish his resume if our start-up failed. How’s that for rejections. I have lost count of the number of rejections.
Last evening, a successful lawyer-turned-entrepreneur invited me to an event he was hosting. We had started our e-learning companies at around the same time in 2000. His company targeted corporations while we decided to focus on schools. We shared old stories over the dining table with the others. One thing we both agreed upon – entrepreneurship is a humbling experience. It does not matter if you graduated from a top school with sterling results or was a scholar or a great lawyer. You have to pitch to the customers and they will mostly decide based on your value-proposition, not how smart and successful you were in your previous profession or studies. And you will face lots of rejections. So what? Take it in your stride, learn why you got the rejection and figure out how to improve your product or sales pitch to have better luck the next time. You will get a lot of emotional ups and downs. Every success is a lot sweeter, every rejection hits you hard but you need to learn from these rejections.
I am happy to see that the environment for start-ups has become a lot better than it was 16 years ago. There are more government schemes that one can apply to, more mentorship programmes and start-up events, more start-up spaces and more venture funding activities. More people are turning to running start-ups to chase a dream rather than pursue a professional career. I hope government agencies, companies and customers can give innovative and energetic start-ups the business opportunities to grow. Looking back at my own start-up experience, we grew because there were business opportunities created then when IDA was pushing for broadband content usage in schools and created schemes to get local companies to put forward creative solutions. That short span of several years allowed competitive local solutions to emerge. For others, it could be different type of opportunities. But learning to see and seize the opportunity is very important for any start-up to succeed.
So if you want to run a start-up, grow a thick skin for rejections, learn to seize pockets of opportunities and get ready for the ups and downs.