Reflections: Circumstances, Luck & Execution

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In the past three months, reading the biography of “Steve Jobs” and Jim Collins’ “Great by Choice” made me think hard on my own shortcomings. Coupled with two exhausting trips to both Silicon Valley (San Francisco, US) and Zhong Guan Cun (Beijing, China) where anyone including myself looked at the groundbreaking successes of many technology companies with envy. While fighting hard against my own belief that success may be made easier being in another environment, I have come to a different conclusion towards something that was bothering me for a while.

Environment and Circumstances

“A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.”
– Hugh Downs

In Southeast Asia, it is a much difficult and different battleground for tech start-ups. The issue is often the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is established by the local community around the environment. As the years go by, when I see some investors from so and so famous venture capital firm pass by Singapore, I realized that they have often come to the same few conclusions with a set of pre-conceived biases and prejudices about the Southeast Asia market. To name a few, one, SEA is a fragmented market and two, there are no exits greater than US$30M that justify any one of them to come here. While some signs indicate the potential rise of Indonesian market, it is still a tough ride ahead for tech companies in this region.

We often hope for the eye of investors who looked at a large and heterogeneous market and the investors & older entrepreneurs to have a mindset of those in Silicon Valley & Zhong Guan Cun. The reality is totally the opposite. It also creates the constant platitude lingering in my mind that it would have been much easier if I have been in Silicon Valley, getting the millions to burn from the investors there and create a billion dollar company. In actual fact, we have only one strength but many deficits in the start-up scene. The only strength if you match founder to founder from Southeast Asia against Silicon Valley or Zhong Guan Cun, you won’t see much difference. The difference comes to the employees whether they can scale up to be part of the dream and the ecosystem being more friendly to help one another.

The problem with that thinking is that we can never able to move up the chain without self belief. If we accept the circumstances of our environment, the problem exacerbates in its own way that may be detrimental to how we should move forward despite the difficulties we faced. It may be luck of where you are that might determine your success. Personally, I have to fight against that viewpoint not with anyone but with myself. It’s something really hard to overcome.

Luck and Execution

“Greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstance; Greatness is first & foremost a matter of conscious choice & discipline.”
– Jim Collins, Great by Choice

Somehow, reading biographies of people (Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson) and companies (In the Plex by Steven Levy) and various books (Jim Collins’ “Great by Choice” and Simon Sinek’s “Start from Why”) helped me to overcome the lingering whim which seem to dominate most of my thought processes. It’s probably easier to explain via three simple arguments:

  • Every challenge is difficult and continues to exist whether the success rate is 10% or 0.1%: Here’s a way to think about the ecosystem in Southeast Asia against Silicon Valley and Zhong Guan Cun: the success rate with a good entrepreneurial ecosystem (which takes years to build) may be 0.1% for Southeast Asia and 10% for Silicon Valley or Zhong Guan Cun, with three essential components: one, finding good talent to help you scale your company; two, the abundance of funding from angel to high levels & powerful tech companies in the vicinity from Google to Baidu; and three, a positive feeling and a lively debate within the ecosystem. We will have to constantly be challenged if we are to take on the system fraught with difficulties and obstacles. If it’s that easy, everyone can be an entrepreneur. It’s actually dependent on how hard we keep thinking about the problem and constantly question the “why?” rather than the “how?” and “what?”. Even we fail in our present endeavors with the current start-ups, we can try again. Someone told me that it’s hard for me to try again if things don’t work out for what I am doing now. While hearing that really demoralizing and somewhat insulting comment, I was answering in my mind, “I don’t think so and I am going to try again whether I am 40 because I want to do what I like.” The central idea here is not whether one should try again. We just have to learn from our mistakes and try again even if the environment is not going to be friendly with us. The real lesson is that we have to accept the difficulty of our challenge and focus on solving the problem as hard and to the best we can.
  • Overcoming the increasing prevalent view that successes owes more to circumstances and luck than to action and discipline: Probably Jim Collins sums it in his book “Great by Choice”:

    Life offer no guarantees. But it does offer strategies for managing the odds, indeed, even managing luck. The eseence of “managing luck” involves four things: (1) cultivating the ability to zoom out to recognize luck when it happens, (2) developing the wisdom to see when, and when not, to let luck disrupt your plans, (3) being sufficiently well-prepared to endure an inevitable spate of bad luck, and (4) creating a positive return on luck – both good luck and bad – when it comes. Luck is not a strategy but getting a positive return on luck is”

  • Being resilient and figuring out how to execute the stormy present are keys to success: Having a clear vision and strategy armed with flawless execution still remains the way to build things whether it’s a project, enterprise or company. Sometimes, people give up when they are so close to getting the break. I have given up thinking about what life would be if I am not an entrepreneur. But in the end, I realized that it’s no point in looking back but looking forward to your next challenge in life.

Reflecting over the year, without a rigourous debate with my spouse and wife to be, I could not overcome the greatest enemy which is myself. Probably, we can never cease to learn and that’s what I hope this post here will remind me now and sometime in the future, whether success or failure.

“Good research advances understanding but never provides the ultimate answer; we always have more to learn. And Life offers no guarantees.”
– Jim Collins, “Great by Choice”

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist