My 2022 Annual Review: Come Alive
Written on 02 January 2023
Whenever I race, I would have trouble falling asleep the night before. Up until the flag-off buzzer goes off, I would feel anxious. My heart rate would be a few beats higher. But it’s the good kind of anxiety. The kind that makes me feel alive. Then it would be two and a half hours of pain before I cross the finishing line. Yet I would want to do it again and again, chasing that anxious feeling before every race and the satisfaction at the end of every race. I could be watching Netflix at home instead but I know it wouldn’t make me as happy.
2022 was a lot like this. I left my comfy well-paying job to found a startup with my high school friend and canoeing teammate Swee Kiat (SK). Was I anxious? Has it been hard work? Yes and yes. But I would do it again anytime. It's the type of thing that makes me feel alive.
After going through four ideas within the first month, SK and I started working on Dashibase and got off to a flying start. Developers liked the idea immediately, and it spread through word of mouth. Here's one of our favorite highlights: We spoke about our Notion-like interface at a meetup. The organizers liked it so much that they invited us to speak again at their main conference. Evan Yu, the creator of Vue, was in the audience and tweeted about our open-source repo, and it went viral! Over the next few months, we were also invited to interview for YC and received several verbal investment offers. When we started our entrepreneurship journey, we expected to fail about ten times before we find something that worked. The early success of Dashibase caught us by surprise. We rode the high for several months.
But after seven months of talking to users and iterating, our metrics were still not where we want them to be. As tough as it was, we realized Dashibase might not be the right idea yet and decided to pause it for now. We also decided not to pursue the verbal investment offers until we have better traction. We just had a gut feeling the timing is not right. Of course, this was only possible because we have a sizable piggy bank from our previous jobs and didn't need more money to survive.
We are now back at the drawing board, exploring a few new ideas. The novelty around the new startup is wearing off, and we are in the trough of sorrow, as Paul Graham described:
You might think this is the sad part of the story. On the contrary, I think this is where the fun actually begins.
It's almost like starting a second life, armed with all the lessons from the first. We are moving faster because we are ruthlessly cutting out all the things we learned that are unnecessary and avoiding the mistakes we made the first time around. And these are things that would be hard to learn if we hadn't gone through them ourselves. So being able to fail quickly in just seven months has been a great thing. (So if I can give a piece of advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs, it is this: You just have to do it.)
If I were to time-travel back to the start of 2022, here are a few things I would keep and change:
1. Keep: Have a cofounder
I had always thought about being a solo founder. But after this year, I realized it’s much better to have a cofounder. First, the journey can be bumpy and nobody would understand the nuances of my specific journey as well as my cofounder. It's helpful to have someone to share the challenges but more importantly, the fun. Second, we give each other feedback and push each other to do great work.
2. Keep: Stay physically and mentally fit
Despite my busy schedule, I still managed to work out almost every day. A big part was having my coach plan my workout every day and be my accountability buddy. Personally, working out helps me disconnect from work immediately, which is helpful because I usually cannot stop thinking about our startup. Also, staying physically fit helps me think better during the day.
3. Keep: Have a weekly changelog
Something that worked well for us was publishing our changelog every Monday. It served multiple purposes. First, because we know we want to announce something every week, we cut our scope or break bigger projects down into smaller parts. This helps us ship regularly, avoid scope creep, and not spend too much time building potentially the wrong things. Second, the changelog ensures we are regularly informing users about improvements to the product. A new feature adds no value to the user if they don't know about it.
4. Change: Start selling asap
When we were working on our first idea, a search engine for saved pages, I felt that many things were table stakes and we should definitely build them before launching. After we launched, we realized most of them did not matter at all. For example, I thought we should sync users' saved pages to the cloud so that they could access their saved pages on different devices. But we realized we could have tested the idea even if we stored the saved pages to local storage. For our latest idea, we started approaching potential customers even before we built the app. Of course, this depends on what you are working on but you should rarely be building without talking to potential customers. Most importantly, if people are not paying us, how do we know they actually value our solution?
5. Change: Be more open-minded
To sell asap, I had to overcome my hate for cold outreach. As a marketer, I got used to the idea that direct selling is bad. But direct selling can get us close to potential customers to learn how we can serve them better. Most cold outreach is terrible. But it can be done right. Being open-minded also applies to many other areas, such as design. SK often nudged me to entirely rethink how we could design our website and app, which led to better ideas such as having an interactive demo on our website and a Notion-like UI for our app.
6. Change: Be more curious and allocate time to explore
I had often felt that I should be doing the "important" work—creating designs, writing blog posts, replying to emails—instead of making time to explore, learn, and have fun. While taking the time to learn new things might not move the business forward directly, I find that it would indirectly. A specific example: Watching videos about Figma's auto-layout feature enabled me to create designs much faster than before. It's silly to just do, do, do without thinking about better ways of approaching the problem.
It has been a challenging year, for sure. But would I do it again? To feel alive? Hell yeah!
You stumble through your days
Got your head hung low
Your skies a shade of grey
Like a zombie in a maze
You're asleep inside
But you can shake awake
'Cause you're just a dead man walking
Thinking that's your only option
But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day
Sun is up and the color's blinding
Take the world and redefine it
Leave behind your narrow mind
You'll never be the same
Come alive, come alive
Go and light your light
Let it burn so bright
To the sky
And it's open wide
When the world becomes a fantasy
And you're more than you could ever be
'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open
And you know you can't go back again
To the world that you were living in
'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open
So, come alive (whoa)