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No Pain, No Gain: 4 Southeast Asian Founders Recall Their Darkest Hours

Straight talk from the founders of ONE Championship, Kalibrr, SALt, and Sakay.ph

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BY Marishka M. Cabrera - 02 May 2017

Chatri Sityodtong

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Almost every entrepreneurial journey worth remembering begins with a struggle.

Chatri Sityodtong—founder and chairman of mixed martial arts promotion company ONE Championship—remembers how he was initially “rejected” by people in the industry. Now ONE Championship is steadily growing and is set to become Asia’s first multi-billion sports media property.

Paul Rivera, founder and CEO of job-hunting platform Kalibrr, recalls how 80% of his staff at the call center he built prior to Kalibrr stepped out for lunch and never came back. “I had to jump on the phone and be a call center agent and try to replace the capacity of those eight people,” he says.

Things had gotten so bad over the next few months for the former Googler that the only way he could make money was through his service on Craig’s List where he would write other people’s resumes for $50.

In the recent Inc. 40 Philippine Forum held in A SPACE Greenbelt in Makati City, founders shared their thoughts on surviving the tough early days of their start-ups.

Here are three lessons for Southeast Asian entrepreneurs:

 

Don’t let roadblocks stop you

What differentiates successful founders is their ability to rise above the noise and use difficulties as motivation.

Chatri’s mother had no choice but to live with him at his dorm room in Harvard Business School—which he was able to go to on a scholarship—after the family fortune was wiped out by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. They lived on $4 a day and were unsure of how he was going to pay for school fees next semester.

“Come hell or high water, I’m going to do something with my life so my mom never suffers,” Chatri says.

For Raphael Mijeno, co-founder of SALt, maker of lamps powered by salt-water, developing and testing the product proved to be expensive, as the materials had to be sourced abroad. To secure a bit of money, he and his sister Aisa—also his co-founder—went out on a limb and sold their father’s car without his knowledge.

“It wasn’t easy breaking the news to my dad that his car was gone,” Mijeno says, adding that his father has since recovered from the surprise loss.

 

Don’t be afraid to stumble

Even with a business plan in place, it still takes time for any company to discover their true self and find out what they are really good at, says moderator Neel Chowdhury, CEO and editor-in-chief of Inc. Southeast Asia.

For Philip Cheang, co-founder of Sakay.ph, an app for commuting directions, they struggled with finding a product that stuck with consumers, especially for a team that started out as designers and programmers.

“You go out, you know you have the skills to make something, but whatever you do it doesn’t really pan out,” Cheang says. The key is to be willing to experiment. They found success in Sakay.ph, but it started out as a side project that they entered into a hackathon.

 

Be transparent, but control how information comes out

How much of the company’s struggles do founders share with their staff? How are founders able to balance transparency with the need to keep the team confident and motivated?

“I try to be as transparent as possible with my staff, but I also know that there is a big difference between a founder and an employee in terms of risk tolerance, mindset,” Chatri says

For Rivera, “At Kalibrr, we are super transparent. We don’t wait to get to the situation where you only have $5 in your bank account…I think my role is more of a coach for the team.”

Mijeno adds, “For us they [employees] are a part of it—whatever decision we make we ask them what their opinion is. And it’s a very good way to find who among your people have the same risk tolerance as you.”

Cheang agrees, adding that they try to share as much information as they can, but control how it comes out.