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True Singapore startup stories: The dark side of the boom
IT has taken me to very dark places," reveals Markus Gnirck, a serial entrepreneur and investor, while reminiscing his nearly decade-long entrepreneurial journey. For a stretch this year, the 30-year-old struggled with depression and anxiety. He felt burned out, helpless, and averse to work and personal activities he once loved. Thankfully, a 10-day meditation retreat in Hong Kong saved him. It taught him that mind matters most, and even inspired him to start his latest project, a podcast series on mastering the mind and body.
Mr Gnirck - as do all entrepreneurs - has a grim story or two to tell. A few of these dark stories get out, but most do not see the light. This is lamentably true in Singapore, where startups only became a buzzword in the last five years, and where entrepreneurship still gets "development journalism" treatment.
That is, the media reports on startups with the goal to educate readers on entrepreneurship and help develop the nascent startup ecosystem, said to be a new growth pillar for Singapore's economy. It is why many startup stories here seem to only celebrate success: a "first-of-its-kind" innovation, an "oversubscribed" fundraise, or an exit.
But beyond the glitz of the startup world and the cult of founders (now a phenomenon in Silicon Valley), there lies a dark side.
May the following stories - all true accounts - remind us that entrepreneurship is not romanticised reverie but a crusade that demands resilience, courage and grit - and can break even the best of us.
Tribulations of starting up
Christopher Quek is no stranger to startup woes. As managing partner of venture capital firm Trive, the 39-year-old runs, on the side, a pro bono programme that offers mentorship to Singaporean entrepreneurs. Over the last seven years, Mr Quek has clocked almost 1,000 hours of mentoring nearly 500 local startups.
Asked what plagues entrepreneurs the most, the entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist shares this list:
2. Bankruptcy charges
3. Technology failures
4. Poaching by other firms
5. Predatory investments by venture capitalists
6. Fudging numbers and misrepresentation
7. Over-reliance on grants
8. Delusions of grandeur
9. Thrown out of the house for being an entrepreneur
"Mind you, these are the cases I am currently handling," Mr Quek says.
He recalls two recent cases of severe depression. One entrepreneur was suffering from paranoia and a loss of self worth, and the other was accusing others of causing his failure.Both happened to be facing bankruptcy charges, he says. The first was being sued for bankruptcy due to business failure, and the second could not finance his bank loan.
"Entrepreneurship is an intensely personal journey. It's incredibly difficult to separate your identity from the business that you're trying to create," Mr Quek says. Business setbacks - of which there are many - will seem like personal setbacks, he adds.
"In Singapore and Asia, the lack of family support for entrepreneurs, peer pressure to 'keep up with the Joneses', and the shame of failure, further aggravate the situation. Depression can quickly take root."
A local therapist affirms that entrepreneurs are susceptible to depression. Speaking anonymously, she cites reasons such as long working hours, possible repeated rejections or setbacks, a lack of recognition, and the entrepreneur's own personality and background. "He may have had a hard start to life, or have perfectionistic traits," she says.
Then there are entrepreneurs afflicted with the delusion of grandeur, who mistakenly believe that they are genius, wealthy or omnipotent, says Mr Quek.
"For one thing, they assume it is easy to raise funding. They usually ask for S$500,000 to S$2 million for an idea that has yet to be validated or come with a minimum viable product. They believe in Silicon Valley valuations but are limited in their capabilities."
Moreover, these entrepreneurs are likely to salary themselves "very highly as if they are professionals and not real entrepreneurs", Mr Quek says. He notes that in the early stages, entrepreneurs tend not to be able to pay themselves wages; some may draw a S$1,000-S$2,000 income a month at most.
Mr Quek's advice? Singaporean entrepreneurs should save 18 to 24 months of salary before starting up, or 36 months if they have a family to support.
Mind matters most
MARKUS Gnirck, a German living in Singapore, has been building and investing in startups for nearly the last 10 years. He started feeling desolate early this year, an emotion that perplexed him as he thought himself to be a positive and optimistic person.
"I can't pinpoint the exact moment when it all started. An emptiness started creeping up inside of me. It was like a dark spot of ink dropped into a pool of water that slowly got wider."
While he continued to excel at work - he is director of fintech investment firm tryb - and lead an outwardly healthy lifestyle - he does short- and long-distance running - he knew that his mental health had taken a battering.
"It was an eye opener for me, to see how the body can function well despite the mind not being in the right place. I was a professional track and field athlete; I had always believed that physical health was more important than mental health. I didn't know what mental health meant and oftentimes neglected it."
That neglect led to a myriad of problems, says Mr Gnirck. He could not sleep well, would wake up feeling drained even before the day started, and felt exhausted from doing things he once enjoyed, like meeting people, responding to emails and eating.
"These were clear signs that I was going to hit a brick wall at some point. They eventually led to my decision to take part in a week-long meditation retreat."
He enrolled himself at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Hong Kong, where he attended a 10-day residential course to learn Vipassana (one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation), and moved into a monastery-like centre with 30 other male attendees.
"Think of it as having 10 days to focus entirely on your mind and body, with no distractions, talking, interactions or technology, only a primarily vegetarian diet."
Mr Gnirck says that most of his course time was spent on meditating, a skill he acquired but which took a lot of practice and was not easy. Thankfully, his efforts paid off.
"My ego got shattered and the anxiety I had felt was resolved. I managed to relieve the pressure on myself and start a journey of self-love. I've never felt so free and happy."
He says that this feeling differs from that he gets out of adventure races, which gives him an adrenaline rush and a "high" that usually comes after a physical achievement.
"Spending 10 days looking inward involves a different kind of challenge, so the feelings of happiness and freedom are different as well. These come from a place of emotional and mental peace."
Mr Gnirck's takeaways from the retreat are that mind matters most; to always focus on the moment rather than set unattainable goals in the far future; and to be compassionate to others. He now runs uberhuman.me, a podcast series on how venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in Singapore master their mental and physical health to become successful and happy in life.
"Of course I still have my struggles. I'm still trying to reach unconditional compassion and understand certain individuals' ignorance. That is still really tough."
Finding the right partner
SYED Ali Ridha Madihid, a Singaporean with a seasoned career in e-commerce and logistics, failed in his first attempt to start a business. iCommerce Asia, an e-commerce enabler platform he founded in 2016, flopped after barely two years. The startup had run into cash flow issues and was not able to raise additional capital.
Mr Madihid says: "I was in a dark place, having lost my entire life savings and developed trust issues as I felt let down by my other co-founders and a few shareholders. Some confidants of mine were concerned that I would be suicidal, especially from being broke and having two young girls to support."
After shutting down iCommerce Asia, Mr Madihid met Ng Jun Kai, an aspiring entrepreneur, and the man with whom he would dream up the idea for his second startup - an e-commerce logistics firm that will help merchants, marketplaces and logistics businesses ship items seamlessly across South-east Asia.
Together with two others, Mr Madihid and Mr Ng launched Janio in March. Today, the startup ships up to 2,000 packages a day across South-east Asia and has plans to grow this number by five times in the next six months. Janio has also raised seed funding from local venture capital firm, Insignia Ventures, just six months after its launch.
Mr Madihid, who is Janio's chief operating officer, says it was fated that he got to know Mr Ng. "Jun Kai, who is 26 years old, and I, 36 years old, hit it off immediately despite the age difference. We make a good team, with his background in private equity and finance, and my experience with logistics and operations."
They had become acquainted through a mutual contact, Tan Ying Lan, who is founding managing director of Insignia Ventures, and would later become the first investor in Janio.
"Both Jun Kai and myself were at different 'dark' sides in our lives. Jun Kai was looking to find meaning in his life while I was hoping to understand the meaning of my failure."
Mr Madihid says failure made him see that his entrepreneurial journey is a spiritual one. "Though disappointed with my co-founders and shareholders of my previous venture, I don't hold any grudge and wish them the best. The way I see it, God was just clearing or offloading the excess baggage and leading me to success with the correct co-pilots."
The second-time entrepreneur has this to say to aspiring founders: "Don't do it! It's a lonely journey that can be physically and mentally exhausting, and spiritually challenging.
"But if you do decide to do it, you should just do it. You may fail, so be ready to dust it off and start over again because the journey will be enormously fulfilling."
Chasing the elusive idea
MATTHEW Yong's gravest moment in his entrepreneurial journey was when he ran out of ideas. It started when the co-founder of yoga mat maker Gorihaha was looking for his next game-changer after his first product, a premium yoga mat for adults, took off. Sales from the mat helped the company break even in just three months of incorporation.
"However, it was also at that point that we realised we weren't doing enough. There was no value in our creation. We felt empty," he says.
In the following weeks, Mr Yong and his co-founder threw themselves into brainstorming and evaluating a series of "crazy ideas" that they believed could be revolutionary. Those included a yoga bag, a yoga outfit for men, and even a mat designed for the "One Punch Man Workout", a fighter routine that comprises 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats.
None of those ventures worked out. Mr Yong says: "It was demoralising. As much as we tried, we weren't able to create something of value in the market."
But the twosome never gave up. Their break came when they recognised that they had to take a step back and review their efforts, instead of doubling down to find the next great idea. They did a SWOT analysis, which uncovered that they lacked focus. On the same day, they found their focus: a yoga product for beginners, specifically children.
Gorihaha's first prototype was a scaled-down version of its adult mat, of which Mr Yong was not proud. He says: "That was when we learnt that to create value, we must not be led by the creation of others! We have to be innovative, which is the biggest challenge."
To do that, Mr Yong and his co-founder reached out to the yoga community. They spent the next three months observing children's yoga classes, while constantly iterating on the design and unique value proposition of their kids' yoga mat, many versions of which were trialled at yoga studios and international schools. Finally, the OUAT Mat was born.
OUAT (pronounced as "what") is short for "once upon a time", the well-known first line of fairy tales. It is an interactive, illustrated, kid-sized yoga mat for children aged 4-8. Each mat tells a story around a set of beginner yoga poses, which allows the child to experience the various stretches in yoga.
Mr Yong says that every graphic on the mat is placed strategically based on anthropometric data on children. This is to provide an optimal stretch for the children when they do their yoga poses, and to limit the possibility of them getting hurt.
He adds: "For those that are still confused, think of the OUAT mat as a combination of storytelling, Twister and yoga. It takes the child through an enchanted storytelling process in a safe and creative environment, and promotes an interest in yoga."
The OUAT mat has been launched on Kickstarter, through which Mr Yong hopes to raise S$10,000 for production and marketing.
One thing he learnt from this experience is that entrepreneurs cannot go it alone. Having a community - whether yogis or crowdfunders - is always handy, he says. "If you are willing to ask, people are willing to help."
It's cool to be in the dark
GRACE Chng, a veteran tech correspondent in Singapore, finds tech or startup conferences "mostly in black".
"I guess it's cool," she says. "But they are also noisy, with many parallel things going on at the same time. Sometimes it's also the music - so loud. Is there a need to create a festival atmosphere? I don't understand this bit."
The 'cool' atmosphere certainly adds to the allure and trendiness of startups, with the dim, dusky lighting hiding more than faces - perhaps it also obscures the negatives of the startup life.
Those that appreciate the "darkness" say that it creates a cosy, relaxing and intimate environment that helps inspire people and is conducive for networking.
Tan Jie Hao, chief and co-founder of event tech service provider Micepad, says there is now a huge shift towards "experiential marketing" for events. Brands increasingly want to create unique and immersive experiences, such as by using massive LED walls as backdrops or amplifying their booths with large smart displays, he adds. "With the help of dim lighting, organisers are able to immerse exhibitors and attendees in exciting and captivating stage presentations, and more easily enhance the whole event experience."
* Watch the video at businesstimes.com.sg