$100,000 and the price of freedom
A long while ago, when I was on the first date with the Señor, I was admittedly quite tipsy because I had been in my boss' BBQ gathering for the whole day earlier. His wife was an excellent and charming host who kept pouring us more and more wine throughout the day. By the night time, I did not remember how many bottles it had been. I recalled not much of that night apart from crashing my bed right after the dinner, and of him asking a question.
"What do you ultimately want in life?"
I spoke inarticulately and unhesitatingly, with not many filters from a drunken mind.
"Freedom. I want to be free. From everything. I want to be free, from people... from things ... from myself. "
He was perplexed but intrigued "What do you mean?".
"You know... most people, ...you, me, we, us, ... have too many attachments. We depend on people, ... like on our friends, family, boyfriends, girlfriends for emotional support... and validation... We depend on our colleagues for increasing productivity... for promotion and corporate measurements of progress... We depend on material things to feel better, so everyone keeps buying... making more to collect more... Most severe of all, we depend on ourselves so much that we cannot step out of ourselves to think higher, can't step out of our own bias, our shadow, our past, our ego, our very skewed reality that we created ... Freedom is an illusion until we can remove every attachment. My ultimate goal is to be free from everything."
"And why is the freedom that important?" asked he.
I don't quite remember my answer to this one. Quite possibly, I had a verbal diarrhoea that led my response to nowhere. However, the vivid memory of my first reaction to this question made me believe in my subconscious confession of the yearning for freedom. While the freedom, to me, has varying definitions depending on who asks, I wanted to be free, whatever that may mean.
Like most things in life, being free has a price. I discovered the first instalment of this price when I left university and took the Investment Banking job at Goldman Sachs. I became free of education, lectures and exams, free of people teaching me of their biased versions of knowledge, and of people telling me what to expect at the end of the year and in the coming year. However, that freedom also meant I then took on real-world responsibilities, real-life money, bitter consequences, and had to decide myself on what/who to prioritise, what/who to learn from, and what/who to drop. For many times, I could not cope with the sudden amount of freedom given to me; I made the wrong choice, paid the price and learnt the lessons. Even as more competence was fostered, I did not have the chance and time to enjoy that much. As soon as I became better at my job at Goldman Sachs and comfortable with that freedom, I abruptly left. I am now paying in the second instalment of the price of freedom: being an entrepreneur for my own business Vietnam Inbound.
Since my last year at university in 2014, I tried to start multiple projects. Every project was new, every project was important, and of course I have repeatedly failed on every project every year.
- 2014 tombstone laid Project Bold - a social platform connecting people and influencers with whom have similar physical features.
- 2015 tombstone laid Project NAM - a tool to instantly improve your written English using Natural Langugage Processing from the enormous volume of classic texts.
- 2016 tombstone laid Next Speech - a speech-to-text voice diary app with a built-in social platform. For this one, I got some recognition from a seed funding competition. The app was eventually sold in 2017.
What I have concluded from these failures, more than anything, is my naivety. I can build anything, but I can't build everything. So I had to choose and did choose, admittedly rather naively. My naivety was about selecting what to focus on based on the "hype" - how big can it get? Can the idea raise any investments? I never admitted it but the herd nature in me was following the current buzz words at the time. I did not realise how foolish I was until I spent so much of my saved-up capitals on projects that did not materialise because it has no correlation with my natural strengths nor have I been genuinely passionate about the cause or missions of the project.
My dad once advised me. "A business' most important focus is to make money, nothing else. Your biggest investor is your customers. Do not take outside investments unless it gives you more leverages, but even so, you should take money only when you are capable of making some yourself first. Then you'll have the first leverage in negotiation." I wish I'd listened. I wish I chose something not because of the hype, not because of what the investors may think, but because I am good at it, passionate about it, and have a natural advantage to compete and find an arbitrage for the business to propsper.
After the previous projects have eaten up much of my run-way capital and savings, 2017 project looked to be my last chance, before I lost entirely the freedom to build and risking to constrain myself to a desk job just because of financial needs. This time, I decided to aim for profitability ie. focus on making money. I try my best to focus on this without being distracted. Finding an uncrowded space with less competition and existing demand, I shall not reinvent the wheel or try to build paradigm-shifting technologies that may, or may not, make economic sense. I told myself to try to find something I have a natural advantage of, and enjoy doing.
On the flight from Vietnam back to the UK with me, my now-co founder, who had worked in the travel industry for many years, told me he saw many opportunities to improve and capture market share in Vietnam travel industry. That caught my attention because I am quite patriotic about Vietnam. We discussed it details, but the idea of building a travel company with a focus on Vietnam / Cambodia was soon forgotten when we landed.
Then, of course, I made a mistake again of trying to build another "big" thing without a clear path to profitability. The 2017 tombstone laid Currency Collect - A currency exchange that imitates Transferwise model to provide cheaper travel cash. We owe thanks to the experienced CTO whom we recruited at that time, who pointed out a fundamental flaw in the business model.
It was painful to fold another business, but my now-co founder and I listened to him after we were unable to adequately provide a solution to this flaw; nor could we pivot to a better model. We decided it's time to be realistic, and more importantly for me, it's time to focus on profitability, what I am good at, and what I like doing. The idea of Vietnam Inbound, a travel company with a focus on Vietnam / Cambodia, then resurfaced.
Vietnam Inbound is a destination management company or an inbound travel agent to Vietnam and SE Asia. We provide a variety of tours and travel activities from short day tour to multi-day, week-long, multiple-week tours, cross-country tours, all-inclusive tours. We even provide custom designed tours for groups in Vietnam, Cambodia and other SE Asia destination of whatever our customers prefer to do but cannot find elsewhere (specific hiking routes, cave exploration, shopping tour or specific food tour etc.). We also provide A-Z packages and complete services of arranging visas, hotels, flights, custom tours, private transportation, private guides in multiple languages, luggage storage and literally everything and anything under the sun to make our customers happy. Our customers are both international individual travellers, groups, as well as international travel agents. Our mission is to bring more international visitors to Vietnam and SE Asia, providing each traveller with a happier and more fulfilling experience about this gorgeous country and region.
After the first month of launch, I am so amazed that we have now reached $100,000 in bookings, thanks to our customers' confidence in our price and service. (To be honest, that did surpass our expectation by miles). Slowly correcting my naivety of how "free" I think I would be if I were an entrepreneur, I realised being an entrepreneur is not free at all. In fact, I am everything for the business but free. My business Vietnam Inbound keeps me working harder and intensely focused every day to make every individual customer, every group, every travel agent, happy - Even if that means working at awkward extended hours, constantly on calls, spamming people on social media, ultra thick skin selling, extended negotiations with supplier to squeeze in that extra bits to fit the customer's specified budget, and more. I left my corporate job thinking I'd be free when becoming an entrepreneur, only to realise that I am still obligated in most aspects.
The only difference is, this is the obligation I chose to be bound by, passionate about and motivated to work for, every day. Whether it is my responsibility to a customer, to a supplier, to our employees, or to our bank, this is the price I have chosen to, very much happily, pay.
If you refer any friend(s) who books their Vietnam experience with us of $700 or more, we'll give you $50 in cash and give your friend $50 off as well. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your referral; We will do everything to make your friend happy and provide them with an ultra personalised service :)
Illustration: Thu Phan, Untitled, Vietnamese, Pen Drawing, 2014