Whirling Thoughts

Chewing, swishing, and spitting thoughts out. Personal blog of Nicholas Chan.

Know What You Want – Choosing to Leave a Business

It’s with mixed feelings that I have chosen to leave the business that I’ve spent the last 4 months working on. It’s called Cromble, and what we did was take brewing byproducts called spent grain from breweries then upcycle them into higher value products.

After the end of the summer I chose to take a week and reflect on whether continuing with this business was the right decision. This was not as cut or dry as it would seem. We had just received $15,000 in funding in addition to another $4000 in seed funding.

We had world class mentors. One of them had is PhD in molecular chemistry, and was building a startup in Silicon Valley. The other had sold a multi-million dollar chocolate business, and was focused on helping food startups commercialize their products.

I think that ultimately, I had to detach my emotions and critically evaluate whether continuing with this business would be helpful to my long-term career trajectory.

To do this, I filtered the decision through three key questions: what do I want? How do I get there? How does this business align with those goals?

What do I want?

When I was in high-school, I had the chance to interview the CEO of a rapidly growing marketing agency. To me, he was (and is) someone who was very successful. I asked him what he thought was the most important message he wanted to share with people.

I expected a long monologue. Instead all he said was “Know what you want, then everything else will follow”.

That was a recurring theme when I talked to other business leaders in my community. Another made the point of saying:

“As long as you know where you want to go, your decision making becomes way clearer. All you have to do is determine whether that decision will move you towards your goal.”

I want to own and run businesses in the future. But those businesses are the type that are digital in nature. I want to have multiple digital businesses that can be automated or systemized, which then gives me the financial freedom to pursue a “big bet” – a high-growth startup. For that high growth startup, it doesn’t matter if I am a founder or early employee, but I want to contribute to growing this business substantially.

In summary

  • Work in digital / tech based businesses
  • Be able to grow businesses
  • Own multiple businesses

How do I get there?

To me, the key thing linking all of these goals is my ability to drive revenue and grow businesses. Really, digital growth marketing.

This means I can drive revenue to my own businesses. It’s one skillset that allows me to contribute meaningfully on the business side that I haven’t developed yet.

For me, this means that I have to develop this skillset.

Does this business align with those goals?

Cromble is a logistics and R&D heavy business. It’s in the business of moving grain and processing grain.

The next steps in Cromble involve taking funding and investing heavily in those areas. It means lab work, trucks, and drying equipment.

I felt that while this was an exciting opportunity, when measured against what I want to do and how I need to get there, this was not the right business to get me there.

Moving Forward

I’ve chosen not to continue with Cromble, and I sincerely wish the best of luck for my 4 co-founders who have chosen to continue working on this business.

Moving forward, I am looking to sharpen my digital marketing toolkit at a technology company! Looking to work with some great people ūüôā

Confidence in Entrepreneurship

Having gone through the QICSI 2019 program this summer, I’ve had the unique opportunity to start a business. While I’ve chosen not to continue with this business moving forward, the experience has left me with many critical learnings and takeaways.

The most important thing I’ve learned has been to have confidence in myself and my capabilities.

Midway through the program, I realized that I had been setting a lot of mental barriers for myself when it came to having a business. I would tell myself that I needed more money, that I didn’t know enough, or that it wasn’t the right time for me to start a business.

Something that this summer program has taught me is that when you really dig into those barriers, they either don’t exist or can be easily overcome.

Don’t have the money? Do a couple of things. Figure out how you can start your business using… less money. Find a way to pre-sell products to add value (checkout Airbnb and Away Luggage strategies). Look for grants and research programs such as SREDS and pitch competitions.

Don’t know enough? No one does. One of the most important things is to have faith in your ability to learn things quickly. My business involved working with craft breweries and spent grain. I knew nothing about either. I quickly got up to speed reading articles and research.

Other ways that I found could quickly accelerate my learning were making sure I had a multi-disciplinary team that complemented my own skills, making sure to ask questions frequently and early, and making sure to… talk to people. It’s impossible to build a business in a silo. You can learn exponentially quicker by finding the right mentors or customers to talk to. There’s a lot of information that is not easy to Google, and the only way to unlock it is to talk to people.

Not the right time to start a business? It will never be the perfect time. It’s easy for us to make excuses, whether they are financial or otherwise. My perspective is that you really set the criteria for yourself on when the right time is. I would make the argument that as a student, it will likely never be easier than now.

Getting even older comes with even more obligations. You have the typical ideas of having a mortgage and kids. Other concerns that I’ve thought about are golden handcuffs and inertia from a cushy career. Why delay?

Grateful for the Opportunity

I had so many reservations about taking an opportunity like QICSI, where I had to work for myself. I don’t have any brand name on my resume. I got paid less than I would have in Toronto. I missed out on friends for an entire summer.

But I have no regrets.

Moving forward, I have confidence in my ability to start a business. To me, that is priceless.

Finding Milestones For Improvement

I started playing basketball with friends right before the summer of Grade 12. I was terrible. I would miss all my shots, not know where to move my feet, and foul people.

You know the kid that no one passes to? That was me.

I was really excited to start playing basketball. All my friends were doing it and I felt that it was a good way to unwind and spend more time with them. Since I also hate losing, I made a commitment to get a lot better at basketball.

That moment came when within a week, a good friend of mine decided to wait under the net, daring me to make a layup. When I got close to the net, rising up for the shot, he spiked the ball out of my hand.

“OhhhHHHhhhh” <- all my other friends

A couple of days after, some kid 4 years younger than me beat me.

Getting Better

So I started methodically getting better. Master right hand layups, then left hand layups. Master dribbling with both hands, then between the legs. Master shooting 3m away, then slowly moving further and further out.

Yet as I found myself practicing and practicing, it seemed as if I was not getting any better. I still kept missing shots. The ball would slip out of my hands when dribbling. Yet another person would block me viciously. It was pretty disheartening.

A month ago, now in the summer heading into my third year of university, I met up with my old high school friends to play basketball.

I scored a lot. It was as if the game had slowed down a little. It was easier to stop people who would always blow by me. It was clear to me that there had been a lot of tangible progress.

But I didn’t realize it until I went back to play with old friends.

Takeaways

My epiphany that day was that it is so hard to realize how we are constantly growing as an individual. It happens so gradually over time, that it is almost impossible to realize on a day to day basis.

It’s like watching a tulip bloom. You don’t realize it, but one day you walk out to the garden and BAM you see the vibrant colours of a blooming tulip.

This moment was a reminder to myself to make sure to reflect more deeply about my personal growth. Reflections on personal growth should extend beyond basketball though.

Recently, I have been thinking about how my confidence, sales skills, presentation skills, and general knowledge of business has expanded exponentially over time. There’s no other way to say it: I am proud of myself.

But there’s still so much to work on.

Things Take Time To Build

Coming into the QICSI program this summer, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on startups and particularly the type of company that I would like to build.

Something that I found myself assuming was that it would not take very long to build a business. I naively assumed that you could get something profitable up and running in a year.

How wrong I was.

Companies which have graduated from the program have come back to discuss their experiences. What has struck me has been their lengthy timelines. One company, while having signed government contracts and won several international pitch competitions, is still working on their commercial product two years out from when they started working full time on their venture.

Another found details how she watched her friends signing full-time lucrative jobs when she graduated from the program, while she was sitting in Kingston, on a fold-out table, applying for funding grants. Only recently, three years out from starting work full time, has she started to gain significant traction. She has just been able to afford to open an office in Toronto.

Reflecting on companies like Shopify. who were founded in 2004, it took them 10 years to reach IPO. They only recently passed $1bn in sales.

For me, this is a sobering reminder of the lengthy timelines required to build a scale business. Something to keep in mind as the program moves forward.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

A recent debate started by an article has caused me to begin questioning the worth of good intentions. Specifically, is a good, well-meaning intention enough to justify poor execution?

For light context, this was an article that sparked debate about the lack of initiatives within the Queen’s Commerce Program supporting among other things, diversity in income, hiring, admissions, and support for marginalized groups. It examined the notion of privilege within the program, and the lack of help for those without said privilege. However, in it’s writing, it was an article that was, in my opinion, one that failed to perform the adequate research ahead of time or provide meaningful solutions.

To backtrack, I whole-heartedly agree that there should be some more supportive diversity initiatives within this program and school. I love this school, and it has provided me with opportunities to meet executives, hone my skills, and meet like-minded people. There are more opportunities, amazing people, and challenging ideas here than I have experienced anywhere else.

Racism continues to exist, with racist graffiti being sprayed on the walls of my school and students being assaulted for their race in this city. Privilege exists. I have sat through meetings where my peers complain about how once their father had spend $1500 to cover their cellular data overuse penalties, the $50+ Uber expenses sent to parents because they didn’t want to walk a few meters, what a pain it is to have to fly often to international destinations, and the heirloom LV bag waiting for them once they got a job. People skip class or loaf through this program because they have a job lined up or enough money that it does not matter, when there are those struggling to complete the program or choose to not attend for financial reasons. These are some real issues, though they are not always top of mind

I say this to highlight that the intention of the article was amazing. That the cause certainly has merit. But the execution was terrible. I could not agree with this article.

In failing to adequately research the article, it resulted in a piece of writing that was indefensible. It was full of holes, came off as a rant, and misrepresented statistics. This had the consequence of diluting its very real message and infuriating a good portion of the program, minorities included. No one listens when they are angry. And it’s important that people listen, particularly those who fail to agree, because the purpose of starting a debate is to convince these people that there is a need for change and to listen. Otherwise, you aggravate an “us vs them” mentality that is not helpful when tackling multi-lateral issues.

In a way, this article undermined the author’s cause, which is a shame.

When stating or assuming that “good intentions are enough” it brings to mind the quote “the mean justifies the end.” It doesn’t matter how you act to achieve a goal, so long as the goal is achieved. In parallel, the assumption here is that as long as good intentions exist, it doesn’t matter how you achieve this goal.

Donald Trump is the perfect example of this. I’m sure in his mind, he has some good intentions. He wants help the blue collar workers, reduce illegal immigration, and create jobs. Admirable goals, good intentions. In reality, he started a trade war which has hurt farmers,separated families at the border, and caused an iconic manufacturer to leave the country. Poor execution.

So intention needs to be supported by effective, tactful action and execution. Failing do so puts you in the company of someone like Trump, no matter how good your intentions might be. Trump’s intentions are good too. Actionably, for any initiative, this means at a minimum, doing thorough research ahead of time, consulting with key stakeholders, and reflecting thoughtfully on how messages or initiatives will be perceived by these stakeholders.

Good intentions are not enough.

Difference Between Being “Successful” & Not- Use of Free Time

Reflecting this part month, I was thinking about what allows people to be “high-performers”. This is idea is not particularly ground-breaking, but thought it would be worth writing regardless.

The mentality is that “everyone only has 24 hours in a day”. Elon Musk has 24 hours in his day. Tim Cook has 24 hours. You and I have 24 hours. The only difference is essentially how we use that free time.

Digging deeper, what distinguishes students who excel in a program and those who do not? Everyone spends similar amounts of their time in class. They learn the same material, do the same assignments, read the same textbook. Yet why are there different outcomes at the end of the program? What remains variable? The only thing that changes is how people use their time outside of class.

There’s a certain set of things that you can end up using your time. You can choose to study, read, exercise, do extracurriculars, watch Netflix, party and who knows what else.

Some have direct effects on becoming a smarter person. Other have indirect effects. Sleeping is not a productive activity, but allows me to be more productive. Same with exercise. Even partying in moderation, lets me destress and meet more people. And of course, some activities have no value or negative value. For me, Netflix is a time sink that adds little to no value to my life.

Finding the right mix of the activities that works for you is key. There are certainly people who can do it all. For me, I definitely place high value on quality of sleep, exercise, reading, and extracurriculars.

School work is a low priority (not a true differentiator). Partying is an activity best done in moderation.

I encourage you to reflect on how you are spending your time ūüôā

QTMA Product Diaries 1: Ideation Process, Blockchain, and Dev Management

This year, as part of the Queen’s Tech and Media Association (QTMA), I have the pleasure of working as a product manager with a team of developers in order to build a software product. It has been an immersive experience which has forced a lot of thinking about team management, business models, product development, and technology trends.

As part of the process, it will be fun to document the process, mistakes, and wins for future product teams on QTMA. This gives myself a chance to reflect a little more on some of the lessons that I’ve learned myself.

The product my team is working on focuses on allowing universities, online course providers, and businesses to easily issue and verify educational certificates and degrees. This will prevent fraud and drastically cut down the amount of time being spent verifying these documents.

Brainstorming Process

Something that always comes up when looking to start a project is the refrain “I don’t have a good idea.” We ran into the exact same roadblock.

In coming up with our product idea, we started by listing out “cool ideas.” Eventually, we landed on the idea of verifying educational certificates using blockchain¬†technology.

The trap¬†that I really wanted to avoid with this product is working or building a product that is technically interesting, but with no real usage case. When that happens, developers (and even myself) will quickly lose motivation, because frankly, what’s the point? It’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources and something better left for personal side projects.

In reflection, this process wasn’t very efficient and there was a lot of time and effort wasted. If we were to work through ideation phase again, I would have placed more emphasis on implementing a design thinking process.

This is a methodology focusing on identifying problems, their root causes, and ideating solutions to target these root causes. This is opposed to being enamored with the technical complexity and “cool” factor of a product. In short, design thinking is a process that focused on creating sustainable solutions first and technology second.

One idea that our team is looking at implementing from design thinking is rapid ideation and prototyping. Rather than using a linear development process, where you only show users the product at the end of the cycle, you constantly create prototypes, show them to users, and add/remove features based on feedback.

I’m excited about showing this product to potential end users this year¬†on a constant basis. That is going to involve setting up business development efforts, asking questions, and getting in front of real people. It sounds like a hassle, but these are the skills and experiences that are incredibly valuable should anyone on the team desire to jump into working on their own products or startups.

Blockchain Technology and Opportunities

Why are we using blockchain? Frankly, it’s because one of our developers really wanted to work with the technology.

Blockchain is an area with large amounts of skepticism and hype. Bitcoin is the best known example of this. The technology is in its infancy and requires significant time before maturity. One way to move toward that level of maturity is by experimenting and ideating business models which can effectively use it.

One thing that blockchain is good at is creating trust and authenticity. You can use it to verify the authenticity and origin of documents, transactions, and other assets easily. A great fit for what we are trying to do with educational certificates.

Team Management – Communicating with Developers

Developers are a tribe of blunt and analytical people. It’s refreshing. They frequently ask questions, demand clarification, and offer criticism of ideas.

As a PM, there  I focus on three areas to make sure I can work well with my team.

  1. Knowing what I want
    1. I aim to always be clear with my vision of the product and what exactly we are building. I try and leave as little ambiguity as possible when it comes to assigning tasks. Explaining the reasons behind a task is also crucial for allowing devs to make decisions. The worst thing for developers is ambiguity and vague statements.
  2. Making sure they get what they want
    1. What do these developers want to learn? One of them wants to work with blockchain. The other two want to work on their web development skills. I made sure our project was blockchain based and that there would be web development modules for the developers to work through.
  3. Knowing my stuff
    1. As a developer, there are things that I know and I don’t. However, that’s no excuse for me to ask stupid questions. Taking the time to read up on concepts, dive into the code, and understand the technology we are working with has gone a long way.

Moving Forward

Our next steps are to start building out our MVP. This means setting up the Ethereum smart contracts that allow for the issuance & verification of the product while creating a simple frontend UI to interact with the blockchain.We’re going to be building out these features during 4 hour hack sessions.

Until next time ūüôā

How to Avoid Travel Burnout – Plan Less

Vacations should lead to a feeling of refreshment, a renewed sense of excitement and energy. Isn’t that supposed to be the point?

Yet sometimes, I find that going on vacation turns into an experience more exhausting than everyday life. There is always an urge to cram as many events, restaurants, and attractions into the fleeting few days you have in a city or country.

Isn’t it so strange that we complain about waking up for a 9-5 job, yet on vacation, we gladly pack our days from 8am to 8pm?

Recently, I took a trip to Quebec City without any planning whatsoever. Other than the flight tickets and accommodations, I simply left my schedule open and free for exploration.

Quebec City – No Plans Made

Without a set plan or schedule, I had the opportunity to explore things on my own pace and be spontaneous, pursuing opportunities and interactions that I likely would have avoided. These include:

  • Chatting to a 50-year old woman on the plane, before hitching a ride with her daughter into the city. I am grateful that they treated me to lunch and coffee, while sharing some of the best restaurants and experiences in the city
  • Sitting down for two hours in beautiful Petit Champlain, listening to a street musician strum his harp while journalling
  • Taking advantage of a beautiful day to rent a bike and ride a 25km trail along the St. Lawrence River upon the recommendation of the bike shop owner
  • Watching a hilarious Mexican street performer defy gravity, balancing, climbing, and dropping from a 20ft pole.
  • Savoring fresh, amazingly sweet raspberries and blueberries from local farms, while wandering through the farmer and artisan’s market
  • Absorbing beautiful Inuit and Quebecois art at the Musee de Beaux Arts for, simply because I was in the area

As I slowly ambled my way through the old city, I found that I actually ended up seeing all of the main tourist attractions such as the churches, plains, and the old port and city.

Trust Your Feet

In any case, I have found that I can trust my feet and a sense of adventure to find myself something interesting to do to fill up my time.

I am advocating for planning less during trips when possible and exploring at a more organic pace. There’s less stress, no need to rush, and you will still be able to find the major tourist attractions while stumbling upon more of the little interactions and moments which truly make travel so enjoyable.

First Year Internships – Take The Learning Opportunity

Coming back from a trip to Kingston, my housemates and I were discussing each others’ summer jobs. Being in Queen’s Commerce, a very career-oriented business program, we all felt the pressure to land an internship for the summer.

We are all currently three months into our roles and during the three-hour commute, we had a chance to discuss how we like our jobs and roles.

The words “I hate my job” and “I don’t have much to do” and “I have a lot of free time” came up during the discussion.

The challenge that hits a lot of first-year students in business roles is two-fold. First, it’s significantly harder for you to land a job because it is believed that you lack experience. Second, once you land the job, the reality is that you are often giving routine, mindless tasks that no one else does.

Is this part of the overall job hunting process? Yes. But are there ways to avoid it? I would believe so.

Another friend of mine has had a great time working at an ecommerce / marketing startup this summer. She finds the work engaging, interesting, and one where she is constantly learning new things.

I also had the same experience working at an early-stage startup called Jrop, where I learned a lot about sales, autonomous vehicles, and an up-close look at the nitty-gritty details of execution / strategy that comes with running any business. Very few people know this company exists.

While landing big names in first year will look great on the resume, it appears that many (not all) of these jobs devolve into some form of grabbing coffee, formatting documents, and other routine work. Frankly, these are not activities that make you a smarter and more interesting person, no matter what company you work at.

At the end of the day, your job is an outlet to learn something new, grow as a person, and meet new people. All of this is what contributes to you landing another job.

Finding roles at smaller companies is a good way to get the increased flexibility and learning opportunities. They are generally more accessible and more willing to give first-year interns more free reign. Rather than simply looking to land big names, I would encourage future first-years to find these high-growth opportunities.

Building A Stream Of Information – I’m Unsubscribing From The Economist

One of the most crucial components to maintaining an edge in business / life is access to relevant, high-quality information. This information shapes our perspectives, decisions, and acts as the basis for new ideas or strategies.

So in the pursuit of this information advantage, common advice that is given is to read the news. The intent behind this is well-meaning, but the reality is that reading the news turns into you swimming through oceans of irrelevant information, overreactions, and repeats of company press releases. Occasionally, you come across an article that will change perspectives or add significant value, but skimming through news sites to find these nuggets of gold is extremely time consuming.

To me, staying informed is a situation where quality matters exponentially more than quantity. What defines quality? My litmus test is whether it unlocks a new perspective and provides applicable information to my fields of interest.

Those criteria also mean that everyone should build out a stream of information that uniquely suits their needs rather than listening to general advice.

On The Economist

I recently subscribed to The Economist on the recommendation of several friends. It does a great job of analyzing geopolitical trends, politics, and providing a global perspective. The Economist has definitely made me smarter.

But recently, I’ve asked myself how useful this information is to my own interests¬† in technology, startups, and business strategy. My conclusion is that other than a few talking points, the information that I’m absorbing through The Economist has largely been redundant.

The pieces of information that would interest me, have already come in through other new sources in my stream of information.

My largest complaint of The Economist is that it is reactionary in its coverage and analysis. They provide few robust analyses on business strategy and trends in the future.

I get it, that’s not what The Economist does, their focus is on economics and geopolitics. My interests and the magazine’s interests don’t align, so it’s time to switch off.

The New Information Stream

My subscription of choice moving forward will likely be the Harvard Business Review. Their in-depth case studies, CEO interviews, and discussion of technological trends in business are more suited to my personal interests.

To keep myself up to date on significant news items, I am a fan of using newsletters which sort out irrelevant information. The Hustle¬†is my go-to for daily business and tech news; Seeking Alpha’s Wall Street Breakfast¬†is a short, digestible, daily breakdown of news from a financial lens;¬†Abnormal Returns¬†for curated article links on personal finance, investment strategies, and news from a financial lens;¬†The Tim Ferriss Show¬†is my podcast for learning about how high-performers think and operate through in-depth one on one interviews; National Geographic¬†is my favourite magazine and it provides a holistic view of politics, culture, and nature through their passionate photographs and storytelling.

Moving forward, I will continue adjusting these information sources as my needs and interests change. So far, I am happy with the quality of information these sources provide. They keep me from being caught flat-footed in conversations while providing me with information that helps me make better decisions.

 

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