Whirling Thoughts

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

Category: Business Strategy

Creating a vision, building foundations

This year, I will be one of 4 cochairs for the Queen’s Tech and Media Association. I’ve taken to asking myself what I want to accomplish this year, and what would make this year a success.

I wanted to write this down because it’s important to have a larger goal in mind when you inevitably have to work through a mire of boring, mundane tasks to accomplish this vision. It’s easy to slack or stop giving 100% on these tasks without a strong vision.

QTMA is a product management organization. We build software products. But that simplifies things too much. I would argue we teach people how to build great products, launch these products, while creating awareness for tech as a viable and exciting career path for students.

  1. Our products acquire real users
  2. Our members recruit successfully into technology positions
  3. Our members walk away with new skills
  4. QTMA is one reason students end up choosing Queen’s Commerce (as is the same with our investment council and case teams)
  5. Members return next year, or if graduating, remain involved in some capacity.
  6. Everyone has a fun time

March hiring will soon be in full swing. Interviewing 50+ people in three days is not going to be fun, yet it is a necessary task for building a strong foundation for the coming year.

Good times ahead.

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 🙂

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.

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.

Why Are Muji Pens So Popular?

In the past few years, Muji has gotten a lot of attention for their pens. If you look around a classroom of university students, it’s likely you can find a good portion of them using a Muji pen or highlighter.

Something else that I’ve noticed is how some of my friends have purchased enough of these pens to cover the whole spectrum of the rainbow, and they take pride in using all these variations of colour when taking their notes.

Why have Muji pens become so popular? People have extreme brand loyalty to them, give them as gifts, and use them to write everything. It’s not something you’ll find with other brands such as Pentel or BIC, which people just buy for convenience.

I would argue that it comes down to minimalistic aesthetic, functionality, and the tactile experience of writing.

Minimalistic Aesthetic, Beautifully Functional

When you really look at the materials of a Muji pen, none of it really screams “premium”. The pen is made of translucent plastic with a metal tip. There’s nothing shiny about it. It’s just simple.

This is a widely documented stance from Muji, and their design philosophy invokes the idea that “Muji is enough”. This minimalistic message is a counter to the Western idea that “more is better”.

With other pens, you can find their packaging stuffed with features and benefits. In bold colours, they gloss about their soft-hand grip, the smoothest ink ever, and how it will last you for the next year.

But really, no consumer who is searching for cheap pens needs all that information. It’s arguably more than we need.

When you buy a Muji pen, they don’t even bother with the packaging. They leave them out in boxes and let you test them on paper pads before you buy them.

The pens are just your perfect, generic writing tool. They don’t have extra features. They’re perfectly round and smooth. There’s nothing you need to click to start writing, just pop off the cap, store it on the top of the pen, and start writing.

The simplicity is all you need.

The Tactile Experience of Writing

Before my own appreciation for Muji started, my friend commented that Muji pens just seemed to “make me want to write more.” How can such a basic pen possibly make me want to write more?

After a few years of working with these pens, I’ve realized it comes down to the combination of the ink’s consistency and the subtle vibration of the pen when you start writing.

Some pens are really inconsistent with their ink. They will dry out or flow too quickly, leading to faded colours. It’s more of a microfrustration than anything, but it’s something that rarely happens with Muji pens unless they run out of ink. The consistency of the colour in Muji makes writing with it really pleasing to the eye and makes people want to keep on writing.

I think that the most interesting part about a Muji pen is its subtle vibration and sound when you type. With many other pen brands, they are focused on creating an ink and writing experience that is smooth and frictionless.

Something that I’ve realized is that when a pen is too smooth, it is very easy to get sloppy with your writing. On top of that, the ink starts to run and blot too much.

With Muji pens, two things happen when you write. As the pointed tip moves across the paper, it makes a subtle scratching sound. The friction between the pen and paper causes this scratching sound while also causing the pen to vibrate subtly. There is a pleasurable tactile feedback to the pens that make you want to keep on writing. To me, the sensation is almost like carving words into the paper.

Verdict

Beautifully functional design and the realization that smoother isn’t always better, make Muji pens one of my favourites. Would highly recommend.

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