How I Almost Lost Hope In Life As A Start-Up Founder
I have been trying to build a truly innovative start-up that solves a global problem everyone faces that has the potential to become the first 100 billion USD start-up from ASEAN so I would have enough financial and economic influence to help Malaysia fulfil its full potential — by building schools & educating the electorate in rural areas so Malaysians can make well-informed decisions together — for nearly 10 years now.
This path is extremely hard, especially trying to do so in a nascent start-up ecosystem that isn’t really ready to support such an innovative start-up. I had to sacrifice everything, my life, my time, my money and the best years of my life.
It is also a very lonely journey that almost no one in this region would truly understand.
I know that if I don’t try everything I can, I would regret it. It’s made worse to know that you’re right about what you’re doing and its potential, but things doesn’t seem to be progressing much because you are stuck in an ecosystem that isn’t ready.
If I don’t do this, I don’t know anyone here who can. Even if they could, no one would, knowing the sacrifices they need to make in order to make this work.
Founder Depression Is Real
Sometimes, when all hope seems lost, nothing seems to work and no one seems to understand you, you really don’t feel like living anymore.
Every single day, I ask myself whether I should just stop and give up, but when I look at the progress, the people who are meeting each other on the app, the couple who got married because of our efforts, and the stories of those that have gone before me like Jack Ma and Elon Musk, I know that the struggle is part of the process, and I should continue, because I am on the right path.
From their stories, I know that it is normal for most people to think you are stupid, crazy, arrogant or overly ambitious when what you are doing is something disruptive that no one else has done before, even when it comes from successful people or even your idols whom you really respect.
Sometimes, they can be wrong because they are blinded by their past successes and ego. Elon Musk must be devastated when Neil Armstrong testified in congress to say that the private sector should not be building rockets and that reusable rockets are impossible to build. It must have hurt, but he pushed on because he saw something even experts din’t see, against all odds, and against the entire rocket science community.
I cry uncontrollably when I hear stories like these, because I can relate.
It is really sad when things like these happen. Founder depression is real. At its worst, I get panic attacks in the middle of the night, I get cold sweat, can’t sleep, and keep wanting to work and do whatever I can to make progress, even though there is just too much to be done in time and you are already completely exhausted.
Depression Is Not Just Sadness — It Is Much Worse Than Just Sadness
Most people mistake depression as just sadness, which happens to everyone, and people should just get over it and move on instead of complaining about it.
Depression is much worse than just sadness, it is a sense of hopelessness, a sense of futility, a sense of frustration that no matter what you do, you’re still stuck.
I got diagnosed by my friends who are practicing doctors, it is clinical depression, which would require medication if its serious. For me, at least I know that I am depressed, and hence can take steps to mitigate it.
When you are genuinely depressed, you truly believe that you prefer to be dead than alive, because being dead is a form of release, from the hopelessness in the world.
When You Lose Hope — Because All Efforts Are Futile
For those of you who knew me before 2013, I am actually a very positive and motivated person, one of the most lively, friendly and positive people you’ll ever meet.
I understand that many things are really just about perspective, and almost all problems can be solved through perseverance and taking action with the right solutions.
That’s true for most things, but trying to start a truly innovative start-up like Wowwwz from an ecosystem that isn’t ready like Malaysia and ASEAN is really really hard, because almost no one understands you, and some of the most successful people in this region think you are wrong, because they have never built something like this and have never learnt to see things the way the best in the world do.
It’s frustrating when you understand everything that they are saying, but still see things they don’t see that the best in the world see, but they refuse to learn because they are more successful than you now.
It’s made worse when they start to think that you are arrogant for not listening to them when the reality is the exact opposite, with them not willing to accept new ideas and the fact that things have changed since they last tried.
After a while, you start to doubt yourself and everything that you’ve learnt from the facts that are staring in your face and the honest advice from the first hand stories of people who have actually built world-changing companies that significantly changes the world.
You start to lose hope, when everything you are trying doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact. But for some reason, every time you feel like giving up and throwing in the towel, doors open, but only small ones, one by one.
It’s extremely frustrating when you know you’re right, and the results are starting to show you are right, and VCs in other markets have assured you that you are right, but you can’t participate because you are not a citizen of their country, that prevents them from investing in you, but you are stuck in a region where VCs just don’t get it.
When all your efforts are futile, you start to doubt whether “perseverance is key” is really true, and whether you are really cut out to do this.
Maybe you are just not privileged enough to attempt something like this.
It Is A Dark Dark Place Where You Genuinely Don’t Feel Like Living Anymore
When your life, your passion, your mission and your purpose is basically your work, and it seems hopeless, there really is nowhere to turn to. All you want to do is to work harder to make it work, no matter how long or how much effort it would take.
So, when things seem hopeless, especially when it comes to things that you can’t really control, like other people’s mindsets, you genuinely don’t feel like life has any meaning anymore. You’ll also be so exhausted and burnt out that you’d just rather not be alive.
Sometimes, that hopelessness brings your thoughts to a dark dark place, one that morphs into immense anger against people who are doing things wrongly and preventing society’s progress.
Only a sane perspective and hope can bring you back.
Hope — Is The ONE THING That Separates Superheroes Vs Supervillains
If you think about it, hope, is the one thing that separate superheroes from supervillains.
Most of the time, supervillains think they are doing the right thing. They genuinely believe that they are trying to save the world and are doing the world a good deed. The only difference is that they have lost hope in humanity and are taking things into their own hands. Magneto genuinely believes that he is doing good by helping the mutants take over the world and kill off a cruel and discriminatory human race which he has lost all hope in. Professor X, on the other hand, still has hope in the human race that they would one day learn how to accept the mutant race and work hand in hand with them.
It’s the same thing with Thanos and the Avengers. Thanos genuinely believes that he is saving the universe by wiping out half of the population to prevent living beings from destroying themselves by overpopulating the universe. He has lost hope in our ability to stop over-consumption and destroying our own planets in the process. The avengers, on the other hand, believe that there’s still hope that we can solve our own problems and prevent our living habits from destroying our universe in time.
Supervillains have given up hope on the good in humanity, hence they feel that it is okay to use whatever means possible to achieve their goals in making the world a better place, even if it means using force or unethical ways to get rid of those who stand in the way.
Hope, is the one thing that separates them.
That’s Why HOPE is the GREATEST Human Superpower
That’s why Professor X once said in an X-Men movie that HOPE is the greatest human superpower. I think that is very true.
2013 — When Programmers I Hired Just Couldn’t Deliver
There are a few key moments in my 10 year journey that made me really depressed.
One of them was when the programmers with more than 10 years experience that I hired just couldn’t deliver on building the first iteration of Wowwwz, known as We Could Happen then. It wasn’t my first time working with programmers, that’s why I did everything I was supposed to do as a non-technical project owner.
I made sure to hire experienced programmers, made sure to do up detailed page by page mock-ups, not to feature creep and was very clear on the spec sheet and repeatedly asked them whether they were able to execute on the project before I hired them.
I have also learnt to expect delays on such projects.
However, what was supposed to be a 3–4 month MVP became a 1 year project which still crashed on sign-up. They kept telling me that it can’t be done but everything I am learning online says that it can. I later found out from experienced technical founders from the Dotcom boom that I was right and my programmers were wrong. I have also since confirmed it by learning how to code and building what they said was impossible myself.
I was helpless and felt really depressed when that happens.
When I Realised That Privilege Is A Very Real Thing
Over the years, I also realised that the stories you read about in the media is often not the full story. Many of the most successful start-ups and businesses in this region are actually started by people from pretty privileged backgrounds.
When you see start-ups raising their first VC seed round, what you don’t know is how much personal or family money the founders have already invested into the start-up to get to a point where they got VC funding. Depending on the complexity of building the start-up, the amount ranges from the price of a decent house to tens of millions.
They are also often pretty well connected and always have a comfortable family background to fall back on and can still maintain a relatively comfortable lifestyle when building their start-up.
I realised that privilege is a very real thing, and I don’t really have that. I don’t come from a rich family and my parents are retired — not the rich enough to retire type, the too old so you have no choice type — and I have to earn everything and raise any money I need myself. Perhaps I am just not privileged enough to attempt something like this even though I have everything else it takes to make it happen.
When I Realised That You Needed Millions Of USD Just To Even Get Started
I used to be the guy at conferences looking for good software engineers to be my technical co-founder, until I become one myself. Right after I lost money hiring programmers who couldn’t deliver building We Could Happen, I kept wondering whether I was really that bad, maybe I am just not cut out to be an entrepreneur.
One day, a friend introduced me to one of the early software engineers of one of the most successful start-ups in this region, whose founder isn’t technical as well. I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong, why he was able to do it but I couldn’t.
I was also planning to hire the best development firm in Malaysia who alleged built the first version of their app, even though they are very expensive and would cost me a fortune, but I figured, if only the best will do, then so be it, I shall earn the money and do it. So I wanted to find out more about that firm and whether they are really that good.
I got even more depressed when I found out that the founder’s family actually put in close to 10 million USD just to get started before they got any outside VC funding, from which point everything was just numbers, and the founder too lost a lot of money on foreign outsourced developers who couldn’t deliver, and the amount was much more than what I lost.
I also found out that the firm I was planning to hire actually only built one small part of the app, the founder had to spend a lot of money to build out a full team for each platform the app was on and an on-ground operations and marketing team as well.
I don’t have that kind of money, and I also realised that earning money to hire the best outsourced development firm wasn’t sustainable even if I could, given the innovative nature of the start-up I am trying to build, I would need to keep re-iterating on the product.
I was very depressed at that point of time, because all seemed hopeless. It seems like only privileged people can start start-ups in this region.
But I knew I would regret it if I did not try everything I possibly can, so I picked myself up and learnt how to code myself, and built Wowwwz to be what it is today, an app with more than 5000 users, having couples getting together and even resulting in a couple getting married. Progress is still slow because it’s mostly a 1 man show, there are so many bugs that needs to be fixed, features to be built and things that could be improved, but we need enough resources to move faster.
When I Realised That The Ecosystem Just Isn’t Ready
I’ve had many honest conversations with mentors and the pioneers of the start-up scene in Malaysia and ASEAN as well, and I realised that our ecosystem just isn’t ready for truly innovative start-ups like Google, Facebook or Wowwwz.
If Google or Facebook started here in Malaysia, they would have died because no one would have funded them, because what they were doing sounded too ambitious and they din’t generate any significant revenue for the first few years of their lives.
It’s sad, because we have the talent and enough money in the ecosystem to get started, all that is required is a change in mindset among key gatekeepers, who’re doing it wrong.
Founder Stories Kept Me Going
Whenever I feel like giving up, founder stories from those who have gone before me like Jack Ma and Brian Chesky kept me going.
Even Patrick Grove tried for 8 years and re-mortgaged his house twice — but at least he had a house to remortgage — before things started to become better. At that time, I have only been trying for a few years, so I have no right to complain.
Knowing That You Are Not Alone In This Path — Others Have Gone Before You
Knowing that you are not the first one down this path and there were others who have went before you and that you are on the right path doing the right things encourages me. Understanding the challenges and that people doubting you is part of the process also makes the journey easier.
But sometimes, self-doubt does creep in and you wonder whether you are actually wrong or it won’t work for you because you are in another ecosystem or in the same ecosystem but building an entirely different kind of business that your ecosystem isn’t ready for.
But They Were In A Different Ecosystem — You Can Only Hope + Try Your Best
Given the circumstances, I can only try everything I can and hope for the best.
It’s Frustrating To Know That You Are Right But Stuck In The Wrong Ecosystem
When I came back from China and found out that I was right about what I am building and its potential all along and what was preventing me from moving forward was really because I was stuck in the wrong ecosystem with investors who don’t have the right mindset to invest in truly innovative start-ups like mine, it was truly frustrating.
If I was wrong, I would have gladly accepted my mistake and moved on. The frustrating part is that I was right, that the dating wars has just begun in China and whoever wins it would become the next 100 billion dollar company and I would have been part of it if only I was based in China and was a Chinese citizen or if I was based in Silicon Valley.
That’s deeply saddening and depressing, because I don’t know what else I can do.
Small Doors Are Opening — But Not Nearly Big Enough
Every time I felt like giving up and calling it quits, a small door opens, which gives me hope and something to pursue to move things forward. I know I would regret it and can’t say that I have tried everything I possibly can if I don’t pursue them.
Small doors are opening, but they are not nearly enough to see a real breakthrough.
Things Are Better — Because There Is HOPE — A Small Glimmer Of Hope — Is Still Hope
Now that I know how to code and build things myself and have raised a small pre-seed round, things are better, and there’s hope, but things are still moving too slowly because it’s still essentially a 1–2 man team. To truly progress and grow, we would need sufficient resources to hire out a proper team to build all the features we need to build and improve all the things we need to improve on but just don’t have sufficient time and resources to improve on because there are so many more urgent and pressing bugs to solve.
I Still Feel Depressed Sometimes — Maybe I Have Not Fully Recovered
Although there’s been progress, we have more than 5,000 users and growing, with people meeting each other and getting together on the app, there is still so much more that could be done if only we had the resources to do it faster.
Knowing that you are on to something and definitely on the right track but stuck in the wrong ecosystem where you can’t really do anything about it just feels frustrating and defeating — it feels hopeless.
That’s why I have to try everything I can, including sharing my story and the truth about our ecosystem in hopes of sparking a paradigm shift in thinking among investors.
There’s hope, in a sense that some US VCs based in Singapore who used to only invest in later stage start-ups here are starting to open up to more early stage ones like mine and some Indonesian VCs are also starting to make the shift to more innovative start-ups like mine, we’re currently talking to them, so let’s see what happens.
Despite that, I can’t help but still feel depressed sometimes, what if all of these things I am doing doesn’t work and is pointless? What if I am just wasting my time?
I don’t know, there’s hope, but maybe I have not fully recovered yet.
I Would Have Tried Everything I Can Possibly Try By Next July
I turn 30 by July 9, 2020.
By then, I would have tried everything I can possibly try — short of pointing a gun to someone’s head and using unethical means. I would have tried to start a paradigm shift in thinking among VCs in Southeast Asia, started a Youtube Channel about love and relationships in hopes of driving greater traction and built everything I can build with the limited time and resources I have.
I could continue to code and build out the app — there is an extensive list of features and tools I plan to build — but I am afraid that it would just be too slow, because it costs resources and time just to upgrade dependencies and maintain existing features due to the fast moving nature of tech and the mobile landscape. If you have a proper team, that’s negligible, but not if you are basically a 1 man operation.
I Would Have Sacrificed 10 Years Of My Life
By then, I would have sacrificed more than 10 years of my life, 11 to be exact, since I came back from Singapore on ASEAN scholarship when I was 19 trying to do this.
I Can Only HOPE — That Big Doors Will Open — And We Can Change The World Together
For now, I can only do everything I possibly can that’s within my control, and hope that more people would start to understand what I am doing and give this potentially world changing start-up from Malaysia & ASEAN a chance.
I Can Only HOPE — That We Can Help Everyone In This World Find True Love & Live Happily Ever After Together
There is so much more to be done, and we are ready. All we need is a slight shift in mindset and the support from all of you.
Let’s help everyone in this world find true love & live happily ever after together.
We can do this together, we all your help, WE CAN.
I hope you will help me so that I can build the tools to help everyone in this world find their soulmate whom they can grow old together and live long happy lives with.
If you have access to a brand, company, working building, community or even VCs, let me know; I can help you build a community of people who like your product or brand and introduce them to each other, or bring a community closer by introducing people at the same building or company to each other!
You can reach me at email@example.com or LinkedIn.
Don’t forget to share this story and all related stories to as many of your friends too, we need more people to spread the word so we can start a positive paradigm shift in our ecosystem.
Also, you can help by downloading the app, give us a good rating, subscribe to my Youtube Channel about relationships — coming soon, leave your email, join this Facebook Group and check back every few months for cool updates.
*Search for Wowwwz on the App Store or Play Store to download
JohnsonKhooTV — Subscribe to my upcoming Youtube Channel where I will be talking about real life stories about love & relationships
FB Group To Stay Updated On Wowwwz’s Journey — Join this Facebook Group so you can stay updated on our journey, new features and new stories and new updates on our quest to build a start-up that could help everyone in this world find true love and live happily ever after
Help me out, because many people’s lifetime happiness is in your hands.
Once you’ve downloaded the app and signed up, you can also start to meet other amazing single people in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore who share the same values and interests as you by scanning the QR codes below.
*Search for Wowwwz on the App Store or Play Store to download
SCAN with Wowwwz to meet amazing single people in Kuala Lumpur!
SCAN with Wowwwz to meet amazing single people in Singapore!
Do SHARE this with as many of your single friends as possible so they can find their soulmate soon, we can get more traction, and raise the funding necessary to build you more cool features that will help amazing single people meet each other and amazing couples grow their relationship!
Let’s do this together!
The world needs YOUR HELP so all of us can find true love!
You have the power to become a superhero!