Everyone’s entrepreneurship experience is different. If you binge watch a season or two of Shark Tank, you’ll see a wide range of reasons why people decide to start their own businesses.
While I’ve always fantasized of one day having an “A-ha” moment in the shower that somehow turns into a multi-million dollar business, this was not how I actually came up with my ecommerce business idea.
Let’s go back several years – my girlfriend (now wife) were both college graduates who had just moved to China. I made the move because she had a job offer there. I followed her there because I wanted to try something new. I didn’t know a word of Mandarin (other than “Ni hao”) and took an intensive Mandarin language course before landing an internship with a small electronics company. My starting salary as an intern was something like $300 USD a month, and I eventually worked my way up to full time employee status earning $1500 USD a month. When my girlfriend’s job eventually relocated us to the US, I convinced my company to let me start up their operations in the US.
What followed was four years of hard work, late night calls with my team in China, and many exhausting work trips (visiting clients, the team, their suppliers and partners). I spent those years accumulating knowledge of the industry and learning about the company’s products. I remember taking apart electronics components, putting them back together, experimenting, researching, learning…thousands of times. My natural curiosity and patience paid off, and it was evident in the sales revenues I helped bring in. The company’s customer base in the US (both b2b and b2c) grew quickly from zero to a few million a year. Some of my customers (engineers themselves) were even surprised when they learned that I did not have an engineering degree.
Most importantly, I invested those years into thinking like a business owner. Since I was the only one running the company’s North America operations – I had to think like a regional CEO for the company at times and make key strategic decisions for my company. Some days, I was acting like a customer service representative, responding to phone and email inquiries, which helped me learn what was and wasn’t working in my company’s products. Other days, I was a marketing specialist, setting up and optimizing my company’s SEO and AdWords account for their Shopify webpage (this one’s important – as I ended up applying my learnings when I eventually opened my own ecommerce store for my own company!) I cannot keep track of the number of hats I wore while I was working for my previous company – because it was such a small company, I was forced to do (and therefore learn) everything – from marketing/branding, product development, negotiating with suppliers, b2b/b2c sales, customer service, to ecommerce store creation and management.
It wasn’t until mid-2017 that I started to think about branching out and doing my own thing. Part of it was that I disagreed with the rest of my team on the future vision for the company, and part of it was that I was ready to be my own boss.
That was when I shared the idea of quitting my job at the company and doing my own thing with my wife (yes – we got married!). She was, of course, worried. She has always enjoyed the stability of working for her company. She likes knowing when she would get her regular paychecks, and enjoyed the fact that as long as she showed up to work and did a good job, her employer would continue to pay her. This would not be the case if you run your own company.
When I started thinking seriously about leaving my job, my salary, which was primarily sales commission, had grown to $250k that year…not a small amount to walk away from. Which made it all the harder for my fiance to get onboard with the idea of me starting my own company. It took several months of discussions until she gradually became comfortable with the idea of me quitting my job and starting my own company. I was going to create my own brand in the same industry, starting over from scratch.
At the end of 2017, I officially sent in my resignation letter to my ex boss. We parted on good terms. In keeping with good business practice, I was careful to cut off all communications with my previous customers and networks, and did not reach out to any of the suppliers that I had previously worked with. I was truly starting from the ground up. All I took with me were the years of experience and knowledge gained from working for my old company.
January, 2018 – I started to work on creating my own brand and company. My wife knew that I wasn’t going to be making money in the first six months to a year, maybe even more. You only have to google it to see all kinds of articles that report what % of small businesses fail within their first year, their second year, their fifth year. Not to mention all the causes of small business failures.
In my second year of owning and operating my own ecommerce company, I was able to bring in $1 million dollars in sales. Don’t worry – all the details of how I got to this point will soon be documented in a series of blog posts!
For now, let’s take a step back – how did I finally convince my wife to be onboard with my crazy idea of leaving behind a $250k annual salary to start my own company? How did we, as a family unit, decide to finally take that step?
Here are 3 main reasons that come to mind:
- My happiness and sense of fulfillment in my career is important to me and to my wife.
- I was growing increasingly unhappy working for someone else, for a myriad of reasons. I had spent months trying to convince my ex-boss to take certain business risks in order to grow the company, but management was reluctant to support these ideas. It came down to a difference in our visions. Feeling like my ideas did not align well with the company’s, and believing so much in my own ideas, I was ready to take my vision and turn it into my own brand/company. I knew that I would be much happier doing my own thing, my own way – and my wife was supportive of that.
- It’s also important to point out that I am a natural risk taker (I moved to China without knowing a word of Mandarin and never having visited before!) My sense of fulfillment comes from knowing I am working on something that I truly believe in, and this was impossible if I were to continue down the path as an employee at my previous company. As my wife deeply valued my happiness & sense of fulfillment, she wanted to support my decision to start my own company.
- You can’t retire early as a salaried employee.
- My wife and I both want to make a lot of money and retire young (ideally in our thirties) – this was a mutual goal we agreed on early in our relationship. We agreed that it’d be impossible if we were both salaried employees (sure, maybe if we were investment bankers making millions a year while living frugally, or early employees at a tech company before the company goes public – neither of which was the case). While both of our salaries have steadily risen over the past few years (we were both making six-figures), we’d still have to work for many more years before we could save enough money to retire comfortably. This was why we decided if our goal is to retire young, my wife (who is risk-adverse herself) would continue working her stable job while I took a gamble and created my own company. Because if my company succeeds, that’s the kind of money that would help us retire.
- Timing was important…it was either now or never!
- We’re lucky that we don’t have children or family that we need to take care of at the moment – I’d imagine my decision to quit my job to create my own business would be a lot more difficult to make if we had people depending on us financially. I was and am still young and passionate about my work…if there ever was a good time for me to take a leap of faith and a calculated risk in my career to do something I believed in, that time was now!
So, to go back to the topic of this post – “Should you start your own business?” The answer will obviously depend on each person’s situation, but in our situation, the answer turned out to be a firm “yes”. It took us a while to get there as a couple, but the 3 questions we asked ourselves were:
- Can we afford the (financial) risk of starting a company? Yes – we decided that my wife would keep working to earn a stable income, which will ensure we don’t go hungry even if my company fails!
- Is the business likely to succeed? Yes – I had learned so much from my previous company and proved myself an expert in the field. I became extremely knowledgeable about the products that had been and would be selling, and I shared a strong business plan for how I planned to get there (my wife made me pitch my business idea to her and pretended she was a Shark who was deciding whether to invest in my company – luckily I passed!). In the end, she also felt like my business was a risk worth taking as she believed I had a good chance of succeeding.
- Does starting a business fit into our long term goal? Yes – there were huge (potential) benefits of starting your own company. You own your own brand, your products – and nobody can take it away from you. You make the calls. Given our longer term goal of retiring ASAP, we knew we couldn’t get there by both being salaried employees, so this was a good time for me to start my own company.
I’ll write a separate blog post that goes into more details on how I actually went about starting my own business, so stay tuned!