Saying “No” vs. Saying “Yes”
In September 2016, I was out of a seemingly stable corporate America job and took the opportunity to embark on a journey to search for my next life adventure. However, for someone who had just sunk $200K into an MBA, I knew that I had some of that “indefinite optimist” syndrome (according to Peter Tiel) left in me – “an indefinite optimist thinks the future will be better but does not know exactly how, so he expects to profit from the future but does not see any reason to design it concretely.” One product of “indefinite optimism” is a lack of ability to make clear decisions in the face of too many choices, a situation that often mires our MBA types. The only antidote is to know what one wants exactly and how to get it. In practice, it means having the courage and the fortitude to say No to many things. It’s not easy but life has few shortcuts – I want to build (or help build) a great company in the driver’s seat!
Over the next 7 months, I kept on saying No to things – consulting project offers, my own start-up idea in the retirement income space, approaches from headhunters, opportunities to join other start-ups and mature companies…I knew it would not be a smooth process but sometimes it did seem like there would be no end to the grind, this period of uncertainty. The dichotomy is that we can never be 100% sure that we are right, but need to have 100% power and will to move forward. My intuition says that it was not the time to say “Yes” yet. Then a VC friend approached me about an unusual opportunity – joining a post-series-A start-up in China in a Co-CEO role (where my friend was the lead investor for the pre-A round).
The said company is called Qichacha.com (means “looking up companies”). Founded in 2014 by three grass-root entrepreneurs in Suzhou China, it is a pioneer in putting private company data in the hands of millions of consumers/professionals via mobile apps. The company had its humble start in scraping and aggregating basic company information from public registrars run by central and provincial Administrations for Industry & Commerce. Since then it has grown its data collection and user base (10 million + mobile app users) and became a leader in providing commercial-data-driven products to individuals and enterprises, encompassing datasets on private and publicly traded companies such as shareholding structure, registered capital, trademarks, intellectual properties, legal proceedings etc. There are many lookalikes in the U.S. but no real direct comparables (CBInsights, MatterMark, Capital IQ, Dun & Bradstreet). Versus the expensive, heavy, high barrier-to-adoption 2B product format in the U.S. and Europe, Qichacha.com offered an affordable and convenient 2C product that is usable to a wide range of audience – lawyers, salespeople, VCs, finance professionals, government employees etc. In Clayton Christensen’s words, Qichacha offered a cheap and just-good-enough product to a market where “Zero Consumption” was the prior state. A period of rapid growth from few dozen employees to close to 90 left the company with much technical and management debt, the co-founders recognized the challenges the firm is facing, as well as the need for another partner on board to help lead the company.
“People are sub-optimally risk averse by nature, but life is more healing than you think. There will be a time in your career that some unusual opportunities arise, think carefully but trust your instincts, take calculated risks. If you conduct yourself with great integrity for life and maintain close relationship with people who know you, you can afford to tolerate more risk than you think. Even if you fail, with integrity, being hardworking, and being smart, there will be people willing to work with you.”
I think Qichacha is one such opportunity. In late March, I packed up my belongings and left New York City. A month and a half into my new role as the Co-CEO of Qichacha, notwithstanding many challenges (flying a plane while replacing the engine. Things always go wrong in start-ups, but this is life), I could honestly say that this is close to my dream path forward. Being a good company is an end in itself and I am grateful that I now have the chance to shape the future of a firm and play an honorable role that could have a positive impact on people around me. Now is my time to transition from an “Indefinite Optimist” to a “Definite Optimist.”
“To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.”
“Start-up is the only way to gain regency in life”
Qichacha Cartoon Intro Video:
Qichacha Office and Team: