2023 Retrospective

A year ago, I concluded a chapter on what was, arguably, one of the most perplexing years of my life. 2022 was a slow and lonely burn. As the year drew to a close, I predicted that 2023 would be equally as challenging, albeit in new forms and yielding different outcomes. Most notably, I believed that 2023 would culminate as a net positive—contrasting the emptiness I felt in 2022.

Looking back now, it feels as though the last two years have been a period of profound metamorphosis. 2022 kicked off the process when I grappled with the disintegration of my identity and willpower. 2023 continued the journey when I embarked to reclaim my sense of self and reignite my desire to dream and push past tomorrow.

This year, much like its predecessor, tested the bounds of my resilience. Growth often felt laborious when I was constantly flying perilously close to the sun. Each obstacle presented a lesson, each hardship a spark of insight. But compounding rewards over time: I’m firmly convinced that 2023 has been a stronger year for me than 2022—both professionally and personally.

With that, below are my highlights of 2023.

The bad:

  • Work was substantially more arduous than I had anticipated, due to unforeseen circumstances that I can’t discuss here. Let’s just say I was handed my fair share of plot twists this year. Nevertheless, I survived the trials and am now grateful to find myself in a startup again.
  • 26 consecutive weeks of travel. Eventually I adapted and became really efficient, but the novelty wore thin.
  • I struggled a ton this year with avarice. I’ll admit it’s probably my dominant vice of the year. Money is a drug and I’ve been trying to come down from the high. The concept of the hedonic treadmill became a palpable reality in my life.
  • I was constantly anxious about what my next endeavor would entail. I’m not the best ideas person (I’m better at execution), so it felt superficial for me to nonchalantly say “Yeah I’ll just start another company.” Yes, execution is paramount, but compelling ideas are tougher to generate than people realize. And in my experience, brainstorming the right idea is a creative research process that can’t be rushed.

The good:

  • I started a real estate portfolio with 4 rental properties in Texas and Montana. The Montana property, in particular, has been a whirlwind to set up, but it’s a special story that I’ve come to cherish. And it’s a 15-minute drive from breathtaking views in Yellowstone National Park!
  • I fulfilled my childhood dream of buying a house for my grandparents. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about fancy cars or other luxuries, so helping my grandparents retire was the extent of my youthful ambitions. To contextualize this: they lived 6 hours away, spoke limited English, and faced health challenges. This year, after a few years of convincing, they finally agreed to relocate to Dallas. I closed on a spacious home in a new development amidst a large Vietnamese community to help them feel at home. We moved in together, and my parents conveniently live nearby so they’re able to visit and help often. While I occasionally miss my former city and the privacy of living alone, the sacrifice is unquestionably worth it. I ultimately did right by the former kid in me.
  • I became an adjunct professor for my alma mater’s business school, teaching a course called “Startup Launch I.” It’s an advanced entrepreneurship course that emphasizes real-world market validation and critical analysis of student ideas. The first semester was successful overall, despite some expected turbulence from revamping the course so quickly. Growing alongside my students was a privilege, and I’m super excited for the next semester.
  • I’ve completed my estate planning, after much procrastination. Now, at least from a logistical standpoint, I’m prepared for the inevitable.
  • My second startup is in full force. This time, I’ve added a new co-founder as CTO while my returning co-founder is CPO. And wow—I’m amazed by the synergy and efficiency of our trio. I won’t divulge details yet since our startup is still in stealth, but I can confirm that we’ve progressed much faster than planned. Work is as demanding as ever, but returning to the startup world makes me feel alive again.

The interesting:

  • After my first international (not counting resorts in Mexico) and solo trip to Japan in 2022, I continued my travel pursuits this year with South Korea and Taiwan. All three were unique experiences that further opened my eyes to the world and myself. I constantly yearn for returning to Japan, but new countries will take priority for next year. So many places to see and cultures to immerse myself in.
  • Concluding my entrepreneurship class this semester felt more bittersweet than anticipated. While I was moping about it, my co-founder eloquently expressed: “Tough love is still love.” Sighing, I realized how much I miss my students. It made me wonder, is this what it feels like for a parent to watch their children grow up and move on?
  • Recently, I find myself frequently daydreaming about watering plants in my retirement.
  •  I’ve started my half-body suit tattoo in Los Angeles. With about 65 hours of excruciating pain endured so far, I think I’m just over halfway done. The artwork itself isn’t inherently meaningful—I just like the aesthetic. Think Japanese, grayscale, abstract, and floral. The true significance for me lies in the deliberate decision to get a tattoo, which also happens to envelop half of my body. Choosing to get a large tattoo represents an open statement of my defiance against societal norms. And designing it to encompass specifically half of my body symbolizes the balance between my rebellion and upbringing. Plus, it’s interesting to face a trial of physical pain for once as opposed to a purely mental tribulation. Oh, and neither my artist nor I knew what the final result would look like (we still don’t). We winged it by picking and piecing together various elements one by one. That required a huge leap of faith to surrender to my artist and her creative process. But we’re enamored with the progress so far.
  • I’ve started exploring my relationship with spirituality, which ironically started because of capitalism. It’s through my entrepreneurial journey that I’ve experienced my most profound hardships, emotions, epiphanies, and growth. To the extent that it unironically feels as though I was born to be a founder. After reflecting on patterns throughout the years, I’ve become more receptive to the notion of a higher entity. I don’t know what that entails yet, but I’ve begun to dabble in religions from Christianity to Hinduism. No rush—I may not have an answer for years.

As predicted, 2023 aggressively challenged my limits, but I overcame the trials and turned the year into a net positive. While I wouldn’t call it an extraordinary year, it feels like a pivotal stepping stone towards one. As though the purpose of this year was to set the stage for 2024.

Looking forward, I predict that 2024 will conclude this metamorphosis. 2022 shattered me to pieces, and then 2023 started to pick them up and establish a new foundation. 2024 will be my time to launch from it and soar once again. I’ve never been more optimistic for a new year.

Cheers to whatever comes next. I’m ready for it.

My first class after they finished their final presentations. Onto the next!

Two Year Update

With my post-acquisition term complete, I’m progressing onto my next chapter in life.

I’ve come a long way in the last two years—personally and professionally. And now I feel more optimistic than ever before. As I’ve told some people, when I look back on my career decades from now, my goal is for SURVIVR to look like a warm-up. And I have total conviction that I will make it there.

Now I’m taking my first step as a part-time Adjunct Instructor for The University of Texas at Dallas, teaching students how to validate ideas and launch companies in the Startup Launch course.

To everyone who has accompanied me on this wild journey, thank you for your support. Get ready for a wild ride.

One Year Update

Today marks exactly one year since SURVIVR was acquired. My life and worldview have ebbed and flowed profoundly since then. Frankly, I’ve been at a loss of ideas to post. But I felt that an anniversary is symbolic enough for some introspection. 

To be clear, the purpose of this post isn’t to make any dismal implications or source pity. I just thought it would be nice to take a brief break from my usual business-oriented content. I believe that much of what we see online is a facade, and that everyone has demons that they face deep down. This is an authentic glimpse into mine, in the spirit of transparency.

Starting with the positives. I feel that I’ve attained a new lifestyle that I never had the luxury of experiencing prior. In a world where 70-90% of startups fail, we defied the odds enough to find the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Despite starting at 19. Despite this being my first startup and full-time job. Despite pivoting multiple times in 5 years. Despite not being a tech or public safety expert. Despite the doubters. 

I was blessed to have a team that powered through our obstacles. To have an acquisition under my belt has substantially impacted my ability to support my family and fuel my future career. I’m perpetually grateful to everyone who played a part.

Now for the rest. Once the acquisition closed and I had fulfilled my duty to my team and family, I was free to prioritize myself for the first time in my life. I could be shamelessly selfish and think about privileges like the meaning of happiness. I didn’t know where to begin—it felt exhilarating at first. But then I quickly became blindsided by a torrent of questions and feelings that I had never experienced.

Perplexingly, this past year has raised more questions than answers. My sense of self dissipated post-acquisition, and after a few weeks of frustration, I realized that I had grounded my self-identity in my company. Once the company was sold, my sense of self was in the air. Before, I was Brian the founder, a label that I held with pride. After, I couldn’t even introduce myself to myself. 

I didn’t know who I was, why I’m here, what I want, and whether anything truly matters in the end. Everything felt numb, and the more I pondered the answers, the most lost I became—like struggling in quicksand. Will starting more companies make a difference? Will having a bigger garage make me feel better? Who knows. (Although starting more companies is guaranteed. Nothing else is remotely as fun to me.)

One discovery, for better or worse, was that I no longer fear death. If I run out of cards sooner than expected, I would accept it. Despite my challenges, I’ve lived an extraordinary life with the time I’ve had so far. It genuinely feels like a lifetime already. If this is truly my final act, and lowering the curtains will finally absolve me of all suffering, then so be it. 

Honestly, I thought that I’d feel on top of the world by now. That I could finally release my anxieties and be satisfied with myself and life in general. But evidently, my mind doesn’t work that way. There’s always something more that I must chase.

I still don’t have the answers. They’re as elusive as ever. I still wonder to what extent life is insignificant in the end. After all, we’ll all end up the same way.

However, while I’m anxious, I think I’ll find the answers. No matter how many years it takes—this is the long game. In the meantime, I want to explore life more freely. I’m unafraid of taking bigger risks, treating others and myself more generously, and unapologetically being myself. Forget fear and stifling conformity. I want to believe, with all that I am, that life is meant for so much more than that. That there is meaning in what I do until the very last breath. Time will tell if I accept that as my answer. 

On the penultimate day of a recent vacation, I lucked out and found a solitary lounge chair on the beach away from all of the noise. The otherwise pitch black ocean was faintly illuminated by the full moon. The only sounds were of the gentle wind, insouciant waves, and rustling palm trees to my right. As I stared into the vast night sky and contemplated the smallness of life, I saw my first ever shooting star (yes, yes, I need to get out more). Once the shock subsided, I rushed to figure out an ask, as if the star’s efficacy would expire in seconds. And for the first time since longer than I can remember, I didn’t want to wish for happiness. There will come a time for that, but I wasn’t ready yet.

“Clarity,” I decided. That is what my current chapter is dedicated to pursuing.

SURVIVR Awarded U.S. Air Force SBIR Phase I Grant

It is my pleasure to announce that SURVIVR has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant by the United States Air Force! This Phase I grant will be used to adapt our VR police scenarios to train Air Force security forces.

Phase I comes with several important goals. First, we are tasked with performing customer discovery by demoing to and interviewing relevant Air Force and Department of Defense stakeholders. Second, we will use our findings to 1) validate the need, 2) identify success metrics, and 3) create a comprehensive action plan for our Phase II application.

The SBIR solicitation that we applied to is titled: “Open Call for Innovative Defense-Related Dual-Purpose Technologies/Solutions with a Clear Air Force Stakeholder Need.” The purpose of this solicitation is “to explore [Innovative Defense-Related Dual-Purpose Technologies] that may fall outside the Air Force’s current fields of focus but that may be useful to the US Air Force.”

The Air Force has also commented regarding this solicitation: “AFRL and AFWERX have partnered to streamline the Small Business Innovation Research process in an attempt to speed up the experience, broaden the pool of potential applicants and decrease bureaucratic overhead. Beginning in SBIR 18.2, and now in 19.2, the Air Force has begun offering ‘Special’ SBIR topics that are faster, leaner and open to a broader range of innovations.”

The best part is: we already know that our product is useful to the Air Force. Not only has the Air Force chosen “Immersive Training Solutions” to be one of their Open Topic Technology Focus Areas, but also they have a stakeholder who declared a need specifically for “VR/AR Emergency Response Training.”

All-in-all, the SBIR program is highly selective and we are grateful for the Air Force to be putting us on a path to train military first responders. We look forward to collaborating with the Air Force and Department of Defense to improve public safety training at the federal level.