Receiving the Texas Business Hall of Fame Scholarship

Recently, I was informed that I became one of the UT Dallas recipients of the 2018 Texas Business Hall of Fame (TBHF) scholarship.

Background: The TBHF Foundation was founded in 1982 to honor Texas’ foremost past and present business leaders and inspire the leaders of the future. A major part of their contributions goes to an annual scholarship fund for students at participating Texas universities. This could be used to help pay for school or anything that the students decide. In my case, I’m using this scholarship to support Immosis’ operations.

The TBHF Scholarship goes a bit back for me. The process takes several months and includes a thorough application, campus interview, and director interview, in which you need to be selected to advance to each stage. The first time that I applied was last year as I was wrapping up sophomore year.

That year, I managed to make it to the final director interview despite being new to entrepreneurship. At UT Dallas, there are 9 finalists and 3 of those ultimately become recipients.

But unfortunately, I did not become one of the 3 recipients.

However, one of the things that hustling has taught me is that persistence pays off. This year was the final year that I was eligible to apply, and I figured that if I could advance to finals the year before, I could do it again this year.

So I did just that. It was funny because all of the campus interviewers recognized me from the previous year and we had a very pleasant interview. And the final interviewers included the Executive Director of the TBHF herself.

I was actually fairly nervous, which is atypical since I’m usually calm during interviews. But to my (pleasant) surprise, I received the congratulatory email a month later.

This award means a lot to me not just because of the money, but also because of what the TBHF represents. Since I’ve received a ton of help from our gracious mentors and advisors, I’m very passionate about helping upcoming entrepreneurs. This scholarship embodies the values that I have held dearly throughout my journey and I look forward to helping the TBHF promote their values of integrity, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

UPDATE (Nov 2018): Got some pics from the TBHF Induction Dinner. Can confirm it was a blast.

One Year Anniversary at Immosis – Lessons Learned

I’m sitting in my office/bedroom as the clock strikes midnight. It’s now December 15, 2017, which marks the one year anniversary of Immosis LLC. I met my co-founder and CTO, Marwan, shortly before this day of last year, but it was on the 15th that we solidified our commitment with an operating agreement.

If you also factor in the Artificial Intelligence Society and Virtual Reality Society (educational organizations that I founded before Immosis), that makes for 1.5 years of learning how to be an entrepreneur.

I still have much to learn, but with help from my gracious mentors along the way, I’ve learned a LOT during these past 1.5 years. As a way to express my gratitude, I’d like to share my lessons learned here for anyone who’s reading.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned so far as a first-time entrepreneur:

 

1) Every business is different

Many times when someone asks a business question hoping to get a straightforward answer in response, the response will be “it depends”. There may be patterns or past data from similar businesses to extrapolate or draw conclusions from, but generalizations won’t cover every detail. Not only that, but advisors may also give you conflicting advice.

So at the end of the day, it’s on you to use your best judgment when making decisions. Advisors will inform and suggest, but you decide. This is one of the more ambiguous and scary parts of entrepreneurship, but I believe that the varying intricacies of every business make entrepreneurship one of the most exciting open problems to solve.

2) A Players hire A Players; B Players hire C Players

A company is only as good as the people behind it. Therefore, be patient and diligent when recruiting. Startups move quickly, but that doesn’t mean that you should rush the recruiting process. A hiring mistake can be very expensive to fix on multiple dimensions (e.g. a toxic employee can destroy the morale of your team).

A good practice is to hire performers who are better than you. When you have a startup, you’re not in the business of adding mediocre performers to your foundation. Hire A Players whom you can trust and empower them to push your organization to new heights.

3) The 4 C’s of Co-founders

This one’s from my close mentor Bryan and his colleague Chris. When approaching and vetting co-founders, treat it like a marriage because you’re going to spend a LOT of time doing very important things with those people. And if it doesn’t work out, separating is going to be a messy and expensive process.

The 4 C’s of Co-founders is a framework that Bryan and Chris proposed for evaluating potential co-founders:

  • Character – This comes first because an individual who doesn’t share your core values (e.g. integrity) will not fit in the culture that you’re trying to build. It’s not scalable. They’re only going to drag it down along with your team and resources.
  • Commitment – It could take your company years to breakeven. And who knows what obstacles and changes you’ll encounter as a team along the way. Are your co-founders prepared to give it their all until the end?
  • Communication – A startup’s greatest advantage over larger competitors is speed. You cannot outrun your competitors and smoothly manage operations without proper communication from your team on a regular basis.
  • Competency – This comes last because it’s the most obvious prerequisite to check for.

Don’t compromise with the 4 C’s. You and your co-founder(s) MUST be compatible if your startup is going to succeed.

4) Get mentors ASAP

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and learn from countless mentors with incredible track records. Among them are investors and successful entrepreneurs. There is no doubt in my mind that Immosis wouldn’t be where it’s at now without their help.

You will learn much more at a faster pace with the help of mentors. You don’t even have to be doing a startup to benefit. Figure out your goals, find people in your area with relevant experience, and send them a message with a coffee invite. Every person you talk to will have a different background, and will thus broaden your perspective further than you thought possible.

5) You’re going to pivot, possibly many times

According to the Powership Group, it takes an average of 58 new product ideas to get to 1 successful product, and 66% of startups change their original plans drastically.

So if you’re finding that your first (or second, or third…) plan isn’t working the way you intended, it’s probably not the end of the world. Figure out what went wrong, and use that feedback to guide you to your next plan of action. This leads us to…

6) Adopt the Lean Startup methodology

Pioneered by Eric Ries, the Lean Startup methodology insists that the key to survival is to iterate enough times before running out of resources. If you don’t iterate, you could be falling for the classic mistake of burning all your resources on developing a product that nobody wants to pay for.

The lesson to learn here is that very little learning happens during product development. So instead, prioritize release and market feedback. The market may respond by purchasing your product in large quantities or telling you that they wouldn’t throw down a credit card for it (chances are, it’s going to be the latter). That’s when you know it’s time to iterate.

Another way to look at this is, don’t worry about making your early product the prettiest on the market with “multi-target” features that span social media integration and decked-out customization. Focus on the 20% of the features that deliver 80% of your differentiated value proposition. Be disciplined about filtering the core features from the luxuries because if the core features don’t sell, it’s time to iterate.

7) Don’t let the bozos drag you down

This is a quote by Guy Kawasaki, one of my personal icons. Entrepreneurship is tough. You’re breaking away from the traditional path that society sets to accomplish something big on your own. And along the way, there will be people who try to discourage you.

Don’t let the negativity phase you. Continue focusing on the priorities at hand, which are building and selling your product. Otherwise, you’re going to give up, and I wouldn’t like to imagine what today’s world would look like if many of the successful founders had given in to the negativity.

Note: this is not to say that the naysayers are always wrong. In fact, they can be pretty logical at times (e.g. “Stick to a corporate job because that’s safer.”). Also don’t confuse negativity with constructive criticism. The point here is, you should be aware of what’s realistic, but also realize that pursuing a startup can involve some degree of insanity and maybe even delusion. At the end of the day, you should know your vision and business best. Use your judgment, and keep executing on your plan.

8) Force yourself to go to events

This one’s from my mentor Shaz. If you’re being lazy in bed and contemplating whether or not you should attend this networking event coming up, you better get up and go. Shaz found that the majority of times, something good will come out of coming to events.

After attending over 10-15 events in several months, I can confirm his observation. Rule of thumb: you never know who you’ll end up meeting. I’ve casually bumped into investors, executives, potential clients, and experienced professionals interested in joining Immosis by mingling at these events.

I followed up with most of them, and I’m still connected with a good number of those people today. They continue to teach me new things, and I’m currently looking at adding one of them to our team.

9) Be humble

A startup is not an ideal environment to go flaunting your ego everywhere. Leave that by the door as you walk in, because you probably know a lot less than you think you do.

Always be in a learning mindset. Learn from your mentors’ mistakes so you don’t repeat them yourself. Seek advice from people who’ve succeeded in your context.

On the same note, know what you don’t know. How are you going to ask for help if you don’t know what to ask about? For example, I’m a young, first-time CEO. There is a lot that I’m still learning, such as formal business development processes. Since I recognize this gap in my knowledge, I recently reached out to one of my connections (whom I met at an event) who is way more experienced in processes than I am. His feedback and suggestions so far have gotten me much farther than I would be had I ignored this knowledge gap.

Keep learning; stay humble.

10) The world owes you nothing

The last point for today is about your mindset. Success has no emotions attached. It’s binary- you either make it happen or not. So when a problem arises, resist the urge to go on an emotional complaint spree. Don’t curse the world; the world doesn’t care.

Instead, direct your effort towards solving the problem at hand. Figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong, how to fix it, and how to prevent that from happening again. Anything else is a waste of time and energy. Be disciplined enough to put your emotions aside, especially when there’s a team that is investing time and resources into your venture.

At the end of the day, the world owes you nothing. However, it has given you the opportunity to succeed, and it’s on you to make the most of that gift. Progress starts with you, so keep hustling.

It’s now 4:00 AM. I think that’s enough excitement to fit into one blog post (the original list of learnings exceeds 40 items). The rest is sure to come later on!

To my team and mentors, thank you again for pushing and guiding me all this time. The skills and lessons that I’ve learned from you all on this journey have been invaluable. I’m beyond excited for our second year at Immosis!

Pitching at the Big Idea Competition (2017)

At The University of Texas at Dallas, there is an annual pitch competition called the Big Idea Competition, where startup teams compete through an application round and semifinal pitch round for a chance to take the stage at finals in front of about 1000 people and a panel of distinguished judges (e.g. Mark Cuban was a judge in 2015).

This year, there were 134 teams that applied to the competition—a new record! To add to the hype, this year’s celebrity judge was Guy Kawasaki, a former Apple executive, venture capitalist, and author. Needless to say, the campus was tingling in anticipation.

My startup, Immosis, decided to apply this year. However, we’re a game studio turning into a digital agency, so we didn’t have a product that could compete at the time. But given our team’s technical expertise and will to compete, we created a mobile app concept called Dynamic Dance, which helps people practice dance techniques using augmented reality (we chose the application of dance because we’re familiar with it, but the overarching concept is human training).

We became one of the 30 semifinalist teams, and then one of the 6 teams to advance to finals. Words cannot express the immense gratitude and exhilaration that flowed through our team’s minds as we read the congratulatory email. We were going to pitch to Guy Kawasaki!

From there, our team went into hyperdrive. We refined our pitch and created the app prototype. Not a single day or mentor meeting went by without there being a change in the pitch, whether it was about the business model, go-to-market strategy, or the entire pitch itself. The process was intense, but as a result, to say that we learned a lot is an understatement.

Finally, the big night arrived, and we took the stage. It’s fascinating how the anxiety that built up for weeks to that moment suddenly washed away upon walking onto the stage. It was as if a strange calm had taken over my body. I grabbed the microphone and clicker with stable hands. The silence was ours, and we broke it with the best pitch that we’ve ever given. It was a night and experience that we will always remember.

Although we didn’t walk away with a prize that night, we walked away with a larger confidence in our team. To advance to finals as the only team with a new idea was a major accomplishment, and not only were we able to pitch the app, but we also demonstrated our technical execution by creating the ambitious prototype in such a short time.

Now when another business competition or opportunity comes our way, we’ll be extra prepared to take off running once more. Looking forward to pitching again!