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Wheelciti

Business concept for a tech startup with a mission to streamline the Cambodian automotive services market.

Wheelciti was the brainchild of my former startup team and the UNDP's Bluetribe Incubation Program that ultimately failed. In a nutshell, it was the idea to build an online marketplace for car owners and automotive service providers in Cambodia. Anyway, my goal here is not to explain what my failed startup is (another story for another time) but rather to tell you a story of how I ended up in a startup incubation program and reflect back on the experience. At the end of the program, I was asked to share what I had learned and my response was "Before I joined Bluetribe (the incubation program), I felt lost and had no idea whatsoever on what I wanted to do. And now after the past six months, I'm here to say that I feel even more lost." Don't get me wrong, the program was great but I guess I just didn't put in enough effort. And it usually just take a while for me to process things. So here I am...processing and hopefully uncover what I actually learned!


In 2020, I came across an announcement online for a new startup incubation program by UNDP. Back then, I usually only saw programs for younger folks (mostly high school and undergraduate students). As I was fed up with my boring job at a commercial bank and had always been yearning for something more meaningful, I decided to go for it. Going into the program, I did not expect to successfully launch and run my first startup (considering nine out of ten startups fail). I used to get asked about my biggest failures, and it has always stuck with me over the years because the reality is that I never really take risks. At the time, I set out to fail at something, and I succeeded in doing so! However, in hindsight, it has become clear to me that I didn't just want to fail for the sake of failing. In my attempt to fail, I was actually searching for knowledge that comes not from some books (maybe I'm only saying that because I'm just too lazy to read books) or what some online gurus said (what's up គ្រូជោគជ័យ) but from real personal experience. More than knowledge, that is wisdom! (Ok enough ranting.) Although I wouldn't claim to have gained any sort of wisdom from this one minuscule failure of mine, I would like to go over some lessons learned from this experience.


1. "Good ideas are great, but what's even greater is who you got on your team. I would take a great team and an okay idea over a great idea and an okay team any day." I heard something along this line before and I couldn't agree more. My startup team had no clue if we were compatible and complimentary in skills and personality or that we even shared a common goal at all. Oftentimes, I would find myself playing the mediator role, trying to be neutral and get my teammates to listen and understand each other better. Sometimes it worked out well. Sometimes it didn't. And, me being me, I could only be the mediator for so long. As time went by, I started to gradually step back and become indifferent to what was going on in the team. After all, my highly dysfunctional team was formed merely because we were required to work in a team to continue with the program.


2. Building a successful startup takes time! A timeframe of six months is too damn short for a startup to form and gain any kind of traction, let alone succeed. Airbnb was founded in 2008, but it didn't become profitable until 2016 while Uber was founded in 2009, but it wasn't until 2013 that the company really took off. Slack was founded in 2013 as a side project, but it took three years of hard work before it truly took off while Tesla was founded in 2003, but it wasn't until 2012 that the company turned a profit. The list goes on! And in my case, I was trying to build a startup from scratch within six months while at the same time attempting to form a functioning team (let's forget about high performing one) with complete strangers whom I had just met. So, that was just a shitstorm waiting to happen!


3. Motivations are great, but they are not always going to be there. So, choose discipline! (Yep, I stole that one from Jocko Willink.) This is especially true when you're playing the long game, like trying to build your personal brand or learning a new language, and in my case it just happens to be building a startup, which can take a considerable amount of time to see any chance of success. I recognized early on that the motivations within our team fluctuated on the daily. To make matter worse, we lacked discipline (at least myself at the time), especially compared to the other teams within the same program, not to mention the Incubation Program Manager who probably worked harder than any of us, showing up every single day to our shared office space and overseeing all of the startup teams (shoutout to Cheryl). This, combined with the fact that we had no clear shared vision, we were doomed to fail. Having said that, kudos to my team for making it to the Final Pitch Day and successfully pitching in front of a decent-sized audience. The last bit of discipline I saw in my team is what got us there (trust me when I say none of us were motivated toward the end of the program.) As an example, one of my teammates took the lead on doing the things we all hate but still had to do anyway such as tidious paper works which was part of the program's requirements so that we could keep going. Denzel Washington was right when he said, "Without commitment, you'll never start. But more importantly, without consistency, you'll never finish." Looking back, my team indeed had the commitment to start and the consistency to finish the six-month incubation program, but just not enough to carry our startup idea forward.

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