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The ugly duckling road to badass entrepreneurship

I was 28, featured in a magazine with 3 other expat founders who chose Malaysia to start a company. People read about me going places and starting 8Spaces (and getting it acquired by FlySpaces) but missed the fact that I also:

  • Sold frozen cheese bread to pay rent;
  • Started an open-source map for digital nomads co-location (it failed)
  • Started a marketplace for people to learn how to make and buy local crafts (didn’t take off)
  • Organized a series of community meet-ups and dinners that made no money (just for the cause)
  • Consulted for community building and placemaking for the Malaysian Gov and real estate developers (that made money)
  • Failed at dating
  • Mentored startups for free and fun, working with Southeast Asia’s top accelerators
  • Traveled across the world and attended every single startup conference I could in ASEAN
  • Slept little
  • etc.

Entrepreneurs are like ducks 🦆: underneath the surface, we are paddling – non-stop. What you see beneath the surface of entrepreneurship is unglamorous, but I’d do it again. All of it. I miss those days when taking action wasn’t an option: it was the way to go. I’d just add a healthier lifestyle to it (and work from a farm 👩🏻‍🌾 raising chicken 🐔). I’m actually doing it. More specifically, I’m raising a couple of helmeted guineafowls, the most badass birds I’ve ever seen (like the honey badger of the Galliformes).

Entrepreneurship
Lais featured in the magazine.

When I shared this post on social media, a friend of mine argued “what if, instead of doing all these things, you laser-focused on your business? That’s what I did. No meetups, just straight to exit.” For a split of a second, his comment got me thinking, “yes, what if?”. I felt a little bit judged, for I do admire those people who start businesses and go hard on it, focus, and just get it done. A part of me wishes I was more like them. But I wasn’t. Should I be ashamed?

Before replying I took a deep breath and wondered, first, why did I do so many things at the same time? First off, I was bootstrapped and at times I just needed doing it (like selling frozen cheese bread which was not sexy, nor related to my core business). Secondly, truth be told: I didn’t second guess myself at the time because it was part of my experience (and I was immersed in it).

I wondered why that question bothered me and figured there is a big pressure in being a badass, the right way. I admired those badass entrepreneurs, like swans flying over my ugly duckling head – but I didn’t recognize myself as one, by default. I wanted to be like them. Longing itself is often the emotional representation of a part of us that truly exists but needs to be developed and come to full expression. I talk more about it in my upcoming book, Hacking Communities, using the example of the Cowardly Lion’s journey in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Building communities was crucial in my journey to entrepreneurship; I was the mice lab of my own experiment since my goal was to create contexts where people could express their full potential as entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders, and, broadly, world problem solvers.

The ugly duckling road to badassness

I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. Dad is a farmer, mom is a banker (for real). I’m glad the community around me inspired me to follow the ugly duckling path. 🦢

I probably wouldn’t have had the idea of the company I started, hadn’t I been surrounded by founders, companies, digital nomads, and other people whose problem I would solve. While laser focus works for some, but I needed to be surrounded by a community. Today, while I have a stronger network and way more focused relationships, I still thrive within a community – because sharing experiences with others accelerates everyone’s learning curve.

I learned most of what I know from the ecosystem, before learning from experience. Later I’d work on startup ecosystem development and validate the impact of local and global connectedness in accelerating growth (as defined by Startup Genome).

Entrepreneurship
Lais on Web Summit 2019

Another point is that representation matters. There was an emerging number of people who looked like me being founders, which helped. Being around them reinforced the belief that I could be a successful founder. And look: I am privileged in a myriad of ways, let’s face it, just by the fact I am born white. In the process of researching the economic value of diverse communities – while writing Hacking Communities – I found that the influence of our surroundings is crucial in becoming the best version of ourselves.

Some of us need others who we can relate to. Sharing stories creates possibility and enhances the probability that we could do the same. As in the 4-minute mile (Roger Bannister’s historic deed which paved the way for many others to break a previously scientifically-impossible record).

(Un)glamorous, but worth it

There’s some glamour built around entrepreneurship now, around every bit of it. The fact is, it is a lot less glamorous than you’d think (unless you’ve run or are running a business right now).

Even having had an exit – sometimes I am unsure if adding this to my introduction list, as what people think of getting yourself acquired is often fantasized as the end goal. While it was a good deal for me at the time (and the best for my company), it wasn’t necessarily glamorous. What most people don’t know is that selling a business isn’t (always) the initial plan. At times, we just see no alternative and we don’t want to see the baby die (or live beneath its potential). Sometimes, letting go and adapting to the circumstances in entrepreneurship is the best way to go, while still focusing on your maximum growth potential – and how your business can grow its best. It makes me proud to see 8spaces.co alive and kicking as FlySpaces.com (it makes me even prouder).

Entrepreneurship
Lais at the farm-office

At times, we make decisions for the sake of making things work. It’s what you must do, over what you thought or expected, most of the time.

To build a business you must have a strong vision (a problem you must solve, someone you want to help, the world you want to see after you’re done), and most definitely you’ll make money through the way you want to go, and more money as you grow your business. But on the way, building a business is about constantly letting go of how what you thought it would be. Let go of the stories you made up and deal with reality, making decisions that resonate with your long term goals – while contemplating short term challenges.

People criticize the glamour around entrepreneurship, but I don’t. While knowing entrepreneurship isn’t as half sexy as it is painted, I’d rather keep this hype up in the name of having more kids dreaming of becoming entrepreneurs – and having entrepreneurs being more widely recognized in our society. I’d rather see a bunch of kids aspiring to start a company than to become a celebrity (be it a football player or a pop star). Nothing against the entertainment industry, I just believe the odds of success are about the same, but the impact in the world might be more relevant if a kid decides to find the solution for clean energy – than if they decide to score another goal to please a sponsor, or make another hit that will fade in a week).

Long story short: entrepreneurship isn’t sexy, but it feels good and one thing everyone should try.

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Written by Lais de Oliveira

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