With not even a dollar to my name, it still didn’t feel like rock bottom.
When you tell someone you’re working for a startup, they’ll either think you’re gonna be really rich or crazy broke.
I remember telling my parents and friends about my decision to join Christina’s,
“I really like the company’s mission and they’re growing really fast. If they continue at this speed, I should be coming back with more than enough to start my own business once my stocks are fully vested”.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Just like an investor would do their due diligence before investing, so did I before I committed to Christina’s. When the co-founder & CEO, Thu, reached out to me, I had him on hold for almost a month while I investigated. I looked into the company, the mission, the team, and especially, him.
He’s the kind of guy who shares his thoughts earnestly, finds silver linings in his mistakes and failures, takes on random 30-day challenges, writes love letters to a girl he’s never met before, advocates for a culture that empowers people to do what they love, and reads books like Leaders Eat Last and then actually does something about it. Like making sure everyone in the company gets paid first before the leadership team does.
At the same time, he was a starry-eyed visionary that believed in not only changing the world but also how people viewed it. During this time, I had a competing job offer in New York but it was his persistence and vision that got me to pack my bags, say goodbye to my family and friends, and move across the world to Saigon.
What was the vision? To make Vietnam a model for other developing countries. He got me, then and there. He knew I wanted to be a part of something bigger, and he was right.
A part of me knew that working for a startup can either return 10x or nothing at all. The other part of me knew that even if all hell broke loose, I would have been met with a great adventure and even crazier story to tell.
After all, I’m only 26. I’m not supposed to know everything, but after this, I can say I know a hell of a lot more than I did about people, work, and life than I did before. It was a trade-off that I could afford to make at this stage in life.
After wrapping up my goodbyes, I moved to Saigon, Vietnam to become Christina’s second product designer. There were less than 100 people working in the company at the time. Everyone knew each other’s name and during our bi-monthly town hall, we had enough time for every new member to strut to the front of the room and introduce themselves.
It’s almost Christmas and we’ve received news of a potential big investment. I won’t disclose who or how much the investment would have been due to the Confidentiality Agreement but it was more than enough to get everyone worked up.
We saw an increase in positive cash flow and were growing by 3x. From less than 100 members to now over 300, our family was growing bigger. It was now common to not know everyone’s name. Adjustments had to be made to our town hall format since we no longer had time for individual member introductions.
With talks of the big investment underway and months of positive cash flow, the company announced a 20% salary increase company-wide. Our Tết (Vietnamese New Year) bonus was also paid out early and the company could now afford to provide every full-time member with additional benefits & private health insurance. It was the most exciting time of our lives, and the company’s.
8 months later and we barely missed the iceberg. Something happened and we struggled through our first month of financial setbacks. The company was unable to pay the team’s salary on time and it was delayed for several weeks.
After all the salaries were disbursed, we were optimistic that it wouldn’t happen again. Certainly, someone would have looked into the issue and fixed it. Besides, if we’d gotten through it once, surely we could get through it again.
The next six months flew by with no visible issue and the company continued to grow as we took in more investments while waiting in anticipation of the even bigger investment.
By now, we’d grown 4x with over 450+ team members spanning across 8 locations in Vietnam. More promotions were announced including my promotion to Head of Product. Cutting it close with the Tết bonus this time, talks of slowing down started to surface.
3 months later and our death sentence arrived in the form of an investment that never materialized.
With news of the investment falling through, the company was now in fight or flight mode as we scurried to figure out a plan to stay afloat and pay our team in the coming months.
New ideas to save the company sprung up and died out as quickly as they came up. More cost controls and salary delays were announced. Those who were in a position to loan money or part of their salary to the company did so and were promised a 10% interest in return.
With the company’s four business lines not generating enough revenue to cover our accrued costs, intense pressure was placed on our technology team to launch our products and generate at least $50,000 USD in monthly revenue within the first 6 months.
It was an unrealistic goal given the state of our products, but I volunteered to head the initiative. Still, no salary had been paid. No salary was reduced and the leadership team was adamant about not laying off anyone.
We managed to launch our technology, but not the way we wanted to. We went to market with bootstrap marketing and zero advertising budget.
It was like a plane taking off with no runway. We were hoping that we could get off the ground without crashing and burning. And we did, kind of. Our product showed signs of life and market-fit but we ran out of fuel, and time.
It was also around this time that I sent in my two months’ notice. It was time to look forward.
October 2019, The Final Dance
During my farewell lunch, my CTO, a quiet and incredibly talented engineer, said three words to me that silenced my inner critic and guilt:
“Thanks for everything.”
Looking at him, I knew he meant every word.
I came to Saigon as a wide-eyed and ambitious self-taught product designer looking to gain experience, get my hands dirty and make a name for myself.
In that, I found myself building out an entire product team with our own set of processes and principles that allowed us to redesign our technology and assist the company in scaling operationally. Our team was looked up to by everyone in the company. We were the team that got it together and we wore that badge with pride.
There were many nights where I laid in bed unable to sleep as I played through the events that unfolded while rotating through a cycle of emotions. Guilt. Shame. Embarrassment. Sadness. Repeat.
But not once have I ever felt angry at the company and trust me, there were many, many reasons to be.
I could have been angry at the reckless decisions that were made, the inability to keep our finances in check, or even the lack of communication and unity displayed by the leadership team when everyone was looking to them the most.
Even then, I couldn’t allow myself to invite that anger in. I knew if I did, it would have chewed me up and spit me out into the dark, covered in nothing but self-pity and insecurities.
I did question my calm demeanor those nights and wondered if I’d grown thicker skin over the years or had simply lost my sanity. I mean, where were the tears?
Looking back, I realized that after cycling through all those emotions, I always came back to feeling resolved. Resolved in knowing that I did what I could and gave my best.
In my high school business class, we were taught to have an emergency fund of at least $1,000 to prepare us for unexpected costs and rainy days. Little did I know that it was hardly enough to prepare me for 4 continuous months of unpaid salary.
The question that I continued to turn over and over in my head was how I was supposed to look my parents in the face and tell them that after so many years of working abroad, I was coming home with nothing except credit card debt?
And I don’t know yet, I’m still figuring that out. I’m still figuring out a lot of things. All I know is that it starts with an honest and vulnerable conversation and, no matter how I look at it, I can only feel blessed to be so young and boundless. I can only imagine how much more difficult this would have been if I had other people to take care of besides myself.
For someone who plans to become an entrepreneur themselves one day, the lessons and skills I’ve gained through this experience have been nothing short of invaluable. I’ve worn so many hats and witnessed so many red flags that came with growing a startup.
I’ve toyed with the idea that maybe this was how the captain of the unsinkable Titanic felt before they hit the iceberg, especially after being warned that they were sailing too fast in such icy conditions.
When did we start seeing the ice? Could we have switched course or slowed down enough to dodge the icebergs?
At the same time, I also saw firsthand all the things we did get right. Like scaling a company 4x with a 450+ team that were willing to give up their paychecks and loan money to the company for many consecutive months – all because they believed in the mission and culture we had worked so hard to build. I know I did.
You can start a business overnight, but to build a strong and resilient culture with hundreds of people believing in one collective goal, that took something else.
I can only hope that the experiences I’ve learned will be of use for when I have my own business where I will be faced with making decisions that won’t just affect me, but my team and their loved ones as well.
The initial draft of this article was written during my one-way flight back to the States. At the time, I had a million questions in my mind and less than a dollar in my checking account.
Several months later, I’ve moved on to land a job at my dream company (Evernote), I've co-founded an exciting new venture (Noted), and even more importantly, engaged my parents in that overdue vulnerable and honest conversation.
I confided in them about my setbacks, the lessons I learned, and how excited I am for the future. My mom cried, my dad beamed with pride as he looked away and asked what I wanted for dinner.
In my initial draft of this article, I concluded by saying there was no happily-ever-after ending to this story. It was never my intent to make this story inspirational either. My only goal was to wrap up this bittersweet journey by sharing my story, and writing was the only way I knew how to do that.
But after having lived it out and arriving at this point of clarity, I can say beyond a doubt:
There wasn’t meant to be a happily-ever-after ending to this story.
It wasn’t meant to be inspirational either.
Yes, I was left with nothing.
But at the same time, I was left with everything: myself, the lessons I’ve learned from this bittersweet adventure, and my dreams.
And to me, that was everything I could possibly need.
Besides, I’ve always been a believer that everything in life happens for a reason… as long as we give it one.
Let that reason be to learn, to grow, and to continue evolving into that person we want to become someday.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do. ”
— Robert Schuller