She told me this would happen.
She told me...
That I would have to make a choice.
- Neo, The Matrix
It's been two years since I quit my job to start my own startup. Many of my views toward the world have since changed in fundamental ways I can never go back.
I have started to pay more respect to job functions like BD, sales and operations. I started to realize engineering is one tiny tiny part of what it takes to build a successful company. There are many other critical aspects of making a good product, like knowing what problem the product is solving, design the functions to address customer's needs, UI/UX that make sense and not to confuse users. Moreover, it's not always about building the product. Selling and running the product is equally, if not more important.
My past experience with BD and sales colleagues wasn't always good. I generally think sales are slick talkers, bro down each other at the office all day, and are not doing any real work. I tried to avoid interacting with them when I can, because I am the 'doer' writing code, and 'talk is cheap'. All that has changed when, I had to sell to customers at my own startup. It turned out, sales is freaking hard and I absolutely struggled at it. It takes a lot of will power to follow up with clients day after day, again and again, while maintaining a high level of positive energy. Also, unlike what i thought before, talk is NOT cheap. It literally results in revenue. If you can't talk someone into buying your product, it doesn't matter what you have built. I wish I had learnt more from my sales and BD colleagues while I had the chance.
Another big change is how I started to treat money differently. I become accustomed to measure money in bigger units - hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions and so on. Not that I actually have millions of dollars, not even close to it, but I certainly started to think about those numbers ten times more frequently.
I used to project my savings based on paychecks. Minus living costs like mortgage, food, insurance, utility bills etc, I set goals on how much money I would have by end of the year. Now, after two years of not having a payroll while burning a lot of cash on my startup, my personal finance structure has changed to something like 95% of my money is in investments, leaving very little cash at hand to go by. I become a true gambler, as if I can never take enough risks. Economy analysis fascinates me, geopolitical news worries me. Stock market pales in comparison with crypto currency simply because you cannot trade 247. I can hear my own hunger for money grow inside of me, so much so that things used to bring me joy, like good cloths, or a nice car, don't anymore.
The stories make the news are no longer remote stories, but from people I know, or someone within my reach. The Silicon Valley wealth making legends and success paths are seemingly tangible. It's also a weird feeling - on one hand, the valuation of my company is in several millions. Since I own close to half of that, it makes me a multi-millionaire, at least on paper. On the other hand, when I look at my bank account, often times there's less than $200.
'But it's ok', I tell myself, 'I'm onto something big now.
We all want to be successful. But not very often we ask ourselves the reason behind it. Who are we being successful for? What happens when we become successful? Is there a universally accepted measurement for our level of success?
There are four tiers of success in my opinion, and we pursue it out of different reasons. Some are selfish reasons, some less so. By achieving each tier we gain great joy of accomplishment. By leveling up in these tiers we become better humans.
First tier of success is completely self-centric. We want to drive luxury cars, live in big houses, wear expensive dresses, having good food in fancy restaurants, or, travel around the world. We want to define success as being able to summon and utilize materials, and feel good about the social status or sensational pleasure it brings to us, filling our ego. When we can enjoy all these beautiful things and others can not, we feel we are successful.
The second tier of success is for friends and family. We try to be successful so we can provide shelter and shield for our loved ones. We spend money on insurance. We save up for children’s tuition. We use our connections to bring opportunities to our friends and business partners, so they can do well in their career and bring opportunities to us in the future in return. We feel successful when we are the center of our closed ones. We feel successful when we know we are needed.
As we reach the third tier of success, we become influential in our sector. We start to have the ability to determine others’ lives in non-trivial ways. An angel investor or venture capitalist can create jobs through funding different companies, hiring people to implement their vision, and employing talents to explore on things that they believe. Or simply choose to donate funds to cure cancer, or to save endangered species, whichever he or she deems proper. A CEO can decide which market the company will pursue, using which product in what shape or form. Or to onboard someone or let go, easily giving the subject a good day or bad day. A city official can push on legislations that shares his interest. In this tier, success is realized by one making his version of gravity a reality.
The highest tier of success is to influence people in a much more significant, and hopefully positive way. This level of influence can happen across nation and time. At this tier, wealth and fame all fade but spirit remains. This is the level of success that inspires people, breaks stereotypes, and setups role models for successors to follow. This is the level of success we say “they made history”.
An independent individual who lives a simple life, is successful, on a tier of one. A loving parent who gives his or her kid a happy childhood, a life-long good friend who helped you go through your dark times, is successful, on a tier of two. Industry leaders, researchers, game makers and game changers, are successful, on a tier of three. Tier four are the names we read from books, watch in films, or remember by heart.
You can then put people you know on this scale. It will start to surprise you that, while they are all successful, the tier they have reached are different. In most case, a person may be over qualified for a particular tier, but shy of the next. I have past coworkers and classmates that are 1.5 to 1.8. My dad is a 2.3 in my eyes. Donald Trump is a 3 but Barack Obama is a 3.4. Eminem feels like 3.7. Elon Musk is maybe 3.8.
Now when someone asks you why you try to be successful, you should have some ideas. You might be doing it for a bigger reason than yourself. More importantly, knowing which tier you are aiming for and what it means to be on that tier will hopefully guide you there.