Find out what are the four most important traits that helped Zookal achieved their first 150,000 paying customers.
Published by Tech in Asia
I previously wrote an article here on Tech in Asia about how we at Zookal got our first 100,000 app users in three months. We received a lot of positive emails from founders, startups, and people who are generally interested in growth, strategies, and generating revenue.
With this new article, I think I can answer a lot of the questions we got by first highlighting what I think are the four most important traits that helped us achieve our first 150,000 paying customers.
A sense of urgency is one of the most important mindsets you need to have. Mark Cuban once said, “Work as if someone else is working 24 hours a day to take it all away from you.” I have always kept this in mind because without a sense of urgency, it is easy to become complacent and float in your business. Once you start floating, you stop pushing, being proactive, and really giving yourself the best chance of success. Urgency is important for startups especially, as we are all running out of time (or money) to generate revenue, find product/market fit, raise money, and do more. So, having a sense of urgency is crucial to getting work done.
We were lucky early on when we first started in 2011, as we were forced to behave and think urgently. We always had competitors nipping at our heels or peak seasons in trade that we had to take advantage of. If we did not perform, we would fall short. That’s why having a sense of urgency in our work and toward our destination was always important.
This is not to say you should be busy running around all day doing nothing. Working urgently and productively is what we should all aim for. Unfortunately, I have been guilty of this: being busy just for the sake of being busy but not being productive. I use a paper diary to help me keep track of what I am doing, what I need to do, what is important, and what is high priority.
Fortunately (and by pure luck), I am naturally a very energetic and optimistic person. I say this is luck because I think it helps tremendously to be this way if you run your own business.
This is my desktop screensaver below:
What they say about startups being like a roller coaster is true. One day, you are on top of the world, and the next day you might have the rug pulled from under you. I have come to normalize this as the startup roller coaster and it has been helping me manage my expectations.
This means that after something really great happens to us, like landing a big customer or hitting big milestone, I don’t get too carried away because I know that right around the corner is probably a big storm cloud. Then, once the storm hits, I don’t let myself get too down. Why? Because I know that if I keep working hard, there will be a beautiful rainbow that will appear right around the corner. I guess this is how I have managed to navigate the startup seas in my own mind.
When we first started a few years ago, we initially borrowed a little bit of money from friends and family to start Zookal. That allowed us to launch a product, get our first customers, and validate our business model. But we needed fuel to pour over the fire, which meant spending our last dollars on a plane trip to the US in search of funding. (You can read more about that story here.)
But in a nutshell, we went to Silicon Valley nearly bankrupt and without any experience or contacts. But we flew back with US$1.2 million in funding from an amazing investor. Had we not been optimistic and forward-looking, we would not have stepped on the plane and I would not be writing this article four years later. So, you need to be optimistic at the worst of times to get you through those tough moments until the next win.
Startups are humbling, especially in the early stages where it feels like you learn more about the things you don’t know every day. But fear not, you can quickly learn about a lot of these things with today’s pacing and technology.
In saying that, especially if you are a startup founder, you literally need to be willing to stand on a street, approach strangers, give them a flyer, and tell them about your product. Cold calling may drive shivers up your spine, but in a startup, you must bite the bullet and be willing to do things that can and will humble you.
Cold calling may drive shivers up your spine, but in a startup, you must bite the bullet and be willing to do things that can and will humble you.
When we first started our textbook rental service in Australia, we handed our flyers personally around school, wore monkey suits to attract attention, and also physically drove the books to our customers’ homes around Sydney (when no logistics company wanted to take us on). You don’t need to do this forever, but you need to be prepared to do it in the beginning.
After a few years, we now have people on the ground who do marketing and promotions and deliver books. But had we not been willing to do the “dirty work” at the start, we would not be where we are now.
Part of humility is having a flexible and open mind, which I think is also an important trait to embed in the way you think. This is because there are a lot of moving parts in a startup and navigating your way through them requires this sort of approach.
Furthermore, I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I have personally probably made every mistake in the book when it comes to business. But a lot of times it’s not about the mistakes, it’s how you react, iterate, and improve. As you scale and grow, things will break and wrong decisions will be made. But the world moves forward and you must also continue to move forward, taking risks and trying to discover what you’re really good at, which can make all the difference for your business.
Consistent work ethics
Everything I’ve mentioned above will fail without having consistent work ethics. You can be as optimistic as you want, but if you sit on your bum just twiddling your thumbs, nothing is going to happen. Your business won’t grow and you’ll eventually quit.
I remember in high school in Sydney, I played as a striker for our school team and I was once called a “work horse” by our coach. I was basically sprinting to chase down a defender who had the ball around the halfway mark. Usually, strikers will jog lightly toward the defender to direct him to pass or kick the ball a certain way. But I chased down this defender like he had just stolen my bike and was able to block his clearance as I leaped across him with my right foot, with the ball rebounding into the defender’s half, which set up a one-on-one opportunity at scoring between their goalkeeper and one of my teammates. We scored the goal, but it didn’t matter that I didn’t score or directly set up the goal (even though this was my role as the striker). I was prouder of being called a hard worker by the coach in front of everyone.
What has this got to do with startups? Well, the same thing applies. The harder you work, the luckier you get. As I mentioned above, time and money are not on your side so, working hard means giving yourself the best shot at creating opportunities and building an amazing business sooner.
One of Singapore’s most prominent business leaders, Koh Boon Hwee, former chairman of Singapore Airlines, Singtel, and DBS, also mentioned in an interview how he faces difficult times by working hard and not worrying about anything—just pure brute work ethics. It’s not difficult to see why he is so successful.
But don’t get work ethics mixed up with working 100 hours a week and sleeping under your desk. There might be times when you would need to pull long hours and stay back to get something done. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t shy away from this if needed, but my point is, it is not sustainable. This is where the word consistent comes in. You can’t work hard one day and take the next day off. It is all about the daily things you do consistently that all add up at the end of the day.
I think these traits really foster a strong and productive culture, both personally and as a company. Of course, there are other important things too, but with these four, you definitely have a great start.