It’s been nearly two years since I co-founded Lago with Raffi (time flies) and I’ve been wanting to share our journey, in a « candid fashion ». (I got quite an overdose of the « overnight success story »!)
Lago is finally taking off, after a hard pivot, getting lost, getting slapped by our own investors (« tough love »), finding our way, and lots of sleepless nights or all-nighters. We’re happy, relieved, exhausted, excited, and grateful – all this at the same time.
But the physical fatigue hasn’t actually been the hardest, at least for me.
Being an “underdog”
I believe what I was the most unprepared for was being an « underdog ». Somebody that builds something nobody cares about.
I’m a 2nd generation immigrant - part of my family was « boat people », fleeing the Vietnam war, to California, France, and Canada - and I was raised, trained, and programmed to be a straight-A student: best grades, best college, best consulting firm, best performance as a startup exec, best whatever.
My mom is definitely a « tiger mom »: if I was graded 19.5/20, her first question was “why didn’t you get 20/20?”, and my dad kept telling me « it doesn't matter what you do, but you need to be 1st ». I think a lot of Asian kids might resonate with this!
I must admit that’s one of the reasons I wanted to apply to YC (best accelerator, what else? My family still doesn’t get it though!).
I am 0 or I am 1
The thing is: I got used to having grades and fast feedback loops and being ranked among the tops. My brain gets dopamine when it’s the case, and I feel like a complete failure when it’s not the case.
It’s binary, I am 0 or I am 1.
So when I co-founded Lago, I thought: « we have Product Market Fit or we don’t, it’s 0 or 1. »
Although it’s technically true, this mindset didn’t really help me push through the messy journey to PMF, and I’ve been torturing myself for a while.
What amplified this feeling was that as a startup exec, I could have got “instant recognition” and impact. I had many opportunities to join hot series A fintechs or B2B SaaS as CMO / CRO with “carte blanche” on the team and the strategy. I knew the “1 to N” playbook very well and knew I could be ranked #1 again. Instead, I was building something nobody (seemingly) cared about and was still stuck in the “0 to 1” phase after months.
Failing at being coached (too)
The typical coaching advice I got didn’t work on me: focus on the progress, the positives, the learnings, the invisible progress, the journey. “Your value isn’t attached to your company’s value”.
It was as if my brain knew it made sense, but it did not change the way I felt.
Not being able to integrate these concepts felt like something else I couldn’t be successful at.
Another fail for team Anh-Tho.
So…did it change? How and when?
No silver bullet, but tiny changes paid off
There was no clear breakthrough, but after 12 months, I think I progressively built muscle.
I reprogrammed my brain to think “by default, no one will care, so that’s another attempt I can cross off my list”. Low expectations, combined with constant grind made each attempt less painful.
The right support group
I also spent more and more time with people who knew what I was going through: other founders.
During very dark days, I think the only thing that made me laugh was having coffee with other founders and openly sharing our peregrinations. They didn’t necessarily have solutions (sometimes they did, so it was a double win), but we could just make fun of ourselves, put stuff in perspective and celebrate our wins, however small they were.
I’m not saying founders should stop seeing people outside the entrepreneurship ecosystem. It’s just that in vulnerable moments, I realized having to explain or justify “the startup world” to people who were not familiar with it drained a lot of my energy.
Another framework that really helped me was the “Regret minimization” one.
I’ve lost loved ones quite abruptly before, so the fact that “life can stop at any moment” is now deeply ingrained in my DNA.
As a startup exec, when I realized that if my life had to stop in one day, I wouldn’t instinctively think “oh my god, I should have spent more time at this startup.” It was a “wake-up call” to move on. And I did.
A few years ago, I also interviewed for VC roles (whatever VCs say, being an investor is much more “cozy” and less risky than being a founder), but I thought that wasn’t something I would regret not having “lived” before my forties.
So I started ranking things I would regret not having done if everything had to stop in a couple of days. And for unexplainable reasons, growing Lago made the top.
Even if the beginnings were messy, the team symbiosis we had together felt very rare. I don’t believe it’s that easy to find a co-founder who “clicks'' and great founding team members, and I’ve been involved with enough startups to know this is not a given. And this made me appreciate the current situation even more.
What I’d say to the “God of PMF”
During our YC batch, our partners said that founders who had an easy time raising their seed round didn’t build the muscle for the other rounds. Being rejected is hard, knowing how to handle that takes practice. I think this applies to finding PMF too, and not only to founders, but to the whole team.
Now I know we collectively built muscle. We had time to think about “why are we grinding at Lago vs being an acclaimed exec somewhere else”. It wouldn’t necessarily be the case had we had “instant product market fit”.
And don’t get me wrong, if the “god of PMF” had come to me two years ago and asked me: “do you want (1) instant PMF or (2) PMF in 18 months?”, I’d have taken option 1, big time.
So, this is what I think about when I need to push through. I am at the right place because it minimizes future regrets.
What do you think about when you need to push through?