No Road In Vain In Entrepreneurship — Larry Li, Amino Capital
On the road of entrepreneurship, every step counts. Having been in the venture capital industry for over a decade, I have witnessed the rise and fall of enterprises, the advancements and trends in technology, the boldness and hesitation of founders, the building up and bursting of bubbles, and the startup miracles from zero to billions.
In this business, risking failure is the norm; there is a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding as many start-ups fail and entrepreneurs end up losing everything they sacrificed to launch their venture. However, the opposite can be said — those who never try are the ones taking the risk. Wouldn’t you rather pursue your greatest passions instead of living knowing you never tried?
Of course, the growth of any enterprise is a lengthy process that requires entrepreneurs to experience numerous trials and tribulations before progressing. AMINO Capital has invested in many successful including Chime Bank, the most popular unicorn in the field of financial technology, and Weee!, the largest Asian and Hispanic online grocery-delivery platform. Before becoming the huge scale companies that they are today, their products had to undergo countless stages of polishing and alteration to reach perfection.
The harsh reality all founders must recognize is that no business is born perfect and no product is built overnight. Regardless of how large or small the company is, or how much more or less experience its developers have, adjustments and compromises must be made. In most entrepreneurial stories, the trials and tribulations are what allow a product to land a spot in the market.
Some of the largest companies today have experienced their fair share of hardships before flourishing. On September 19, 2012, Apple released its map software, Apple Maps. At the time, Google Maps was the main platform people used for navigation due to its solid reputation and reliability. Apple Maps’ effort to overtake Google Maps in the iOS ecosystem drew an overwhelming amount of criticism and ridicule from users due to its poor functionality, incomplete service content, and inaccurate road information. 10 days later, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a letter to the public apologizing for Apple Maps’ poorly functioned service — an action Apple had never made before.
Cook’s letter caused an uproar as it made Apple seem weak. Under Steve Jobs’ stern and assertive leadership, no public apology was ever made as he expected consumers to “adapt” to Apple’s product design developments (the removal of the home button). Additionally, because Apple Maps was independently developed and designed without Jobs’ participation, the public criticized Cook describing him as “weak,” “unable to take on responsibilities,” and “inferior to Jobs.”
Despite the level of criticism Cook and Apple received, the company decided not to abandon Apple Maps. Recognizing the complexity and technicality involved with making maps, Apple began to mobilize the efforts of the entire company. Following years of product modification and enhancement, Apple Maps’ functionality has improved significantly. In addition, Apple’s development team has grown from a small group of fewer than one hundred employees to several thousand. Apple even changed the way software was developed for the Maps app by opening beta versions of its IOS system software to ordinary consumers so people around the world could use it with ease.
Just three years after the birth of Apple Maps, the usage of Apple Maps in the iOS ecosystem has reached three times that of Google Maps. Today, Apple Maps serves as Google Maps’ greatest rival and is regarded as one of the best map software on the market alongside Waze and TomTomGo. There is an old saying that goes, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time,” which demonstrates that the greatest products and services are created through a gradual process that involves polishing and corrections.
Without a doubt, entrepreneurship is one of the most exciting jobs in the world. Entrepreneurs have the freedom of pursuing their dream ventures and being their own bosses. But, just like any good thing, there is a downside; entrepreneurship is inherently risky for the majority of entrepreneurs and start-up companies do not succeed and only one in a million triumph. Because failure and setbacks are inevitable, it is important how entrepreneurs and investors handle them as that can very well determine their fate.
As a venture capitalist who works with early-stage companies, I value the character of a founder and team the most. When founders and management teams possess admirable traits such as entrepreneurial enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, and quick adaptability, they can easily broaden their horizons and ideas which allows the company to develop. The three indicators of entrepreneurial success are patience, tenacity, and character.
Another notable figure in the world of business who overcame several hardships before they succeeded is Elon Musk. In the more than 20 years that he graced Silicon Valley, and behind his countless moments of achievement, Musk has set the standard for a remarkable entrepreneur. SpaceX’s Falcon Rocket was launched 11 times and exploded five times before it was successfully launched. Who knew that a company that was on the brink of bankruptcy would go on to change the aerospace industry forever.
Before founding Byte Dance, Zhang Yiming had failed to start his venture four times. In times of confusion, Yiming would share his reflective thoughts and learning experiences on Weibo. From topics like enterprise development to management methodology, Yiming enlightened the public with his wisdom. Thanks to Yiming’s perseverance during the many trial and error processes he endured, Douyin and ByteDance’s products now cater to thousands of users at home and abroad. In an interview with CCTV, he commented on his entrepreneurial journey by saying, “It’s like eating steamed buns; you have to eat the first few steamed buns for the last bun to make you full.” Similar insights have been shared by Sam Altman, former President of Y Combinator, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and Meta, who said, “Before I began building Facebook, I built 10 other similar software. The accumulation of these experiences and projects made creating Facebook possible.”
At the age of 30, Jensen Huang founded a company to fulfill the promise he made to his wife when proposing to her. That company is now valued at $800 billion and is the 7th largest US company dedicated to designing chips — NVIDIA. Jensen described his experience operating the company during its early days: “Many people believed NVIDIA was bound for failure since its inception.” Jensen had chosen a rendering technology called forward texture mapping. At the time, many developed companies such as Silicon Graphics and 3D Effects were focusing on 3D imaging instead. Unfortunately, Jensen and his team made a major mistake as Inverse Texture Mapping was the correct technique. And so, during the first four years of NVIDIA’s founding, two faulty chips were released which drained the company of its funds and almost led it to bankruptcy. To sustain NVIDIA, Jensen had to lay off most of the employees, leaving a core team of only 30 people. Jensen promised to bring back the employees if the company succeeds in the future.
Jensen, determined to steer NVIDIA in the right direction, carefully reviewed the root of the problem and discovered that NVIDIA did not meet the mainstream standards. As a result, he changed his strategy and communicated with software and game developers to gain insight. Through these developers, Jensen learned a powerful lesson: While technology is important, the images it creates must be fun and artistic. Nvidia now regards itself as a company built at the crossroads of technology and art. Since then, the company has rapidly developed and become the world’s only major chip manufacturer dedicated to visual computing, the most successful computer graphics company in history, and the most valuable chip company in the US. In the 28 years since NVIDIA’s first chip came out, the complexity of computer graphics has advanced by about 500 million times.
Jensen is now recognized as a pioneer in graphics and AI technology. Reflecting on his eventful past years, Jensen states, “NVIDIA is what it is today because we made a technological mistake at the beginning. Because we failed.”
It is unnecessary pondering the mistakes you made in the past, as they were all necessary for guiding you to your present self. As such, one should not expect the journey of life or entrepreneurship to be smooth sailing and free of detours; instead, every step should be cherished.
Just like what Taiwanese singer Jonathan Lee Chung-shan said in his 2016 Autobiographical short film: “There is no road in vain in life, every step counts.”
In the last 70+ years of the venture capital industry, I have come across bright and outstanding investors and entrepreneurs. When learning about history and witnessing new history being made, I often feel the boundaries of self-knowledge and ability.
The text I write is a summary and reflection of my past — an exploration of the boundaries of my cognition and a look into my investment thoughts.
I hope my friends who read this article can offer me advice and share their life stories. Together, we can learn from one another and become better versions of ourselves.
Special thanks to Amino PR team and summer fellow for their editing job.