Editor’s Note: When you want something bad enough, you do whatever it takes to make it happen. Ivan didn’t have enough money, no place to stay and no plan for the journey back home from Jacksonville to Gainesville and yet he didn’t let that stop him. He went ahead on a one way trip – hoping things worked out. And it did.
That’s how committed he is. And this essay shows just how much a little commitment and hustling can get you. Enter Ivan.
My name is Ivan Teong and I’m a student studying in the University of New South Wales, currently on study exchange in the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida USA. This is the graduating semester of my undergraduate degree, and I met my co-founder, Daniel, for my startup, TradeSumo (previously SwitchTick), when I went to Startup Weekend Jacksonville.
It was the single best thing that came out of my exchange in America, because Daniel has been a fantastic business partner and friend so far.
However, the experience going through Startup Weekend without enough money and a proper plan was not an easy one.
Daniel & I promoting SwitchTick at the One Spark Crowdfunding Festival
On the 22nd of January 2014, I was talking to a friend I knew from the Entrepreneurship Club at University of Florida. He told me that there was a Startup Weekend happening in Jacksonville from 24th to 26th January 2014, and I was at a loss about whether I should attend it as it was so last minute. He was going there with some friends in a car and sharing a hotel room, but I could not ride or share the hotel room with him due to lack of space.
I have missed Startup Weekend in Sydney the previous semester as it was postponed due to bad attendance, and the only Startup Weekend happening in Florida during the semester I’m in America will be in Jacksonville. Startup Weekend for Gainesville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa are all in the latter half of the year during which I would not be in America.
I asked an entrepreneur friend based in Hong Kong, Patrick Chu, the same day about whether I should go with all this uncertainty. He had attended Startup Weekend in Melbourne before, and told me that it is a must-not-miss event as there will be highly skilled and very passionate people who attend such events. His words were good enough for me and I booked a Greyhound bus from Gainesville to Jacksonville the next day. The thing was, I did not have any idea of where I would stay and how I would come back.
I also did not realize that after paying USD$74 for the event and USD$22.90 for the Greyhound bus, I would run out of money in my US bank account.
Startup Weekend progressed quite quickly and before I knew it, I had to think about where to stay for the night. I checked my bank account and realized that I only had enough money to book a Greyhound bus back home, in case I did not manage to find someone to ride with back to Gainesville. I did not have the ability to transfer funds from Singapore as I did not bring the bank dongles with me, and even if I could, it would not be in time for the funds to be available in my US bank account.
There were not many hotels close to the University of North Florida campus where Startup Weekend was held and I needed to be close by, as I did not drive. The available hotels were very expensive for one person and I knew that even with money, it would be too much to pay per night. At that time, I did not know anyone in Jacksonville so I had no choice but to hustle everyone in Startup Weekend who could help me.
I have managed to pitch an idea regarding an online marketplace that allowed people to barter items that they no longer want which I named SwitchTick, and my idea was one of the top 14 ideas out of 36 ideas based on votes. Hence, I was allowed to pitch a second time being in the top 14 so as to attract people to form teams.
When I was waiting for people to approach my allocated area to join my team, Daniel was the first who wanted to join me followed by 2 other business guys. While working on the idea after my team was formed, I began hustling the members in my Startup Weekend team to see if I could bunk over somehow.
However, the 2 business guys were exchange students who lived in dormitories and they would be fined if they brought anyone back to their dorm rooms. It would also seem weird for them to bring a guy back to their rooms – where would I sleep? Daniel could not host me as he was staying with his parents and going out till late with friends for drinks on Friday and Saturday, but he did offer to help me pay the bulk of costs for a hotel room so that I only needed to pay $20+ per night.
I did not want to owe him unnecessarily so I decided that I had to find an alternative.
My Startup Weekend Team working on SwitchTick
It was really crazy as there I was, trying to work my way through Startup Weekend on the idea I pitched, while trying to resolve my housing and transportation problems at the same time. When it became apparent that I could not get help by bunking with people I knew from Gainesville or my Startup Weekend team, I began talking to anyone whom I’ve spoken with before at Startup Weekend. I knew that it was quite hard to get someone to host me, as I did not know anyone well. I tried explaining my situation to everyone I could talk to, but it was quite challenging for people to spare time for that as everyone was working on their ideas while I had to make sure that as leader of my team, I was also focusing on leading my team to get as much done as possible.
I knew that Startup Weekend was a weekend long event, and I tried asking the organizers if the event was run 24 hours every day. They said that the school only allowed them to have the event until the building’s closing hours, so I talked to the security guard next to ask him if he could let me sleep in the room after the event ended every night.
I begged him really hard and tried to gain his sympathy, stating that I did not have enough money for an expensive hotel room, was not from Jacksonville and hence not knowing anyone, and found it difficult to find anyone to host me. He tried to understand my situation, but in the end, I understood that it was not within his power to decide on such things. He probably did not want to take responsibility for anything that could happen to me overnight as well.
It was funny that even with all these rejections, I strongly believed in my ability to hustle even with such obstacles lying ahead of me. I did not believe that there was not even one person who could host me in the room full of people, and I was sure that I could do it before the night ended. I had no excuse, until I have talked to every single person whom I could talk to.
Strategically, I focused on talking to people whom I knew first, followed by people who had some authority, then people whom I have interacted with before, and lastly strangers. In my situation, it was most important that I came across as genuinely being in a dilemma, and I tried my best to appeal to that side of people by emphasizing that I was not from Jacksonville.
There was a guy called Jyoti whom I have spoken to briefly before, and I asked him if he could host me but he said that he would think about it after I tried everyone else. I practically used whatever spare time I had to speak to as many people as possible about this, but to no avail. Finally, I asked the organizer if he could host me and he asked me to talk to Jyoti again as Jyoti is a good guy.
I went to Jyoti and told him about the rejections, and I was really surprised that he agreed to let me stay over at his place during the whole Startup Weekend. This was a guy who only spoke to me briefly for less than 5 minutes, and he was willing to host me as he was staying by himself. It would be very convenient for me as he was the leader of his own team at Startup Weekend, so we could come to the event and leave the event together.
Eventually, I found out that he was someone with a charitable heart as he volunteers as a nurse in the emergency room in hospital on weekend evenings on top of being a software engineer during the week. I also followed him to give out food to the homeless people in his area, when we were driving to the university before the day began for Startup Weekend. I was really touched by his kindness, hospitality and also discovered that I was lacking in how much I contributed to society’s disadvantaged in general.
Even after Startup Weekend ended, we kept in touch and also met up when I was in Jacksonville in April to promote SwitchTick with Daniel for One Spark. This was a friend and someone whom I could learn from on how to become a contributor to the more disadvantaged side of society, and we connected all because of my hustling.
Jyoti and I at One Spark’s After Dark Party
As my accommodation was settled, I had to settle my next problem of not knowing how I would be getting back to Gainesville. There was a guy from University of Florida who said he could potentially give me a ride back, but he left on Saturday night as he did not find it interesting enough to stay that long.
I could not leave early with him as I had to stay until the event ended on Sunday night, since I was the leader of my team. Food and drinks were provided in Startup Weekend, so I did not have to spend money on them. Since Jyoti hosted me by letting me sleep on his living room couch, I could use the USD$30 left in my bank to buy a Greyhound bus ticket back to Gainesville on Monday morning.
Startup Weekend Team for SwitchTick
After Startup Weekend ended, Daniel and I decided to continue working on SwitchTick until today. Daniel remains someone who is as passionate and committed to SwitchTick as I am, and I feel very lucky that I did not give myself any excuses to not attend Startup Weekend in another city.
If I did, I would not have found a new friend in Jyoti, an excellent business partner and technical co-founder in Daniel, as well as a wonderful experience in Startup Weekend that I would not have had before I graduate. Although the road ahead will be challenging as I leave America to return to Singapore and Sydney after my study exchange ends and I graduate, I believe that it is still possible to work virtually as a startup team in different time zones.
With sufficient motivation and trust, turning SwitchTick into a successful startup will be within means for both of us as long as we want to make it happen.