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Guts to start a business

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I explained to a friend why I find it easy to takes risks in life and business.   Here it is:

This reminds me of a story you told me about entrepreneurs being fearless risk takers.  Here’s why I fit the bill.

Growing up in chinatown in a low income family, constantly in debt to friends and landlords, we’ve all learnt to not be afraid of surviving with little or no money (only exiled to Mississauga 4 years ago when my parents couldn’t work in a restaurant anymore, so we needed a place to live).  It’s easy to take risks when your back is against the wall with nothing to lose.  My parents never had the privilege of education because of Japanese occupation, WW2 and the cultural revolution.  My dad especially lost everything during that time.  He tells me stories of pan handling on the streets and being chased away by japanese soldiers.

So as an entrepreneur, I think if there are people like my parents pan handling on the streets in war torn countries, having the guts to start a business in a first world nation is child’s play.  I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I might as well take a shot at proving to people with enough hard work and luck, you can actually claw your way out of poverty (after 2 or 3 generations).

Written by John Lai

July 15th, 2010 at 2:12 pm

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How to Grow a Web Business

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I’m sure every developer who’s ever wanted to start a business had trouble coming up with that one really awesome idea to make him millions. Personally, I feel that approach is too overrated. Here are two other approaches to consider:

Approach 1: Build for Niche Market

David from 37signals explains this one:

Watch live video from HackerTV on

Basically, don’t obsess over coming up with that one big application to change the world.  You have a better chance at winning the lottery. Instead, take an already existing idea and just make it [slightly] better. Then rely on marketing power to take it the rest of the way. Have several of these apps, and you will do quite well.

Approach 2: Focus on Creating Assets

Instead of focusing on which business idea has the most potential for profit, I focus on which business idea allows me to build multi-purpose/re-useable technology. The advantage here is that regardless of whether the immediate business succeeds or fails, I will have created an asset of value that I can re-sale or re-use in the future. There will always be at least one other person who will find my technology useful, and will pay me to use it. This is what I call the “no-loss” scenario.

Written by John Lai

March 7th, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Engineer or Entrepreneur?

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I recently sent an email to Matt Heaton, CEO of Bluehost and Hostmonster. Here’s the email and his response (thanks Matt!):

Hi Matt, I stumbled on your blog while shopping around for web hosting. I want to ask you a question related to career development

“Do you feel that by focusing on business, your technical skills deteriorate (or vice versa)?”

I ask because I graduated from engineering school 5 years ago (I’m 27 now), and I have been working as a programmer since. A few months ago, I quit my full time programming job to focus on my freelance projects and a couple of web start ups. I have never done business before, and if you asked me 5 years ago when I was still a student, starting a business would have been the most far-fetched idea ever. I would have been content working as a “programming guru”.

However, here I am today, having fun working on the projects “I want to work on” and developing my own software which I’m proud of. But the thing that irritates me is that I find it hard to become both an “expert” programmer and an “expert” business man because each discipline is so indepth…there just isn’t enough time to learn everything. I can be a “good” programmer and a “good” business man, which isn’t nearly as “godly”. I want to be able to do everything!

When I’m reading your blog, you seem to be an expert in business and an expert in hardware+OS architecture. It may seem this way to me because you’re much more experienced. But modesty aside, do you really believe you’re an expert in both arenas? What kind of sacrifices did you have to make to achieve this kind of expertise?


John Lai

Hi John,

Sorry, I took a while to reply. I intended to do it the first day and then never got to it – I apologize. As for the following question…

“Do you feel that by focusing on business, your technical skills deteriorate (or vice versa)?”

In the beginning for various businesses that I started the technical aspect was always the reason behind starting the business, but with less employees the business side took most of my time. I always make sure to spend at least 50% of my time on technical aspects to “keep current” and learn new things.

At Bluehost and Hostmonster I spend about 70% of my time working on technical issues including Linux I/O bottlenecks in the kernel and userspace apps. I also custom design our network and hardware systems. Initially I did all the development work for all our web apps but can’t find the time for coding anymore. Only so many hours in a day! I can do this only because we have a very competent general manager that handles many of the day-to-day details that I don’t want to deal with anymore.

I am a bit of an enigma compared with most developers or IT people. I LOVE the technical side of things but frankly Im better at the business part of it than I am the technical aspects. The business side is very natural for me and seems to take far less effort on my part.

In answer to your question about being the best in both disciplines I completely agree. You don’t have to be mediocre in both business and tech, but if you split your time you will never be the developer you could be spending all your time coding – But thats ok to me. You ask if Im an expert in both areas and the answer is no. There are areas of business I’m very strong in and areas where Im weak (projections and accounting practices!!!). Technically I am very strong in I/O bottlenecks, kernel tuning, hardware, etc but have had to let go of my software development. I used to code all day long. Recently I wasn’t happy with the way a specific monitoring tool was working and it was the weekend so I decided to code it myself. It took about 10 hours to write. 5 years ago I could have written it in 2 hours. Those are the breaks, but I did it because the other things I chose to spend my time on made me happier.

The real question you need to ask yourself is if you will be HAPPY. What makes you happy? 100% coding? 80% coding/20% business? 50/50? If you LOVE it then you will do well. If you do something for strictly financial reasons then after a short period of time you usually start falling behind and a poor job is what follows.

I wish you good luck with whatever you choose to do and hope it makes you happy!


Matt Heaton

Written by John Lai

January 14th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Entrepreneurial Spirit

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I’ve been a full time freelancer/entrepreneur for four months now. Here are attributes of myself that I have found valuable (in no particular order):

Enjoy Meeting New People
I like to meet new people and learn the way they think. Often, opportunities arise soon after.

Well Rounded Skill Set
Backend development is still my forte. But it helps to have some graphics design abilities and a little sales personality. In the event you’re caught without assistance in either departments, you can still hold down the fort. If you’re in a crunch for cash, it definitely helps to cut cost by doing everything yourself.

Work Is Something You Want To Do
I mostly dream of two things: martial arts and programming. Depending which which dream I wake up from, I immediately go and do that first, even before I brush my teeth. So if I dreamed about fighting, I immediately shadow box for 30 minutes. If I dreamed about programming, I go to my computer and implement the ideas I dreamed of.

Constantly Analyzing/Planning/Strategizing
I’m always thinking of ways to improve something, whether its fighting, programming, product ideas etc…I don’t like staying still. In a fight, you can’t be caught flat footed. You have to keep moving. Keep an eye on your opponents (and allies). Always try to be a couple of steps ahead in the game.

Open Minded
A ninja must always mind his surroundings. I like listening to everything that is said, even if I do not agree with some of it.

If you can’t take the hits, then don’t step into the ring.

Written by John Lai

January 4th, 2009 at 3:12 am