Everyone likes to hear about a success story. Even though, most of the time they don’t really know what it’s like and how it feels before the curtain is lifted and the story goes on to the bright light.
Because behind every success story, there is always difficulties, obstacles and tears.
Ours is not really a success story – it is just a story that tells how we got here today. Because I don’t consider that our life is a success – not yet, we’re still working our way up.
But it is indeed a story that tells you that if you work hard and you persist, against all odds, you can make it. Anywhere. Including in the jungle of Jakarta.
J and I arrived in Jakarta seven years ago. On a heavy, humid afternoon, the clock stroke 3, exactly on Thursday, 19 January 2006, we landed in the Big Durian.
Feeling half confident and half scared, excited in welcoming a new life, a big change for both of us, we stepped off the Qatar Airways and into the heat of the Soekarno-Hatta lane.
This is a long story. It started way back when and it still goes on and on, today, tomorrow and in the future.
We had nothing. Barely a thousand and three hundred Euros, farewell-and-good-luck gift from J’s father. And off we went into the unknown, like we had a clue, we started our first company.
Unofficially, J and I had been working on our personal projects for over a year already. We were such a compatible couple: a geeky programmer and a boho graphic designer. We teamed up making a couple of projects and we thought we could make it off easily in Jakarta, so that was what we did: we started a SoHo-type of business.
Before we got married, the office was my old bedroom in the parents’ house. My parents were not taking us seriously even though they believed in us.
After we got married, the office moved to our newly rented house. The newlyweds started their business with meager clients, ones that are neither generous nor creative, and most often they didn’t pay us enough neither did they pay us in time – that, if they did pay. My parents were still not taking us seriously – and obviously neither did the clients.
And we lived for the day.
Soon, we started another website that would become our first startup venture that would live until today (and is now thriving). The website was all about party and nightlife and so were we: we’d sleep the day off and out the night away. Boy, did we party.
The money that we got from J’s father was entirely spent on our first workmachines: a local-brand laptop for J and a desktop PC for me, as well as a cellphone for mister.
So of course, we lived for the day.
We’d get small projects here and there, then we’ll survive a month or two, but money was, more often than not, lacking in our household. It was tight.
Often we had nothing left in our bank account – if you ask me the reason I never left BCA, today I’d perhaps answer you it’s because I’m too used to it, but the second truth is that it is the only bank that allows you to withdraw until the very last drop: it’s fine to have a zero balance there.
So, because I was still very naïve and had no experience, often we didn’t get paid in time or not at all by these clients and it left us with very little money to live. Often we only had Rp 50K (less than 5 Euros) to survive for a week or two.
Luckily, whenever I needed them, my parents were always there to support us. Even though they still didn’t believe in us that much. Just like the rest of my family and my extended family, who were always wondering and asking why were we so persistent in the www business? It couldn’t possibly make any money right? Unlike “real” stuff my cousins all do: dentists, med doctors, bankers, accountants and whatnots.
But we believed in us. We knew, somehow, it would work.
But days quickly turned into weeks and weeks into months and months into years. Before we realized it, we were already living for 3 years in Indonesia, still doing our small-time business and not making any more money than what we were spending, barely saving anything.
These so-called finance gurus and spending coaches that would tell you to save up, using their pretty formulas and scaring you off with their theory that, in order to be safe, a married couple must have at least 12 times their monthly expense budget saved up in a deposit account? You know, the ones that bitch about “What do you want in life and do you seriously want it??” I said (and I still say so now), screw them all. We were such a mess and I believe that those charlatans just didn’t make any reality checks around them. We were not alone, obviously. And at that time, more often than not, we were still depending on a single source of income: the clients who almost never paid in time.
So, one day, the unavoidable arrived: a wake-up call. My father passed away, and the company he used to forge J a visa, could no longer be used. For a year, we did fine with Socio-Cultural Visa – it’s a form of visa for jobless people, basically for foreigners who want to try their luck in this country. It’s no way secure and it’s a ticket to laziness – easy to get, cheap and you can still work without paying any taxes. Schweet, right? Well, not so much.
The country needs taxpayers badly. Especially foreigners. Indonesia says, if you foreigners can’t benefit our country by paying taxes then screw you, go home, we don’t need you here. I used to disagree with that, but now I totally agree. If you are a foreigner who intends to stay and work here, you MUST pay your dues. Your taxes. By having your company make you a KITAS. But that’s another story for another post.
At the end of 2008, J could no longer extend his Socio-Cultural Visa lest he got a new permanent office job. We didn’t like leaving the comfort of our SOHO but a choice and a decision must be made. Fast. J found a job within two weeks and it was one he liked. He wasn’t paid much, but he could stay. It was enough for us.
For about seven months, the company lasted. But it was bleeding like hell. The operational director screwed the investors, corrupting money left and right and made a big hole in the financial sector. A project that could be done in a week extended over months, making it impossible to cash in invoices on time, increasing the budget and decreasing the profit margin. The company was on the brink of collapsing. The verge of bankruptcy.
But it had such huge potentials. So one day, the owner, our angel investor (bless her), Mrs F, sought to see us – she told us we could run the company and she only wanted to get her money back, afterward the company would be ours. She saw the leadership in J and I and decided she wanted to put a bet on us. Her last card. She gave it to us because she believed in us. I still thank her to this day and beyond for her trust in us two. For letting us have the company, the best idea we’ve ever come across.
The Good Idea
It was August 2009. We started the emergency CPR to the company, giving it a new breath and resurrect it into life. We didn’t do much miracles, but the company survived. I closed several deals, profitable ones, the projects I signed were of good prices (at that time) if not astronomical.
The company started living again. Not prospering yet but it was on the right path.
And then, no longer after the company started resurrecting, our angel and benefactor, Mrs F, came to us and told us, “I’m done with the company. Just pay me a little money for it and I’ll leave everything to you guys. Just please make it live.”
We were afraid she would want a high selling price, but it turned out she didn’t. She asked for a decent sum, exactly the half of what we had in our savings. So we said yes and took the card we were dealt. Blindly high with conviction, but halfway afraid we did something wrong.
We started the company with very little amount of money. No investors. All bootstrapped. We bought everything ourselves and renewed the hardware ourselves. No investment. Only us and a little help from my parents.
So it was the good idea. The two first years were not easy, we were too emotional, too forgiving, too buttery soft. Every time someone quit, I would be so emotionally hurt – I would feel betrayed. But actually, hey, that’s the way things are, right? People are always bound to find a better place. No hard feelings. So, over time, I learnt to deal with people parting ways with our company. It’s OK. It’s just a change. And the once-bitter us now have nothing against people resigning – we even greet our employees who resign with a good luck hug and well-wishes in and with their new endeavors.
The tough cookie only toughens up when it’s baked on a high degree and that was how we learnt. Through difficulties.
I often melted with stress at the beginning. Asking myself if we did the right choice? All that moments of doubts, J never ever had a single weakness of questioning if what we did was right or wrong. He just always had the biggest of conviction it would work. That things would, somehow, fall into places. I always admire his courage and conviction in insisting that we were on the right path.
However, the two first years, we had a lot of problem with a lot of things – management, finance, well, a lot of things. The employees were not that excellent, not loyal and they didn’t respect us. I know, respect is earned not bought, and I didn’t blame them – at that time, we had a shitty small office and uninteresting projects. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, right? Better start small and climb your way up rather than waiting to start big and then never starting at all.
The two first years, we often had problems with cash flow. But gradually it begins to be better and better and at the end of the second year, we were already doing great. We no longer had to find projects – projects come to us without any effort. Because the name we’ve been building since 2009 finally started to pay off. We started charging decent amounts to our invoices and cashing all of them in the proper time.
But with the arrival of the projects, came another thing – expected thing actually. It’s work. A lot of it.
We work seven days a week, for endless months we didn’t spend our weekends elsewhere but at the office. The old shitty office – that people always made fun of, but the one that had sheltered us in the process, the one so small and stank of stale – but where it all started. I’ll always be thankful to that space, forever.
And I tell you something, if you have a business or intending to start one: think properly. Are you ready? The word “becoming my own boss” might sound cool, but nothing of all the “I do nothing and just boss around” rings true – in fact, if it’s your own business, you’ll most probably end up working so much more than you would if you were just an employee.
Now if people tell me, “Lo sih enak, kan kantor sendiri, perusahaan sendiri, bisa ngapain aja!” (“You’ve got it easy, it’s your own company, your own business, so you can do whatever you want!”) I grin and say, “Tell me about it.”
Fast-forward seven years after the day we arrived in Indonesia, the fourth year of our company just started. It’s now living and thriving, still small but we already have a solid base of clientèle and we love working with them all. We have built four other ventures – three still living and one defunct (You can’t just all make it work! One has to fail eventually) and now occupy a big office space with all the things I ever wished to have, including a bunch of team members who are simply great.
My mother, the only parent I have left, along with our aunt, takes care of Louis, our baby boy, and she, like the rest of my family and my extended family, now believes in us. They finally see that indeed, the digital domain we work in, can eventually make real cash. And a hefty amount of it if you do it right.
Aside from the digital agency, we also work on several other projects – help friends make concerts, do the digital marketing for high profile events and so on and so on. We want to open a bar someday – in a few years perhaps. A cupcake store. A lot of things. But everything in its own rightful time.
Mrs F stayed in touch with us after all these years. I still love and respect her and will never forget what she did for us. The good idea she gifted us with.
Seven years of living in Jakarta, I’d say that the journey has been an exciting roller-coaster ride – a lot of downs in the beginning but now it’s only ups. Well, not exactly roller-coaster then – perhaps a boat is a better analogy. It used to rain cats and dogs and the sea was not quiet. But now we’ve nearing the shore, the weather is nice and the wind breezy, softly driving us toward the coast.
And the journey has not ended yet