The promise of a new decade. The terrifying black swan. Shutting down a life's mission. The hardest days of my life (a.k.a letting people down). The uncertainty. And a new beginning.
Disclaimer (2): this is a personal story about events happening around my life from my own point of view and does not represent any entities/companies mentioned.
Disclaimer (1): this is a bit long, and it consists of two parts: the story & the lessons.
No doubt, 2020 has been a formative year for everyone. We drove off from 2019 with the thought that we are going strong. We started 2020 with all the plans we thought will bear fruits over the 2021. This will be a new decade, after all. We planned career moves, we have set the dates for our vacations, and we have decided on life's most important choices.
Mine has been a roller coaster of a ride as well.
The promise of a new decade
I also started the year going strong. My side project, Akselito (a career accelerator) was going well. Even after getting rejection from Y Combinator final interview, we had high hope forward. We needed to make our offerings, which are operationally heavy and involves a lot of human interactions into a product that can run on its own. We had several ideas, and one, Akselito CV Maker came out to be viable. In the end we successfully launched it.
At STOQO (a B2B startup delivering fresh produces to restaurants in Jakarta, Indonesia), my primary job, we have some tough situations going on. Early in January, the days with heavy rain eventually flooded some areas of Jakarta. We could not fulfill our demand in those affected areas. It shook me, because that was my first few days going back to Jakarta after spending the new year's eve in Boyolali, my home town.
Hundreds of orders were forced to be canceled. We called our customers one by one, apologizing that we couldn't deliver their orders due to the flood. A lot of them got angry, because they thought we were their hope. They themselves couldn't go to their usual wet markets and their vendors were unable to fulfill their orders. Flood was almost everywhere, after all. We let our customers down when they needed us the most. It was not a pleasant thing to experience, to be honest.
But the rainy days eventually passed, and everything went back to normal. Partially due to the apology gift vouchers we gave and the hard work of our field salespeople to reassure our customers that we would be delivering to their place again.
On the back of my mind, I was also thinking of getting back to school again. Although the writings on this blog don't suggest that I love school, I felt that living in an environment purely focused on learning and self-improvement, without the objective of delivering something, might be good for me longer-term. I bought online courses, went to classes in Jakarta, and even participated in a study group with two of my friends.
But then the pandemic came.
The terrifying black swan
At first, we at STOQO didn't feel anything. When our team surveyed our customers, the majority of our customers weren't afraid of the virus and they weren't aware that it will impact their business negatively, yet.
I remembered during the first few weeks of the pandemic (it was in early March), I visited a customer of STOQO (a hawker in Central Jakarta). We had a chat with her about the business situation, and she said that everything is still manageable. A slight drop in her hawker's sales, but nothing to worry about. In my mind, I believe that was because her stall is located within a residential area, so people are still around. Did she know that all schools, all universities, and most office buildings were closing down, making the nearby stalls to also close down because of no customer?
Weeks went by and our demand dropped bit by bit. In a fixed-cost heavy business like ours, declining demand will be a huge hit to our bottom line.
We did everything we could. We cut down our promotional budget, we entered a new segment (B2C direct to consumer), we overhauled our warehouse processes, and in the area I am involved in (logistics), we made fundamental changes to our logistics model and driver compensation rates. This time, I saw all three hundreds full-time employees and more than a thousand field workers in the company did their very best. Sometimes we would work until early morning. We needed to get into our customers' door as early as 3am in the morning. We were determined that we will survive the crisis and come out the other side, stronger.
My friend from another company said to me; "What you are going through is super tough bro. But if you manage to get through those--you went through the flood, the bad fundraising climate (it was the time when WeWork fiasco happened), the pandemic. It's like you went through Iraq and you survived. It will be an interesting story to tell your kids later."
I certainly hope so.
One day, we had a realization that our logistics model is no longer sensible for us to survive. Even though we already using the cheapest model there is, doing last mile deliveries using motorcycles instead of using the regular vans or trucks, we are still paying our drivers on a per-day basis. In a fluctuating (and worse, declining) demand of the pandemic time, I thought of this as inefficient. So we decided to change the compensation into a per-drop-point basis. Our drivers will get paid in accordance to how many deliveries they do. I believe the new model is beneficial to our company, yet is fairer to driver as well. And off we went, we built the financial model, talked with our vendors and partners on the rate change, and communicated the change to all of our drivers.
Everything was good. We made a lot of progress. And so we thought.
Little did we know that on the field, the message did not receive positive sentiment from our drivers. Even though I saw what we did as a way to navigate the pandemic so that we all could still work in the months to come, our drivers viewed the message through the lens of a company trying to screw its workers. I felt very sad.
During the D-day of the implementation of the new rate, out of hundreds of drivers working at the company, only one person showed up for delivery. The other hundreds are on strike, demanding the reversal of the rate policy. That only driver's name is Dodoy, I personally met him another time thanking him for showing up, despite ongoing threats from the others.
As a result of the incident, we were forced to find alternative methods to deliver, such as delivering the orders ourselves, engaging with 3rd party on-demand vendors, and canceling the rest that we couldn't cover. I tried to recover the drivers' trust in the next several days. I couldn't sleep well.
Every day I went to the distribution centers; talking to drivers; sharing the reasoning behind the rate change, that we are not trying to screw our workers, but to actually have a good cashflow to navigate the pandemic. I briefed on the global and macro-economic context of the pandemic.
Field workers came from different background than most of us; thus they consume different kinds of information and think differently. Most of them didn't have the notion that the pandemic is serious or will last a long time. They still felt invincible because nobody they know contracted the virus yet. They believed the pandemic will only last a couple of weeks and everything will be normal again. They didn't grasp our intention that because we know the pandemic is going to last months (or even years), therefore we need to implement some measures, and that will include financial ones.
During those times, I slept in the warehouse, truck pools, or distribution centers almost every day. I didn't care much on whether I have eaten or not, or whether I have taken shower or not. No one will judge how you look on the field anyway.
I often told my friends that my days went like this; I woke up at 10am and worked on engineering & product areas until 6pm (because my team mostly worked at the normal hour). And then I slept from 6-10pm. I would woke up at 10pm to either worked on business/operational areas or visiting our warehouse or visiting our distribution centers until 6am. And then I slept from 6-10am. Technically, I was getting 8 hours of sleep :)
This was a period that allowed me a lot of reflection and connections. I got to know our workers in the warehouse more since I almost showed up every day there. I also got to know the drivers better, where they lived, how was their family doing, and what did they think of the pandemic.
It was during this time that I also realized, the pandemic will hit field workers harder than most of my peers. When your work relies on physical work and human contact, you will have your market mostly gone when the full lock down takes place. You don't have the luxury of mostly using your brain to do your work. You still need to use physical labor to its full extent. I often rant about inequality & economic issues, but that's for another time.
Shutting down a life's mission
On the third week of April, I received a bad news. And what's worse, I need to re-share the bad news to a lot of people. People who will be severely impacted.
After a month of trying our best to salvage our demand and did cost cutting here and there (with record breaking efficiency, actually), the founders & directors of the company thought that the pandemic will not go away soon (and with it our demand), so it was impossible to keep on incurring costs without significant improvement in our demand. The thought had not occurred to me that someday I would see this company failed, let alone with everything unfolding in front of my eyes.
I joined STOQO because I was drawn to its mission: empowering the underserved to work for a better life. Hawker owners, farmers, drivers, warehouse workers. I would consider them underserved people in Indonesia. I would work very hard to see our mission fulfilled. It doesn't need to be super successful, but growing to a scale where we can be helpful to the underserved is enough for me.
I had not fully thought out the implication of the closure to my life, when I was woken to the realization that we would need to let our employees go.
Letting one employee go is one thing, it's probably written somewhere in most management books. But laying dozens of employees off, at the same time, is of another level. (Did I mention that I was also being let go, or everybody basically). I had no clue on how I should proceed with this.
I felt numb.
The hardest days of my life (a.k.a letting people down)
When I share the news, I decided to go with full transparency. I called my team members one by one. I said these lines probably dozens of times to different people: "Hey, sorry for the sudden call. I have a bad news. We will shut down our company effective by tomorrow. Today is our last day. But don't worry, as the person who asked you to join this company, I will help as I could to find you a new opportunity."
Most people were shocked, and some were crying when I did the call. It was humbling to see how much they care about our team members, our company, and what we do here. But sadly, nothing much could be done to save it. And at the same time, my chest felt very tense when I share the news and answer their questions.
An employee in Pakistan told me a few days back (before we know that our business will shut down): "Hey due to Covid, I have heard news here that people in a lot companies are getting salary reduction, and some are even being laid off. I just feared that, and this is my nightmare actually, that someday I would wake up and get a message saying I am no longer an employee and I would need to look for a new job, very soon, in this tough time."
When I did 1-on-1 chat with that team member, I couldn't look at him in their eyes directly. I can't believe I am sharing the news, that unfortunately, their nightmare had come true. Being let go is awful, and it's even more awful now, because most companies are on hiring freeze, and some even let their employees go too. It's probably the worst time to be let go.
I felt bad.
Because I joined the company during its early days, I was an unofficial ambassador to the company. I talked about it every time I met people, about our mission, our growth, and all the cool stuffs we are doing. I referred and convinced a lot of people, of whom most are my friends, to join the company.
When looking at the names of my team members, I remembers exactly when and how did my first meeting with them go, what did I say to convince them to join the company, and what amazing stuffs that they have done & built here.
I felt responsible to do the best I could to help them find a new place.
I spend the next couple of weeks referring my team members here and there, providing consultation, CV review, mock interview and just plain moral support. Thankfully, a lot of my team members found a new job without even needing my help.
The other sad thing that I probably felt that time was, how I saw the cool products my teams build in the past few years, day and night, goes to waste. And with it the future features that might be built.
The first few days of me being unemployed, it felt very very weird. I checked my WhatsApp and see no business activities like the usual day. Before, my phone would always buzz every few second because we have a lot of WhatsApp groups to discuss operational issues. I checked Slack, and there's no usual work chatter. I checked my Google Calendar and I just stare at the emptiness, even though the recurring meetings are still there, knowing that it doesn't happen anymore.
In a very long time, I didn't remember what it feels being jobless. The last time was when I was a senior in university, right before graduation. The feelings are similar, a jumbled mix of not knowing what to do with my life and whether I would end up regretting the choice I make later. The difference was, back then we are not in the middle of a global pandemic that drains the emotion of billions of people and the options on what to do next are drastically more limited now.
On those uncertain days, my mood are uncontrollable. Sometimes I would felt high, super optimistic, and believing that I just had a spectacular lessons on entrepreneurship that people my age rarely encounters. The other times, I would get depressed and think negatively of everything; such as: of course being failed has its lessons that are valuable, but being successful will be much more efficient.
The fact that I couldn't meet physically with my friends, support network, or families didn't help. And the whole Ramadhan & Eid without meeting my family at all definitely didn't help either.
Just like another instances of grieving, such as the loss of someone we love or a breakup, my brain raced to think of everything that didn't happen. The sunk cost, the energies that probably gone to vain. The opportunity cost, what did I lose by taking this path. Would I be better off working overseas? Oh, the fantasy of living on the paths I did not take.
It goes on for a while until I went to therapy with a professional my friend recommended to me. My therapy session was quite useful, at least it reminded me that those feelings are normal and a lot of people are going through similar feelings due to the economic wreckage brought by the pandemic.
It takes a lot of fortitude to deal with disaster, but in my opinion it takes a new peculiar level of resilience to navigate uncertainties. In dealing with disaster, at least we know that we are already at the bottom, I might be assured that the only way to go is up. In navigating uncertainties, I don't know if this is finally the bottom where the only option is up, or if there are actually deeper pits that I could spiral into.
I am forever grateful to my friends and also strangers who still supported me, connected me with opportunities, or even just asked how am I feeling. It is during this tough times, that I finally realized how my relationships with other people matter and how I couldn't function properly as a person without others.
A new beginning
After two months of hanging in the ether, I finally got a job at GudangAda as VP of Engineering. The business is kinda similar to STOQO. Whereas STOQO sell vegetables & staples to restaurant & hawker owners, GudangAda lets wholesalers & retailers sell FMCG goods to each other.
The second half of the year was me adapting and contributing to GudangAda. I believe it deserves another story since it involves me moving city (from Jakarta to Tangerang, but still...), finding new circles of friends, and taking on challenges I never encounter before.
I probably learned more lessons in 2020 than my previous years combined. And you probably had your own reflections and lessons learned (or the good ol' resolutions planned for 2021).
But I believe it will be very useful for us to read the lessons and learn from each other. To quote Warren Buffet: "It's good to learn from your mistakes. It's better to learn from other mistakes". This saying gets thrown a lot, but I only truly understand what it means recently. When we learn from our mistakes, we pay the full price. When we learn from others' mistakes, we are not paying for it, we get it for free :)
1. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
So it goes, what Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king of the 2nd century Roman empire, say. Life is full of struggles, challenges, problems, or essentially, obstacles.
We have a choice, whether to be blocked by it, stressing over it for a long time. Or we can move forward, going through it.
Of course, the obstacle--the thing that we are afraid of and hope never to happen--will surprise us and paralyze us when it hits us the first time. We will be faced with: fear, anger, confusion, depression, helplessness, bitterness of life.
We can blame ourselves, we can blame our bosses or our parents, we can blame external factors, or we can just blame the unfortunate situation itself.
We can also sit there and do nothing. Let the obstacle move itself from our path.
But what's better? We can actually view the obstacle as an opportunity; it's a test for us to endure. To do great things, we must be able to go through and even love everything that follows with it, good and bad. We need to overcome failures and setbacks.
I kept reminding myself again and again that: this too shall pass. I imagined a time in the future where I would look back retrospectively, and said to myself: "Phew, I went through that shit. And I survived."
2. Having a calling or a mission in makes our stamina lasts longer.
Whenever I onboarded a new team member, I sometimes share the three pyramids of a working life:
a. A job. We just do it to get money, basically trading our time & energy for a paycheck.
b. A career. Like a job, but more serious. We care about our growth, our future, and our learnings.
c. A calling or a mission. Like a career, but we really believe and care what we do.
I viewed what I do as a mission; to essentially help those who are underprivileged so that they have a better future. When it aligns with what my company do, I sometimes forget that I have limited energy.
I have more resilience in going through everything that happens. I can work and solve problems that I would consider boring, but if it advances my mission, I would gladly do it.
I am fortunate that what I do at STOQO (and now at GudangAda) aligns with my mission. I hope that the work I do continuously help people in any way positively.
3. The world forgives most kinds of mistakes, but not integrity mistakes.
I forgot who said this, but it rings truer and truer as I go through my career.
Whatever mistakes I may did, as long as it's not a mistake of integrity (like dishonesty, stealing, corruption, etc), people will forgive and they might be happy to ask us about the lessons learned.
When facing hard times, it is tempting to take shortcuts that might collide with our conscience, but trust me, the negative impact it will do to your future (and your conscience) will far outweigh whatever you gain.
The world is small, and especially in my industry, the circle is very small that red stains of our wrongdoings will come back to haunts us for a long time.
But the converse is also true. In hard times, when we treat people fairly with respect and help them as best as we could, they might (but not obliged, of course) do the same to others & to us.
I kept on remembering the quote from Naval Ravikant (the internet Prophet): "Returns are made on the way up. Reputations are made on the way down."
In hard times, we might not get the returns we aimed for, but we might get something even better: a good reputation.
4. Be around people whom you respect and admire, but are willing to bet on you.
It's now a cliche that we are the average of the 6 people we spend the most time time with. Aa cliche keeps getting repeated because it's true.
In every situation, I would look for people whom I respect and admire, people I would consider my mentors and role models.
Aside from money and knowledge, relationships with people also compound. The longer we know people, the more stuffs we go through together, will increase our trust level. And with high trust level, we can collaborate more effectively and do great things together.
At STOQO, I am fortunate to be around people who took a bet on me & continually supported me. I was the youngest guy on the company's leadership team (I was only 22 when the average age of the others are 30 years old).
Being bet on is thrilling, because most bet don't materialize, so I need to keep on learning and learning.
5. Resilience is a muscle, our life is a journey of learnings
"I didn't come this far only to come this far" is the other mantra I kept on repeating.
Our life is not defined by one or two specific moments, but by chains of events and adversities that keeps coming at us.
They way we react to them will be our practice moves that will improve us, strengthen us.
We need to keep on persisting. No need to despair or be ashamed when things didn't go our way. We need to keep our efforts.
It's okay to feel confused, lost, depressed. But it's not okay to quit.
Keep moving closer, inch by inch, steady and sure, until the seemingly impossible mission is in our hand. This is resilience.
Nobody is telling us that it is easy. Whatever it is we are doing. Be it a career, a startup, a relationship, a life. It is supposed to be hard. Our first attempts probably will not work. It requires more work from our side.
I would end this reflection by a quote by Epictetus, who himself was a slave who then become one of the most prominent philosopher of his time:
Try, also, to be as kind to yourself as possible. Do not measure yourself against others or even against your ideal self. Human betterment is a gradual, two-steps-forward, one-step-back effort.
Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease.
Forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.