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Archive for December 2009

A #StartupVisa Story: Goodbye Boston, Hello Shanghai, (Get Ready Montreal?)

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Last Saturday I took the famous Route 128 heading north from Boston for Maine for Christmas. Besides 20 minutes at South Station waiting for my Bolt Bus next week, Saturday was the last time I would be in Boston for sometime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t by choice. Early Thursday AM, there was an article from Wade Roush pushed lived onto Xconomy titled, Invent a Cool Clothing Company, Now Leave the Country – Fan Bi, Blank Label, and the case for the ‘Founder’s Visa’. Credit to Wade, it was a really comprehensive piece. He did a great job of giving Blank Label exposure which I had been hounding him about for a while. And he also drew attention to the #StartupVisa which I’ve been, sometimes anonymously, supporting. This post was an opportunity for me to respond, give insight as to what and who in Boston I will most miss, and talk briefly about the adventures for 2010.

[Photo: Cort Johnson and I talking about Blank Label prelaunch on Dart Boston’s Pokin’ Holes]

Before anything else, I just want to say that I was overwhelmed by the response from friends, people in the Boston startup community, and the general startup observing public. I received a several calls of shock, loads of emails of support and a large twitter mobilization looking to help. It’s hard enough founding a startup, but being concerned about keeping visibility low to not set off any immigration alarm bells whilst trying to publicize an innovative, interesting consumer startup was difficult. I remember when our first major feature piece was published in Forbes, and I was waiting anxiously that there wouldn’t be anyone pointing and saying, what’s going on here. The reality about starting a company on a student visa are honestly very grey. I had reached out to Brad Feld and Vivek Wadwha, who’ve been incredibly helpful and are the real white knights in all of this. They campaign for something much bigger than themselves, receiving criticism and abuse, but understanding the greater importance. This was a post Brad generously let me include on his blog. [Photo: Sitting down with Brad Feld at MassTLC unConference in August]

There’s a lot about Boston that I will miss, my girlfriend Caryn, my close friends from Babson and Olin college, the Dart Boston community, and the other young Boston entrepreneurs, 8 of whom I highlighted a few articles ago. More than just the people, it’s what the people represent, and what the people believe. And that’s Boston is an epicenter of opportunity for smart, risk-taking, young people to do extraordinary things. There’s this real sense of a Boston revolution through human catalysts like Scott Kirsner and Bill Warner. It seems like I came in at a good time. Before I came to Boston, I found the idea of entrepreneurship interesting. A year before that, I was certain I wanted to become an investment banking superstar. I had done a year full-time in investment research in London, I had worked in Sydney for PricewaterhouseCoopers and Macquarie Bank, but for some reason I thought I’d look into this ‘startup thing’. I came on exchange to Boston, studying at Babson College, with an idea that customized clothing for the masses would be interesting. I didn’t know anything about scaling, high-potential, building a team, tapping a niche, online marketing, e-commerce, venture capital. Well I pretty much didn’t know anything about anything, except that if you asked me to price a stock, I could do it in four different ways. Boston, in that one year, taught me everything I know about startups. Admittedly it isn’t much, but it’s a long way from where I started.

[Photo: down the main strip in Shanghai, Nanjing Rd]

Where does the new year and beyond take me. Well I’ve always been fairly opportunistic, so I thought I’d take my early exit out of the country to spend time on the supply side for Blank Label. We’ve seem some interesting first couple of months growth and soon we’ll be able to do some interesting logistics plays. We will be disparate, but we always have been. As many friend know, without a car and being stuck in the Boston suburb of Wellesley for college didn’t make traveling very easy, i.e. the team worked from their places of convenience and we’d only see each other once every couple of weeks. It’s personally very exciting to spend time in Shanghai, my city of birth. So many people speak of the promise there, I can improve my Chinese, get better in tune with the culture, I’m sure meet some interesting people. For Blank Label, it’s going to be incredibly beneficial to have someone absolutely accountable out there. My mandate is to make our product better, faster and cheaper than what it is now, and I’m confident that is possible.

What happens after that? I’ve had a lot of lawyers reach out to me in the last week or so, and we’re working on strategies that give me some hope. But I’m not too anxious. I might stay in Shanghai a bit longer, I might move to Montreal and commute to Boston, I might spend some time back home in Sydney. I’ve been fortunate for a recent 22 year old to have had an exciting life traveling, living and working in different parts of the world, and now it’s starting a company on two continents. I’m excited for where the journey takes me. Please don’t be a stranger and do say hi along the way.

Written by Fan Bi

December 23, 2009 at 2:48 am

first time entrepreneurs, do 2 of the following 3

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a big advocate for the influence of environment, i find myself surrounded by first-time entrepreneurs because i find it useful to share notes, laugh about mistakes we’ve all made, and mostly importantly have a common naive belief we can all change the world. the statistical reality is that we all won’t. that in fact it’ll be well less than half of us. unfortunately that fact alone will put off a lot of people.

one of my favorite entrepreneurs, founder of pyramid digital solutions, blogger of on startups and co-founder and cto ofhubspotdharmesh shah, once said, entrepreneurs should i) learn useful things, ii) meet interesting people, iii) make money, and if you’ve done two of the three, you’ve done okay. as a first time entrepreneur, this was especially pertinent. everyone knows founding a startup is a rollercoaster, in the morning you feel like you’re going to change the world, in the afternoon you feel your company has three weeks left to exist. in the lows i inevitably go through, i think about dharmesh’s point is well made. in the worst of it, i’m still so glad i’ve given this a go. my personal development as a human being, my learning curve as a business person has been so much better for it. i’ve had the most amazing opportunity to meet truly inspirational world changers. and thankfully blank label‘s started making money. but if for whatever reason if the last one wasn’t the case one day, no one can ever take the other two away from me.

[photo courtesy of tomdog, dharmesh teaching more useful startup lessons]

being in a student leadership position at babson, i get the good fortune of seeing and meeting a lot of students at babson and olin college exploring opportunities for their first entrepreneurial endeavor. they’re always concerned about their idea not being a big enough marketing opportunity, that the idea isn’t somehow sexy enough, that they’re somehow not going to make massive bank in three years. first i tell them that very few people make serious bank in three years. i also encourage them to pursue opportunities that they or someone they know and trust have the skill set to carry it out. but more importantly in my most cliched voice possible, i tell them to pursue something they’re actually genuinely interested in, or dare i say it, even passionate about.

balance of probability will have it that you’re not going to make bank on your first venture, but if you care about it, you’ll be active in it. with that, you’ll cross the biggest hurdle in a startup, and that’s the initial 100 day momentum, i.e. getting started. you’ll research, you’ll speak to prospective users, you’ll tell everyone and anyone you meet. you’ll meet the most amazing people, many of whom will genuinely want to help you. and you’ll learn so many useful things about so many different things, and arguably most importantly, about yourself.

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