Spawt Founder Steven Goh Went From Bootstrapped To Funded And He’s Building Aiming Straight Up
Spawt’s not his first venture and from the sound of it, he’s driven to build Spawt into the premiere mobile city guide app for cleanly documenting and recommending what to do, where to go, and why those recommendations simply rock.
While still an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, Goh went about looking for funding for his first startup. He and the funding committee didn’t see eye to eye regarding the direction of his startup but that didn’t deter him in the least. He knew he was on to something and instead decided to sit down and build on his own terms.
We had a chance to hear Goh’s side of things recently where he shared the ins and outs of striking out one’s own. He’s an inspired individual who shared some key insights into running a startup as well about pushing through it. They’re things we can each take to heart about staying focused and evolving.
So tell me about how you got started in entrepreneurship and what your early days were like.
In the early days, we were known as ctrl-EFF (Control-F), a name that really stuck with me, mainly because I was too geeky, but it ended with everyone saying “control-leff”, and no one could spell it. It just wasn’t a word.
But even before ctrl-EFF, I was a programmer on an internship at Videoplaza, one of Europe’s hottest startups on video advertising. And it was a year I felt that I didn’t grow technically as a programmer. But I did learn a lot of lessons that I promised myself never to commit in a startup. That amazing technical energy I had accumulated just sprung out when I returned back home to Singapore in August. By September, I had decided I was going to work on ctrl-EFF, and so I did. And it was tough.
In Singapore, we have grants of $50,000 that the government would dish out to potential startups if they have a good idea (not to a team, mind you). So I sought for that, and being still an undergrad in the National University of Singapore, naturally, I approached the Enterprise branch of my school. All I know is that the decision maker in the entire process was an old-fart that didn’t get technology, doesn’t use any social media tool prolifically, but decided he knew everything. I was chased out of the meeting room twice by him, with profanities. He never understood what I wanted to do.
The entire episode drove me even harder to seek success. I had never been one to be told that I can’t make it. Thank god I was a developer, and I was good at my craft. So I bootstrapped, and built the product, while juggling consulting on the side so I could survive the next semester with money to eat. It was tough, I didn’t have a life, I still don’t.
So that was it, a slap-in-the-face rejection, and late nights coding, and then we renamed ourselves to Spawt.
Can you talk about the building of a startup and launching Spawt?
There are a few aspects to building a startup. As a tech company, I had to build the product, a team, and then work on certain marketing, and pitching to investors.
Building the product was the best part, it still is! I really love coding, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be the CEO just so I can go on building the product for a long time to come, and this was the biggest reason why I wanted to work on my own startup, so I can do things that I care about.
But then there are also things that I don’t care so much about, for example, building a team meant I had to attend events, meet people, etc. I am a classic introvert, and at a point in time, I just swore off tech/startup events. We don’t have much talent, or even “do-ers” in Singapore -a lot of Singaporeans fluff, and it seemed especially exaggerated in the startup scene.
So, I really didn’t enjoy meeting people who said they’d do something and really most of the time they just wanted to wear the label of being a CEO, an Entrepreneur, etc. So I stopped going to events after a while, it was a waste of time anyways when I could be building my product. That’s exactly what I did.
Then I finished building the Android prototype, and I began meeting people that I had spotted earlier on as potential co-founders. I try not to “fluff”, so I never sought to look for a co-founder till I have something to show. Eventually I met Nicole, she now works with me and has joined recently as a full-time designer/marketing. That is awesome.
I enjoy marketing, but to switch between the head-space for marketing and programming was hard so that was my biggest mistake. I didn’t do much marketing while I was building a product, and only got into it recently.
And then there was the part of investors. My earlier stint with NUS Enterprise turned me off quite some bit with approaching investors. But I know as a student, my runway is extremely short, and I really wanted to work on Spawt full time.
Consulting took quite a significant chunk of my time away. So, I set up a meeting with a few local VCs, and surprisingly, they actually get me! I had two interested offers out of the only two I spoke to, and I eventually went with Crystal Horse Investments who seemed to be more liberal and had a focus towards the American market (rather than Chinese market).
Was the support from those close to you in your life strong from the beginning or did they present you with doubt?
Of course! Since the age of 18, I’ve set my mind to building my own business although Spawt is not my first business and I had always been relatively successful with my own micro ventures. It was never a problem with them. I had more friction with people who I never knew that well that questioned me constantly on “why didn’t I choose to work first and build a startup later?” Of course, I had considered it rationally and decided I could either do this and fail and work later on. Really, it didn’t make much of a difference to me.
And the challenges of building Spawt in its early days, how did you go about handling those challenges?
I wish I have a better answer for this, but my way was simply to talk to my friends who were fellow founders as well who were facing the same problems. And well, to “suck it up.”
How is Spawt currently funded?
It started out self-funded, but we acquired funding after pitching it with an Android prototype.
Can you talk about some of the new elements you’re planning on rolling with Spawt?
So many, since the release of our MVP a week ago, we have been busy consolidating feedback and planning the next update. We don’t believe we have achieved market fit yet, and I’m hell bent to iterate on reaching there as fast as we can.
I won’t say there are new elements, but there will be some elements that will be reworked up right from the bottom, simply because we don’t think they do a good enough job.
These things include:
- An improved and more beautiful UX
- An even more clear platform direction
- Improved speed
What will Spawt be like in five years time?
I dare not imagine that far given what’s transpired this. That is, this week was nothing like I thought it would be two weeks ago so it’s a roller coaster ride. It’s one that I don’t expect anything of and so I just embrace accordingly. But I’d love for it to be something like the size of Google, working on huge real world problems with bleeding edge technology. And most importantly, working with the smartest people, and still be programming.
Excellent. So what lessons do you feel that you’ve learned thus far?
I don’t expect anything anymore. Setbacks seem to be the norm and I celebrate every tiny success. One thing I’ve learnt for sure: it’s simply not good enough to be “good enough.” Either you are loved or you are not, there is no in between self-consolation saying “hey, its a great effort.”
So what inspires you to keep going, to keep building?
I dream of building a Google everyday. That’s where I want to be. A true technology company that treasures engineering. So Google, inspires me.
The idea of “success.” What does it mean to you?
It means being able to wake up everyday doing what I love, with people on the same frequency as I am. It also means being able to die the next day, with zero regrets, and of course, building a product that is synonymous with everyone (like Google is), that everyone loves.
I’ve achieved most of it, except the last. I wake up everyday working towards that goal.
With that in mind, what advice would you give to someone considering building a startup?
Don’t. And if you do, know that you are going to be really sad quite often and that it’s you and only you who needs to pick yourself up to go on working in order to prove that you were right. Also, never assume that you know everything, because too often, a lot of assumptions we make are wrong. Let the market decide. Period.
Are there any mobile apps that you find particularly useful for you and your business?
Gmail is must-have. Google Calendars when the tiny brain stops having enough capacity to remember all the events and appointments. Google Spreadsheet to manage statistics/accounts. Wow, its all Googly. Oh, also hackpad, for a super easy to use Wiki.
Switching gears now: What strikes you in terms of music?
Arctic Monkeys! It was a strike off my bucket list when I was in Europe and saw them live, yay! I also love indie music. I’m gonna see Metric in 2 weeks in Singapore, and I’m really excited about that.
And when you’re not working on Spawt, how do you unwind?
As a trained elite force solder (underwent conscription and served as a marine-equivalent in Singapore, aka Naval Divers), I learned to enjoy running, so I do that very often, and I always love it.
If and when you have time for a vacation, where do you go or where would you like to go?
So many places really. I go to Taiwan just for a quick break.
And it’d be nice to be back to Europe to visit my friends.
And let’s not forget the U.S.! God, it’s so weird that I haven’t been there yet and I really want to be there. (also to Silicon Valley to soak up the startup scene.)
Sometimes I enjoy time for myself. I’m introverted that way so it’s not always about travelling, ha.
Tell me about the languages you speak.
English and Chinese. Well, I can’t converse that well in Chinese though, English is my native tongue. But I do know that I love hating on Java, does that count?
Any tips or advice you’d like to close with?
Persevere and things will always turn out right. That’s what I live by.