Thursday, August 29, 2013

No Japanese Allowed

For a client lunch recently, I was led to a themed restaurant in a chic part of downtown Shen Zhen. The restaurant Da Lang Wo (Big Wolf Lair) was a confusing mix of neanderthal caves with animal wall etchings, displays of super-nationalism, and the occasional nod to wolves.

Outside the cave entrance hung, non-apologetically, a bold sign that read "No Japanese allowed." I was caught between feeling offended for the entire Japanese race, appalled at the blatant discrimination, ashamed at such exclusive nationalism, secretly relieved that I was welcome, and anxious that they were going to kick me out because many Chinese people thought I looked Japanese. 

I kept up a constant stream of Mandarin monologue in front of the waitress to prove that I was somehow more Chinese than I came across. I threw out as many slangs as I knew, but not too many so that I stuck out like a conspicuous Chinese-learner. 

Cave drawings and stick monuments.

"Our store does not use Japanese goods."

"No Japanese allowed."

Handwritten notices and newspapers reminding customers
of the Rape of Nanjing, when Japanese soldiers committed
an unspeakable number of crimes during a three month 
occupation of a Chinese city.

While the round moon (baked naan bread) and the wolves' prey pot (lamb stew) tasted delicious, it definitely felt weird eating at a place where others were not allowed simply because of their race or national history. It smacked of the civil rights era that I had read about in high school textbooks, where African Americans were routinely denied entrance into certain public areas. It felt wrong, but yet others around me laughed about it, took photos of it with their bejeweled Japanese phones, and pumped their fists in the air proclaiming their sudden bursts of China pride. And while I didn't join in, I certainly tried to fit in. And that's really what bothered me the most. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

72 Hours of a Startup

Day One

We sat around in bean bag circles, sort of like a benign underground brotherhood of nerds, and volleyed questions back and forth on the next steps of gamifying our apps. We argued passionately for elements that should be in there, weighed it carefully against our actual IT development capacity, and sketched out/ erased/ redrew UI designs on our glass walls. Man, assumptions. We had too many assumptions about the blue collar workers and the HR. So we jotted down the ones that we needed to test and braced ourselves for the humbling and fascinating discovery of their actual behaviors. 

We're trying to go more lean in our product development. Fail fast. Succeed faster. We're very good at the failing, so so on the fast, and blah on the succeed. But we're good at learning and applying. A gamification professor from Columbia University hung out with us while we went through this process so we could pummel him with questions as he chowed down on cold pizza.

I spent the afternoon interviewing candidates, so we could fill our empty chairs and dramatically increase our capacity. We're projected to double by the end of the year, expand to 95 next year, and grow to 200 ish by 2015. That meant a lot of interviews. And a lot of tears (from the interviewees). We're super picky about our candidates because we wanted to not only hire talent, but also potential and cultural fit. So we did interview panels, where regardless of whether you were a receptionist, a finance manager, a product developer, or a salesperson, you had a chance to get to know the applicants and pitch in about whether you would want to sit next to this person on a plane for 14 hours.

Then there was the email that sucked out the positive energy of the whole day.

We had hit an unexpected snag in our fundraising, especially when we were so close to tasting the term sheet. Just a delay, with the sincerest regrets. But still. I swallowed acid in my mouth just thinking about doing more client tours with potential investors for due diligence. I stayed slumped on the bean bags until somebody turned the lights off, thinking he was the last one in the office.

Day Two

I woke up uncharacteristically earlier than my alarm, but remained hiding underneath my sheets, holding onto the momentary safety of procrastination. I felt the full vulnerability of building a startup today more than ever and wasn't ready to face it square on.

I tried to give some of my accounts a call in the morning, but couldn't bear to dial back when the line was busy. It was one of those courage zero days.

I dragged my frustrations around the office like rattling cans on a frayed string. The HRD and I finally spilled our concerns to our boss, once again on the bean bags. It felt like we were back to a year ago, when fundraising was at square one and cash flow was a constant, desperate topic. He chuckled and pointed out that we're at a very different place now. We had a working model. Enough cash. Clients who loved us and gave us referrals. Actual products and services to sell. A very supportive board. A team that loved each other.

Oh. And a ping pong table.

I went home and watched a dumb movie, recharging before another conference call at 11 pm. Through a connection of a close friend, I had a call arranged with the CEO of an English learning company to discuss potential collaboration. Ended up with a notepad full of ideas for pushing affordable English programs to blue collar workers. Remembered why I was doing this. All of this. 

Day Three

Still groggy from the late night skype call but woke up at 8 am to talk to a brand name HQ. 


A major brand name wanted to work with us and asked us to fly to America to talk to them (honestly, at this point in my brain, I wasn't even thinking about the business opportunity, I was thinking friends + siblings + nieces + burgers). The brand name kept asking what our bandwidth was, how fast we could launch, and how many factories we could handle at the same time.

To those in sales like me, those were the most beautiful questions a client could ask.

This collaboration pushed us closer to our tipping point - the defining moment that could launch us.

The rest of the day was set on fast forward with sales reports, investor briefings, and a panel interview of a designer who teared up when he couldn't give an example of his innovation track record but somehow all the women, but me, voted for him.

Marketing called all hands on deck to help unpack/repack product kits for an upcoming client launch because of an error in printing. Man. We really needed to standardize our processes so we could catch avoidable mistakes like this. Some time while unpacking the 3000 kits, a team member told me it was obvious that I was burning out and that I was stressing out at every one. He told me that people loved me and appreciated my hard work but I had not been acting myself. While my eyes turned watery and my nose red, he said that he wouldn't say this to anybody else, but only to me because he knew that I could do better, since I was Sisi.

I was so tired of being Sisi.

But he was right. I had not been managing my perfectionism and laser focusing it to help the team optimize its performance, instead, I had been letting it manage me and my emotions all summer long.

That night, we grabbed Korean BBQ as a team and as we did our signature group cinnamon twist and yells of "Vegas!" (that's a different story), I realized that I really did belong here. Here where I constantly stretched and shrunk and then stretched some more. Here with people who loved me, forgave my excesses and laughed at my whims. Here dreaming, creating, building something that we're all proud of because we're still young and idealistic enough to brave the roller coaster of a startup 72 hours at a time.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Dare Greatly

While walking aimlessly around Hong Kong with a dear friend one night, I spoke passionately of taking deliberate risks, especially in early career decisions.

Then he looked at me earnestly and said, "You can say all that about taking risks, but you've never really failed, have you?"

I paused.

I have been asked that quite a few times recently. Sometimes by siblings who feel the pressure of the supposed precedent. Many times by friends who are in a frustrating job-seeking low. Other times, it is implied by colleagues who speak with a mix of awed respect.

I am never sure how to respond. I know what they see. They see Sisi Messick. The girl who delivers time after time.

My reality is very different from theirs. In my mind, there are many days when I have failed. Then there are some worse days when I feel like I am a failure.

While potential investors praised me, my boss promoted me, my friends loved me, few of them understood how in the past two months, once my family took off to vacation in America like impatient migratory birds, I started having a hard time breathing. I would have a fantastically productive day when all of a sudden I would be seized by a cloud of debilitating uncertainty, weighing on my chest like a Gestapo boot coming down against the iron-grey concrete. My heart would beat faster, faster, faster!, until I felt that I physically needed to hold it down with my hands. But my hands were occupied, covering my face, encasing me, protecting me, trapping me, and there I would sit like that, torn between shielding my face or saving my heart. At first it happened only after 6 pm, when the office emptied out. Then it started happening between meetings. Finally, I had to run to the bathroom so people wouldn't notice that their boss was cradling her shreds of self-confidence so precariously.

Regardless of how things really turn out that day, to me, sometimes, failure is such an intensely physical  and tiring reality.

As a perfectionist, I feel the magnitude of each mistake, each weakness. So when people think that I don't know how failure tastes like, I pause and fumble clumsily for a polite response because the real answer is much too raw.

I won't go into it because this post isn't about failure. It's not even about perfectionism (that's for a different time) or being gung ho confident in your natural self-worth.

It's about how despite feeling so weak, I still dare. More importantly, I still dare to do great things.

I get up on stage and speak passionately about our solutions for blue collar workers, in Mandarin, shortly after I threw up in the bathroom. I own up to being wrong in front of my whole team to show them what it means when everybody is truly equal. I keep smiling when the potential client just yelled at me in front of her boss and our investors because we really need that sell as a startup. I lay bare how I feel about him even though that leaves me exposed and uncomfortable. I still dial that number, trembling, and leave cheerful invitations on her voicemail despite being hung up on more than five times. I choose to believe that love can be so fulfilling, regardless of how many marriages I've seen disintegrate into flames.

No matter how vulnerable I feel, how much I want to stay in bed, I consistently show up. It is a constant choice, day after day, but I show up and when it comes to it, I stand up too. In the grand tally, it's not about how I did, it's about the fact that I simply did.

And that's how I really want to explain it to people when they ask me why great things just seem to happen to me.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Those Nightmare Interview Stories are True (and Not)

She kept tearing the piece of wrinkled scrap paper into smaller squares. Another tear. Another shape. Incredible.

I made a conscious note to ease up on her with my interview questions.

So what type of work environment do you prefer?

There you go. That's a freebie. I smiled and tethered my inner monster interviewer persona on a tight leash.

Umm. Another tear.  An open work environment? She left it with a vague, slightly hopeful upward accent, as if she was throwing it out there to see if I would like that answer.

I nodded, in my best professional nod, holding back my natural tendency to put people at ease by filling in the silences and empathizing about their childhood/ relationship/ work.

And what kind of supervisor do you work best with? I sipped my panda cup slowly to buy her some time to think.

Somebody who gives me freedom to design? She looked towards the corner of our conference room for an escape plan and found none. All of a sudden, something somehow snapped somewhere.

She buried her honest round face with both her hands and wailed I'm just not emotionally well enough to handle this! 

I looked up, startled by the unexpected change in conversation temperature.

My previous boss used to stand behind me and watch what I was designing and it would just send me into a panic and I would blank out. He told me to suck it up and keep working. I thought I had gotten over this, but today I realize that I haven't! I'm so sorry! I should have just stayed home with my baby. I'm just not emotionally equipped to do this!

Her shoulders heaved up and down with alarming frequency. I scrambled to put my cup down and reached out to pat her awkwardly. I told her that it's normal to feel nervous during an interview and that I didn't think any of those things about her. I gave up my interviewer facade and just spoke calm and confidence to her. Handing over her previous designs, I pointed out the highlights she should later emphasize to the HR director.

After she regained the courage to put her hands down and let me see her face again, I sipped at my panda cup and finished my water. It was only 11:14 am and I had already reached my 8 cups of water quota that day. I patted her once again and summoned HR.

She was 35.


I did five interviews yesterday. All were incredibly memorable for different reasons.

I'm young enough in my career that I remember very well the panic I felt when gearing up for yet another skype interview and limiting the fiddling to under the table and resisting the urge to fix the runaway strand of hair when the suits were asking you, weighing you, and finding you wanting with each seemingly innocuous question.

Now that I'm sitting on the other side of the table though, I realize that while interviewers are evaluating for potential crippling weaknesses, most of them (myself included) do want to find the good in the interviewee. They are not trying to fail you despite the professional distance they maintain. Most often, apart from just experience and capability, interviewers look for the flash of personality, the surprising honesty, the refreshing confidence, the reason why they would want to sit next to you on a 14 hour flight. So as I've been telling some of my job-seeking friends who are so naturally brilliant to begin with - don't let what you think interviewers want to see obscure the "you" who would get the job. Give the interviewers a little credit and believe that they are nice human beings and see them as somebody you just met at a party who just genuinely want to know you better. Then treat them as your best friend's mom who tends to ask way too many questions when you're eating cookies in her kitchen. It might even end up being a "fun" experience.

Oh, and stop tearing at pieces of scrap paper. You never know if the interviewer has recently launched a "reuse our paper" campaign at the office or not.

I interviewed her and we laughed through the whole thing.
Now we're each other's biggest cheerleader during the 
company ping pong tournaments.