BREAKING RULES

By: K.G. SREENIVAS             Dated: May 01, 2014

Maverick Foo is the name… Mave his preferred moniker. What does he do? He fosters what he calls ‘wantrepreneurs’ or entrepreneurs who want to be one… How does he do it? He gets the best in class thinkers and speakers from around the world to address his now well-known ideas events at Kickstart, the company, he along with a bunch of free radicals, helped set up a few years ago. What does he believe in? To get experts to give back to community ideas, insights, and inspiration… And what does he swear by? That money, of which Kickstart has little to speak of, is merely an enabler, and that breaking brules (bullshit rules) can be the beginning of all great journeys

Money is just an enabler, at most a comfort-giver, but it’s passion and purpose that move the world, creating epic shit — Maverick Foo, Co-Founder, KICKSTART

In a conversation with Creative Brands, Mave talks about his journey with KICKSTART, how he does what he does, what his fundamental articles of faith are, and how it is important for an entrepreneur to be a first-class original… No less!

How, When, What, Where... and Why?

Let me start with the why. Well, I've been in business for the past 10 years (after dropping out of college I was highly unemployable) and I frequent business networking events. Super rarely do I see young entrepreneurs going to network or even hang out in jeans and T-shirts like I do. And often, because there are successful, prominent business people in those events seemed to be forced (by peer pressure) to 'act' more successful than they are. Suddenly you see a friend totally becoming someone else in the presence of other CEOs. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it be nice to first have a networking event for the younger, next-generation entrepreneurs, and secondly, wouldn’t it be even better for people to come in as who they are rather than being forced to behave in a way they are not accustomed to. So, combining our resources (there were six co-founders at the start but there are only 2 active ones now), we decided to do something about it. Jikey Wee and I had been running large-scale conferences and events for the past few years, so organising KICKSTART events was easy. Because of my connection with speakers around the world, I'm also blessed that they agreed to speak at our events.

Typically, we look for entrepreneurs or industry experts to give the community Ideas, Insights, and Inspiration. I'll have you know that at our first KICKSTART event in July 2012, I only managed to get like 20 people! However, our second event in September had 90 people (which caused Starbucks some unhappiness as I expected only 35, and that made Starbucks to change their policy about hosting events at their venue), and our third one in October had over 200! Since then, our monthly events have got between 150-250 people, and after being ‘kicked’ out of Starbucks again for the second time, Mindvalley offered us their Hall of Awesomeness, and that has been the home of all KICKSTART events since. Of course, our spinoffs KICKSTART Lepak (means ‘loiter’ in Malay) is still at Starbucks because it's not an event with speakers and pitches, but just a bunch of entrepreneurs hanging out, drinking coffee, sharing crazy stupid ideas for business. Then there is our KICKSTART Nesting, held every month at Mother Goose Venture Developers’ The Nest, a coworking space/accelerator/Google-like-office-with-a-swimming-pool.

In telling the “WHEN” story of Kickstart, you say you might want to use four key words — “jealousy, pivoting, leverage, having fun”. What of that?

Haha, well, that's the origin story of the KICKSTART name. So the soon-to-be co-founders and myself were hanging out at Starbucks and late one night we were b*tching about Joel Neoh and Khailee Ng (we're all acquaintances) from GroupOn about how they simply just copied GroupOn in the US, replicated the whole concept for Malaysia, and in three months, was acquired over a huge seven-figure deal. Yeah, we were green with envy for about 15 minutes, when we decided to switch the conversation around and asked what could we learn from that. We decided to see what was trending in the US and tried to replicate it here. Thus was founded Kickstarter.com, a crowd-funding site. And so, eight hours later, we went to register the company, bought a whole set of domains, only to find out that the business model wouldn’t work here due to some policies. Besides, if we were to follow the model to the dot, we'd be making US$1,000 off a successful deal, only to give $800 to the bank for credit card charges. Not the smartest move. So we put the idea on the shelf for about two months, and when Dave Rogers, one of the co-founders from Singapore asked if I wanted to host an event for a friend coming from UK, we decided to use the domain we had registered. In entrepreneurship, being able to pivot is super crucial, and although our original idea was to be a crowd-funding site, it's totally different from where we are now.

You say “...let’s just say we’re in this not for the money...” How do you manage the miracle? So, what of money?

We're a non-profit not because we're charitable. We're a non-profit because we're not making money. And we're ok, because since day one, I never wanted to charge people for coming to KICKSTART, as I wanted to lower the barrier of entry. Plus, it's a community project. Some people give to orphanages or the blind. We decided to give to the community and the country. I seriously believe that entrepreneurs can shift the economic growth of any country and that the world will always benefit from having more entrepreneurs. KICKSTART wants to be that platform for aspiring entrepreneurs. All the co-founders are running their own businesses, and although we don't have a Lamborghini, concubines, and a castle, we're doing pretty ok (as in not living with our parents still), and we wanted to be part of the change, not the complaint.

Because Asian families tend to be more close-knit, we don't leave our parents until a much later age. No issues with that, but sometimes being away from parents also frees you from certain tradition or ‘brules’ (bull shit rules) that don't apply anymore. Brules such as 'you need a college education to be successful', or 'you need money to make money', or 'you're too young or too old'

How do we pull the event together? You know something funny? When you do something that has a good intention, somehow people will just help you out. We got Mindvalley to offer us a space (A TED-like auditorium with 150 bean bags is too awesome for words). We got Purple Monkey and Sweet Therapy and Delicious Detox Delivery giving us snacks. We got cab companies to offer us free cab rides. And speakers from all over the world not only waived their speaker fees, they also paid for their own flight and accommodation just to speak at our platform. I feel truly blessed, but I'm living Mindvalley founder Vishen Lakhiani’s, advice to me and that is to always create a brand or a purpose that is so attractive that resources will come, instead of us chasing it. KICKSTART is testimony to that and I would like to credit Vishen, my personal hero, for that priceless lesson!

“...our give back to the world is empowering everyone and anyone with the go at entrepreneurship.” So, Mave, where does the money grow? Certainly not on trees?
Well, I’m sure at Singularity University, they will soon have a tree that can grow money! For now, more money will mean I can compensate the speakers by covering at least their flight and accommodation costs. Our marketing cost is close to zero, and as bootstrappers, we leverage every “free” technology we can find to make our events successful. From Eventbrite to Facebook to Mailchimp to Google Apps. I’ll admit, I’m Chinese, and I can be a cheapskate if I really want to be one — KICKSTART stands testimony to that because we started the whole thing with less than $300. Having been a Buddhist novice monk, I believe that not all greatness in the world needs money to fuel it. Money is just an enabler, at most a comfort-giver, but it’s passion and purpose that move the world, creating epic shit!

How do you seduce such distinguished international speakers and mentors into turning up at your Meetups and “turn you on”... meaning turn on budding or closet entrepreneurs?
Haha, actually the "Turning you on" tagline is more like our motto. We turn your business (and sometimes yourself) on! I think sometimes wantrepreneurs do procrastinate too much, and I'm a man of action (with my own fair share of mistakes too), so my answer is always to do something about the ideas, try them out, validate them. If they don't work, pivot. If pivoting still doesn’t work, then admit that perhaps the time and resources are not right, and try another venture.

On the seduction part, well, I think humans are fundamentally noble, and when our speakers know that we are doing this with no ulterior motives, no upsells and no ill-intent, they generally write off their fees and speak to us for free. Which again, I must say, I'm super grateful for. Perhaps deep down, I think the speakers want to reach out to more audiences as well, and to be a beacon of inspiration to all, and that belief has enabled me to feature some of the top speakers at KICKSTART.

“Unfortunately, when you remove your shoes before entering Mindvalley’s Hall of Awesomeness (where our awesome business networking events are held), you hang up your “mask” too. Who knows, you may decide to leave it behind after the show!” why do you remove your shoes?

Well, Mindvalley was not voted as the World's Most Democratic Workplace for six years in a row for nothing. Basically, one day the founder of Mindvalley decided to take a poll and asked the 100 over employees if they wanted shoe or shoeless. Guess what, even though he voted to have shoes on, majority wins, and shoes off for everybody. For me, the significance of removing the shoes is like levelling the playing field for everyone who comes to KICKSTART. We're all on our bare feet, we're all humans, we’re all equal, so if one of us can do it, so can the rest of us.

From a sociological perspective, will you connect entrepreneurial instincts and culture, more specifically Asian culture? Or is the world a flat place when it comes to gumption and entrepreneurship?

Well, Asian entrepreneurs are different from the rest of the world. If you look at entrepreneurs in the United States, for example, teenagers leave their parents and pursue their university studies much earlier than an average Asian, and that means they will be exposed to new environments, forcing them to be independent. Because Asian families tend to be more close-knit, we don't leave our parents until a much later age. No issues with that, but sometimes being away from parents also frees you from certain tradition or ‘brules’ (bull shit rules) that don't apply anymore. Brules such as 'you need a college education to be successful', or 'you need money to make money', or 'you're too young or too old'. My mother was a government servant — a teacher — so she knew she couldn't give me much advice on starting business, but you know what, some of her life principles like "never sell something where you can't be the first customer”, or “never do something that keeps you up, feeling guilty, at night” kinda worked for me.

So as you can see from my response, Asians are kinda grounded in some values, and I always encourage local entrepreneurs to not be a second rate version of even a Zuckerberg, but be the first class version of yourself. I guess instead of being too socialistic in nature, we should be more individualistic, but that's IMHO.

You describe yourself as a “renegade” and an “ex-monk”. What counter-revolutionary instincts do you bring to fostering entrepreneurship?

Yeah, I was a ‘samenera’ before, a novice monk. I joined the temple when I was 14, and it has moulded my character, my view in life, and in times of the greatest turbulences, allows me to find my inner peace. Regardless of what religion or faith someone is from, I highly encourage parents sending their kids to such programmes, because the changes it made to the kids, it can last a lifetime.
Hey, I'm called Maverick for a reason, yeah? It's not that I'm super against the status quo, but I was, and still am, the student who always ask 'why' and 'why not'. Drive my teachers and my mom crazy. I don’t like to subscribe that “this is the only way”, because I think technology has enabled us to change more rapidly than any other time in history. I mean, 15 years ago, if I were to tell you that everyone is gonna be speaking to a piece of glass on their cheek, you would have laughed your head off. But guess what, almost everyone is using the smartphone now. So if we choose to keep to our old mindset, or what I say of being an 'old fart', we will stop progressing. Being a renegade doesn't mean I'm causeless, but in my mom's eyes, I guess she will always see me as the rebellious, problematic one. Haha.

CB

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