I think profits from a bootstrapped business is the best kind of money, because that shows that your product is working, that shows that people are seeing and getting value from your product. Essentially, there're no strings attached. Because all you need to do is very clear. You promise that you're going to deliver this value, and you do that, and you get money in return. - Ricky Willianto
Ricky Willianto is the CEO and co-founder of Ravenry. Ravenry is a flexible work platform that helps people find experienced freelancers that are available for long-term engagements. Ricky and his co-founder, Aditya, started this business because they want to help more people do what they love in a financially sustainable way. Since 2018, Ravenry has worked with 100+ B2B customers such as Yahoo!, Financial Times, Sony Electronics, Deloitte, and Gojek Indonesia.
Prior to Ravenry, Ricky has had 8+ years experience working in the innovation and consulting space. During this corporate life, he also started a couple of businesses that did not quite pan out: a bar in Australia and a biodegradable plastic direct-to-consumer startup. After that, he founded an innovation consulting firm, Int Labs, helping organisations think and be more like a startup. To date, Int Labs has worked with clients such as DBS, OCBC Bank, Experian, MISC, and Hafnia.
Apart from Ravenry, Ricky is currently the host of podcast Growth Multiplier, where he speaks about growth strategies with startup founders and growth experts. He also takes some time out to build Founders United, a tight-knit community of startup founders in Singapore that is all about supporting one another in the lonely and arduous journey of entrepreneurship.
Ricky has a Bachelor of Finance and Economics degree from The University of Melbourne. He spends a lot of time talking and thinking about the future of work, innovation, behavioural economics, and any startup-related struggles and learnings. You can connect with Ricky via LinkedIn or Twitter at @rickywillianto.
Jeremy Au: Hey Ricky, good to have you on board the show. You've been an interesting person, who has been a very active founder in the southeast Asia tech scene. You've been bootstrapping, which is a path that not many southeast Asians are taking, to be honest. So I think there's an interesting journey to feature. And you've also recently launched your own podcast, so I'm happy to dive into your journey.
Ricky Willianto: [00:00:52] Sounds good. So where do you want me to begin?
Jeremy Au: [00:00:55] Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Then we'll go into your professional career along the way.
Ricky Willianto: [00:01:02] I'm actually Indonesian. So I see a lot of Indonesians here, hi, guys. It's nice seeing Indonesian faces and names here on Clubhouse. I grew up in Medan. Very conservative, Chinese-Indonesian family. I have three younger brothers, I'm the eldest. They always wanted us to study overseas, make the family proud, all those sort of Asian things that parents expect their kids to achieve. When I was 14, I was lucky enough to move to Singapore, and I studied there for about four years before I moved to Australia. I have always had this dream of being an entrepreneur, when I actually moved to Australia. I think a big part of it was actually inspired by my parents.
My dad is a hustler. He works really hard. He runs a few companies, when I was growing up. Seeing him always thinking about new ideas, building his business, has always been very inspirational for me. That is something that's ingrained in me since I was a kid. So when I was in Australia doing my uni, I was already thinking of doing ... I knew, as well, I think deep down, I had a lot of skills to pick up. I had a lot of things I wanted to learn. I knew that there are a lot of things that I don't know how to do yet. So I was also trying to be very prudent in my way of approaching entrepreneurship at that age. Having said that, I actually started a bar when I was in Melbourne with whatever money I scrounged up from working at Starbucks as a barista. You can imagine, it didn't go well, this kid who was in university running a bar. But it was my first venture. Then, I graduated. Then I started working for a company, a research company. I always wanted to be a consultant, but what I got was a research analyst role. Which to me was still exciting. Then after about two, three years working there, I decided that Melbourne, Australia, is a great place to live. But it's not the most exciting place for someone who wants to experience new things, meet a lot of different people, look at how different businesses are built. I feel like it's lacking some excitement there. I moved to Singapore and joined a conglomerate, actually it's a Vietnamese conglomerate. I was helping them build their first business in Myanmar.
So I got a lot of exposure into the southeast Asian ecosystem, and understanding how some of these conglomerates, and big, rich families build their fortunes. Which was kind of a bit of an interesting insight for me as well. I went into consulting after that, for three years. It was a company called BTS. That's where I learned a lot about leadership, because we do a lot of people leadership, people development kind of projects at BTS and I enjoyed my time thoroughly there. I think after BTS, the itch of starting ... By the way, during this entire process, I started a bunch of random things as well. But I'm not going to go into too much detail, because they didn't go so well. We can talk a little bit about it, Jeremy, if you're interested. But yeah, I started a bunch of things during this process. But yeah, I think after BTS, I think I felt that I really wanted to ... I feel confident, I feel more confident. I really wanted to get back into the entrepreneurship route. I knew deep down, during this entire time of me building my career, that there are a few things that I need as a person, as an individual, to really help me be successful as an entrepreneur, right? I think in the back of my mind, one of the biggest things, in the eldest in my family as well, I do need to have a bit of financial stability for myself, and knowing that the journey of entrepreneurship is going to be full of up and downs, and you don't know what you're going to encounter, you don't know when you're going to make money. I wanted to make sure that as much as possible, I was able to weather my personal financial needs, at least for the next one, two to three years, right? I actually saved quite a bit for that.
As a side note as well, I think as the eldest in the family, I think the reason why that was kind of important for me as well is, I think at that point, my youngest brothers were still in university, and I was still helping them pay their tuition fees. I think there was some sort of a burden that I knew I needed to make sure I had in place before I can comfortably and confidently take on a more risky, I guess, career in my life, right? Then, yeah, that's when I started Ravenry, which was inspired by my first job as a research analyst. We started the business as an on-demand research platform that basically answers any questions for any businesses in 24 hours, right? That was kind of how we started. We pivoted quite a bit. It's been two and a half years now. Right now, we're focused on building a network of that talents, mostly in the research and writing space right now, and connecting that work to people that need that service. That's what we do now.
Jeremy Au: [00:05:55] Amazing. I love that great arc of not just your story, obviously as a professional and founder, but of course as a very southeast Asian, right? Kind of growing up in so many different countries, and being able to access different markets, is something that, it's actually a common feature for so many southeast Asians, right? Which is something, that global cosmopolitan point of view isn't really replicated in many other places as well.
Ricky Willianto: [00:06:25] Yeah, that's right, yeah. I mean, southeast Asia in itself, it's quite fragmented, right? There's so many different kinds of cultures, people, beliefs, mindsets that you can find. Even within my city in Medan, I've seen so many different families having very different approach to living their lives. So yeah, definitely.
Jeremy Au: [00:06:46] Ricky, I'm just kind of curious, what was it like growing up with a father who was entrepreneurial? What was inspiring about it?
Ricky Willianto: [00:06:58] There's a few things. I think one is, my dad was a bit of a workaholic. When I was growing up at least, now he's taking things a little bit more slowly, which is good. But I think one thing that caught my attention when I was a kid was how determined he is to give us a good life. I think that was very inspiring. I think it's not just my dad. I think my mom, she wasn't an entrepreneur, but she was doing a huge part. Again, this is very Indonesian, right? Growing up, I go to all tuitions. I take Chinese classes, of which knowledge I've given back to the teachers. I do guitar, I swim. I have math class outside of school, things like that. My mom is always bringing four kids in a giant van, driving us around with food in the car, and making sure that we are well fed and we are changed and we are changed from one tuition to the next tuition. She basically lived in a van for the most part of me growing up, right? I think that was also very ... It left a big imprint.
My mom was someone that I really, really look up to. But I think back to my dad, I think a lot of Asians in southeast Asia, especially my age, right? You live through 1997, which was the Asian financial crisis. My dad's business was hit really, really hard during this time. I think at that point, I was about nine years old, eight years old, yeah. I think when I knew, I think that my family was in my financial trouble, as a kid, I didn't know anything. But I could see, my dad was pulling his hair trying to figure out, what's the next thing he can do? Because his first business did not survive, and trying to figure out how he can make end's meet for us. I think that resilience, that active effort in trying to give us a better life, was something that was truly inspiring for me. He did it all for us. He didn't worry about being rich, he didn't want to get the fame or anything like that. He just wanted us to have a life. I think that was very important for me.
Jeremy Au: [00:09:05] Yeah. No, that's so true. One thing that was interesting about what you said as well, how the Asian financial crisis, right? My dad was also in business, and he got massively hit by the Asian financial crisis, and he was super stressed. Like you, as a kid, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that my dad was very frustrated. Then, as I said, I think he was very free, and spending a lot of time at home, right? You're like, wow, your dad's home all the time, that's new. Which is great, but then he's not very happy, right?
Ricky Willianto: [00:09:40] I would just say, there was a few really important moments in my childhood during this time, that I recall until today. I don't think I even told my brothers about this. But I recall my mom having to open our personal safe at home, and having to sell her jewelry just to pay my school fees. That was something that I'll never forget, yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:10:01] Wow, thanks for sharing. I think similar dynamics as well, where we had to dip into our savings to basically get ... It's crazy, right? Because I think there are so many southeast Asians who tackled and faced the same Asian financial crisis, right? They threw out the business people, they threw out their employees. It was just a crazy macro shock, it's just seeing into the minds of every executive today, I guess, in southeast Asia. But also our generation, right, watching our parents deal with that nightmare.
Ricky Willianto: [00:10:34] Yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:10:36] I think obviously, you learned a lot. You started being entrepreneurial. I'd love to talk about your first ever entrepreneurial experience, right? Or at least officially, was setting up the bar, right? Tell us more about this bar that you setup in Australia. What was the idea?
Ricky Willianto: [00:10:54] Okay. I'll rewind a few years back. It's not a business that I started, but it was kind of an entrepreneurial thing that I did when I was a kid. I actually used to sell just sketches. This was me when I was in primary school. I considered this my very first entrepreneurial experience. I got a trace paper, and I'll trace comic books. All these Marvel characters, the Japanese anime characters, like Doraemon. I'd just trace them on trace paper. I'll sell that trace paper to my friends for money. I remember so clearly when I was a kid, and I think this was the same time as the Asian financial crisis. I think I was trying to help my parents somehow. I was getting like five cents for every single piece of paper that I sold. I was really conning all my friends to buying this piece of paper that I traced from a comic book that I didn't even own.
I think I went to a bookshop and I just traced a bunch of characters on comic books, and then I tried to make money out of it. That was, I would say, one of the first things that I did that I still remember today, to make money, right? I think my first official job was also quite interesting. I was actually in Singapore, I was 16, I think. I wasn't sure if it was legal, but I was actually hired to be a salesperson for a company that sells air purifier door to door. I wasn't paid a dime. I was working there for three months, I wasn't paid a dime. I had to carry an actual air purifier. It was like four or five kilo, walk down every single door along Holland Village in Singapore, and knock on the door, and try to sell a random person an air purifier. That was, again, it's not a business. But I feel like it was a very important entrepreneurial, self-building, self-development moment for me. Right? It was kind of dealing with rejections, it was talking about how to pitch yourself, how to appeal to people, how to have a thick skin, all that stuff, right? The three months, I only sold literally one air purifier. I remember I was only paid $500 as a commission for that. But it was kind of a huge learning moment for me, as an entrepreneur now. Now back to the bar question, in Melbourne, obviously I think Melbourne is a huge F&B city. People there are very creative in what they do. Young Ricky was just in over his head thinking that, yeah, we're going to beat all of these bars, we're going to make the coolest bar ever. So I actually started the business with two other friends. I knew them, one of the partners, I didn't even know her. She was a friend's friend. I was like, you know what? Let's just give it a go, and let's just try this. The reason for me going through this was because I thought to myself, if I truly want to be an entrepreneur, I have to start taking small risks.
At that point, I think we didn't have to put in too much money to build the bar and kind of start it up. It was, we're just buying a bar from someone else and we're just fixing it up and trying to run it. So that's what we did. We just put a bit of money. I thought, it's a money that I'm able to lose. Again, it's money that I scrounge up from my days working as a barista at Starbucks over the weekend and in the evenings after my uni classes. Yeah. It didn't go well, mainly because we didn't know how to market. We didn't know how to differentiate ourselves, and we didn't know how to basically run a business, right? One of the things that was super challenging for me during that time was managing my partner, this partner that I didn't know, who was giving out free to drinks to all of her friends. I'll give you a bit to that point, is I was giving some free drinks to my friends as well. As a bar owner, you're a uni kid, this is Australia. People just go there and have fun. Even all the foreign students go there. They'll go out and drink, right? And enjoy their time. We're all students. That's our clientele. We cannot charge a lot for our drinks, and now we're giving away free drinks. Yeah, it did not end very well after that. I think I exited after about six months, seven months. Luckily, I didn't lose too much money, so I got my capital back. But I remember the partner that I didn't know, because she kept running the business. Eventually, they had to file for bankruptcy as well. So yeah, that was my very first official venture.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:09] Wow, Ricky, we need to catch dinner again sometime, because I want to go deeper into what, you're tracing superheroes for five cents? I've got to say, that was a pretty good deal, actually. I mean, for both sides actually, right? You get five cents, yeah.
Ricky Willianto: [00:15:30] Yeah this is 1997, right? That was a lot of money for a kid in Indonesia.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:36] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Five cents, it's a good price, I've got to say, you can do quite a bit with it. You know? Amazing. I just love that idea. Then yeah, that's amazing. I want to see that made into a movie, a movie of Ricky Willianto, it feels like obviously the first scene is you on your death bed saying, "Rosebud." Then the next image is you tracing. You know? Flashback.
Ricky Willianto: [00:16:07] A flashback, a huge flashback of me with my tracing paper, conning my primary school friends.
Jeremy Au: [00:16:16] No, it wasn't conning. It's a fair transaction. Five cents is a fair transaction.
Ricky Willianto: [00:16:22] I created value for them.
Jeremy Au: [00:16:23] Exactly, it was value creation right there. Then yeah, no, I loved also what you shared about growing up, your air purifier story, that's amazing as well. It's a good workout, I guess, too. Did you have to carry it door to door?
Ricky Willianto: [00:16:39] Yeah. I had no money to even get taxis, man. I was 16.
Jeremy Au: [00:16:45] So you walk up to the door, you were carrying an air purifier on your back.
Ricky Willianto: [00:16:49] Yes. Okay, you've watched that movie with Will Smith, right? Pursuit of Happyness, where he's carrying this copier machine. It's literally that. That was me. I wasn't suited up. I was this kid in his shorts, and trying to sell air purifier. I don't even know what it does. I don't even know why people need an air purifier. I was just trying to learn how to sell, right? I literally had to carry that thing for hours every day, just to get my first customer. That is what I did, yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:17:17] Okay. You've got to tell me, who was that first customer? Your first and only customer who bought your one air purifier, across three months, they gave you 500 bucks. Do you remember this person? The face?
Ricky Willianto: [00:17:29] She gave me $5,000. The commission was 500 bucks. She was, I remember again that very first conversation when I closed that deal, I was so happy. I don't know what it was exactly, but it was one of the shop houses that I walked to. It was actually an office, it was in a house. I just went into the office, I was like, "Can I speak to the manager?" This lady came out, I can't remember her name now. But she actually runs, it was a design agency. What did they do? I think they do interior design stuff. I was just pitching her really hard on this, why you need air purifier, because the air you breathe is 90% of the reason why you're healthy or unhealthy, things like that. Basically what I was given as a script to sell this thing, right? I don't know if it even works. It was some air ionizing technology that is meant to create positive charge and take all the free radicals from your body as you breathe the air.
Anyway, she was really, really nice. She was like,"Look, Ricky, I don't think I need this. But you've been talking for an hour, and you're not letting me go back to work. I'll take a chance. But promise me one thing, that you're going to come back and you're going to leave your number, and if there's anything wrong with this product, and if there's anything that I'm unhappy with, you're going to come back, and you're going to help me sort it out. And if I'm not happy with this, you're going to give me a refund." Right? I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." Remember, I was a kid who knew that I was only going to do this for two or three months. But I was so keen on closing that deal, I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're definitely going to do that and support you and make sure that if you're not happy with it, you have that risk-free element, the money-back guarantee, I'll take care of that for you." That's how I closed my first deal. She agreed, she's happy with it. She actually never called me after that. I think she was happy with it. So yeah, that was the end of it. Yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:22] Wow. I wanted to know who she is and interview her and see if she remembers you.
Ricky Willianto: [00:19:30] Why did she buy this thing from this random kid, right?
Jeremy Au: [00:19:34] You'll be like, "Why did you decide to trust $5,000?"
Ricky Willianto: [00:19:39] Yeah, it was $5,000, man. It was 2006, I think. Oh my goodness, that was a lot of money.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:45] That's a lot of money for an air purifier. Yeah. That's just absolutely insane. Well, I'm so glad that she took the bet on you, and I don't know, kick started, made $5,000 to buy an air purifier and transform a kid's life. That's not too bad, if you put it that way. Maybe she was feeling, she took pity on you and she was like, yeah.
Ricky Willianto: [00:20:07] That would actually be more to my salesman skills, but you know what? Fine, I'll take that as well, Jeremy.
Jeremy Au: [00:20:14] Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly, yeah. Clearly you were such an excellent salesperson. You were at the peak of your sales game, you never plateaued, you're just as good as you were, exactly.
Ricky Willianto: [00:20:26] It just keeps getting better from there.
Jeremy Au: [00:20:32] Yeah. Then talking about the bar, the bar was an interesting story, right? Because first one, obviously, you're selling one thing. Then your second one, you're selling for someone else. Then the third one is where you became a co-owner, right? What was it like? Was it an interesting transition? Actually no, tell me when you first walked into that building, the room, it wasn't transformed yet. What was your perception of the place?
Ricky Willianto: [00:21:02] Well, man. That room, that building, now that I'm looking back and thinking back, it was terrible. I don't know what I was thinking. It was rundown, everything was broken. It was so dirty. We didn't know the first thing about running an F&B business. Well my partner does, in Melbourne. He does, he was a chef, I think, at that point. He knew how to make sure that you meet all the requirements, that you get all the licenses, food and beverage licensees, stuff like that. He knew how to do that. But I didn't know anything. Just kind of in for the ride, and he was taking care of everything.
I think the first time we went in, it was just rundown. We had to fix everything manually, one by one, the three of us. I think every weekend, I would be there, trying to patch the floor, trying to clean. The kitchen was disgusting. The bar was disgusting. The fridge, oh my God, it was just horrible, right? I was just kind of doing a lot of those things. You know as a uni kid, again, we didn't have a lot of capital to do reno, renovations. I literally just put up posters that I printed out on my home printer, as the menu. We were using Word, and designing random stuff, and putting it up as a sign saying that we're open. Everything was just a mishmash of scrawly handwriting on a piece of paper, on a really cheaply printed flyer. That was literally the first day of that business. That bar was called Little Peninsula. It's gone now, but it's called Little Peninsula. Yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:22:38] Wow. I can't imagine that happening. So you were patching, and renovating the place by hand, putting all the fliers. Tell us about your first day of the bar.
Ricky Willianto: [00:22:49] Okay. This is the other thing that is definitely a mistake, and I would highly recommend anyone who's listening who would want to be an entrepreneur not do. Which is, I left everything for my partner to do. I did not, I think I ran a few shifts there as a bartender. I was a terrible bartender, but I was running a few shifts. Again, because I'd give free drinks and stuff, people like it. But from a business perspective, it was terrible. But I think, I remember running the business. We hired a few waiters and bartenders. I remember thinking, these people are actually earning much more than what I'm making. I had to pay, this is Australia, right? I think we were paying them $21 every hour for the work they do. I was paying myself zero. We were in the red the first few months, so we didn't make any money. I remember thinking, shit, what did I get myself into? Every single hour I work at Starbucks, and by the way, when I was working at Starbucks, I was making 15, $16. So these people I'm hiring are making more money than me. That was something that I remember, I was like, "Shit, did I make a mistake? Does this make sense? I'd better make this work." That crossed my mind so many times. I remember the first three or four months of us building that business. We didn't have any customers, man. We did not have anyone coming. No one knows who we are. I have to drag my friends, my partners have to drag their friends. People from uni, whoever that wants a drink, we just tell them, "We're going to give you free drinks, just come. At least enjoy the one free drink and see." We're crossing our fingers, thinking maybe they'll buy the next drink.
That was the early days. What was it again? There was a couple of quite interesting things that happened in that bar. We had a lot of arguments within the partners about how we wanted to run the business. I think because it was a bar business, but it's a very nicely located building, it was actually right in the middle of the CBD of Melbourne. We were thinking of turning it into a café in the middle of the day. I was actually running a few shifts as well as waiters, during that time. Just serving random stuff. My friend would cook like Indonesian dang with fried chicken on top. It was just completely random menu, that doesn't sit together with the concept of Little Peninsula, and the place being a bar. It's just a mess, man. I don't know what we were doing, honestly. It was just insane. Yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:25:11] Wow. No I think that's interesting, right? Because those seem to be three very formative experiences, obviously being part of a business and running a business. Kind of curious, at university, each time around you've also been clear to articulate what you learned from each stage, right? I'm just kind of curious, after, that's when you started joining your professional career, right? Tell us more about your jobs, I guess, in essence.
Ricky Willianto: [00:25:39] Yeah. The first job, I guess professional job that I got was with this company called IBISWorld in Australia. I was a research analyst. I got a job through a friend. Again, in Australia, it was really hard for a new grad at that point to find a new job. I was actually not very smart as well, because I studied finance and economics, and those are the things that will not give you a PR in Australia. If you don't have a PR in Australia, it's almost impossible to get a job. I had to kind of rely on curried favors from some friends. Yeah, I got that job. That was, I think, a super interesting job. Because it was a $100 million business, and they only had 60 people working. Revenue per employee was insanely high, right? At the same time, I remember my first paycheck, I think it was $28,000 a year, so like $2,000 plus after taxes every single month. In Australia, I make more money being a barista, you know? That was like nothing. But what I realized was that they were not very worried, the managers, the CEOs, they're not worried about hiring all these undergrads, young professionals, who basically cost really cheap, cost really low to hire.
Their business model is about getting all this research done very, very quickly, write it in a very nice template, present it with a really nice graph and illustrations, and sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars, right? The account will be with like the bank in Australia, Commonwealth Bank, or any NAB, and that. These banks will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to access the reports that is written by a bunch of undergrads. Out of the 60 people that's working for them, I think there was only like 20 analysts. Then I think there was like 10 ops people, and there were 10 salespeople. It was analysts that just got out of uni who was producing all these forecasts about an industry, who's talking about who are the competitors that you should look out for, who's talking about challenges and opportunities in the construction industry. We know nothing, we just read everything online, and we were calling people up from these companies, asking them, "What's your revenue this year? How much money are you making?" We're trying to put the picture of this industry together.
We're just a bunch of really young kids who have no experience doing that. I think at that point what I realized was, it was a good business model. I kept thinking as an entrepreneur, I was thinking, I need to do a business that has to grow the people, that has to be very fancy, you have to have amazing engineers that can go on and work for Google, things like that. But I think IBISWorld taught me that there are a lot of different ways you can run a business. I think they're not caught up with trying to make it the best place to work. They just focus on making it a profitable and a growing business, and it worked really well. All these undergrads that's working there, they only work for one or two years, right? They don't care about retention. Because to them, there's a lot more undergrads on each job that pays $2,000 a month. So if you want to leave, feel free to leave.
They've got all the systems setup, so there's no one who's going to become a knowledge hog who knows how to run the entire business, and when they leave, become irreplaceable. There's no one person that's kind of like a bottleneck in that sense. Yeah. They just kind of go through undergrad students every single month, they don't care. That's their business model, and they embrace it, they accept it as their business, and I think that's one of the things that I realized is a way to build a business. You don't have to build a business that retains people for 20 years, 30 years, and help them build a full career out of it. There was that as well.
Jeremy Au: [00:29:22] Tell us more about Ravenry, and what you're building today, and how you got started.
Ricky Willianto: [00:29:29] We started Ravenry on the back of the idea that we want to build a knowledge work platform that is on-demand and flexible. I think it was about four years ago when we started, and we had this idea, looking at Grab, looking at Gojek. A lot of people make a living driving, and basically become a ride hailing driver. We thought, why not empower people to do things that are more knowledge-based? There are a lot of people in southeast Asia who are really smart, right? Who are engineers, who are an analyst, and who's able to provide a lot of these knowledge services online. Why not make that more accessible to people? That's kind of the initial idea for Ravenry. When we started, we thought that it'd be nice to make money right away, so I remember my first revenue, we actually sent an email to a bunch of my friends in different VCs and different companies and just say, "Hey, if you pay me $100, I will answer any questions you have about your business, about the market, I will do some research for you in 24 hours." That's how we made our first $100. I think it was one month into the idea, basically. Just to test it out and see if it works. I think from there, initially we thought, okay, we need to raise funds for this. Because, okay, a lot of people are interested in it. There is some traction. We have a lot of people who's kind of coming back to us. So we tried to raise funds.
I think we got turned down a lot. I think it was kind of a one-year journey of us just trying, because we thought, this must be the way to go, right? Everyone's kind of raising funds. Any tech media in Singapore and globally is all about who's closed what round, right? And how many millions. We thought that's the way to go. I think after one year, we realized that a lot of investors were interested, but they always try to get us to change something, get us to change our evaluation, ask us why we are doing this? What's the purpose of this? Is there a market for this? A lot of this stakeholder management thing that we have to do that we didn't actually setup to do when we started this business. We really wanted to just build a product that works for the knowledge, versus the knowledge work ecosystem, right?
We thought, why not just bootstrap it? We have revenue anyway, we're making enough money to cover our expenses. I think at that point, we had three full-timers working for us, and we're able to be profitable, even with just us bootstrapping and not taking additional capital. We're actually completely fine, right? I think as I mentioned that's kind of how a lot of people built their business, right? Businesses are profitable. A lot of these SMEs are doing really well. They're fine, they don't need any capital injection, and they're doing just fine. So we thought, okay, why don't we just bootstrap it? That's how we got to this point, three and a half years later.
Jeremy Au: [00:32:18] Awesome. What's interesting is, your brutal honesty about the fact that you did actually try to seek VC funding, and then you did end up bootstrapping the business. Firstly, most founders who bootstrap, sometimes it's a bit of aura, which is we intellectually chose bootstrapping first, and we never went to VC funding. I think the converse is also true. I think a lot of people who go to VC funding never really talk about bootstrapping, or never really thought of bootstrapping as an option, so I think that's a good thing about it. What has your experience been of bootstrapping so far? Versus what you see VC funding now that you're some years into it.
Ricky Willianto: [00:33:01] For me, bootstrapping's just another way of building a business, right? I would never say to anyone, do not actually seek external funding, do not talk to VCs. I wouldn't say that to people as a blanket rule. I think for me, bootstrapping is just a way for me to retain a lot of my freedom, a lot of my genuine vision of what I want to do with the business. It gives me a lot more time to focus on what I really love to do. Which is why I started my own business, right? Which is product building, I want to create impact through all these freelance knowledge workers. I want to build a team, I enjoy that a lot. I want to spend more time doing that.
When I look at my friends who are going through a lot of these VC funding rounds, I think this is something that they knew they were going to get themselves into, so they were prepared mentally. But it does take a toll, right? It takes them easily three to six months across a round, and that is essentially three to six months of them not doing what they set out to do in the first place, not doing what they actually love doing, right? For me, it was a trade off that I was willing to make, not having so much capital to be able to pour into this engine and skyrocket the growth. But instead, I get some time to actually build what I love, and actually do things that matter to me.
Jeremy Au: [00:34:17] What would you say are the downsides of bootstrapping?
Ricky Willianto: [00:34:21] It's definitely challenging. Just generally, entrepreneurship is just challenging. But I think bootstrapping puts you into that mindset of constraint a lot of time. The biggest challenge for us is knowing how, exactly, we want to use whatever is left at the end of the month in our bank account, right? Thinking about very carefully, do we hire this many? Is it better if we put it in marketing? Is it better if we build a new team in a different country? A lot of decision becomes more and more important. It cannot be decided frivolously, because that's all we have. I think that's one of the biggest challenges.
As a founder, I think the other challenge that I faced very early on is just a sense of envy, looking at all these really well-funded startups. I feel like our direct competitor, or just startups in any other domain, and even our own friends, just looking at them and seeing, it's so nice, they're able to hire the top developers in Singapore. It's so nice, they're able to get this swanky office, and give their employees all the nicest MacBook Pros, you know? That is something that I always feel very challenging, I think personally, to deal with. Because I always want to do what's best for my employee, I think that's one of the most important things for me. It's always hard to tell them, "Hey guys, this is what we made at the end of the month. I know you guys are looking for a raise, I know we need this new laptop, that new desk for whatever reason, but can we wait for another two months?" That's one of the most challenging things, that I feel like we have to sacrifice as a team.
Jeremy Au: [00:35:58] Yeah. I think the envy is real, right, for any business. Which is 99% of real businesses that are not VC-funded. And that is real, because the media, like I said, is showing them off. And we have so many friends and peers who are not only founders, but also are employees and operator within those companies. Have you ever had founders ever say they envy you bootstrapping the business?
Ricky Willianto: [00:36:26] Not really, not many, actually. I think a lot of people probably will say things like, "Wow, I don't know how you're able to do this. I don't know how you're able to have 10 full-timers, 11 full-timers, and not raise any VC round, and you are building a tech product." I think a lot of people express that. I don't think anyone's come to me and say, "I wish I was you." That's something that I have yet to hear. So we'll see.
Jeremy Au: [00:36:53] Yeah, the truth is, no one is envious of you as long as the fundraising train keeps going, right? It's when it stops, and I think that's when founders are going to be like, "Whoa, I wish I had bootstrapped that, et cetera." In fact, I actually just recently got off a call with another founder who was very explicitly bootstrapping because his first company had failed to scale with the VC capital infusion, right? In retrospect, it was not the right time and the right place to do that, and attempt a hockey stick growth path.
Ricky Willianto: [00:37:25] I have to say, I think there are times when I'm really grateful to have bootstrapped, especially last year, during COVID. I think a lot of people are very reliant on external funding, they're burning a lot of cash before COVID hit. I think when COVID hit, all the demand's gone, right? All of a sudden, they just have to pay all these expenses without seeing any upside. A lot of the VC are very cautious in terms of pouring money into these companies. They are not able to show that growth, that traction, during this period. That hurt them a lot. A lot of them actually went out of business, because they were too reliant on a lot of these VC funds.
Having said that, there are also obviously some that has a really nice treasure chest, that allows them to go through that without having to worry too much, without even sweating a bead. I think for me,I was really grateful that we had a profitable business, we had enough cash reserve to be able to weather through a completely unexpected situation like that. Not having to even ask anyone to basically bail us out. I think that was a really nice feeling, knowing that we were able to do that ourselves, and also there's this sense of confidence that a lot of the money that we get are from customers. I think that is the best kind of money, because that shows that your product is working, that shows that people are seeing value, getting value from your product. Essentially, there's no strings attached. Because all you need to do, it's a very clear promise, right? You promise that you're going to deliver this value, and you do that, and you get money in return. There's no, "For the next round of fundraising, you've got to do this for me, you've got to put a board member, you've got to let me make decisions now." There's no such thing, which is really something that I enjoy.
Jeremy Au: [00:39:06] Yeah, Ricky. That's a really undervalued part about bootstrapping, is your ability to weather the ups in a much more flat way. A lot of equanimity in the entire process, versus the rollercoaster that founders normally have, which is they have to push for a very positive case on the business fundamentals, and they also have to stack and push for a very positive probability of the fundraise associated with those fundamentals. Those two things are roughly correlated, as well as building a good business, there should be some funding. But it's not a perfect correlation, and I think that's a lot of stress. I think you get to sleep a little bit better at night. Especially at times when those two probabilities and outcomes are becoming less correlated. For example, in the crisis of COVID. When you think about the piece about fundraising and bootstrapping, what advice do you give to people who come up to you and say, "Hey, I'm interested in bootstrapping my next company?"
Ricky Willianto: [00:40:10] Okay. This is a tough one. I think for me, fundamentally business building, if you are to build a real business, in my opinion, I think you want to focus on both the top line and the bottom line, right? I think for me, bootstrapping is not something that should just be for bootstrappers, it should be something for everyone. All entrepreneurs should understand the basic fundamental of creating value using a corporation in a business, right? I wouldn't say that this is specific to any bootstrapper. But I would say, I think one of the things that I learned as someone who hasn't really gotten a lot of capital injection is, to kind of see constraint as a way to be creative, and come up with interesting solutions. With Ravenry, for example, we've gone through so many different iterations of our business.
Partly, it's because we figured out there's no product market fit, or versions of the product. The other reason is also, we need to make money. I think the nice thing about focusing on thinking very quickly about how we can make money, and how we can actually have profit at the end of the money to pay everyone is, you actually are thinking very hard how you can generate value right away for your company. I think a lot of startups that I see nowadays are very focused on getting users, getting traction. But that do not necessarily translate to a good business model right away. I think thinking about your business model really early on is very important, especially if you're a bootstrapper.
Sometimes, I think, do not be daunted by the fact that sometimes you have to build a business that is very manual, maybe like a service business, maybe a consulting business, as part of your way to fund your project, your idea. Do not look at that as a weakness, or as a disadvantage. I actually see that as a strength, because usually that kind of project allows you to have a much deeper relationship with the customer. Really get down and dirty into what problems they face, because you're providing them a service, right? You know, this is the biggest pain point they go through, this is their user journey. This is the kind of things they have to deal with, these are their challenges. From there, oftentimes, we get so many new insights that really, really help us in building our product. That's the other thing, advice. Don't shy away from providing services and doing things that seems manual and not scalable. Embrace it, and really use that as a way to get new insights about your customers.
Jeremy Au: [00:42:43] You're reminding me about how VC funded startups find a medium-term easy, in terms of spending, and getting growth through a certain set of dimensions like users, yet can find themselves with a range of positive to failure outcomes in the long-term. Long-term being a year to 24 months. You have to go through, as a bootstrapper, really a lot of short-term pain on a top-line and a bottom-line perspective, and then you have much clearer outcomes, a more straightforward set of outcomes from the medium-term to long-term. What resources would you recommend for people who are thinking about bootstrapping? Other than listening to this podcast, if you're sharing advice.
Ricky Willianto: [00:43:33] Yeah. I think there are a lot of companies out there that's doing great as a company that bootstrap. I wouldn't really say Toptal, because they did some really questionable things to their early stage angel investors, but they've done really well, in terms of being able to build a business that is, I think, a few hundred million dollars revenue a year. That's kind of an amazing company case study to look at. If you look at Basecamp, I think the founder, Jason Fried, and DHH, both of them are always posting a lot of resources, whether through their blog, on Twitter. They've published a few books as well on how they've done it. Again, they started as an agency business, and then they built a product out of it. Now, today, 50 people, remote team, I think a few, tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and are doing really well. I think, look at some of these founders as a source of inspiration and also learning, because they are usually very open in terms of sharing their experience.
I also follow this company called Ernest Capital. It's actually a VC fund, if you will, but they are focusing on slow and calm companies. Their belief is that, they're basically trying to encourage more companies to build a business that is sustainable in the long-term, financially and environmentally, et cetera. I think they also have a lot of best practices, they publish a lot of blog posts about how the founder in their portfolio companies have done it, and have been really, really successful. Yeah. I think take a look at them. They also run a few events, they have a really amazing Slack group that I'm part of. These are just some of the resources that I use on a day-to-day basis.
Jeremy Au: [00:45:19] That reminded me about Sahil and Gumroad, do you remember that story about how they used to be a VC startup, and then they slashed their way all the way back to being bootstrapped. Then this year, recently, I think a month ago, they raised a ton of money via crowdfunding, I think what? $5 million. Just a form of capital that adds quasi angel/VC capital. It was interesting because you're reminding me about how it's a two-way street. I think it's easier to go for bootstrap, there's a lot of companies that bootstrap and eventually raise VC funding. It's pretty hard to do it the other way around, it's very hard to be on a VC trajectory and slashing your way down to a bootstrap of outcomes.
Ricky Willianto: [00:46:04] I don't know how you're able to buy out all your investors at that stage, to be honest with you.
Jeremy Au: [00:46:09] I think it's because your investors abandon you for a lot of the time, right? That's a difference, it's not as if you're like, "I've got to cut loose." They cut you loose anyway.
Ricky Willianto: [00:46:10] That's a different situation, yeah, yeah. I think that's also another resource that I forgot to mention, which is Indie Hacker, "Maker, creators," there. The first year of their business, they're just trying to get to 5k MRR. If you go to Indie Hacker, you'll see the crazy things they do to get to 5k MRR kind of thing. A lot of it is super inspiring, so definitely take a look at that if you want to bootstrap.
Jeremy Au: [00:46:49] It feels like there's a lot of people talking about bootstrapping over the past one year. Do you feel like it's over-hyped? Or do you feel like it needs to be hyped up more? Bootstrapping.
Ricky Willianto: [00:47:02] I think it's really very underrepresented in the media. No one talks about this. That, for me, is the annoying part, because I did not know this option was available. It's so strange, right? Because all the businesses I know since I was growing up, are basically profitable businesses. They're not really VC-funded. My dad has his own business. He wasn't VC-funded and he was doing fine, right? It's so funny that we never think about them as a viable way to build a business and a startup. I think whenever people associate tech and startup, and put that together, it almost always means that you need VC funding, which I am starting to think, and I've been doing this for three years, plus, I'm starting to think that it's highly viable to use bootstrapping as a way to do that. I'm all for hyping this up even more, and I think the only way this can happen is if the bootstrappers actually talk about it.
The difference is, a lot of these media companies, and a lot of these VC-funded startups, obviously they want to make the media. Because it's a signaling, they want to tell all the other VCs, "Hey, look, we just got $2 million. You missed out on this, get ready for the next round." I think there is a lot of that, that kind of makes the media so saturated with funding news. Whereas bootstrappers don't do that. They're a lot more realistic with how to use their money. They're just more focused on building their business, so they don't really market themselves as much, talk about their process as much. Yeah. So I wish there's a lot more bootstrappers that are talking about it. Just make it a very good option, make it an available option for all the other startup founders, who's kind of starting on their journey, and show them there's a way to do it without having you to start your journey with fundraising. You can always do that later, right? But you don't have to start your first three to six months pitching ideas, right? Just focus on building it and getting that product market fit early.
Jeremy Au: [00:48:52] Awesome, I agree. We need to hype up bootstrapping again, with just the normal, unprocessed food diet of the startup building. Last question here is, where were you 10 years ago, and what advice would you go back and give to yourself if you were traveling back in time?
Ricky Willianto: [00:49:12] 10 years ago, that was, okay, 2011, what was I doing? I was in university starting up my first job. I would actually get myself to experiment things a lot more. I think I was too scared to try new things, to make a mistake, to fail. I think, especially out of uni, at that time I was in Australia. So I was so focused on trying to get a job that would give me a PR in Australia. In the end, I didn't even get a PR. Actually after a few years, I thought that Australia wasn't a place that will support what I want to do. So I thought, actually, it works out fine anyway. But I was so focused on just succeeding and not making any mistakes. What happened was, I think I missed out on a lot of really interesting opportunities that I could've learned a lot from. Yeah, definitely I would've told myself to just experiment more, don't be afraid about failure, and yeah, just do more fun things that I care about rather than what the conventional success definition is.
Jeremy Au: [00:50:11] Awesome, so true. Thanks so much, Ricky.
Ricky Willianto: [00:50:15] Thanks, Jeremy.