I walked into the room thinking everything was going to be fine. I had no reason to believe otherwise. I never expected to hear what I was about to. I never expected to walk out of that meeting speechless, unable to digest much less respond to what had just been hurled at me. But I did. Apparently, some people have no qualms about trash-talking kids half their age. That’s what happened, essentially; my boss had gotten an earful from another member on our team and, just like that, my reputation plummeted to the status of questionable.
I spent my commute home that night replaying the events of the last few weeks in my mind; I was trying to decipher the moment where I’d rubbed this guy the wrong way. What I saw though was much less of a series of events and much more of a dull, static image. I realized then that I’d just devoted three, gruelling, 110+ hour weeks to a workplace that not only didn’t seem to notice, but had just actively worked to tear me down.
What am I doing? The question bubbled to the surface. Before I could answer, another image danced its way to the forefront of my mind. There I was, in New York, headed to my important job in high finance, which delivered me my impressive salary, securing my seat on top of the world. Right, I thought. That’s what. It was this romantic notion of being an “investment banker” that I’d been holding onto—even after reality set in and began to poke holes in this dreamy veneer; even after I spent weeks in Iowa working overtime to sell one slaughterhouse to another, all the while thinking, this is not at all what I signed up for; even after spending two months without seeing my friends. But now, after this, I couldn’t hold on any longer. I had to start to let go.
The next day at the office, I told my friend and now-partner Hanna, “I’m done.” I went on to proclaim, “By the New Year, or shortly thereafter, I’m going to be out of the firm.”
I thought I’d transition into private equity. So every day at two in the morning, after getting home from work, I’d sit down and send out 10-15 emails to different people in the field.  I quickly started getting interviews, which—almost just as quickly—dissuaded me from going down this path; stepping into those offices, sitting across from those interviewers…it was all too familiar.
Eager to figure things out, I opened the Notes app on my phone and navigated to a folder where I jotted down any and all entrepreneurial ideas that crossed my mind. That’s when one caught my eye.
It was an idea that came to Hanna and I one day at 4AM. Unable to work any longer, we were sitting there in the office, gazing glassy-eyed out at the sea of desks before us. Nearly every one was decorated by an array of paper cups. “Why do we still do that?” I motioned to the cups, most of which sat, ironically, alongside reusable mugs. Of course, I knew why; I understood the paper cups’ allure in its disposability.  But still, given all the environmental awareness  of today, I couldn’t help but think there had to be a better way to combine the convenience of a disposable paper cup and the sustainability of a travel mug. We got to talking and that’s when we noticed a gap in the market that we could fill: by serving coffee in tumblers, and taking on the burden of carrying around and washing out the used vessels afterward.
Let me step back for a second and tell you something. What’s always frustrated me about business stories is how they’re framed. Typically, there’s a huge portion devoted to the idea-phase, wherein you read all about how unique said idea is. Then the story jumps to how the company “made it.” You read about how they got their traction and how everyone loves it; and then typically the story’s closed with an anecdote illustrating some pinnacle moment of success. That leaves a gaping hole. Notably, those first ten weeks of operations  where everything is going wrong—that trying, reflective period wherein you learn so much about yourself and how you deal with situations. I’m not going to leave that part out here.
In the process of getting to where we currently stand—launched in three buildings with a growing, loyal customer base—we put out a lot of fires. No day illustrates that better than November 16, 2017. That day takes the cake. Here’s what happened.
It started out as any other Thursday: I woke up and headed to work, arriving on time at 5AM. First, the phone rang—that’s when it began. “I’m sick,” I heard upon putting my cell up to my ear. Problem number one had just revealed itself. As a lean, bootstrapping team, a sick employee is a big deal as there’s no one waiting in the wings to help out. With no better alternative, I found myself shrugging on my coat, strapping eight coffees on my back, and preparing to zigzag my way through the busy streets of Manhattan.
Not long after, fire number two ignited: our server crashed. That meant every customer order was suddenly made invisible. We were left stranded, unable to work in this darkness, yet merciless to the ticking clock that seemed to scold us with each minute that passed. As our customers’ orders became later and later delayed, I felt my anxiety at the situation rise accordingly. Finally, just when I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, our tech team rebooted the server. Phew.
As I was feeling my heart rate return back to normal, I was notified that an employee’s electric scooter had been towed, impeding delivery. Just when I thought we were in the clear. Ha. Think quick, I remember telling myself. “Put one set of orders into an uber, get that out, and then head into another uber with the next set of orders,” I instructed. Problem solved. Or not. That would’ve been too easy. The first, unaccompanied uber drove about 20 feet, and then canceled the ride, taking about 30 coffees with him, and all of the mugs.
The icing on the cake came in the form of a delightful trip to the pound. Can you imagine a more apropos end  to this series of events? So we set off to retrieve the scooter, only to finally head on home nine hours later. 
Talk about a Comedy of Errors. Would you believe me if I said that this day also happened to be my birthday? No, I’m not joking. I’m also not complaining, such difficulties are not out of the ordinary. It’s those trials and tribulations that make up entrepreneurship. Our server has gone down probably half a dozen times since then; we’ve had people quit; we’ve had people steal; we’ve had employees drink our customers’ coffees in front of them; we’ve seen everything under the sun. And it’s far from behind us.
There’s a lot of challenge that lies ahead: we need to get profitable; grow our team by 2 or 3 times over the next 6 months; raise VC funding over the next year; and launch new products. Plus we want to weave a set of core principles into the fabric of GRAB, and navigate the waters in such a way that we stay true to these.
It’s a lot, and maybe it would have been easier to stick to the paved road I was on in banking. In fact, I’m sure it would have been. But this path—this undefined, obstructed path—gives me something better than ease of life; it breeds fulfilment. And that’s what I’ve always sought out, ultimately. It’s what I was getting at that day when, at eight years old, I went to my mom and asked how you not only get to be rich, but feel rich too. The advice she left me with struck a chord so deeply that I haven’t been able to forget it. She said, “Create an engine that generates wealth. The fuel for that engine cannot be your time; the fuel has to be renewable. It has to be something that is self-propelled through that engine that you’ve created.”
1. A tactic he first used in University that helped him stand out from the crowd of applicants and land his job in Manhattan.
2. They found that paper cups aren’t, in fact, recyclable. Many end up in landfills, and many others end up in our oceans.
3. John first became interested in the environment when he was in middle school. He loved to ski, spending every weekend of the Winter season up north, from the seventh to the eleventh grade. Over the years, he found the seasons were becoming shorter and shorter. That got him looking into why.
4. Or, other times, those first few years of unseen work.
5. This is all over a four hour block of time. Their business runs just in the morning, making every minute during that period crucial to their operations.
6. They didn’t even get it after that. They had to return 4 hours the next day, and 3 hours the day after that. Finally they got it released, but only after acquiring a special license.