What CEOs and Founders should learn from cockroaches

3 min read

The following is taken from The Quest Digest. Justin Kan was able to get more fun stories than I can tell without his line of questioning. If you end up wanting to listen to the podcast it’s here. All the credit to The Quest Digest team for writing this. They’ve made me sounds smarter than I am. Posting for posterity


Survival of the Fittest:

Moses Lo is a survivor. From an office filled with flying cockroaches, Moses and his team would go on to raise over $80 million and cement themselves as an integral part of the payments infrastructure in Southeast Asia. 

In this episode, you’ll hear about Moses’ journey to Silicon Valley from Australia and being a scrappy founder. He also highlighs what CEOs and founders can learn from cockroaches: their ability to adapt, survive, and avoid attention until they’re ready to emerge.

The Pilgrimage to Startup Mecca [2:33]

“I wanted to learn how other people think. So I went into consulting and then came to the U.S as soon as I could after that, and studied…but really the whole point was to go meet people in Silicon Valley, learn the mindset, learn the frameworks, and I was super lucky to meet some really great people that have mentored me since.”

It was pretty evident early on that the entrepreneurial spirit ran strong in Moses’ blood, an attitude he adopted from his father and grandfather.

The small rural Australian town he grew up in could not contain him for long. Moses had his sights set on the Mecca of startups – Silicon Valley. Organizing 24-hour hackathons at Berkeley netted him his eventual co-founders, and they quickly came up with a way to engineer their way into YC.

YC Life [8:19]

“We’ve thought about that day many times, because that changed the trajectory of our lives. I remember the first interview was Sam Altman. We got grilled. I don’t think we did very wellAnd then the second interview, we decided to totally change our tactics, and we changed the way we showed up.”

At YC, Moses met Justin for the first time, who would eventually become a mentor figure.

Initial struggles in the YC program would truly test the group, and imposed a lot of pressure to perform against peers in their cohort. In one final desperate pivot, they decided to pursue a throwaway idea: Venmo for Indonesia. Almost miraculously, Xendit was born, garenring almost 16,000 users in 6 weeks.

Fly like a cockroach, Sting like a bee [14:44]

“There was a very real time when we were working out of a house, kind of equivalent to a Silicon Valley garage and we’d have cockroaches flying around…and they’re really hard to kill. So we took that to heart…be a cockroach do whatever it takes to survive, we love that analogy.”

Moses led Xendit with a philosophy inspired by the cockroaches that flew around their small workspace. Instead of taking the conventional route of companies who start off building big and making noise, they opted for a more lowkey approach: building something small and occupying a dark niche corner.

Slowly building in the corner no one looks at meant that they were much harder to kill, and much scarier when they finally emerged. Moses was also inspired by their ability to overcome threats through flexible adaptation, being opportunity oriented, and their survivability. These are the traits founders should be prioritizing above all else, not the fancy shiny stuff.

Finding Mentors [33:37]

“I keep annoying people, asking them questions and the people keep replying, and spending more time with me, and that’s just (how I) hustled my way to find mentors. I’m not from anywhere and I’m not from anything, so it’s just people who I’m lucky enough to keep hearing answers from.”

Its important to learn from people who have done it before you. Moses always adopts a beginner’s mindset, and encourages learning from people with the benefit of two, five, or even ten years of hindsight.

But finding a mentor is an active process, and meeting the right person at the right time involves some degree of engineered luck. The trick is to talk to and meet as many people as you can persistently, and above all else, keep an open mind.

Key lessons:

  • Intention matters. Moses always has a plan. He knew he had to come to Silicon Valley. He knew he wanted to take his time and meet his tech co-founder by going to hackathons. Startup is 9 years of hard work and 1 year of luck, but if you are intentional about all the choices you make along the way, you will get there a lot quicker than others. While things don’t always go to plan, having a structural framework will help you recallibrate, adapt, and orient your next move.
  • You can’t control the hand you’ve been dealt, but you can choose how to play it. COVID could’ve destroyed Moses’ business, but instead of sitting around and letting it happen, he figured out a way to move forward. He dealt with his emotions in a healthy way and called on his team for support.
  • Be a cockroach and do whatever it takes to survive. Almost everything we do is a marathon, and finishing the race is much more important than trying to get ahead quickly. In the startup world, this means doing whatever it takes to get to product-market fit and keeping your customers. Pivots are hard for everyone – but it helped Moses turn Xendit into an 80 million-dollar company.

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