How Did I Get Here? Imagine It!


A vision.  A goal.  A dream.  How My Story Began.

Imagine this: eight years ago I was bored, lost, and on the career track to nowhere.  Today, Inc. Magazine recently named me one of the Top 10 Asian Entrepreneurs in 2010.  Kind of a crazy transition, right?  A group of MBA students at the University of Southern California thought so too.  They invited me to come speak to them.  How did I get here?  This article is a follow-up to my speaking engagement at USC Marshall School on October 28th, 2010.

How does an Asian Stereotype “Math Nerd” become a Silicon Valley Developer “Geek,” and then an Entrepreneur and CEO?  Likewise, how does a technology-focused company succeed in the highly-competitive world of creative advertising?  These are great questions.  The answer, as always, is a story.

After all, that’s what advertisers do.  Every day, we help clients create an emotional, engaging experience that resonates with their customers (influencing their buying decisions) by telling stories.   So, to answer their questions, I set out to tell them a little of my story.

I probably had a different upbringing than most Americans: born in New York, raised in Hong Kong, only to be shipped back to a boarding school in California.  Due to my “lack of effort” in school, I became a part of the “Parachute Kids” phenomenon.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, synthesizes something about Asian culture in his book “Delivering Happiness”

“The accomplishments of the children were the trophies that many parents defined their own success and status.  We were the ultimate scorecard.”

My parents were both very successful in their fields.  My dad was once the youngest executive in high finance on Wall Street.  My mom is a famed pianist and piano instructor.  While I had graduated High School and College, I was far from any sort of “success.”  I love my parents deeply, but in our culture, there is a lot of pressure to succeed and a load of expectations.  I was not living up to what they had imagined.

True to the Asian Stereotype, I chose Mathematics as my major– mainly because it was the only subject I was good at.  And, like most graduates from the late 90′s, I was distracted by the Dot Com boom.  I took my skills up to Silicon Valley, determined to join a start-up, cash out my stock options, and retire by the time I was 25.  If that wasn’t success, I didn’t know what was.  Status would be mine!  That’s what I thought, anyway.

I joined such a start-up in the summer of 1999.  6 months later, I was bored and uninspired.  I felt like a puppet.  A nameless cog in a great machine.  After some long, dark nights of the soul, I realized something was wrong.  The life I was living didn’t match the picture in my head.  I wasn’t chasing money.  I cared nothing for “making it rich.”  That was all a distraction from a kernel of a nugget of thought of an idea.  I couldn’t describe what it was.  But it was there, in my imagination.

Then, I read a quote from Steve Jobs.  He said,

“I want to put ding in the Universe.”

Bang!  That was it.  That was me, too.  In my head (and my heart), I had a vision of me, surrounded by people, making a difference.

As a “programming geek,” the so-called “unsung hero,” I assumed my vision meant I wanted to make an impact on the front line.  I thought I wanted things to happen faster.  And with more “Flash.”  And, for a little while, I was right.

I joined another small agency.  They did a lot of web design for some very well-established brands: Apple, HP, Disney…  Soon, I was creating high-profile websites.  Millions of people saw them every day.  I worked my way up the “front line,” becoming a Director of Technology.  Before I knew it, I WAS making a difference.  But slowly, that feeling came back.  I was bored again.  My imagination was drying up.  After some careful thought, I realized my vision had evolved.

My vision was more than just making a difference.  I wanted to be a part of something BIGGER than myself.  Something meaningful.  I wanted a company where everyone felt like a team, united in the pursuit of a common goal.  Strangely enough, my vision wasn’t about “me.”  It was about “us.”  And I wanted us to be, of all things…  HAPPY.

That’s when I realized my vision wasn’t evolving.  It was coming clearer.  Like a lens coming into focus, I was losing the blurriness distracting me from the life I imagined.

Now, this didn’t make much sense.  The advertising industry has long been recognized as one of the most stressful jobs you can have.  It was recently named America’s 9th most stressful job.  As a rule, it’s a constant emotional and mental challenge.  High-pressure situations.  Major clients.  Long, irregular hours.  High turnover.  Tight deadlines.  People having heart-attacks.  They’ve long been the standard for the industry.  But my vision didn’t fit that paradigm.  In my mind (and my heart), people were connected to what they made at work.  They felt ownership and pride.  But they also had something else: a life.

In all, I spent 10 years working for different agencies.  Large and small, successful and unsuccessful.  All the while, my vision came clearer and clearer.  Could a technical person survive, much less actually propel, the highly-creative advertising industry?  People said no.  My imagination said yes.

I grew more and more determined to build an agency where technology was not an afterthought; where we will continue to do great work for great brands but with the proper work/life balance.  More importantly, I wanted a place where people can’t wait to go to work.  I wanted a place where everyone knew they were a part of something bigger than themselves– not just cogs in a machine.  Each and every people was a meaningful part of something new.  A movement.  Together, my vision said, we can accomplish great things.

Today, four years after I started The1stMovement, Inc. 500 voted us one of the “Fastest-Growing Companies in America.”  We have two offices and 40 full-time employees.  The Los Angeles Business Journal just awarded us the one of the 2010 “Best Places to Work.”

These recognitions might serve as a reminder that I accomplished what I had envisioned.  And awards are nice, they’re all well and good, but nothing beats the proof I see every day.  I work somewhere I can’t wait to be.  I wake up every day, eager to plunge into battle with my team, working to build something bigger than ourselves.  Every person I’ve brought on is chasing that same vision.  In this disconnected world, we are connected.

And that’s when I realized that’s what my vision was: connection.  I just didn’t realize how large that vision was, at first.  Today, I know I want to connect people all over the world.

So that’s how I got here.  But each morning, I go through my mental check list.  I believe it’s why I got here.

  • “What is my purpose?”

There’s nothing like losing your purpose to teach you what it is.  Once I saw that quote by Steve Jobs, I realized what I had to do.  Everything needed to work toward creating that ding in the universe.  Today, I ask myself this question a hundred times a day.  Is this task in line with my purpose?

  • “Am I acting like a boot-strapper?”

Doing things myself is how I got here.  I was a programming “geek.”  That’s my identity.  But entrepreneurs are not superheroes.  You must bring in others to achieve your goals.  And yet, as I approach each new goal, I face it from a self-sufficient point of view.  How can we do this with as little external help as possible? How can we stay independent and enjoy the freedom that comes with it?

  • “Am I fishing where the fish are?”

One big thing the dot-com bust taught me was it’s easier to satisfy a demand than to create one.  When I saw the “Entertainment” pond dry up during 2009, we flourished because of our “Hi-Tech” clients.  Today, I want to know there is a need for what we are about to do.  Where there is a need, there is a way.

  • “Am I improvising and innovating?”

Switching from the English-style Hong Kong education system to the American one changed everything about me.  I thrive by challenging the status quo.  There is a tremendous demand for that.  The1stMovement is about moving forward.  Improvisation and innovation are the ways that happens.  That and failure.  You can never be afraid to “fail.”  Failure only leads to something bigger and better– so long as you can improvise and innovate.  And most importantly:

  • “Is the glass half-full?”

Someone once told me you can quickly tell who’s in charge during a crisis.  It’s the most positive, optimistic person in the room.  Being an entrepreneur, you can look at the glass as being half-empty or half-full.  What I have learned is the glass is always half-full.  Always.

Like I said, I am in the business of telling stories.  But this is just the beginning of my story.  Whether I knew it or not, a vision led me here.  All I did was follow it.  It continues to drive me today.  As John Lennon once said, “you won’t get anything unless you have the vision to imagine it.”

So what drives you as an Entrepreneur?  What’s YOUR vision?  Whatever it is, imagine it.  Now.  Your story has begun.

Ming Chan

As founded and CEO of The1stMovement, Ming was named as one of the "Top 10 Asian Entrepreneurs" by Inc. Magazine, and has led the agency to numerous accolades including 3-time Inc. 500 "Fastest Growing Private Companies in America", 3-time "Best Places to work in LA", and 5000% growth in 5 years with his passion for innovation and company culture. Follow @mingAtT1M

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