In January 2012 we moved to Singapore.
There aren’t many people who spend their year off looking for gaps in a market. I certainly didn’t. But Vinnie did. I met people, ate food and explored. Vinnie met people, had lunches and explored the tech scene. It’s the subtle differences that matter in this story.
It started in Beijing. He woke up early, squeezed into the MRT at rush hour, and dropped in on a few tech companies to get a better understanding of how they tick. I got out of bed late and casually strolled past the shared outdoor toilets of our hutong on a quest to revisit my favorite street food breakfast. The companies that he visited showed him around and then showed him out the door. The Chinese tech scene was too hostile to foreigners and he wasn’t going to get the inside view he was looking for. I was much more successful on my quest for delicious Jianbing.
I didn’t know that this was going to happen in every city. If I had just insisted that we spend the entire year at the beach, our life might be completely different.
Instead we hit up Hanoi and HCM, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok and along the way Vinnie’s big brain began to churn. He spoke with young entrepreneurs, he reached out to bloggers and event organizers and he met with friends-of-friends in the tech scene.
I thought he was being friendly. It was amazing to get a street-level perspective on a city and we joked about putting together an app called ‘travel like a local’ so people could bypass the guidebook and get an authentic night out in a new city.
The joke, apparently, was on me because he was already putting the pieces for his next business together. I’m not sure he knew it. I definitely did not. But I should have, right? We were there, joking about starting a travel company. Clearly he was busy thinking about his next move and I was only thinking about our next city and our next meal.
(Judging from the photos, I probably should have held back on a few of those meals. Yikes!)
Then we visited Singapore.
And that’s where it came together for him. It was the perfect mix of generational experience in the tech scene, government backing and eager entrepreneurs who had tasted Silicon Valley and wanted more.
He’s written a lot more about this topic, if you’re interested. It has everything to do with my life but I couldn’t care to bore you with the details. But this is how it went down:
I survived scooter burns, overweight amorous Russians and broken-down high-speed canoes in Vietnam while Vinnie sat in a cafe in Singapore planning. “Planning what? Planning why!?” I was already jealous and frustrated and weren’t we supposed to be backpacking?
In Thailand I ran into hill tribes who were traveling by elephant, slept next to Germans in pink budgie smugglers and paid a blind man to sit on me for two hours a day. Still Vinnie preferred to spend his time in Singapore, meeting, lunching, more planning.
The planning came to an end and he brought hundreds of people together for the first hackathon in Sout East Asia. If I were a more supportive wife, I would point out that years later every single corporate would have a digital outreach arm that hosts exactly this event. I would mention that several of the participants became notable entrepreneurs in the SEA tech scene. I might even link to the write up in Straits Times, the leading publication approved and supported by the Singapore government.
But I’m not that supportive and I look back on this event as the night that locked me into an unconscionable contract. This wasn’t the life that I wanted and I knew pretty early on that it was going to be rough going.
Vinnie dropped the bomb at dinner, he wanted to stay. I cried into my Swenson’s sausage hamburger served with a side of chili sauce. I cried because we’d been on the road for nearly a year and all I wanted a hamburger with ketchup. In Singapore a hamburger costs $17 and does not include fries. It definitely doesn’t include a beer. We wouldn’t be able to afford this meal until 2018.
I cried because although bright, clean, and colorful, the culture in Singapore is repressively obedient, conformist and driven to material success. It’s not enough just to enjoy life, in Singapore you need to show that you enjoy it. Flash your labels, your cash, your cars and your wealth. And if you don’t have enough to flash, fake it. I’m incredibly bad at faking it and we certainly didn’t have anything to flash.
I cried because I’m fucking prophetic and so is he. I knew that this was not the place for me and he knew that this was the place for him. Vinnie was convinced that he saw an unmet need in early stage investment in SEA and he wanted to go for it.
I looked at my soggy sausage hamburger and calculated.
Singapore makes its presence known at night. During the day you see the bright sky, the sun searing down and you’re prepared for the heat when it hits you. At night the air looks calm, the ocean water is flat, and you walk outside to gulp the cold air and refresh your lungs. Instead of crisp night air you’re met with the slap of humidity as it immediately chokes your airway and wraps itself around your body. You feel the weight of humidity on your body, even as you sit very still, processing.
The exact calculation I made was this: it takes two years to fail. I can deal with anything for two years – ANYTHING. If he makes it two years, that’s success and we’re also able to leave. So fail or succeed, we have a two year adventure.
Oh, baby Kristine of 2011. The things you didn’t know.
This travel log shut down, notably because VCs are gossipy buggers and the more I wrote about our lack of money, questionable housing, and the struggle to launch a venture firm, the less legit Vinnie looked.
And really who would give this guy money in 2011?
But people did. And companies did. And sovereign wealth funds did.
And Vinnie was right. There was an unmet need for early stage funding in the SEA tech scene in 2011. And I was right, Singapore is not a good place for me. But I was also dead wrong because it doesn’t take two years to build a company and succeed or fail. It takes early mornings calls and late night networking, it takes weekends of conferences and fellowships and graduate programs, it takes months spent in an airplane flying after deals and years of crushing rejection or celebratory deal signing.
And nearly ten years into this life, we were in therapy to understand how we got here, how can we slow down and where could we go next. What would it take for us to be able to leave?
There was absolutely no way of knowing that all it would take a global pandemic and some really good burgers and beer.