My parents immigrated to America in 1980 because their country was on fire. After a harrowing night escape and weeks at sea, the survivors on their boat made their way to a Malaysian refugee camp. My parents were finally resettled in Virginia and ultimately made their way to Texas, where they heard jobs were plentiful and where I was born.
Growing up watching my father work multiple jobs to provide for his family, I learned that entrepreneurship and hustle were survival skills. And they were a gift that my dad could be sure no pirate or Communist could steal from me.
My father always had high expectations for me. Have you ever tried explaining your anxieties about the future to people who have survived war? One Christmas, I came home for a visit, still uncertain about pulling the trigger to launch my marketing agency. My dad said, “You speak English. What’s the goddamn holdup?”
Startup lessons learned from an immigrant father
I think it’s extremely rare to find a more dedicated serial entrepreneur than my father, so allow me to honor his memory with some immigrant startup lessons that came in handy as I was navigating the beginning of my own company.
1. Your business might not be obvious.
My mother was a student at a government-sponsored athletic camp where she met my father, ostensibly a boxing instructor. To hear my mother tell it, he was surrounded by women because he was athletic, charismatic, spoke with a cute northern Vietnamese accent and seemed to spend money freely. He was handsome but arrogant. She ignored him, and he pursued her relentlessly.
It was only after they had escaped and there was no turning back that he stopped faking his accent and told her his real name. His business was actually making new identity papers for people on the lam, just like him. The fact that he was employed by the government, which also had a bounty on his head, was a feat of incredible marketing that gave him both cover and business contacts.
The startup lesson learned: What you sell, what you do and what you’re making money from aren’t always the same thing. Understand this fact, and you’ll be able to discern whether something that isn’t generating revenue is still worth doing.
2. There is opportunity everywhere.
Arriving at the refugee camp, my parents claimed responsibility for all those orphaned on their boat, many of whom were children of friends who weren’t able to leave with them. They needed more supplies than they could get, so my father hid a wooden board in the trees. He would climb the trees to pick fruit, but instead of eating it like most people would do, he floated out on the board toward the ships in the bay to sell it.
The startup lesson learned: Being resourceful doesn’t mean simply raising more venture capital than everyone else. Resourcefulness is seeing bounty and opportunity all around you, even where others can only see despair.
3. Clients don’t ask for the impossible.
My dad was a handyman between other ventures. He remodeled nail salons, renovated homes and taught my uncles how to tile floors when they came to America. Most people who asked him to come out for an estimate had very definitive ideas about what they wanted. Most contractors would turn down the jobs he took. But how is an immigrant supposed to feed his family with an attitude like that? He told me clients almost never ask for something that’s truly impossible.
The startup lesson learned: If you listen, clients are actually telling you what the market opportunity is. You just have to be cleverer than everyone else to figure out how to capitalize on it first.
4. A smile is universal.
My dad’s English never really improved much, but that didn’t keep him from stepping outside his comfort zone. Throughout his career he owned a convenience store, a fried catfish restaurant and a used car lot that served mostly non-Vietnamese customers. Sometimes I would get bored in the windowless office of the restaurant and come out front to swipe some freshly fried food and talk to customers about 5-year-old life. My dad always served his food with a smile that said, “I’m honored by your patronage, and I can’t wait for you to taste my recipe.” It didn’t need translation.
The startup lesson learned: Think about the people you love doing business with. Do you do business with them because they have a great elevator pitch? Or is it that you share a genuine human connection based on pride in your work and integrity in your dealings?
5. You are not your job.
My dad once tried his hand at a nail salon. I was lucky he was flipping cars when I got to driving age. I learned a lot about diamonds, too, by going to pawn shops with him looking for deals. The last business he worked on was a custom-engraved stainless steel ring stall at a flea market chain. I keep one of his samples on my keychain. He passionately promoted every business he ever had, but he did so without wrapping the business up in his own identity. He survived transitioning from a high-ranking military officer in Vietnam to a nobody in America, still with a very healthy ego, because he knew he was not his job.
The startup lesson learned: Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be an identity. If your business fails, you as a person are not a failure. If your business succeeds, you still have to work hard to sustain that success. As long as you’re breathing, stop tying your life to your work and start focusing on your innate value.
This article was updated July 2023. Photo courtesy of Ivy Le.