Confessions of an entrepreneur: Raw and unedited

A coming-out party in Singapore for business failures
A coming-out party in Singapore for business failures   

Leaving her ego at the door, Elisha Tan, a 27-year-old Singaporean tech entrepreneur, stood up in front of an of audience over 100 people to talk candidly about her startup's failure – a topic few in the industry are brave enough to discuss publicly.

Speaking at F---up Nights – an event hosted by The Hub Singapore and Cut The Small Talk, earlier this week, she delivered a raw, unedited version of her journey building Learnemy - an online platform to help Singapore-based students to find tutors in the city-state – and the moment she decided to call it quits.

While the website enjoyed a certain measure of success, she struggled to get users to come back to her website once they had connected with their instructors. After months of searching for a solution, including traveling to Silicon Valley to seek advice from the pros, she found herself at a dead end.

Elisha Tan
Angela Ognev
Elisha Tan

"At this point of time, I was out of my head, burnt out emotionally and mentally," Tan, who had been working on the site for three years, revealed. "So I decided to call it quits."

"Killing my startup was one of the hardest things I've had to do in my life," she added. "Everyone tells you [it's] painful, but I don't think pain encapsulates it."

While her website still exists, she is no longer managing it on a day-to-day basis.

Tan was one of four entrepreneurs selected to share a business failure story at F---up Nights – an event, as insinuated by its name, designed to encourage open and honest conversations on the realities of the startup world.

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While there's a "hot new startup" in the limelight every other week, the unfortunate truth is that around nine out of ten startups actually flop.

F---up Nights provides a platform for entrepreneurs to share where they went wrong to help their peers avoid making the same mistakes.

The concept, born in Mexico back in 2012, has fast turned into an international movement, with events being held in cities across the world. The Hub Singapore, which is a co-working space, plans to host the event once every two months.

Breaking stigmas

The arrival of F---up Nights in Singapore couldn't be more timely, with the city-state becoming one of the most vibrant startup scenes in Asia thanks to a range of government policies to support entrepreneurs through funding, financing schemes and tax incentives.

Gouri Mirpuri, co-founder of The Hub Singapore hopes that events such as these will help Singaporean entrepreneurs shake off the stigma attached to failing.

"In Singapore, failure can often be seen as a loss of face – that perception needs to be broken because failure is very much part of the journey," Mirpuri told CNBC.

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Failure tends to be taken more heavily here compared to the West for a myriad of reasons, says Mirpuri.

"First, it's expensive. Sure taxes are low but the cost of real estate and labor are not cheap," she said.

"Second, there's a fear of what society will say. That holds one back and makes failure less acceptable," she added.

The Hub Singapore
Angela Ognev
The Hub Singapore

Fear of failure means that anxiety and depression are prevalent in the startup realm, with founder suicides becoming a very real problem for the industry.

Tan said one of her motivations for sharing her failure story was to help in the prevention of such tragedies.

"I want to show people that there's a light at the end of the tunnel and you can still be a good place after failing. There's no need to consider suicide," said Tan, who now works at Tech in Asia – an online technology media company.

Time for reflection

The event received a highly encouraging response from members of the audience, largely made up of local and expatriate entrepreneurs.

"Listening to the speakers gets me reflecting on the things I've been doing, I've done similar f--- ups. It's nice to hear it from someone else," Arjun Sigh, a Singaporean entrepreneur running an education website, told CNBC.

Budding entrepreneur Iqbal Ibrahim also found similar value in the event. While not currently working at a startup, he came to hear about the journeys of the speakers.

"It was useful to understand that it's not always just a rosy picture – there are ups and downs in the roads and it is how you manage them."