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Make vs. Buy, Absurdity and the Pleasure of Dirty Hands: The Boba Guys' Startup Surprises

Three surprises any startup might encounter.

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We want to thank everyone for your comments on last week’s post; we will address the recommendations next week. This week, we return to our misadventures by tackling a frequently asked question: “Was there anything that surprised you about starting a business?”

We wish we had the profound epiphanies that people read about in memoirs and best-selling biographies, but the life of two guys running a food business is hardly rife with juicy scandals or chance encounters with billionaire investors. Instead, we will talk about three simple things that surprised us.


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1: Manual labor can be quite fun.

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“Getting your hands dirty” is a common expression used by entrepreneurs. As a food startup, we took the expression literally (sugar is incredibly resilient) and to our surprise, it became quite fun for us.

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We think it comes from our respective backgrounds. We both come from working-class families—Andrew even worked at his family’s restaurant for much of his youth. As we entered the corporate world, our hands were relegated to the delicate keys of a keyboard. It occurred to us after our first private event that Boba Guys would take a toll on us physically, but we developed an almost sadistic appreciation of physical labor. Safely hauling gallons of milk and tea across town gives us a funny sense of satisfaction. There is a special kind of pride that goes into washing 15 containers squeaky clean.

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2: The best moments are the most absurd.

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We had plenty of absurd moments in the early stages of Boba Guys. Since we had day jobs, we could not find a solid block of testing time where we could make our tea, cool it off, and mix it with chilled milk all in one evening. We had to make some compromises.

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At first, we rushed the tea cooling process, but the flavor always came out a little light. Then, we poured warm tea straight into cold milk, hoping the milk would “activate” some magic tea agent (we’d always read about Edison-like discoveries) and accelerate the cool-down process. We ended up with curdled clumps of milk. Being the frugal team that we were, we spent one whole evening drinking the clumpy concoctions. Needless to say, it was a waste.

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We also had the great idea of reserving an entire Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., for test-tasting. “Let’s do it all at once,” we told ourselves. By the fifth hour, we felt sick to our stomachs, but neither of us wanted to be the first to confess to feeling off. We plowed ahead for several additional hours before we could see it on each other’s faces. Finally, Bin said, “I think my head is hurting. I’m not sure why...” Andrew said, “Me too! I’m so over milk tea right now.” We took a much-needed break from tastings and vowed to never consume more than three cups of milk tea on any given day. It pays to communicate openly.

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3. Make vs. buy is the hardest part of a startup business.

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On a serious note, we did not realize how difficult the “make or buy” decision would be. We heard this from all our startup friends, across a variety of industries from food to tech.

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As we wrote in an earlier entry, we rely a lot on speed. The tricky thing is that speed and “make” are not exactly compatible. On the flip side, we did not want to “buy” certain things. For example, in our industry, there are pre-made mixes that businesses can use to speed up operations, but buying mixes off the shelf does not align well with our values.

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We prefer to “make” things. However, it is not possible all the time. We have a list of product ingredients that we want to make on our own, including our own tapioca pearls, but it is simply not feasible at this time—and that is frustrating. As entrepreneurs, we operate in a mode of “if it doesn’t exist, we can build it ourselves.” When we rely on outside sources as an essential component of our business, it is painful but necessary pill to swallow.

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We hope this post helps those who are thinking about a future in entrepreneurship. We are not exactly experts in this field, but we can assure you that you will get your hands dirty and face times of frustration, but there are plenty of absurd moments that make it all worthwhile.

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We sincerely appreciate all of the feedback and support on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and emails. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to us. See you Thursday!

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