NOVEMBER 18, 2012. It was an unusually hot afternoon in Austin, Texas—but that’s not why I was sweating. I was driving my dusty RAV4 slowly through a random middle-class suburb in the northwest part of town, looking for a door to knock on. I’d already passed hundreds of front doors, willing myself to pick one. But given what I was about to do, every house looked terrifying.
“OK, stop being a coward,” I muttered to myself, parking in front of a one-story, redbrick house with a nice garden. Poking out of the flower bed was a small, decorative cross. I hoped the cross signaled that a peaceful, churchgoing family lived there, not a KKK member. Either way, I hoped they wouldn’t turn violent on a Sunday afternoon. As I got out of the car, I wondered whether anyone was peering through their drapes at the unexpected sight before them: a grown man wearing shin guards and cleats, holding a soccer ball in one hand and video-recording himself with an iPhone held in the other. “Well, this one is a little bit risky,” I said to my phone. “I am going to ask someone to open up their backyard for me to play soccer in it. We’ll see what happens.”
As I walked toward the door, I could feel my heart pounding. My cleats crunched through piles of dead leaves, and crows cawed from their perches in nearby trees. It felt ominous, like the beginning of a scary movie. That walkway seemed like the longest in the world.
Finally at the door, I knocked gently, fearing I would convey the wrong intention by pounding too hard. There was no response. I knocked again, with a bit more force. Still no response. It was only then that I noticed the doorbell. I pressed it. A moment later, the door swung open.
Standing in front of me was a large man in his forties, wearing a gray T‑shirt with a giant Texas flag on it. Coming from the living room behind him I could hear the voices of TV football announcers and the faint buzz of a cheering stadium crowd. His name was Scott, I later learned. Like many Texans, he was a rabid Dallas Cowboys fan, and my knock came just as the game between the Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns was heading into overtime.
“Hey there,” I said in my best Texas drawl, gathering my courage. “Do you think it’s possible for you to take a picture of me playing soccer in your backyard?”
The man’s eyes narrowed for a second. Then he glanced downward at my cleats. “Playing soccer in my backyard,” he repeated, slowly.
“It’s . . . uh . . . for a special project,” I said.
After what seemed like a minute, but was probably just seconds, the Cowboys fan looked me right in the eyes and gave me my answer. . . .
You’re probably wondering why I was standing at this man’s front door and what I meant by “special project.” Was this a new sales strategy I was practicing? A dare? A social experiment? Actually, it was a little bit of each. It was part of a one-hundred-day journey to overcome my fear of rejection—a journey that gave me a new perspective on business and humanity, and gave me tools to be better at almost everything. By challenging myself to seek out rejection again and again, I came to see rejection—and even the world around me—very differently. It changed my life—and I hope that by reading about my journey, it might change yours as well.
But before I tell you what happened next, maybe I should go back a bit—back to the start.
It was July 4, 2012, just after sunset. Thousands of people were gathered at our local community park, waiting for the Independence Day fireworks to start. My wife, Tracy, sat next to me on our blanket, rubbing her belly. She was eight months pregnant with our first child. All around us, kids were running with Frisbees and ice cream cones, families were unpacking picnic baskets, beer bottles clinked, and laughter filled the air. Everyone seemed so happy, so filled with summertime joy.
Everyone but me.
In many ways, I was living the American dream. At just thirty years old, I had a secure six-figure job at a Fortune 500 company. Tracy and I owned a 3,700-square-foot house with a pond view. We even had a golden retriever named Jumbo—the quintessential suburban American dog—and now we were weeks away from the birth of our son. Best of all, my wife and I had an incredible relationship, and not a day went by that I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be loved by such an amazing woman. In other words, I should have been overjoyed with my circumstances. But the truth was, I was as depressed as I could be. My misery wasn’t personal, though—it was professional.
I grew up in Beijing, China, at a time when every school-age child was taught to be a model worker and a building block for the growth of the nation. But being a model worker—in China or anywhere—had never been my dream. Instead, ever since I was little, I had fantasized about being an entrepreneur. While other kids played sports or video games, I devoured the biographies of Thomas Edison and Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, looking for clues about how to become a great innovator. When I was fourteen, Bill Gates visited Beijing, his first-ever trip to my hometown. And I became obsessed with his story of founding Microsoft. I tore down all the sports memorabilia I had on my bedroom walls and made my fantasy about entrepreneurship a life goal. I vowed to become the next Bill Gates and invent an amazing technology product that would take the world by storm. I pestered my family into buying me a brand-new top-of-the-line computer and started teaching myself how to write programming code. I even wrote a letter to them (which I still have) promising that my company would be so successful that I would buy Microsoft by the time I was twenty-five. Drawn in by flashy Hollywood depictions of America and the fact that Bill Gates lived there, I also believed I would one day move to the United States to fulfill that destiny.
When I was sixteen, I was presented with an opportunity to become a high school exchange student in the United States and go to an American college afterward. I jumped on it. The transition was difficult, to say the least. The language and culture barriers were a struggle to overcome, and I was sad to leave my loving family. To make matters worse, the situation I walked into was not a good one. My first year in the United States was spent in rural Louisiana, of all places, and the exchange program did a lousy job background-checking my host family. As a result, my first “home away from home” was in the creepy house of a family of criminals. I learned that their older son had been convicted of murder a year prior to my arrival, and it was his bed that I slept in. Even worse, two days after my arrival, my host parents stole all my money.
Sleeping in the bed of a murderer and losing all my money was not the introduction to America that I’d been expecting. I’d left the protective, supportive bubble of my own family in China only to land with a family that immediately broke my trust. It scared me, and I didn’t know what to do. Ultimately, I reported their theft to my high school superintendent, who then reported it to the police. My host parents were arrested, and the mortified folks at the exchange program moved me to another home—luckily, the home of a wonderful family. There I not only reexperienced love and trust, gained spiritual faith, I also learned that there are good people and bad people in the world, and they would certainly not treat me the same way.
Throughout this shaky start, my dream of becoming an entrepreneur in America stayed as strong as ever. In fact, I didn’t believe there was any way that I could fail. Becoming an entrepreneur felt more like my fate or destiny than any sort of choice on my part. The goal was so deeply embedded in my heart that I don’t think I could have shaken it if I tried.
After one year in high school, and another six months at an English as a second language institute, my English had vastly improved. It was January 1999; I was ready for college. I still remember my first day at the University of Utah. I was just seventeen years old. There had been a snowstorm the night before, and the entire campus was covered in white. I can still hear the sounds my feet made—voo, voo, voo—as I walked through the snow to class that morning, leaving the first set of footprints of the day. The universe was a fresh snowfield in front of me, ready for me to blaze my own trail and become the next great immigrant entrepreneur in America. I had youth, hope, and energy on my side. Everything seemed possible.
My first real chance to launch my entrepreneurial dream came while I was still in college. For years, I’d constantly been thinking up cool new devices that I could invent. One day, as I was flipping through an old photo album, I saw a picture of myself roller-skating as a kid. Some of my happiest childhood memories were of roller-skating with my friends. Suddenly, I started thinking about how cool it would be to combine a tennis shoe with a Rollerblade. Kids and adults could be walking one moment and gliding around with their friends the next. The world would become a giant rink, and happiness would be widespread!
Excited, I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing out various ideas for how to functionally embed wheels into a shoe. I loved the idea so much that I even drew a formal blueprint to submit with a future patent application. It took me an entire weekend. Afterward, I felt like I’d created the Mona Lisa.
Sure, it may not have been the most life-changing idea the world had ever seen. But it was my idea, and I thought it was awesome, and it could be the invention that launched my entrepreneurial career.
I have an uncle in San Diego—my father’s younger brother—whom I’ve always held in extremely high regard. While my parents were both very easygoing, my uncle was very strict and demanding, which somehow made me want his approval even more. To be honest, I was scared of him as a child. But I always knew that he cared about me and wanted me to succeed. After I moved to the United States, he and I became even closer, and I viewed him almost as another father, so much so that I would later name my son after him. I always felt much surer of myself when he liked my ideas and my choices. So I sent him a copy of my drawings, excited to get his reaction to the “shoes with wheels” idea and hoping for encouragement.
Imagine my disappointment when instead of support I received a verbal smackdown. My uncle thought my idea was silly, and he chastised me for focusing on something so far-fetched when I should be concentrating on school and improving my English.
I felt so dispirited that I tossed my sketches into a drawer and never moved forward with the idea. If my own uncle had rejected my idea, I felt sure that the world would hate it even more—and I wanted no part of being rejected in public by strangers. Instead, I focused on getting good grades and continuing to improve my English. Using thousands of flash cards, I spent many hours every day learning and memorizing new English words. Excelling at school was a surefire way to win the approval of my family, especially my uncle. And I didn’t just want their approval—I craved it. I told myself that straight As and an impressive vocabulary might also make me a better entrepreneur someday.
My good grades did pay off in some way. I landed a scholarship offer from Brigham Young University, where I transferred and completed college. Yet I felt like I’d missed something much bigger.
Two years later, a man named Roger Adams patented exactly the same idea (shoe-skates) and founded the company Heelys. In 2007, just after its IPO, Heelys was valued at almost $1 billion. Meanwhile, my blueprint sat in a drawer, gathering dust. Sadly, it’s not the only blueprint in there. Over the years, I’ve come up with dozens of new ideas that I thought had the potential to turn into successful products. But rather than pursuing them, I just added them to the pile—and then gently closed the drawer.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that my shoe-skate innovation would have succeeded the same way that Adams’s did—or that any of my other ideas would have become the foundation of a successful company. But I never even gave them—or myself—a chance to find out. I rejected my own ideas before they could be rejected by the world. Giving up at the first sign of rejection felt much safer than putting my ideas out there to be further criticized. It was so much easier to do the rejecting all by myself.
But every time I saw kids skating on Heelys in malls, sidewalks, and playgrounds, every time I read an article about Adams turning his childhood passion into a pop culture craze, I thought about what could have been. The pain and regret were unbearable.
I thought that I’d feel the freedom to become an entrepreneur after I graduated from college, with my computer science degree fresh in hand. But the opposite happened. The family and social pressures didn’t fade away. If anything, they became stronger. Instead of winning others’ approval by being a good student, I now wanted to win their admiration by having a strong and stable career. I hadn’t started a company in college, and I didn’t start one after college either. Instead, I tried out job after job until I realized that being a computer programmer wasn’t my thing. Scared that I’d chosen the wrong path, I changed career tracks in a way that made me feel safe: I reentered the familiar comforts of school, this time pursuing an MBA at Duke University. Afterward, I took a marketing job at a Fortune 500 company. I thought the accolades and approval I would receive from my prestigious degree and my new six-figure income would satisfy my inner entrepreneur. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
On the first day of my new job, my boss asked me write a short self-introduction. One of the questions was “What would you do if you weren’t doing this?” Without hesitation, I wrote down “Being an entrepreneur.” Someone then asked me: “Then why aren’t you?” I didn’t know how to answer it.
It’s amazing how fast the years fly by—and how big the gap can grow between your vision for yourself and the reality of your life. Simply put, I’d sold out my dream. That teenager walking on snow hadn’t become the next Bill Gates. Instead, he became a marketing manager sitting quietly on his cozy little rung of the corporate ladder, miserably collecting good income. Once in a while, the envy of friends or the pride of my family would give me temporary but false assurance that I was doing well in life. But for me, the relentless ticking clock of life was like the sun, melting away the snowfield of my dreams and ambition. I remember one day, after coming back from work, I locked myself in my closet, sobbing for hours. I hadn’t cried for a long time.
Now, sitting on our July 4 blanket, I couldn’t help feeling that my entrepreneurial dream was over before it ever took off. If I hadn’t taken the leap to try building a start‑up as an eighteen-year-old college student, or as a twenty-two-year-old single guy, or as a twenty-eight-year-old MBA, how could I do it as a thirty-year-old middle manager just weeks from becoming a father? Being a parent brought with it a whole new set of responsibilities that I thought would require me to put my dream permanently to rest.
A loud explosion went off in the sky, and the darkness was lit up with bright colors. Sitting there, contemplating my future, it was almost as if I could see in the sky an imaginary slide show of what the rest of my life would look like. At work, I’d continue to sell more products, train more employees, and establish more processes. At home, we’d have one or two more kids, sending them off to school and eventually to college. The slide show ended at my own funeral, with someone giving a touching but typical eulogy praising my loyalty and dependability. It was a eulogy for just another good guy—not the world-changing entrepreneur I had dreamed of becoming.
Tracy looked over at me. For weeks, she’d known that I was miserable, and she knew why. “You can have another car, house, promotion, or job. But you can’t live with this kind of regret,” she said. And then my wife—my very pregnant wife—did something amazing. She issued me a challenge. She told me to quit my job, take six months to start a company from scratch, and work as hard as I could to build it. If by the end of that time I still had no traction and no investment, I would hop back on the corporate ladder.
I felt a surge of adrenaline at the thought of truly being free to follow my dreams. But then fear quickly set in. If I failed, there would be no guarantee I could get a job nearly as good, and I would be seen as a fool in the eyes of my friends. And then there was the small matter of Tracy’s parents.
Like me, Tracy was born in China, and her parents have very traditional ideas of what constitutes work and success. My father-in-law, like most fathers-in-law, was skeptical about the guy who had won his daughter’s heart. But based on what Tracy told me, I learned that he liked how I provided for my family. Wouldn’t quitting my job drive him over the edge? “I’ll take care of my parents and their concerns,” she said. “You just make sure you give everything you have—and leave no regret.” There have been many moments in my life when I’ve realized that I married up. This was one of them.
For the longest time, I had fantasized about the day I would quit my job and start a company. Now that day had arrived—and I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Should I pull a Jerry Maguire, making a loud speech in the office before storming out? Or should I do something even more dramatic, making a grand exit like the JetBlue flight attendant who quit by going down the evacuation slide of his plane?
I didn’t do either of these things, because on the day that I gave my two-week notice, July 5, I was actually scared out of my mind. My job had been a safety net for a very long time. Once I quit, there would be no going back. I was about to embark on the great unknown. Also, I felt oddly worried about my boss’s reaction. Apparently, my fear of rejection ran so deep that I was actually concerned that she’d reject my quitting. I didn’t want to upset her. But I knew I had to do it.
So I visualized the drawer filled with dusty blueprints—and mustered enough courage to knock on her office door.
Once inside, I stumbled through my rehearsed speech, telling her about my dream of becoming an entrepreneur. “If I don’t do it now, I will never do it,” I told her, almost pleading for her to understand and not get upset. The speech was a far cry from Jerry Maguire’s.
My boss was visibly shocked. She stared at me for what felt like minutes, and I wondered what she was thinking. She was probably contemplating what kind of insanity had come over me, that I would give up a nice income and quit my job right before having a baby. I didn’t want her to think ill of me, which felt like a kind of rejection. But I didn’t know what else to say, so I just sat there, shifting around uncomfortably.
Eventually, she found her voice. “Oh my God!” she yelled. “Who’s going to take on all your projects now? We just had a hiring freeze. Now what do I do?” I’d been afraid of her rejection, but it was clear that she had other things on her mind.
Soon after that, I started telling my friends that I’d quit my job, feeling a little surprised each time by my own words. When I made the announcement to everyone who came to our baby shower, there was an awkward silence. Instead of a pin drop, I think I actually heard a chopstick drop.
Two weeks after quitting, I walked out of that mammoth office building for the last time—saying good-bye to my salary, health benefits, 401(k), and my air-conditioned office. All my comforts—and all my excuses for not living my dream—grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. I felt excited and free, but also scared. Tracy was scheduled to deliver my son, Brian, in four days.
Holy crap, I said to myself. This is for real. I’d better not screw it up.
There is no manual for building the Next Big Thing, but every start‑up begins with an idea. I had been mulling one over for a while, something I believed in and that was better—and more sophisticated—than wheels on shoes. For a while, I’d been thinking about how and why people keep their promises. People make casual promises to friends, family members, and coworkers every day. What if I could develop an app that would issue some kind of points or credit for fulfilling a promise? “Gamifying” promises could potentially motivate people to keep their word, improve their relationships, and generate fun in the process. I’d spoken with plenty of friends about the idea, as well as several entrepreneurs whom I admire, and the majority of them liked the idea. Some talked to me about it for hours. Their feedback told me that I was onto something and gave me the confidence to finally—finally!—try turning one of my entrepreneurial ideas into a reality.
On the same day that I quit my job, I started looking for people to help me create the app. Specifically, I needed top-notch software engineers with the programming skills to write the code. (In the software start‑up world, I was considered a “nontech” founder, meaning I had the idea and business expertise but didn’t have the killer programming skills needed to write the app myself.) So I started recruiting. I asked everyone I knew for potential leads. When I ran out of acquaintances, I approached strangers at meetups and even at local basketball courts. When I ran out of in-person options, I hopped onto Craigslist and LinkedIn.
My frenetic efforts paid off. Within weeks, I’d assembled an international team of whip-smart engineers. The first was Vic, who was finishing his master’s in computer science and already had a job offer from IBM. If I could dream it, Vic could code it. The second person was Chen, a computer science PhD candidate who specialized in programming algorithms and read advanced software architecture theory for fun. Then there was Brandon, who lived in Utah and was literally a hacker. In high school he sold his own hacking software for profit. Later, he dropped out of college after his own small mobile app company became successful enough to support him. The last person, Vijay, was an engineer in India and a former colleague of mine. We’d never met in person, but I knew him to be a hard worker and a master at coding.
I was very proud of my team and honored that they believed in my vision and were willing to jump on board. Soon after hiring them, I rented space in a coworking facility—specifically designed for entrepreneurs—in downtown Austin, and we got to work. Building the app, and the business, was hard, complicated, and required long hours, week after week. But I was having the time of my life.
I was amazed by how fast a team of capable engineers could build software. We blazed our way through five iterations of product development. In three months, we built a web app and an iPhone app that felt intuitive and fun. We started using the app among ourselves and were surprised by how much our desire to keep score of our promises to one another boosted our productivity. Of course, it’s one thing for an app’s inventors to love it. Getting outside customers to engage with a new app—in a landscape filled with mobile apps—was a much tougher sell. Thousands of apps get launched every day, and we were competing with all of them for attention. Still, it was evident we had a good concept on our hands. It might not become an instant hit, but I knew we could make it work given a bit more time.
But we needed money. Tracy and I had been married for two years by that time, and we were big savers. I had invested most of our savings in kick-starting my new venture. As personnel and operation costs piled up, those funds started dwindling. I couldn’t invest more without putting a huge strain on our finances, especially with a newborn child. Tracy had given me six months—and I needed to start showing traction to justify our investment.
Four months into the journey, it looked like my prayer was about to be answered. Our promises app had attracted the interest of an outside investor. I spent hours preparing and scripting our pitch. The team practiced it together over and over again, as if we were rehearsing for the reality TV show Shark Tank. The pitch couldn’t have gone better, at least in our minds. Afterward, we high-fived each other in celebration. And then the waiting began—the most agonizing wait I’d ever experienced.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d had the tense experience of waiting for others to decide my fate. When I was fifteen, I waited for weeks for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to decide whether to grant me a visa so that I could come to the United States (I got it). When I was seventeen, I waited for BYU to decide whether to offer me the scholarship that would mean I could afford school on my own (I got it). When I was twenty-five, I waited for an admission letter from Duke Business School (I got it). When I was twenty-eight, I waited for the yes from Tracy after proposing to her in front of four hundred classmates (the best yes of my life). Those were nerve-racking moments, with life-changing decisions hanging in the balance. But I don’t know why, in terms of anxiety level, they paled in comparison to waiting for this investment decision.
I still believed that I was destined to become a great entrepreneur. But I had just two months left to save my dream, and this investment felt like a lifeline. I wanted it so badly that I actually dreamed about getting a yes from the investor five different times, each time waking up thinking that the investment had come through. I vividly remember picking up the phone and calling my wife and family to tell them the good news in those dreams.
Several days later I was at a restaurant, attending a friend’s birthday party, when my phone vibrated. It was an e‑mail from the investor. My hand started to shake, and an ominous feeling engulfed me.
I held the phone for a long time without opening the e‑mail, trying to channel all kinds of positive mental energy into its content. Then I clicked it open. It was a very short e‑mail. The investor said no.