My mother was 22 when I was born. Although her dream was to be an educator, she gave it all up to raise me and my two siblings. She devoted herself to us until all three of us went off to college. At that time, she found herself longing for her childhood dream. Instead of just dreaming, she took action and went back to school to finish her studies in childhood education and opened up her own daycare/pre-school upon graduating.

She had never built a business before. Many naysayers told her that she was crazy to start an entirely new career at this late stage. Those naysayers (including her own children) suggested that she relax, travel and enjoy her freedom instead. Unconvinced and determined despite her own doubts, she quietly followed her heart.

Her business started small, with just one customer (i.e. a 3-year old child) out of the living room in her house. She worked day and night to care for her first customer - from developing a holistic education program to customizing a healthy meal plan. At the same time, she attended various local community events to educate working parents on early childhood development. Then, her business started to grow and gain traction: more children to care for, more teachers were hired, and she expanded her space. She worked from 6:30AM until midnight every day, even caring for children on the weekends. She did this wholeheartedly for the next 10 years. Even though it wasn't a Silicon Valley startup, it was a very well-run, growing, and sustainable business.

Recently, during dinner one night, I asked her to share with me some lessons she learned while building her business. She was embarrassed at first to answer. She asked me how she could add anything to what I had already learned from my professional education, big companies and Silicon Valley. Yet, her answers surprised me because they were not only so simple and insightful, but also exquisitely applicable to my own startup experience.

1. You have to love what you are doing

My mother never felt that working from 6:30AM till midnight everyday was difficult. In fact, she loved getting up every morning. She did not know how each day went by because she enjoyed what she did - working with children, interacting with parents and collaborating with other teachers. She did not think that it was a job - she was simply pursuing her dream. During her tenure, she saw many other childcare businesses come and go. She explained that one of the fundamental reasons that those businesses failed was because founders were in it for the wrong reasons - often times driven by monetary reward. She thought that it was dangerous to start a business for wrong reasons. Businesses go through lots of ups and downs and it’s very difficult to stay through the downs when your heart is not in it for the right reasons.

2. When in doubt, listen to your most difficult customer

She had her own share of ups and downs during her journey as an entrepreneur, especially when it came to interacting with customers. Because of the nature of her business, she had two sets of customers - children and parents (and grandparents at times). She did not think that her business would survive because of very difficult customers who always threatened her with complaints or even lawsuits when things did not work the way they wanted. Nevertheless, she decided to listen to these difficult customers instead, and worked tirelessly to win their hearts. Eventually, their feedback, though it might have sounded irrational in many occasions, helped her improve her operation and service. More importantly, they became some of the most loyal customers.

3. Measure twice and hire once

She explained that one of the most difficult aspects of running a business was hiring and managing people. Although she thought that she had a very good instinct around people in general, she said that figuring out when and how to hire, retain and fire employees required a lot of trials and errors. Over time, she realized that the magic formula was to hire people who were stronger and better than she was, often preferring those with great potential to those with exceptional previous experiences, and to find ways to inspire them continuously. In her view, the founder’s role is to empower employees so that they are aligned with her vision and they feel like they are building their own company, not just an employee of hers.

At the end of this discussion, my mom was still quite self-conscious. In her view, the business that she had so painstakingly built to become a thriving and successful one was nothing compared to what others built in "the real business world" (her words). In fact, she never thought of and introduced herself as a “founder” or a “CEO”. Yet, the lessons that she shared with me were as profound as the ones that I had received from well-known CEOs/CFOs/Founders of amazing companies.

My mother, still to this day, gives me (an almost 40 year old son) allowance to buy snacks. During her visit, when I left for work in the morning, she would slip $5 into my pocket and tell me not to skip breakfast. Then, she would remind me to take my phone and would stand in the front door until I walked out.



Yong Kim
Yong Kim

I wonder if she knows how accomplished she is, and what a successful entrepreneur she is. She has created many jobs for her local community, and truly touched the lives of many. Ultimately, I wonder if her secret to being an amazing entrepreneur was that she didn't think she was. She didn't take anything for granted, made the most of every single day trying to do the best she could, and remained grounded and humble. 

Thanks for teaching me, mom.

Yong Kim is the co-founder of Wonolo, an on-demand staffing platform. Kim and AJ Brustein founded the company in December 2013 as part of the Coca-Cola Founders platform, a global network of seasoned entrepreneurs building startups with the support of Coke’s marketing muscle, distribution network and other assets.