I grew up in Houston, Texas, in kind of a low income family. We were below the poverty line. My mother was the bread winner, she made things happen. She worked 2 to 3 jobs and was an amazing woman. So that shaped a lot of who I am. I went to public schools. In my first grade I started selling candy during recess and I did that for about 2 years. And the teachers told me to stop because they were worried about me getting mugged. So it’s a really fundamental insight. I was like 7 and they told me to stop.
Anyway, I did a bunch of micro businesses like that when I was a kid. I was trying to make money and would not want to be stuck in a trap like my parents. So I did 7 of those or so, by the time I was getting to my early teens and early 20s. But at around 12, I started volunteering. And I fundamentally loved helping people.
I got to do space elemental design competitions, I got to go to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre and actually build a space element. So I did those, I competed internationally, nationally and locally, as probably one of the most decorated competitor in the world. I started building clubs, organisations when I was in high school. So I kind of got addicted to building.
Come college, I’d had 10 organisations I’d built by the time I graduated. And those included a Red Cross club, a mass CPR training for the city and an alternate spring break [volunteer] programme, sending kids to volunteer in emergency response organisation, [and] things like that. That was fun. I was also a triple major, quadruple minor, so I studied as much as I possibly could. It took me a while [to graduate] because I was building all this stuff. But yeah, I got out and then, went on…
You said you were 12 when you got into volunteering and social activities. Is there any event or anything that you can connect with that age or that time that sparked this mindset?
I’d always cared about people because of what happened to my family. I didn’t want other people to go through that. So I was trying to make money and do "good". I started doing things that had impact. But I didn’t really discover social entrepreneurship formally until 19. With 19 I have built my first official social enterprise, a mass CPR training where we taught people CPR and made a profit from that.
So it was actually a thing that came natural to you?
Yeah and I’ve always wanted it to. I’m a change agent first, and foremost. Social entrepreneurship is the mechanism for doing that. It’s not just SE, it’s social innovation, it’s effective altruism, there’s a lot of mechanics behind change that aren’t just social enterprise, although that’s where I spend most of my time.
I built 6 social enterprises, or co-built. I say I’m a SE focussing on behaviour change innovations. I’m also a DIY social scientist. The world needs a lot more behavioural science, that way we can all achieve our goals. So if you want to be happier, healthier, more productive and actually go and have a legacy, there’s a lot of research out there how these things actually work. How you become more successful, how you make more money, how you actually lose weight, how you become happier. So I’ve been looking at that since I was 16. It’s when my Mom passed, you start thinking about what’s meaningful and for me it’s ‘self-actualisation’. I’m studying self-actualisation and I’m trying to advance the science behind it. That’s actually what Self Spark does; [it] is my life-purpose. To understand at a deeper level what that means in the 21st century and then help everyone have a chance to self-actualise.
One of my role models is Michael Young who built 40 organisations in his life, 40 companies before he died. The day he died he worked like a good solid 8 hours and then said, alright, that’s enough, and then passed.
So it’s the characteristic of building which you identify with most?
Yes! Definitely a builder.
What inspires you?
This took me a while to figure out, too. But it’s now very clear for me. It’s two things: curiosity and altruism. I am massively motivated to learn, I can’t help but do it. So that’s why I was a triple major and quadruple minor, and that’s why I do a lot of self-study. I’m trying to solve problems, I’m trying to solve wicked problems. So it’s very motivating for me to try to solve humanities’ biggest problems. Partly because if we don’t do it, then we might not have a future. So, on the altruism side, I’m doing this because I think everyone deserves the chance to thrive, to flourish. And most people don’t have that, and it’s not fair for me to have that and other people don’t.
How does ‘Self Spark’ work?
The best analogy is this kind of an incubator, where we have a bunch of people who are under this wing. So we offer them an office and housing, and they live with me for free, work with me but each person owns something. They own a project, a start-up or a venture. So there are a lot of things in the lab that we are experimenting with and see if it helps people change their lives. There’s one called ‘spark-man’ and ‘spark-woman’, which is designed in 30 days, or 2.6 million seconds, to become a modern day ‘super hero’! Which is kind of a joke but it’s a euphemism for self-actualisation. So in 30 days what steps can you take to advance yourself as fast as possible? That’s a project that our COO owns, where he makes money if it goes well. And then we have the Spark weekends. Spark weekends are 2 day life-hacking boot camps, like a TEDx. And they’re owned by another person. So I don’t actually run the event. It’s a franchise model. We have corporate trainings, owned by someone else, who is fully in charge of it. I support him, but again, it’s profit share, so they basically are in charge. I don’t want to have employees. I have no employees. I never want to have employees. I want people that are autonomous and under self-determination theory that they are actually believing in what they are doing, that they are intrinsically motivated, that it works out for them in their life. It’s a win-win situation. Basically, they are in charge and I support them.
So it’s very flat?
Yes, it’s very flat. The circles overlap. I have veto power, if I need but it never really had to be exercised. It’s interesting, people live together, work together, so we have an intentional community. Structure is flat, self-determined, all profits are shared throughout. They all get company-level profit share over time. It’s a very fluid structure, in and out.
What about managerial decisions? It’s more that ideas are carried towards you and you say ‘go follow it’?
I’m a shepherd, or I’m a guide. So I’m helping them learn how to make their own decisions. And that’s how I prefer it. Now some are very good at that, some aren’t. The ones who need a lot of guidance all sit down with [me] more, and honestly I’ve been failing at doing enough of that. Because they’re thinking through things, making decisions, but do not necessarily think about the big picture. So it’s my job to help them making the best choices they can to make the most money and do the best job possible. Day to day, nitty-gritty, all the way to high up level, strategic …
Who are your stakeholders? Are they accountable?
All of them! We’re a stakeholder driven company. Actually, as a conscious company, you have to be. I don’t think employees come before customers per se, or investors come first. But it’s [about] suppliers, environment, customers, employees […] I’ve never felt comfortable optimising for just one because everyone has to be managed in an ethical way, and you have to make sure everyone is winning at the same time. Otherwise a company falls apart.
What about customers?
There are actually a few customer groups; people that eat well, sleep well, try to exercise, try to meditate, they sometimes do yoga. These are 25-35 years old people, conscious consumers, they’re young professionals. They care about themselves, and they care about becoming a better version of themselves. So those are our main customers.
We also have corporate customers who are benefit corporations, and social purpose organisations, both the small and medium sized enterprises, all the way up to multinationals. As long as they have some sense of being socially focused, they are our customers too.
What we do is to come in with our training products, with our programs, which are very much high tech and high touch. We teach them how to use the emerging technology to change their lives, and as employees, to become more productive, reduce their health-care cost and increase their engagement with their company. You’re trying to actually help them perform better, and at the same time actually care more. Those are, let’s say, conscious consumers and conscious companies.
How do you generate revenue?
We sell tickets to events such as the ‘Spark Weekend’. Moreover, we’re coaching through the ‘Spark-man’ project. We also sell corporate trainings.
What’s your take on the protection of intellectual property?
We have an open innovation / open growth model. The first part is open innovation where we source from everywhere around the world, every workshop, every innovators’ garage, every DIY approach or big companies. They all have new products and services that are out there. There are some that we think are fairly rigorous in terms of impact.
Is it important for you to make your own data available?
Absolutely. We publish it all, including the failures. We did one where we tried to make people happier and it looks like we didn’t. So we published that too.
Can you indicate one area for improvement as an entrepreneur?
I’ve done this so many times and I still make fundamental mistakes. I tried doing this in Singapore and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t have any co-founders; I didn’t have a very strong team. I was also doing 3 start-ups at once, when I first started. You only have a tiny runway or a tiny bit of marginal error that messes everything up.
How important is a “business-school” approach or do you do trial and error?
Well, we follow a lean start-up approach. The MBA stuff is not effective for entrepreneurs. People learn the wrong things. Instead, I believe in the concept of effectuation and lean startup, where you basically do one thing based on your own resources and you test it quickly. I have a track record of all of our decisions; and I’ve tracked every single one to see if we made the right decision, what was the rationale and what was the outcome. I believe it is very much about testing. It’s a bit messy sometimes. But you still need to be pretty focused on rationality.
How do you go on?
I can’t stop! There’s no way I can stop. You get hit by a bus, you just recover and get back up. I don’t really know how to give up. I don’t mind pivoting or changing but I’ll do this until I die. I mean, what else are you going to do? I am honestly worried for the sake of humanity; I cannot just sit back and not work. It’s pretty easy to keep going.
What is your main goal?
It’s to help the world self actualise. It’s whatever that means to them.
How do you define social entrepreneurship?
It’s a business with a social purpose. It’s fundamentally using market mechanisms to create social good. And for me there’s a lot of range. I sometimes say social purpose organisation, or SPO, as an umbrella term. I’d love to see every enterprise be a social enterprise or be a social purpose organisation in the future. If they are always around and social impact, that’s what we’re here for, we’re not here just to make money. Purpose before profit, but profit powers purpose.
Is Self spark based in the US?
Yes, but we are nomadic in nature. We don’t really have headquarters. We’re going from city to city to do these cool events and then hopefully be on the road for the next 6 months to a year, if not longer.
Do you have anything to add?
Entrepreneurship is a way of life and it’s a means to an end. It’s a science and an art. You realise along the way it’s not necessarily about you, it has very little to do with you and how you execute. That’s great, but the highest level is to have other people who are extremely good executing alongside you.