If we start up a business by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, if we make every decision by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, if we deal with every tiny little thing around us by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, we shall live in peace and freedom for the rest of our lives.

Brian Sun, Founder and CEO of XMind, Ltd.

Brian Sun, Founder and CEO of XMind, took the stage of the TEDxFutian 2018 Annual Conference in August of this year. As the representative of #Outlier# in the Internet field, he shared distinctive ways of integrating Buddha wisdom originated 2,500 years ago into modern life and work management.

Click the link for a complete speech review and find out what motivates Brian to stick to mind mapping for the rest of his life.


About TEDxFutian

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized (subject to certain rules and regulations).


What Makes Me Say No to VC (Full Transcript)

Brian Sun, 2018 at TEDxFutian

The Beginning of the Journey

The first time for Chinese people to get to know “Mind Mapping” was the appearance of a book called “The Learning Revolution”. The word “Mind Map” was then translated into Chinese as “Nao Tu” (a picture of brain), not “Si Wei Dao Tu” as we call it today. That was the year when I was in middle school. As I walked into the bookstore, and opened the book “The Learning Revolution”, I fell in love with those “mind maps” at the very first glance. From then on, most of my class notes in school were taken in the form of mind maps. To this day, I still keep these class notes like history, mathematics, and physics.

Hand-drawn mind maps obviously have some drawbacks. They’re limited to the size of the paper. They can’t be easily modified. They can’t be re-organized. And they don’t support searching, of course.

After I graduated from college, I happened to know a mind mapping app made by a German company, called “MindManager”. Software covers all shortages of hand-drawn mind maps. Then I realized that mind mapping software can help everyone clarify their minds and develop creativity. It is something I love. It is what I think is right. It is beneficial to the society. And it’s also profitable. So, why not to start up a business?

12 years ago, we started up a company making mind mapping software, called “XMind”. At the very beginning of the start-up, we came to an agreement that, since we all regard mind mapping software something worthwhile, we shall do it for the rest of our lives. It is an attitude to do something for the rest of our lives. Maybe we can’t make it to the end of our lives. Maybe the whole market is a flash in the pan. Maybe we can’t even support ourselves. So be it. All that we care is the attitude of spending the rest of our lives to deal with every tiny little thing around us.


Be True to Aspiration

When you think this way, you also look from a completely different perspective. And I’m going to explain it with a few examples.

First, the dreams are totally different. What is my dream? My dream is to make mind mapping software available to every single person. When we stepped into this market, it was seriously “polarized”. On one side, there was MindManger, at an extremely high price, irrationally. On the other side, there was FreeMind, open source, rough and simple, with only limited functionalities. In the contrast, our product, XMind, is a full-featured mind mapping tool. I could have made its price as high as MindManager, or at least a half of it. It would have sold any way. But we did not. We, unexpectedly, chose a business model combining “free” and “premium”, as known as “Freemium”.

Even speaking of Freemium, there were still many options. We chose to make most of the product free of charge. Please notice that it’s not only free for a few basic features, but also for the most of all features. To be more obvious, all the core features are totally offered for free, so that only 20% of our users, in 20% of the time during their usage, hit some premium features. Isn’t it counterintuitive? Why don’t you let users pay for features that are exhausting to design and develop? Does it mean that your developers spend most of their time working for those free features?

The answer is “Yes.” But why? It is designed so that more people can have a chance to use mind mapping software. As we think mind mapping software is really helpful to us, we also want it to be helpful to everyone else.

I know what you might ask. Can we make money this way? Sure we can. And it can also support a whole team. The bigger our user-base is, then, the better the product sells, and the more we earn. Meanwhile, the free part of the app are so sufficient and powerful, that its user-base has been continuously growing. In 2009, we have established a foothold in the US and European market. In 2012, we have surpassed all of our competitors and become “the most popular mind mapping software on the planet”. And today we’re still leading the market. It means we can keep doing this for the rest of our lives.


Pursuit of Ultimate

At that moment, investors came, one after another. But we declined all investments, as well as all IPO plans. We simply want to be small yet elegant. We have once been awarded as one of Red Herring Asia Top 100 Winners. At the ceremony, many investors approached me, and asked if we want any investment. My answer was “Sorry, but we don’t need money.” They were surprised at how the hell a man in the world does not need money, “Are you kidding me?”

The best practice of business of the current era is nothing but making a concept. Then turn it into a product that makes money, and sell it to someone else while it’s still making money. Then, they retire, or dive into real estate. The whole industry is impetuous.

I have a friend. He’s of about the same age as me, and started up his own business at about the same time as me. but still has nothing today. If you ask him about his dream, he will tell you that his dream is to earn a hundred million dollars overnight. Because of such a dream of nothing but money, he has been continuously changing directions over this many years. Rather than making good products, he prefers whatever popular or trending. For me, I love mind mapping, and I’d love to stick to this for the rest of my life. Such focus gave me the courage to say “No” to seductions. Such focus gave me the confidence so that I could dive into the product’s details and design. We’ve been working on XMind for 12 years. And you’re guaranteed to find some 12year-long XMind users out there. Believe it or not? This year we organized three offline workshops in the United States, Australia, and Europe. At these workshops, we witnessed real 12-year-long XMind users. What surprised us is that the features these users love the most are exactly the ones we love the most as well, and also the ones we polished the most carefully. That was truly amazing. It’s like we just get to know each other today, and also have known each other for as long as 12 years.


Grasping vs. Not Grasping

There’s another phenomenon in my company: “No Overtime”. In Nanshan Sci-tech Park (Shenzhen), it’s hard to find a company that gets off work on time, even harder than finding a polar bear. Why do these companies work overtime? That’s because their philosophy is to do whatever others are doing. And they must do it faster, must do it earlier, and must do even more. You cannot but work overtime, if you have this idea in mind, fighting, even battling, for basically anything. No matter how many employees you have, no matter how much money you have, no matter you have one or more products or projects, you are bound to work overtime, if you have this idea in mind. In such companies, work sheets never end.

For the sake of explaining this situation, I’d like to introduce two terms from Buddhism, “Grasping vs. Not Grasping”. The phrase “must do” as I just mentioned is an expression of grasping. It is a toxic methodology. Competitors make plans by pursuing each other, causing a large amount of duplicated work, wasting resources, wasting energy, wasting time, and wasting source code. Grasping may cause even greater harm. Pursuing others’ features will quickly exceed the team’s execution capability, making the product a total mess, that nobody wants to use. It happens every single day in our industry. So, as said in a book called “Getting Real”, users want “half a product”, rather than “a half-assed product”.

Then, how do we get our work finished on time? Is it because we care more about sleeping time? Is it because we practice healthy life-style? Or is it because we have less meetings? No, no, no, we have no less meetings than others. It is because in a company like ours, work can be done. It’s because our goal, is to do less than others, slower than others, and later than others. But to polish our product more carefully than any other for the rest of our lives.

You may say that in your market, there are no big-fish. No Microsoft. No Apple. No Google. That’s why you don’t have to work overtime. I disagree with that. It would be highly appreciated to have big companies into this market, because that would fix the issue for us that a large number of people have no idea of this kind of software. So, the more companies entering this market, the more people getting to know mind mapping, and the more money we can make. So I would regard big companies as friends rather than competitors.


The Power of Faith

I just mentioned three differences. Since our dreams are meant for the rest of our lives, then, the first, we have a different business model, to make more people get to know mind mapping software, the second, we have a different focus, to put our heart and soul into our products while others are struggling for investments, and the third, we have a different culture, to allow us work 35 hours a week without bleeding my employees dry, because we have a long way to go together. Does this model work for any company? I think so! The reason why Apple becomes Apple, is that they insist on the integrity of software and hardware. That’s what they thought was right, and what they were going to do for the rest of their lives. Even though it’s been 10 years since they lost their founding leader, the whole company still remains firmly on this path. How I hope we could do so as well!

Mr. Buffett said that “If you aren’t thinking about owning a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.” We all should make our products in this spirit. The Basecamp team posted on their website that they will support Basecamp “until the end of the Internet”. I love this idea so much!

Are you aware of how powerful this kind of faith can be? A few days ago, I met a former classmate who came back from abroad. After a short greeting, she asked me what I’m currently working on. I said that I make mind mapping software. She might instantly feel like I would start to promote my product, and, to stop my mouth, she said “Oh, mind mapping software. I know that. But I use only XMind.” Then she swung her hair like this.

In the next 20 minutes, she kept promoting to me all features and advantages of XMind. Before I left, I said “Thank you. I’ve learned a lot today.”

There’s another story. A colleague of mine was once taking the train in U.S. and picked up by a stranger, not because she looks pretty, but because she was carrying a bag with XMind logo printed. Imagine that a small team native in Shenzhen receives respect everywhere around the world. Even today, there are still many users thinking that we must be based in Silicon Valley.


Live in Peace and Freedom

The three points I mentioned today are actually the three reasons of happiness. The first, happy for giving. The second, happy for less demand. The third, happy for a nice office atmosphere. So I just said “We simply want to be small yet elegant.”

Now you might ask “Is it hard to follow your heart?” Yes, very much. There are not only obstacles, but also endless seductions. Sometimes I have to seek for a higher level wisdom to help me think out of the box.

One of my favorite books is “What Makes You Not a Buddhist”, written by a great Buddhist master, who happens to be a movie director as well. Many of his literary films have been awarded at movie festivals. Every time I encounters a dilemma, this book influences the way of my thinking with a higher level wisdom. When I see only the sales numbers, it helps me step out and see my products. When I see only my products, it helps me see my heart. If I see only this life, it even teaches me to think beyond lifetimes. I strongly recommend this book to you.

Someone may argue that only old men can see through their lives, while young men see only profits in a short term. I definitely disagree with that. That’s because they haven’t been benefited. If we start up a business by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, if we make every decision by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, if we deal with every tiny little thing around us by means of doing it for the rest of our lives, we shall live in peace and freedom for the rest of our lives. Thank you.