EP 166 – Hsu Ken Ooi – co-Founder and Managing Partner at Iterative – We Were Short on Ideas That Week

by | Dec 25, 2021

Hsu Ken Ooi and I had such a great conversation, we had to cut it short.  Otherwise, it felt like we could have gone on for hours.  Hsu Ken is a co-Founder and Managing Partner at Iterative.  Iterative’s vision is to “Increase the GDP of Southeast Asia through entrepreneurship” with a mission “to Build the most vibrant, supportive, and intellectually honest community of founders”.
Some of the topics that Hsu Ken and I discussed:
  • Born in Penang, Malaysia and traveling back and forth between the United States and Penang as a child
  • His father was Intel’s fixer and reported to Andy Grove
  • Moving around as a child and the importance of adaptability
  • Working for a small consultancy right out of college for only 9 months
  • Coding during his free time, loving it, and realizing he wanted to do it full-time
  • Meeting Brian Ma
  • Working with his friends to build a new product every week
  • The building of Decide.com
  • Working with Oren Etzioni, a well-known entrepreneur who had built and sold several ventures including Farecast
  • Thinking about the world probabilistically
  • Translating that company building experience into the way they invest
  • Silicon Valley cardinal sins – Stealth Mode and NDAs
  • How to apply technology and crypto to set incentives in the VC space
Some of the other titles we considered for this episode:
  1. I Was Making PowerPoints All Day
  2. This Thing Is Fun, How Do I Spend All My Time Doing This?
  3. I Missed the Boom of My Generation
  4. Startups Just Seemed Fun
  5. Can My Brother Come?
  6. We Thought There Was a Bug
  7. Do You Guys Have Any Money Left?
  8. The Only Thing You Have to Be OK With Is Looking Silly
Take a look at the full transcript below:

Michael Waitze 0:02
Michael Waitze Media…telling Asia’s stories. Hi, this is Michael Waitze and welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Today we are joined by Hus Ken Ooi… I tried, man I tried.

Hsu Ken Ooi 0:19
It’s pretty good. It’s pretty good. [Hsu Ken Ooi pronounces his own name.] But it’s really tough. Growing up in school, you know, we learned that all words have consonants and vowels. And I was very confused by my name that had only vowels.

Michael Waitze 0:30
You’ve been working on that line for a while. I like it. I like it. That’s been stage tested. Hsi Ken is a co-Founder and Managing Partner at Iterative. Thank you so much for coming on and doing this today. Dude, it’s really great to have you here.

Hsu Ken Ooi 0:44
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Michael Waitze 0:46
Before we get into the main part of this conversation, let’s get a little bit of your background for some context. Yeah.

Hsu Ken Ooi 0:51
Yeah. Let’s see. I guess what’s relevant is kind of maybe I’ll start all the way the beginning because it ties in Southeast Asia. I’m a Malaysian. Okay. Don’t let the accent throw you off. I was born in Penang. Oh, I love it. Yeah, pinic foods are fantastic. People are great. So very proud to be from Penang. I moved to the US when I was about five years old. And my parents had me do this thing where I lived in us for nine months and every summer break. Literally the night school ended, I’d get on a plane, go back to Malaysia live with my at my grandmother’s house with my mom and brother and stuff. Then I would fly back the day before school started. So from about five to 18. I did that every year.

Michael Waitze 1:34
Where were you in the United States?

Hsu Ken Ooi 1:37
Kind of all over the place. So I think I went I went to like, you know, I don’t know what the actual number is. But something between something like eight or nine schools before I was 10 years old. I spent some time I lived in Arizona twice New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Oregon. I mainly went to high school in Oregon. I went to college in Seattle, and then most recently in San Francisco.

Michael Waitze 1:56
So what were your mom and dad doing? You moved around so much?

Hsu Ken Ooi 1:59
Yeah, my mom was taking care of my brother and I so she was a stay at home mom. The reason why I’m moving around so much is my dad was Intel’s fixer. So quick backstory there. My dad worked started at Intel in the late 70s. Before they made CPUs, they were still making RAM at the time, Japanese basically kicked their button, they had to make the switch. And he ran the Malaysia factory for a while they moved them to the US. That’s how I ended up in the US. He got moved by Intel. And he was their fixer. So used to go to the worst performing factory and fix it. So every nine months new factory, right?

Michael Waitze 2:30
Yeah. Did you know what Intel was when you were really young mean? Obviously, when you were 12, 13, 14…I guess you figured it out when you were a kid? Do you have any idea?

Hsu Ken Ooi 2:38
No. I mean, it was just like, dad’s job, right? Like any other kid is just like, Dad has to like go to work to like, make this money thing, like, you know, and like, that’s all I kind of knew. And like we grew up with computers in the house, because my dad worked for Intel. But like I didn’t, didn’t put it together. And maybe more so than that. My dad had the had the good fortune of Andy Grove, who was you know, Intel CEO, his fortune, fortunes manager, my dad’s direct manager for like, 10 years, like one on ones with Andy Grove every week. And he had meetings with Gordon Moore, like every week on production. So he would come home and he’d be like, oh, you know, I, you know, Andy Grove, and Gordon Moore and all these guys. And I’m like, Cool, dad’s work friends. Right? And then I get to college, and I study Moore’s Law and all this. And I go back to him, and I’m like,

Michael Waitze 3:25
Wait, is this the same guy that was at dinner?

Hsu Ken Ooi 3:28
Yeah, he was the guy. He’s like, Yeah, trying to tell you it was a big deal. And like, so it wasn’t until later I really kind of like, so in my 20s. I asked him for a lot of stories of like, what were the Intel days like? And you know, he meant Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. So anyway, there’s a lot of good stories.

Michael Waitze 3:43
Yeah, it’s probably not a coincidence that you ended up in the business that you did, whether there’s any direct correlation to it or not, you know what I mean?

Hsu Ken Ooi 3:50
I 100% put it to that, right. I mean, like, it was just a byproduct of like, what we were doing and what he was talking about, did you get

Michael Waitze 3:59
any sense when you were moving around a lot, particularly as you got older? And I’ll give you some context for this as well, that it gave you the ability to adapt to new situations really easily and quickly.

Hsu Ken Ooi 4:11
I think I, I believe that, but after the fact, I think at the moment when you’re a kid, you don’t really I didn’t realize that my life was any different than anybody else’s. Right. I mean, it’s the only one I know. Right? So moving around a lot.

Michael Waitze 4:22
I guess when I was eight years old, just about nine we moved from Massachusetts to to New Jersey. And then when I was 10, I moved from New Jersey to Connecticut, and then we switched houses again. And then I went to a different high school and then we moved to Philadelphia. And I was pretty sure when I got to Philadelphia when I showed up in class and the kids were in the middle of high school and the kids were talking about what they did last summer and making fun of me for being preppy, right because I was from Connecticut, but not preppy at all. I just knew that I was different from those kids.

Hsu Ken Ooi 4:53
I think by high school that’s when i High School. Maybe when you’re a little bit teenager, you start thinking like figuring some of that stuff out. You’re like, Oh, you guys all grew up in this one town. Right? Or, you know, whatever the differences, right?

Michael Waitze 5:05
Yeah. Yeah. And the reason why I ask is because for me, I think as an adult, it’s given me this ability to adapt to new situations in a way that people that like grew up in just Bensalem. Pennsylvania just never learned in the same way if that’s fair. Yeah, totally.

Hsu Ken Ooi 5:19
I mean, I think if I if there’s any one thing that I think is most valuable, but whatever quality or skill sets that I have, it’s the adaptability, right? Entrepreneurship kind of as part of this, too.

Michael Waitze 5:30
And you said, you went to school in Seattle? Or until in Washington, right? Yep. I went to University Washington, did you go right into an a corporate job after that? Do you just go right up into the startup world?

Hsu Ken Ooi 5:39
No. Well, I graduated school, and I was a consultant for about nine months. And so the story there was, I turned down a job offer from Microsoft. And there was a small agency that was like building websites and stuff, they’re about 20 people. And Microsoft job offer was, like, 3x, what this place was, I don’t know, I kind of thought that if I would learn more at a small company, not really knowing what an agency was, I worked there for about nine months. And the agency went from 20 to 120. In that time, so it’s kind of an interesting time to kind of be there. And I was young. And you know, suddenly you’re managing people and you’re like nine months out of school, or whatever. But the really stark thing came. I mean, I was making PowerPoints all day. Right? Right. And so it was like, I was spending all my free time, like coding stuff on the side. And there was one day I accidentally stayed up all night coding something was like, 4am. And I was like, Oh, crap, I gotta like, go to work the next day and all that. And I just remember being so annoyed, it look a lot of privilege here, right? Like, so annoyed that I have to like, go to like, work at this thing that I don’t want to do. And I didn’t even really know what startups were at the time. And I just was like, How do I get to do this full time? Like, that’s the only thing I primarily cared about, right? It wasn’t like, I want to change. If I’m being honest. It wasn’t like, I want to change the world. I want to get really rich, it was just like, this thing is fun. How do I spend all my time doing this? Right? So yeah, nine months after school, that’s the last kind of like, you know, corporate or even kind of somewhat real job that

Michael Waitze 7:09
so really very little big company corporate experience.

Hsu Ken Ooi 7:13
I think I’m unemployable at this point. Like I just Oh, definitely.

Michael Waitze 7:18
Yeah. Okay. No, definitely. You’re unemployable in a large institution, for sure. Because you couldn’t last two weeks with the just the sheer amount of meetings and politics and bureaucracy that take place.

Hsu Ken Ooi 7:28
So I had to do this for about six months when eBay acquired our first company.

Michael Waitze 7:33
Yeah, yeah. Do you want to talk about Decide at all? And how that came about? I’m really, but I’m genuinely curious. Right? Because I didn’t know. Because this was all happening while I was living outside the country, right. And obviously, I followed the internet boom, in the early 2000s. I watched eBay get buily, I watch idiots try to short its stock. Because I was working in the stock market. I had people’s brothers who like their the multiples, like 125 times earnings, there’s no way this thing’s going to that kind of thing. So I watched all that. But it wasn’t watching every little detail. I’m really curious what it was like back then. Like, why you built this company? All that kind of stuff? Yeah.

Hsu Ken Ooi 8:08
Yeah. And maybe let me kind of like a place my experience kind of on the timeline. So I graduated high school in 2001. Okay, and so I grew up. So I was old enough to kind of mess around with the early internet, like news groups, like before, there was web pages. And when the whole.com boom was happening, when it crashed, I remember thinking, I’m a few years too young, I like miss the boom of my generation. That’s like what I thought when I was like, 18, right? Cuz I was like a nerd. I was super into computers, and all this stuff was happening. And I’m like, crap. It’s cool. All right, yeah. And then I graduated college in 2006. And it was like, relatively, you know, it was kind of like a kind of come out of that a little bit, right. A little bit. Yeah. A little bit. It was like, but not. I mean, it wasn’t like

Michael Waitze 8:54
two people were still scared. And they still talked about, like, you know, the internet blowing up, right?

Hsu Ken Ooi 8:59
Yeah. Yeah. And like, you know, I think people were really, it’s interesting. When you’re in San Francisco, you can tell the people that were in San Francisco during the first.com Boom, because they like hat they have like some PTSD scars. I that was and how low it we

Michael Waitze 9:17
had remember, we didn’t know but in 2007 and 2008, the global financial crisis was coming and if you remember back in 2006, housing was on fire the economy was on fire. It was global. It wasn’t just there was accelerated there. But yeah, was like you graduated from college and it’s like, I can do anything except that

Hsu Ken Ooi 9:35
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And and look, I know this well, you know, this is part of the decide experience, but we started so graduate 2006 We started decide 2008 and basically like those first two years, I didn’t make any money. I didn’t have insurance. I didn’t have anything. And in order to support myself, I was I had some investments that I had kind of like done in stocks and I just sell it at those record lows because I like paying bills. Right. Yeah, got it twice, right. Like, you know, you’re selling bottom. Yeah, you

Michael Waitze 10:05
know when you’re doing I did it. I did it I had stock in Citigroup and Goldman Sachs like I had stock in all of them and I’m just sitting there going, I’m not doing it. I’m just not doing it. There’s no I’m selling Citigroup at $2 a share. I’m just not doing it. Kind of. Yeah. I feel the pain.

Hsu Ken Ooi 10:18
Except that I did because I’m like, trying to make some money. I did do. Okay.

Michael Waitze 10:24
Man, that’s odd. How do you think I know the price like you can’t make this stuff up? It did suck. Right. And anyway, go ahead.

Hsu Ken Ooi 10:31
No, I mean, looking and it sucks. So anyway, I think, you know, how we got into decide was, it just seemed startups just seemed fine. I happened to meet Brian Ma, who you’ve talked to and I think you were he was on the show. And he was, you know, the story there is he also went to U DUB and Alright, he, I didn’t I didn’t actually know him in school, but he actually recruited my brother to Zillow. So Brian was like the first 20 People at Zillow. Yeah, my brother walked up to him at a job fair. And he was like, uh, you should work. You should work for Zillow. They ended up working together and became friends. So when Brian was leaving Zillow, he was trying to convince my brother to be CTO. And, you know, he was like, Okay, I’ll let come pitch you the idea. And my brother was like, okay, can my brother come? I have an older brother. He’s like, interested in startups, right. And so Brian comes over to my brother’s house, we sit on the couch, he’d like presents from the like TV. And it’s 100 100 slides, right? I mean, we’re like, 21, we have no idea what we’re doing. And look, I think I had spent a lot of time before that trying to put together startup teams and the thing I ran into was, you know, I tried to convince all my friends, and they all say yes, and then I’m like, Hey, Sunday afternoon, let’s meet to actually work on this. Sunday afternoon rolls around, I go to the coffee shop. And nobody shows up. I totally get text messages of like, hey, look, I’m not going to make a whatever, whatever. Yeah. And there was a very quick realization that I just took this more seriously. And then other people.

Michael Waitze 11:58
I’m just trying to think of that feeling, right? Because that never changes. never changes. It just never changes, right? Because even today, people will say, hey, what do you do over the weekend? I’m building something myself. Right? Yeah. And I feel weird going once a weekend because it and it’s not an arrogance. I honestly don’t care. Because what I’m building I love doing and it’s growing really fast. So why would I take the day off? And I don’t feel like I’m working anyway. If that if that makes any sense. But again, this idea that like, hey, I’ll see you on Sunday. That thing? Sure. But that sure is not serious.

Hsu Ken Ooi 12:34
Yeah, absolutely not look at it totally resonates like yeah, my girlfriend was having lunch with a friend who had not met before. And so I like met them real quickly. And she’s like, are you gonna join us for lunch? I said, No, I’m gonna run to the office. And she said, Oh, you have to work over the weekend. Yeah, right. That’s, that’s the thing. And that you and I are used to it, right? We’re kind of like, you play the part. You’re like, yeah, it’s too bad. What, but in reality, it’s like, it’s not too bad. This is what I’d rather be doing with my time.

Michael Waitze 12:59
And the other interesting thing for me is that even as I got senior at Morgan Stanley, and UBS at Goldman Sachs, you know, we had to do exchange testing. And since I was leading the team, I could have just told one of the guys or gals at work me show up on Saturday and Sunday, make sure the test goes okay. And if there any problems, call me. But I wanted to make sure that when I showed up on Monday morning was gonna be right. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them was that I didn’t mind being there. Yeah. And even back then my buddies would say to me, you have to work on Saturday. Like really? Like, what’s the word? With derision? Yeah. And I was like, Yeah. And I was happy to do it.

Hsu Ken Ooi 13:38
Yeah. And look, we had the same thing. We’re fine. Or soon, you know, people. There’s some release going on a Monday and engineers are there over the weekend. And look, we would just come in, because part of it is like, look, it’s our company. We hired these guys. It’s kind of, they’re fun. They’re like fun people. It’s fun to come into the office on the weekend and going out and like we’d order food. Yeah, yeah. And look, I’m not I don’t want to glamorize kind of like burnout. I don’t want to do any of that. No, I get it. It just felt different. Because it was like, fun. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 14:07
Yeah. And it’s funny to write when you’re building your own company. You manage your time in ways that you could never do if you worked a typical job. Right. So that may mean on a Thursday afternoon, you go to take care of errands, you take care of stuff, if there’s a lull at work. Look, I know from working at big corporations for most of my life that most of the time was downtime, but you had to be there anyway.

Hsu Ken Ooi 14:28
You got to show face, right? You got to just have to be there. It’s

Michael Waitze 14:31
so dumb, and it’s so unproductive anyway. So what was the idea behind decide for people that may not remember? Yeah,

Hsu Ken Ooi 14:39
so maybe I’ll start with where it where it started, because it’s not it’s not where we ended it all. And I think a great lesson for people because I, you know, I think sometimes people think of like, you know, the Google founders came up with Google and it was like, fully formed when they started No way. never the case. never the case. Right? So we were in this stage where we, we worked on a new idea Every week we release a new product every week, because we’re just trying to find something that works. We’re in like that stage. Brian’s girlfriend, the time was now his wife, he noticed that she was going to the same Nordstroms page every day to look at address Nordstroms, this retailer in the United States was just going every day. And look, we were short on ideas that we know what to do. Brian goes, Hey, where are you looking at? Where do you go to that page every day? She’s like, Oh, I’m waiting for the price to go down. So every morning, she checks to see if the price goes down. So she can bias right? And Brian goes, Oh, we can just build something that will just like check the price. And then it’ll email you if the price goes down. And she’s like, Okay, I think not seriously. And so we built that in a week. And as I think the interesting thing about is, it’s not really a good idea. Like it’s just a price alert reminder thing, which a lot of people do. It’s not, you know, in hindsight, I’m like, I don’t know, that idea is like, VC backed bull. Like, it’s none of these things.

Michael Waitze 15:57
What year was that, though?

Hsu Ken Ooi 15:59

Michael Waitze 16:01
Okay, I mean, if you can build that at scale, though, must have meaning. But go ahead.

Hsu Ken Ooi 16:05
Yes, if you can do it at scale. But here’s the thing, we had this rule. And the reason why is because the first 12 months, we locked ourselves in my brother’s basement encoded lots of stuff and talk to no users. And so we made the cardinal sin. Yeah, so to not make the cardinal sin, every new thing we work that has to go out the following week. can’t build that kind of thing at scale the following week, right? So we hacked it. So we made a website that you could put in a URL, and we made a crappy crawler, that basically, programmatically, we’ll go look at the things but it’s crappy if you want to make this at scale for any website quite hard, right? Actually, there’s like, people still can’t do this today. But we only had like one user, which is Brian’s girlfriend now wife. And so what we did was, we made a crappy crawler, it would make an alert if it thought that the price had changed. And then we were on a shift schedule. So one of us would go check all of it manually, and then manually send the email, just an email, like no reply, whatever. So it looked like it was a real system. But like, it was just us in the back waking up and setting alarm clocks to like check prices, right? In sending emails, I love it. And that kind of made all the difference, because what we ended up finding out was, we thought there was a bug in the system. So she would put in like a dress, some other friend would put in a TV. And the system would be like, Okay, this TV went from 1000 bucks when this person put it in to 950. And then we would go check a couple hours later, and it was like 980. So we thought there’s a bug we’re like, right? So get 2010. Right.

Michael Waitze 17:37
Yeah, but this is awesome information, though. Sorry. Go ahead. Yeah. And so

Hsu Ken Ooi 17:41
we thought there was a bug. We’re like, Hey, I checked it. It says 980. But the system said it was 950. What’s going on? couldn’t find any bugs. So eventually, we just started saving web pages were like, Okay, I want to see what the right program saw. Yeah. So we started saving the pages. Program was right, it was 950. But now it’s 980. And we’re like, what’s going on here? What’s going on? Yeah, it turns out prices change. Right? Yeah, like, depending on it. And this is like, this is like probably common knowledge now. But back in those times, you know, ecommerce is relatively new. And it wasn’t clear that prices change. So often dynamic pricing, dynamic pricing. And so we were just nerds. So we were like, Huh, that’s kind of interesting. So we just started putting in a bunch of URLs ourselves to find out like, hey, like, does Amazon chain prices a lot this Costco does, like Walmart. And all these guys in the jewelry hit though, is it only TVs and we like so we’re just putting lots of stuff. And we start coming up with some interesting trends. Amazon changes the prices all the time all the time, all the time. Costco, at least back then never. Right? Walmart never. And we’re like, Oh, that’s interesting. I bet Amazon is way more sophisticated. like Amazon is probably like, they have some software that’s changing the prices based on demand. And Costco probably still has like a guy in a backroom, updating spreadsheet every month,

Michael Waitze 18:56
right? And because of that, it’s a pain in the butt for him to do it. So the prices never change, even if they should change. And frankly, probably even if he’s been told to change, and he’s just like mental. I’m not doing that. There’s just no way. Well,

Hsu Ken Ooi 19:07
who knows what the infrastructure is right? Like how many hurdles you have to do to change one price on the website, right? Anyway, then that was really interesting. And by the way, we found out that things with high margins prices changed way more often and things with low margins didn’t because there was no room to change it right. Right. Right. Jewelry when it moved, like 40% discounts, right. But like food, like nothing, basically not. There’s no margins to take, or learning less interesting stuff. Then

Michael Waitze 19:34
did you feel like you were on to something?

Hsu Ken Ooi 19:38
Honestly, at that time at that moment, not really, because we were just like, this is interesting, right? We felt like we were on to something at this next point. At one point we were talking about this and it was just kind of fun for us and somebody was like, You know what’s weird? You can get the same product for a cheaper price if you just know when to buy it. That was like a weird thought back in back in the day, right? I’m like, wait, I can buy this TV and I can get 100 bucks off.

Michael Waitze 20:06
While you’re doing this, you said part of the process and the methodology you had was that you reduced the news you produce? Are you released a new thing every week? Were you still doing that at this time?

Hsu Ken Ooi 20:17
So the meeting that we used to have was every Monday we would meet and we would decide new thing for next week. And then we would that would have to go out the following week, or do we spend another week we’re working on the

Michael Waitze 20:28
same thing. Okay. So what happened with this one? You just kept going? Yeah.

Hsu Ken Ooi 20:31
Because it was kind of interesting. We didn’t have any other ideas. But being honest, right?

Michael Waitze 20:37
Yes, ideas. I love it.

Hsu Ken Ooi 20:39
And so we just kind of kept rolling with it. And somebody said that, and we were like, oh, yeah, that is weird, right? Everybody’s kind of like obsessed with coupons. But if you actually know when to buy stuff, you can get a discount to Okay, can we? Can we like figure that out? We automate that or figure that out? Yeah, figure that out. It’s got to be some trends, right? And look, I went to all my co founders went to school for computer science. I studied math and statistics. We’re like, we kind of have some tools to do this. Yeah, we’ve got to be able to figure this out. We got to figure something out. And then by a stroke of luck, which is even, you know, more luck than us being kind of technical guys. Our professor in school at U DUB the computer science professor, his name is Oren Etzioni. He had invented the that technology for airline travel. So he was the first guy to do airline price predictions. So if you’re buying a flight from like, Seattle, or Phoenix, and you see the arrow on Kayak, he did that in 2008. It’s called fair cast. And he sold it to Microsoft for like 200 million or something. And it became big travel. But he was a professor at U DUB. So we had taken classes for him and Brian’s younger brother happened to still be in school, and so naively walked up to him and was like, Hey, I’m doing this startup. Can you teach us how to do this thing for a consumer product? And just so naive, right? Like, who is this guy? Why would he care about talking to us, but sometimes being naive and Young is helpful? Because you just don’t care?

Michael Waitze 22:03
Yeah, don’t even Yeah, no downside, either. No downside.

Hsu Ken Ooi 22:07
And so it was really funny because we kind of looked up to him, because, you know, he had started this company was sold for like 200 million. And so Brian’s brother goes up to him was like, Hey, can you teach us how to do this thing? And he’s like, Okay, talk to me about it. So Brian’s talking to Brian’s brothers talking to him about it. And he’s like, okay, cool. Can you get your team to come meet me next week? And he’s like, Okay, sure. So it goes back to us. And he’s like, Hey, we have a meeting with Oren Etzioni next week. And we just we just laughed him out of the room. We’re like, like, no way. We’ve just spent 18 months building stuff that goes nowhere, like this guy’s not meeting us. Next week comes the night before. He’s like, Hey, should we prepare for this Oren Etzioni meeting? And we’re like, What are you talking about? He’s like, we have a meeting. And I was like, we’re like, wait, you weren’t kidding. He’s like, No, we have a meeting. It’s at three o’clock tomorrow. We’re like, Oh, crap, like,

Michael Waitze 22:56
put on your shoes already.

Hsu Ken Ooi 22:58
Yeah, so we’re like, frantically kind of like trying to put this idea together of like, hey, maybe we can predict this thing. And, you know, we go and meet him. And he’s like, Hey, this is really interesting. Yeah, I know how to do this. Like, you just happen to come to the right guy. Yeah. And so then for the next three months there, we like, kind of became as grad students, where it’s like, okay, cool. Here’s the things to look for. I don’t know, I’m not convinced we it can work, but like, do this, and then come back. And then you do this. And, you know, you know, five years, you know, then there was five years of company building, we ended up raising 16 and a half million, there’s like, 60 people at the company. And then you know, you’d advise the company. So, but that’s how it started.

Michael Waitze 23:33
But I love this story, because it’s so it’s so far away from the normal founding story in the normal company building story that you hear, right? It’s this idea that like, two guys, sitting in the basement, have an idea, build that idea, yell at everybody who’s wrong, go get funded by a Ferrari. You know what I mean? Like, all this stuff, none of this thing happens. linearly, none of it.

Hsu Ken Ooi 23:57
And look, the story of the two guys in a basement buy a Ferrari thing? Like, I mean, I know like, as you do to a lot of like, pretty successful founders. I’ve know I’ve like almost never heard the story play out that way.

Michael Waitze 24:08
Never. Never. Yes, sorry. Never. Never. Because it doesn’t happen that way. It’s good for me to kind of take take a step away from the mythology and hear like a real story, because I think it’s really informative for other people. Yeah.

Hsu Ken Ooi 24:22
Yeah. And look, I tell like people who want to get into startups and founders, you need to kind of get in the game on like, what if you want to get started? Just work on any idea that you think is like somewhat reasonable and just get started? And by get started, doesn’t mean make a pitch deck, right? But like No, start trying to get customers to do something, or just do something.

Michael Waitze 24:42
Do something. It’s so funny you say that because this is the advice that I give to everybody as well. And I know it sounds trite, but you do have to be in it to win it but actually you have to be in it to understand it as well because you can sit on the sidelines and go I would be the best at this for sure. Well, okay, but maybe maybe You would maybe you wouldn’t, but you know, who’s actually going to be better at it? The gal that’s actually doing it already? Yeah. So one of the things that I say, a lot when I podcast is everybody’s an overnight success 10 years later, because you only hear about them the month or the week or the year before they get famous, because it’s already obvious that they’ve built something incredible. But you don’t hear about the nine years before. We’re like you said that a new idea every week that simply didn’t work.

Hsu Ken Ooi 25:27
Didn’t work. And look, those first 18 months, I think we made two dozen ideas that didn’t go anywhere, right. And we had a meeting, we actually got to the point where we were all running out of money. And we had a meeting where we all got together and we’re like, Hey, do you guys have any money left? And we started talking like, Okay, should we all go get jobs and like replenish the bank account? And like, maybe we’ll come back and do this. And like, three years, we had that conversation?

Michael Waitze 25:49
Yeah. Yeah. But to be fair, you know what, at the time, you were probably less employable than you thought you are? Yes, yes. In a way. It’s it’s not a skill set problem. You know that that’s not an insult. It’s not even a compliment. It’s just a fact. Right? Because your workday, I’m guessing was sitting around with other people just gone. What do you think we should do? How should we do this? That’s not working. Come on, dude. You said you’re going to be here 15 minutes ago, kind of thing. But there was no, like institutional structure around it. Right? It’s like, Guys, I’m going to work from home today. No problem. Just make sure you get this thing done. It was so different. And if one day you had to put on a suit and go to an office, you just be like, where is the sword? How hard? How hard? Can I fall on it kind of thing? Yeah.

Hsu Ken Ooi 26:33
I mean, it was it was I mean, it was even less than that. You know, we started out all going to my brother’s basement and working out of everyday and we were so unproductive because we’re a bunch of like 22 year old guys, we just end up like playing cards and video games all day, which from going in every day to only meeting on Monday, so that like because we just got more stuff done at home by ourselves without the distraction of each other.

Michael Waitze 26:54
Do you remember the feeling you guys had when you when you felt like? I think we’re onto something? Do you know what I mean? Because you’ve been struggling and trying to figure stuff out. Even after you had that meeting with Oren Etzioni, right? He’s like, I don’t know. But yeah, try this stuff.

Hsu Ken Ooi 27:10
You know, I think there’s like moments where, and look, I think you’re almost kind of scared to let yourself lean into the like, I think I’m onto something, right? Because you get your expectations up. And look, we had been crushed so many times thinking we were starting the next Facebook and then like nobody cares, right?

Michael Waitze 27:30
It’ll your study was the next base bland?

Hsu Ken Ooi 27:32
Yeah, I mean, like, I remember there was this one product specifically, we didn’t get a single sign up. Like couldn’t get my friends couldn’t get my parents like, not no one. Do you know what it’s like to code an entire product and not get a single sign up? Yeah. Brutal. And especially look, I think coming out of college, where school kind of builds you up, you’re like, Okay, you do well, in school, you get graduate, everybody Pat’s, you on the back, I was a consultant for nine months, everybody thought I was kind of like, hot stuff, whatever. And then you’ve never poured yourself into something more and had less results in your life, right. And so big ego kind of like put you in your place, right? The world doesn’t care about you.

Michael Waitze 28:10
But I do think it’s really important for people to go through that, particularly people that are trying to build something because one of the other things that I think I’ve learned over time is that everything in life is a conversion problem. And I mean everything. And you don’t know when you’re going to get the conversion. So even if you believe that everything’s two and a half to 3%, conversion rates, even if you do 100 things, you still may not get two and a half positive results, and have to do 1000 things to get 25. And you don’t know when they’re going to come and where they’re going to come from. So this is where it gets really interesting for me. I like this idea. They said you had this meeting, we were all got together and said, Do we have money for food tomorrow kind of thing? Because if we don’t what’s what’s the solution to this? They don’t want to give up, but I don’t know what else to do.

Hsu Ken Ooi 28:56
Yeah, and look, I think about the world in the same way you do the way I say it. You know, that’s my stats background. I just think of the world very probabilistically. Now, yeah, exactly. Right, there are chances that things may work out for you. And your job is to maximize those chances as much as you can correct. But if we’re being honest, like you can you only have so much control over your probability function, right? Like, I don’t know, like, so you just that’s what you do. That’s what you focus on, right? And so even the idea of like, Hey, let’s go back and get a job somewhere. And then we can come back and do this, again, was just like trying to get more trials. Yeah, it was. Yeah. And getting better at building stuff is just trying to increase our like probability, right?

Michael Waitze 29:35
I completely get you I want to know if that experience that you had, and you’ve found some other things, but since we’re on that topic, I just want to stay with that. Colors the way you look at it from now, where you’re an investor.

Hsu Ken Ooi 29:51
I mean, it totally does. Right. And I think there’s like a version of this where, especially as an investor, you’re kind of you in a pattern matching and you Do you like take your own story into it? And that kind of stuff? Right? I think it informs a lot of who we end up investing in editor now. And what’s I think interesting, and maybe I think of us is a little bit different from what a lot of investors look for in Southeast Asia. And this maybe is controversial, and I hope I didn’t, I don’t get in too much trouble and all this kind of stuff, right? A lot of the investors here have different backgrounds. Then Brian and I, right. So a lot of the investors here, more finance, more consulting, they were bankers, that kind of stuff, right? So they bring that knowledge and into kind of like how they invest. Brian and I are like a bunch of hackers who, like, didn’t get MBAs and never worked at like corporations and stuff. So I find that we end up looking for the like, technical misfits, right, maybe they’re not that polish, their pitch kind of sucks, right? But like, they’re kind of weird. And they’re just like, you know, earnest, right? And so I don’t we have a different profile?

Michael Waitze 31:00
What’s your view on a three minute pitch or speed dating for investors and stuff like that?

Hsu Ken Ooi 31:08
I mean, if I’m being honest, that’s a lot of what happens with kind of the applications we get, I mean, we get like, we get like, hundreds and 1000s of like, you know, a month, right? And it’s like, I can’t we like can’t dig through all of them. And so the what ends up happening is we’re default knows. So we have to find something in there that makes us be like, Hey, this is like worth digging or thinking more about or something like that, right? Because you’re sitting,

Michael Waitze 31:31
what’s the bias you think you have? Because if you’re flipping through stuff, and I’m just saying flipping through as a as a, you know, as a metaphor for how you look through things, but if you’re flipping through it, what do you feel like you have to see to make a decision, like, I think we should talk to these gals. And guys,

Hsu Ken Ooi 31:47
there’s a couple like, pivot points where it’s like, okay, if one of these things is true, then maybe we’ll like, dig into it more. One. Do they have some weird view of the world? Yeah, that is not common. Right? Are we just I don’t know, I haven’t seen before and thought about. And look, some people have weird views. And it’s just like, crazy, right? Like, it’s weird. It’s just weird. They’re just weird, right? And sometimes they’re just like, weird, but there’s like a hint of truth, or like, there’s some thread that you kind of want to pull on. Right? Okay, so there’s that. The other thing too, is, maybe sometimes it’s not even the idea they’re working on, it’s what they’ve done with it, right? So I love any kind of application that is like, hey, so we’re starting this thing. I didn’t really have any money to do anything with it. So you know, I just kind of told people we were this, but we’re not actually. And then I like, talk my way into this conference, I made myself seem like I was a publication, but I’m not a publication like, anybody who’s kind of like, bending the rules. I’m like, Alright, you’re alright. We can figure that out. Right? And look, YC has a famous question on their application, which is, when was the time that you’ve hacked the system to your benefit? Don’t put anything that broke the law,

Michael Waitze 33:02
right? Because it’s likely that you did, right.

Hsu Ken Ooi 33:06
And so like my example of this, we went, we went through yc. My example of this was I was into this, like collectible toys when I was in college. And they come in these mystery boxes. So you buy this box, and there’s like, on the box, there’s a ratio of like, one out of five as you get like crappy character, but like one out of 1000, you get this like, amazing character, right? And I was like, Oh, this sucks. Like, I got to spend a bunch of money on this. So what I ended up doing was I bought a high precision gram scale. And I went to the store, and I sat on the floor, and I just weighed every single box, they had to try to find the unique ones, and then just bought the unique ones. Right. And then I made a spreadsheet, and I shared it on the internet for everybody else to also find all the unique ones. And it’s like,

Michael Waitze 33:55
the crowd is roaring.

Hsu Ken Ooi 33:58
I mean, I mean, look, it’s a little thing, but like what I think is this, like self patting on the back, but to your question about what we look for. It’s technically not illegal. The only thing you have to be okay with is looking silly.

Michael Waitze 34:11
Yeah. So this, this is a point I make all the time. How afraid Are you of looking strange or getting rejected? Because if either one of those things are in your DNA, put down the entrepreneurial pants and go get a job. Put it down? Yeah, because you’re just never going to get through it. Just never. And I think that’s where a lot of the stress comes people even if they build something great. They’re just so afraid to ask for feedback on it. And then why are you building

Hsu Ken Ooi 34:37
it? This is my this happens less than the valley but happens more here. Everybody who says they’re in stealth, or like, oh, I don’t want to talk to you about it. We’re like, just kills me. Right?

Michael Waitze 34:50
What are you building your ideas so unique? There are 7 billion people on the planet. It’s so unique. No one’s ever had this idea before. And you’re stopping people from giving you feedback. How you ever gonna know if anybody wants this?

Hsu Ken Ooi 35:03
You are exactly right. It’s the exact same reasons. You know what my hunches most of the time that people that do stealth mode? Yeah,

Michael Waitze 35:10
they’re not working on anything.

Hsu Ken Ooi 35:12
They’re not working or anything, or it’s an ego thing.

Michael Waitze 35:14
Oh, for sure. Wonderful central feedback. My thing is so transformational. It’s so earthbending that if I tell you, you won’t even get it, so why am I sharing it with you? You have no idea how smart I am.

Hsu Ken Ooi 35:28
There are two things that are cardinal sins in the valley that doesn’t seem to pass over here. stealth mode, like in the valley, like, if people are like, Well, I’m in stealth mode be like, cool. I’m leaving. Yeah, exactly. What are we doing? Right? Number two, getting investors or people to sign NDA before you tell them about your idea.

Unknown Speaker 35:46

Hsu Ken Ooi 35:47
it’s I we tell our startups now every we get a new batch every six months, right? And sometimes there’ll be somebody and they’ll be like, Oh, this investor wants to know, whatever. Should I have them sign an NDA? And I’m like, yeah, if you want an immediate signal that you’re like, new to this, and to have them not talk to you anymore.

Michael Waitze 36:04
Knock yourself out. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So yeah. And you know, when I first started doing this stuff, 1520 years ago, people would say, Should I give you an NDA? And I was like, No, I don’t really need it. First of all, it’s not really enforceable anywhere. If you want it, I’m happy to sign it. But really, like, do you have like, Have you discovered the human genome and no one’s aware of it yet? Like, I don’t understand

Hsu Ken Ooi 36:29
it just in case for you know, people don’t understand this, from an investor perspective, asking investors to sign a perspective, to sign an NDA. First of all, they’re not really enforceable anyway. But you’re basically saying like, Okay, if, if I can’t invest in anything else that is even somewhat similar to this before you tell me about it. Right? I’m not signing that. No way. So no way when he signs on? Yes. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 36:53
Are there other big differences from what you’ve seen between Silicon Valley and Southeast Asia? And I’m curious, like kind of its scale, what those things are, like, sometimes I get the feeling that the investment scene here, and you won’t say this explicitly, because you exist in that thing, but I can kind of say whatever I want is that it’s still so immature. Right, and that the types of people that are making investments? For the most part, there’s some great investors out here. Yep, that’s for sure. But the rest of them are just pretending. Let me let me can I tell you a quick story? Yes, please. But don’t lose your train of thought, yeah. I ran into an investor once of a small fund a few years ago. And I said to him, dude, you’re not really investing, you’re in a way, you’re almost like pumping and dumping at the early stages, you’re literally like, you put a tiny amount of money and take too much of the equity. And then you go and sell to somebody else and say you have like an IRR of 400%. And then you go out and raise a bigger fund based on that the whole thing is disingenuous. And he looked me right in the eye. And he said, You don’t understand the game. And I looked at him and I said, You have no idea how to invest Anyway, go ahead.

Hsu Ken Ooi 38:02
I mean, the way that I’ll say it is there is more variability in the investor quality of Southeast Asia than in other places. And it comes in a couple of ways, right? Like, for example, just to tap onto what you’re saying. More investors here will take money off the table like series A or B to kind of lock in gains, I hate this valley, the valley, it’ll never happen the valleys. Like if I get if I get the winning ticket, I’m writing that thing as far as I can write it. This is why Sequoia just did this change. Now they have like just like an evergreen fund where they will like keep the money in even after IPO. They’re just you ride it as long as you can you get every last bit of upside. And so I think in look, this, you know, can go into a long thing about this. But this also comes from some of the life where the money comes from in the LPs and stuff. So you know, the LPS in Southeast Asia are not as used to investing in venture and they really care about getting their money out and they don’t want to get stuck for as long and so you know, when we are raising our fund when we talk to people here that came up for right Oh, lock your money up for five to seven years, whatever the US guys are, like, didn’t ask. They’re like, yeah, you’re crazy. Like, let it ride. You know what I mean?

Michael Waitze 39:14
So when I first joined the bond trading desk at Morgan Stanley in 1997, Tommy Judah Bach, who was the head of the US government desk at the time, had a list of trading rules. Okay, the first rule was, position is more important than price. If you believe something’s going up, buy it. If you believe it’s going down, sell it. It doesn’t matter what the price is. At scale. Yeah. Let your winners run. Cut your losers fast. And also, before you enter a trade, know what your exit points are on the upside and on the downside, and I think that investors out here don’t get that they’re like I made some money. I’m getting out and they don’t understand that if in a particularly in venture, if the trajectory is up, it’s probably going to keep going up. Yep. until at least the IPO. So if you have that, don’t take your money off the table.

Hsu Ken Ooi 40:18
And I look, I think 100% agree with you, right? And look, maybe venture, I mean, venture definitely should have maybe learned more from bankers and stuff, because I feel like the stuff type of Tiger global is doing now is exactly what your guy said, right? It’s like, I don’t care what the prices, I just, I just need to get in. Right, I just need to get it to throw to maybe help Southeast Asian investors a little bit. Some of it comes from the LPs and where they’re coming from. They’re not used to seeing kind of like tech IPOs. It’s earlier, all this kind of stuff, right? And so hopefully, it’ll kind of be there. But, you know, I often, I often think about how the ecosystem in Silicon Valley has gotten to the place that it is now and where Southeast Asia is, and I don’t think they’re going to be identical. But sometimes the thing I think about is, did Silicon Valley develop into the like, end state that it is now? Because it was the best way to kind of do this? And it was like survival, the fittest, and this was like, where we all ended up? Or is it because of some fluke? And I tend to think it was more survival of the fittest. And if that’s the case, then it’s like, then it’s more likely that Southeast Asia will kind of like end up in shades of that, right now, there’s going to be some nuance and that kind of stuff. But I fully, I mean, look, our fund is going to hold more than other funds. Because that’s what that’s what we think,

Michael Waitze 41:34
how do you think technology has or should change? venture investing? Right? Just let’s just get back to this thought that you said earlier, you get 1000s of people that apply to the program, you can only take a finite number of them. Even if you did the whole thing, virtually, you can’t take a million people every cohort, it’s not possible. We do do everything virtually. You right? So right, but I’m just saying even if you do, then we can Yeah, right. You cannot take so many people because you can’t pay enough attention to them. And if you live by your philosophy, that money is the least important thing that you give the people that come through the program, which I agree with, then the thing that you do give them is your time, your effort, your knowledge, your perspective, your experience. And there’s no price for that. But there’s also not a lot of time for that either. Right? So how do you use technology? To make VC even better? Do you don’t I mean, in the same way that we use technology to do equity analysis to do algorithmic trading, and all these other things that we applied tech to to make our business way more productive, efficient and profitable. Where do you think that happens in the VC business?

Hsu Ken Ooi 42:42
Do you want the crazy idea that we’re thinking about? Yeah, I

Michael Waitze 42:45
do. Cuz I’ve got some really crazy ideas myself about this. I’m curious what yours are.

Hsu Ken Ooi 42:49
Now I look, I don’t know if we’re gonna do this. It’s early stages. So let me just put that out there, like a concrete thing. But we’re thinking about crypto, which is the conversation that everybody’s kind of having right now. I think most of it is kind of noise and speculation and all that kind of good stuff. But the thing that seems pretty clear to me, is, it is an interesting way to set incentives. And then kind of like, have everybody be selfish, but push in the same direction. I mean, think about Bitcoin, it was like a white paper that got the incentives, right. And then everybody kind of like, did stuff, right? So one thing that we think about with our time is, is there a way and look, it doesn’t have to be crypto, you can do it a number, any number of ways. But can we build a system that gets the incentives in the right way where like, you know, much more about finance than I do? Like, is there a world where we can get you to kind of like, help out with like, some company without us asking you or kind of doing something because the incentives make sense. And the onboarding works and all of that stuff, right? And look, we have to have some gait, and we need to have some governing body, we need to do all this kind of stuff, right. But I think what’s interesting is, I don’t want it to just be, we want to run a different venture firm than just like, we have a bunch of general partners. And then we hire some venture partners, and we have some venture associated some

Michael Waitze 44:07
scouts and yeah, some family offices and blah, blah, blah. Yeah,

Hsu Ken Ooi 44:11
not as interesting, right. And the thing that we think about a lot about too is we primarily have a community of founders that we get to know really well because we work with them, right? How do we tap them to like, and look, they’re not gonna do it full time. But like, we have some founder in Vietnam, who by the way, probably has better deal flow than like we’re ever gonna have in Vietnam because he’s there. And is incentivized to kind of like do some of this, right? So we’re thinking a lot about incentive structures and how to kind of like get people to kind of do what we like need them to do.

Michael Waitze 44:42
So what you do is you tokenize, the tasks, right? And you also tokenize the success and you also make those tokens tradable so that for people that really want to do it, they can buy into it. Yep. Because if they buy into it, what they’re doing is they’re buying into their own expertise, this ability to access something, whatever that something is, we don’t know what it is yet. And then provided to you and to the other founders in which you’re investing in a way that they believe is going to be so beneficial, that the value of the token that they’re holding has to go up in price. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t waste their time. So there’s not they’re not speculating on the value of some BS token or alt coin. Yep, they’re betting on themselves to add value.

Hsu Ken Ooi 45:23
And look, we’re thinking about going even further. Again, we’re like talking about this, right? So we’re nothing set in stone, do we pay out some of our carry that comes from Brian and I, to a distributed to tokens? Every token, every year, we distribute some percentage of the carry of the fund.

Michael Waitze 45:41
But again, you can make the whole fund, you can go even higher,

Hsu Ken Ooi 45:45
right? You can go even higher, Brian and I just own stuff. Yeah, and

Michael Waitze 45:49
you can just tokenize the whole experience whole thing, right? And people are starting to talk about doing this. There are plenty of ways that you can use. And I don’t like to talk about it like it’s crypto because people think about Bitcoin and Aetherium and Dogecoin. Right. And that’s not the conversation that I don’t really want to have. And it doesn’t interest me that much. But you can create, because it’s just software, right? A tokenisation model. Yep, that has built in incentives that can be used for nothing else, because it’s software, then you want it to be used for. And they’re actually the reason why I asked this whole question about where does technology come into play? Is this reason this is something that we’ve thought about for a very long time? Because if you look, and you can look at it around the sort of fringes of the ecosystem, if you look at things like yield guild games, right, so pay to play, if you look at the tokenization, and the fractionalization of assets being done by elevated returns, if you look at all these little pieces, and if you look at what’s the right word, I’m thinking of, um, the collateralization of assets. Yep. Then you can build that in to the VC experience. Yeah. And change the entire thing.

Hsu Ken Ooi 47:03
Yeah. And look, a couple other things that kind of come out. I mean, everything you’re saying that’s like, I think that’s really interesting. We’re starting to see some people in the valley think about and worth learning to think about it. Yeah. The other thing that’s interesting about it, is it democratizes VC returns a bit Correct? How many people get to be LPs and VC funds. And by the way, you probably know this better than me, venture capital asset allocation as a class, at least in the United States, looking looking like a pretty good asset class over the last 10 years. Right. But you know, because of some rules, people can invest in early stage startups, right, because, you know, you have to be accredited and all this kind of stuff. So is there a way that we can kind of like, make that more even so people have more opportunity?

Michael Waitze 47:45
Yeah, I mean, financial inclusion is actually really important. And the tokenization aspect of it makes financial inclusion actually easier than it would be otherwise.

Hsu Ken Ooi 47:53
And also better for founders, especially if you’re a first time founder, you don’t have the cash. You know, you’re you’re not going to be like you’re not gonna be accredited investor. Right. So like, but you’re the one with the stuff we we personally want. Like, you have the expertise, you have the network.

Michael Waitze 48:08
I love this idea how founders wouldn’t be eligible to invest in their own companies.

Hsu Ken Ooi 48:13
Yeah, I’ve had I haven’t put it that way. But yes, you’re absolutely right. You can start a company, which is much bigger risk, but like, Sure, you can invest

Michael Waitze 48:22
it, but you can’t invest in it. Anyway, look, I think there’s a lot more ground to cover. And hopefully, you’ll come back on the show. If there’s anything else you want to cover. Otherwise, I’m just gonna let you go. Because conversations been awesome.

Hsu Ken Ooi 48:33
Hopefully it was helpful. Yeah, I feel like I feel like you and I could talk about a whole wide ranging topics.

Michael Waitze 48:39
That’s why we have to have you back. Yeah, I’m going for it again. Hsu Ken….I’m sorry. I tried, co-founder, Managing Partner and Interative. This was really awesome. Thank you so much for doing this.

Hsu Ken Ooi 48:56
Thanks for having me.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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