EP 187 – Evan Wong – co-Founder and CEO at Checkbox – How Do We Democratize Software Development?

by | Mar 23, 2022

The Asia Tech Podcast was pumped to have Evan Wong, a co-Founder, and CEO at Checkbox(dot)ai on the show.  Checkbox is a no-code platform that allows users to build their own business apps for process automation.
If you talk to Evan, you can hear the boundless energy in his voice and one can not help to get excited about the business he is building at Checkbox.
Some of the topics Evan covered:
  • Starting his first business, Hero Education, while still at university
  • Fell in love with entrepreneurship and started another company after graduating
  • Mom is an accountant and Dad is a business analyst
  • Building business relationships early and getting great feedback
  • How he met (already knew!) one of his co-founders
  • The importance of having great investors and the unfair advantage it provides
  • Why no-code matters and what has changed since Checkbox was founded in 2016
  • Creating continuity and minimizing key-person risk
  • Googling “list of software terms you should know”
  • Expanding into a global business
  • Building a remote team and the extra effort it requires
  • Expert Process Automation (EPA) and the competitive landscape
Some other titles we considered for this episode:
  1. Are You Sure?
  2. Every Single Company Is Going to Have Its Own Unique Path
  3. They Come On the Journey With You
  4. We Met When We Were 12 Years Old
  5. It Takes a While to Build a Good Company

This episode of the Asia Tech Podcast was brought to you by IR – leaders in performance and experience management.  Click here to download the ultimate guide to future-proofing the hybrid workplace.

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:00
Let’s have some fun. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Today we are joined by Evan Wong, who is addressing his mic like a pro, like a pro. Evan is a co-founder and CEO of Checkbox.ai. Evan, thank you so much for coming on the show today. How are you doing, by the way?

Evan Wong 0:19
It’s a pleasure, Michael. Thanks for having me. And thank you for teaching me how to address my mic. I’m, I’m great. Thank you.

Michael Waitze 0:29
It’s awesome to have you here. Before we get into the main part of the conversation, I want to back up a little bit and just get a little bit of your background for some context.

Evan Wong 0:36
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So I guess my background starts in university, when I was kind of running through law school and business school, I started a small business called Hero education that was in the education space. And, you know, the mission there was how do we leverage the attention of young people who are to be adults, to actually, you know, make them more self aware, make them more conscious about the decisions that they’re about to make, in moving forward with the next stage of their lives. And so, you know, I started that business went really well, and ended up impacting 1000s of young people. And that’s when I really fell in love with entrepreneurship, fell in love with it. And so when I finished up University, I couldn’t help myself, but start another one. This time in the technology space. And that’s where I am today Checkbox, I actually spent a total fun fun fact is I spent a total of eight weeks in total in my life, working in corporate now was with KPMG, total of eight weeks, and that none of that was it.

Michael Waitze 1:34
So I was gonna ask you this, like, when you so this whole idea of hair education, right is to make younger people I guess, year 11 Year 12, guys and gals Yeah, try to figure out like, Wait a second. I’ve been in the system my entire life. You know, I woke up in kindergarten, I went to first grade, I’m here now. I’ve never really made big choices. And the whole education system is really set up to feed people into big corporations. Like that’s just the way it works before it used to be to set them up to be farmers than it was into factories. And now it’s into corporates. Yeah. What was it about you like, Is your family entrepreneurs? Or what was it about you that said, I took that I’m not doing that anymore? Actually, I’m gonna do my own thing.

Evan Wong 2:13
You know? Yeah, my family know that. I mean, it can’t get more traditional than my mom’s an accountant. My dad’s a business analyst, like, it’s, you can’t get more sort of safe and traditional corporate than that. It’s interesting, like my parents have always had, you know, that they want me to play on the safe side. I mean, that’s only natural parents kind of love and protection. But but also, the amazing thing about my parents is that they are very open and very supportive. So when I said that I wanted to do it, they asked me, Are you sure? Probably many, many times too many times. But ultimately, they backed me, right. And they and they let me do what I what I thought, you know, I should do and at the time, I was young, I was 17. When I started hero, and 22 When I started Checkbox, like, oh, you know, and I have great parents for that reason. But um, no, I think I think it all came from, I don’t know, just something from within. It’s just, it’s a cop out answer. But I didn’t, I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur, it just kind of happened. Because I saw the amount of impact that creating something can have on on your customers. And in Hero, it was young people and I was young at the time. And I completely empathize with them. So I loved it.

Michael Waitze 3:22
But this is the this is the other really big question for me. Right? You started hero when you were the age of the customers, essentially, that you had, right? What was your thought process then where you were you were thinking like, I must have known something that I didn’t feel like everybody else around me knew or I had some idea, right? How can I help the other kids around me? Because when you’re 17 I’m just gonna say you’re a kid. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. But you know what I mean, so hard, because that’s amazing for a 17 year old to build a business like here education for other 17 year olds, like, what was the idea? How did you know that? That was gonna work?

Evan Wong 3:55
Yeah, the first few years is weird in that sometimes my customers were older than me. That was, that was strange. But like, I mean, that that can be very normal in many other industries and practices, but in education at that age, super strange. But you know what it was, the truth of it is, often when you start an organization, you don’t fully have everything planned out, you don’t even fully know the the, the size of the impact or the true purpose of the organization. And so I would say, often, people who start a business put too much pressure on themselves on really nailing that from the get go. For me, because I never planned to be an entrepreneur, I didn’t have that pressure. It was only about two years in, after seeing, looking back and seeing the impact that I’ve made for two years that I then said, Well, this is what we stand for. This is what we do. This is what we’re going to sharpen our culture, our values our purpose towards. And so the truth is, when I was 17, I was a kid I didn’t know what I was doing. And by the time I was 18, I was still a kid, but at least I had two years of, you know, looking back and being able to reflect on what what what is this organization that we want? builds, right. And I end up doing that for many, many more years after that, before I jumped into Checkbox. And when I jumped into the Checkbox, the same thing I remembered, great, well, I don’t have to have the pressure of nailing it from day zero or even day one, it will come with time, it will come with time.

Michael Waitze 5:14
So I want to get to this right, because this is really important to me. You’ve addressed a little bit of this about like, what did I learn from Hero education that I can then transfer into Checkbox, but like, you started Checkbox in 2016. And frankly, I didn’t realize how old you are when you did this. Notice, I didn’t say how young you are. But I want you to kind of address this idea. Right? It’s been six years. And we’ll talk about the funding in a little bit. Yeah. But like, what took so long? Has there been some kind of technological change? Or does it just take a long time to build something big and significant?

Evan Wong 5:48
Yeah, it’s the answer is it’s both and every single company is gonna have its own unique path. Because of all those different factors, whether it’s external, is the customer ready for it? Is the market ready for it? You know, there’s, there’s a big, a big part of it is luck as well. Have you found the right team that to stumble upon when you first start the business, you know, those kinds of things. And yes, it takes time to build a very good business and one that actually sustains, you often hear a lot of overnight stories on the news, and I’m sure checkbox would have been an overnight story as well, for many people have just heard about name. But as you say, if you do a bit of research, we’ve been around for six years, it’s a lot of hard work. And in the space that we play, in particular, we’re not building a b2c, you know, application, we’re building an enterprise software application, and it takes time, if you’re going to build something that the PW C’s of the world are going to use the cocoa coals of the world are going to use. It can’t it can’t be, it can’t just be strapped together by you know, by spaghetti strings, it has, you know, it has to meet a certain minimum quality of a bar of quality and therefore, yeah, it takes a while to build a good company.

Michael Waitze 6:53
Yeah, I mean, there’s all this talk in the startup, press about just build an MVP, and then go out and sell it. I think enterprise software is just fundamentally different, right? Like, if I want to build a, I always use Instagram, as example, if I want to build a photo app, sure, I can build an MVP, blow it out to a bunch of my friends and see what works and then fix it. You can’t do that if you’re dealing with PwC, or Bain or any of these gigantic companies, because they’ll they’ll first of all, you’re selling to them when you’re 23 years old. So right away, they’re just skeptical. I mean, that’s just a fact. Right? And second of all, if it doesn’t work, you don’t get a second chance. Yeah.

Evan Wong 7:28
That’s it. That’s exactly right. Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s it was such a hard, like, it was such a tricky, like, line to bat, like to walk on, and balance between, like, not waiting too long to go out to get real customer feedback versus burning bridges by, you know, having a platform shut down every two every two minutes. You know, I mean, so it was it was it was a tough time, at the early days to try and, you know, go to market fast enough. But, you know, do it in a way that, that it meets enterprise some standards.

Michael Waitze 7:57
Yeah. I mean, look, Twitter used to have the fail. Well, you may even be too young to remember that, right. But it would fail all the time. But that was okay, because it wasn’t impacting anybody else’s revenue. But again, if you just drop an app into, you know, an enterprise scale software business into PwC, and it doesn’t work, the impact is just huge. And you’re right, there is that fine line between like, we’re almost there, and we’re ready. But you have to kind of be ready for enterprise. Yeah, you can’t do it halfway. I like to say you can’t be half pregnant in this way. You definitely cannot be Yeah,

Evan Wong 8:27
yeah, that’s right. And look, the way that you get around it is you, you build relationships, and you make honestly, you actually you should be quite transparent and play to the strengths that you are early on in your journey, and therefore show a bit of vulnerability, and position it more as you know, feedback and be a customer. And often people love to spend time, especially if you’re working in corporate, a lot of people would love to spend their time looking at the up and coming next, you know, latest technology. Yeah. And whilst it may not be sellable just yet, they will still spend their time with you. And I think that’s sort of the approach he kind of taken the early days. Not jumping too quick to the sale. But but for feedback. Really.

Michael Waitze 9:02
Yeah, I talk about this a lot. And it’s a great point, right? Like, you want to socialize this idea that something’s coming and say we’re not ready yet. But just so you know, here’s the thing we’re trying to build. Does this interest you? Where would it fit in? How should we make this so that you can use it so that by the time you are ready, you’re not actually selling it to them? You just introducing something that’s close to being not final but usable? And they’re like, Hey, I remember you tell me about this a couple years ago, you did it exact thing.

Evan Wong 9:28
Exactly. Exactly. That’s exactly right. And that’s the thing when you when you sort of approach those early conversations, and that way, they come on the journey with you. And then by the time it’s ready, they will be the ones who would who basically say, Oh, wow, how much does this cost? Rather than you trying to?

Michael Waitze 9:45
Yeah, like we need this thing that we told you. We needed. You built it? How can we exactly either, right. I want to talk about this team thing too, because you kind of mentioned it in passing, but I think it’s really important. And VCs, not that they have the Final saying anything, right. But they often say they’re investing in teams and not specifically like in the business that those teams are building. And again, you pointed this out, because at the beginning that thing you’re building and the thing that you actually build at the end could be very different, right? How would you characterize the strengths of your Checkbox team? And how did you meet like the other C suite, guys and gals that you work with?

Evan Wong 10:24
Yeah. So the first sort of co founder that came on board with me, his name is James and James and I have known each other for now. I don’t know, like 15 plus years, we actually met when we were we met when we were 12 years old. So yeah. We met we were 12. We’ve been best friends. We went to high school together, we did a whole bunch of stuff, obviously, at school, but also outside of school. Like we it was crazy. We did all this co curricular stuff, entrepreneurial projects, and in university that kind of carried on. And so when I started Checkbox, I thought to myself, Man, I really need a technical co founder. And I was funny, I was going out into the market, announcing it to everyone trying to find someone telling potential investors Hey, you should people my way, if you come across anyone who’s good. And then one night, I was in bed, and I was thinking, hold on a second. I know someone who’d be really good, that would work really well with me, because we’ve been through stuff together already. And so I messaged James, and yeah, and that’s how we help on the journey. It was, it was actually quite quite nice. Because, you know, Michael, the interesting thing is when we when we brought James on, James isn’t the most technical, like, he’s a very, very smart person. He is technical, but what I mean, is he not he didn’t code since he was 12. You know what I mean?

Michael Waitze 11:39
Can I jump in for a second? Yeah, please, because I can see, I understand. I think what you’re saying, like you’re not trying to denigrate his skillset, but the thing is, you don’t have to be the best like guy writing Python, or Ruby on Rails to be the best technical co founder, because there are other skills that come into play. And this is a big problem. I think that most other entrepreneurs and in team builders, that’s why I asked this question, right? Because he doesn’t need to have gone to like MIT and got a graduate degree in computer science at Stanford. It’s nice. But you know what I mean, and you’re trying not to say that, but the reality is, he’s awesome. Anyway. Yeah,

Evan Wong 12:17
absolutely. You’ve now that you’ve been outed, because look, when we when I brought James on, you know, investors were saying, He’s not the right one. Because, you know, a good CTO is someone who’s been coding, since they were basically able to type on a keyboard. Yeah, not someone who’s just learning it now. And the thing is, I backed I backed him anyway. Because, like, I know how incredibly smart, talented, passionate dedicated he would be. And I know that when you know, when the going gets tough, he’ll be there, he’ll stick through it. And it’s those softer qualities, actually, Michael, that, you know, there’s plenty of talent out there with technical skills, but to find someone with those softer skills that can’t be trained overnight, so to speak, can’t be learned over the first few months. You know, that’s, that’s super rare. And look, look at us now. Like, we’re still working together really, really well. And he’s killing it. Yeah, I’m super proud of him.

Michael Waitze 13:06
Yeah. And the ideas. And the first words that kind of popped into my mind when you first started talking about him, and I saw you kind of looking for the right words is, you know, you can lean on him. Yeah, you know it, but he also knows he can lean on you. And this idea of trusting your teammates is almost more important than the skill set that they have. You’re like, James, I don’t want to do with this thing. But I trust your opinion, right. I’ve I have partners in some of my podcasts. And sometimes Teresa will say, I think we should do this. And I just say I trust you. I don’t have to think about it write on rough brain cycles to make every decision and neither do you. And if as long as you can trust him, it’s almost more important than, again, being quote, being a coder since he was seven years old. Is that fair?

Evan Wong 13:47
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And I wish more sort of early founders realize this, right? When they when they kind of go for the CO found co founder dating, sort of exercise. And yeah, so James, amazing. And we had another third co founder as well, Paul Paul link, and he, funnily enough, this this is interesting, because, you know, James, and I have the same age. And we again, we started Checkbox at 22, we came across Paul, he was at some one of the mentor events, and I think he was actually more than double our age, at the time. And I say that I say that in the most gracious way. He Is he is he is Yeah, absolutely lovely and and full of youthful energy. And he was that older, sort of more credible person that that that allowed us to kind of break open a lot of the early, you know, sales doors. Yeah. Yeah. And he really backed us when we were nothing but two people with an idea. So yeah, Paul ended up kind of working with us for the first few years as well. He’s he’s sort of pulled away from the business now. He’s got his own sort of personal life goals. But he’s, yeah, he was instrumental in the early days as well.

Michael Waitze 14:53
Yeah. And I would say that there’s precedent for this too, and I’ll give you two one well known example and one less known well example, you know, Eric Schmidt was brought into Google, just because he was sort of the older face of two young, you know, very great founders. So it’s the similar thing. And when they kind of figured out that they could take it over themselves, they were happy to have him still be chairman or whatever. But they said, look, we got it now. Thanks for all your help, because you do at some level need somebody with some gray hairs, right, or some experience to walk you through some of those stores? And to be fair, Paul Severna. Kuhn, right, who is the CEO of the group, CEO of a commerce, said to me almost 10 years ago, you know, when he first used to go to sales meetings, he would put glasses on, even though he didn’t wear glasses, it because it said he made it, it made him look older and more respectable. This happens all the time. Yeah. All the time. Yeah. And I love these little sets, senses that you’re saying like there are plenty of talented people out there. And I kind of look at money the same way. There’s plenty of money out there. And in the same way that you have to choose your teammates carefully. I think you have to choose your sort of cap table participants carefully as well. Can you tell me why it’s important to you to have like, great names and great partners on your cap table?

Evan Wong 16:10
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Waitze 16:11
The situations, by the way, and raising a recent round. Yeah.

Evan Wong 16:14
Thank you. Yeah, we’re very, very happy. So yeah, no, it is absolutely. Really important. The thing with investors is that as you as you’ve alluded to, just now, it’s it’s more than the money they bring in like money. Money is great, because it enables growth and enables choice and all that kind of stuff. But once they give you the money, they’re going to be on your cap table, you’re going to be in the board meetings together. Yeah, they’re going to be seeing shareholders reports and updates and things like that. And it can either swing, you can swing either way. Now, these investors can either be a pain in the ass and really stop you from actually running and growing the business. And often, you know, bad investors are ones where they don’t appreciate the fact that as a founder, or as a management team, you’re in their day to day, you’ve got all the context, you’ve got all the information, you know, exactly what’s going on. And maybe they’ve got their own successes. Otherwise, you know, they wouldn’t be in their position today. But they don’t have the context. And so blind blindly, kind of just putting their foot down on certain things can can be quite detrimental to the business. But we’re quite lucky. We have two amazing investors that have just come on board, we have Sequoia, and we have title ventures, and I couldn’t be more happy with with them. They’re on the other side of the spectrum, which is they’re adding tremendous amount of value. They have a whole bunch of actually portfolio support. And this is it’s so crazy. I was talking with James, I was saying, this is such an unfair advantage, like to get backed by good VCs is such an unfair advantage. Like for example, Sequoia has given us a recruiter that helps us hire our strategic roles. Right? Like, like to go out to recruiters and pay that recruitment fee is really expensive, like every single role they help us hire is immediate, like, immediate value. But also,

Michael Waitze 17:54
there’s a monetary cost, right? But there’s there there are also other costs that are associated with it, right? If Sequoia has given you a recruiter to go out and hire people, for you for strategic roles, they understand what you need, because they have this. They’re in it with you right now. So they’re not just trying to get a commission to hire somebody without caring whether they’re good, bad or indifferent, or where they’re going to last for the next five years. It’s accoya. Recruiter helps you hire somebody, the idea is that that’s going to take your business to the next level, increase your valuation, give you more credibility, all these other things, again, back to these soft things that matter more than the hard things in some ways. Oh, absolutely. It’s so important. Yeah.

Evan Wong 18:35
That is actually very true. Yeah, absolutely. Right. Because, you know, we’re on the same. We’re on the same team, in the most true sense. Yeah. And so yeah, yeah, they’re, they’re looking out for the long term. Game. Right. And yeah, that I mean, that’s just one example. But there’s, there’s amazing, like, some of the some of the sort of principles we work with as well. They just ask really good questions. They get us to think they challenge us, right. They don’t necessarily provide answers. They provide questions. And that’s actually answers. Yeah, yeah. They may not know, right? Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. So so you know, they’ve been fantastic. So I would say it’s actually really important when taking capital to be very careful, because you can swing either way and look at them, they they’re locked, they’re going to be locked in, basically on your cap table for years to come. And so often they they talk about investors coming on board, like like the marriage. So it’s a marriage that’s hard to get a divorce for as well. If it doesn’t turn out? Well.

Michael Waitze 19:26
It’s probably even harder. Look, I was reading an article this morning about seed stage investors and seed stage companies, right? And you kind of want to have a match. Because, like you said, they can be a pain in the ass, right? How come you’re not doing this? How come you don’t have more traction? How come this week they don’t understand the stage of your company’s development when they’re giving you money. They’re gonna push you in the wrong direction and ask all the wrong questions. Right. You may not expect to have any traction in particular, because you’re still building and testing and iterating. That’s very true of a seed stage company. I mean, I think that and you’re not there. But I think two years ago or three years ago, you were experimenting. That’s what product. That’s what product building is about. Now you’re past that stage. But if you take a seed stage investor that is funding growth is a mismatch from the beginning and that you’re just begging for a bad divorce there. Yeah.

Evan Wong 20:16
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And it’s also it’s not even just the stage matching, or the, like matching the stage. It’s also matching the kind of the space that you’re in. Like, there’s so many different categories of software. And unless the investor really believes in the thesis, like the broader macro trends of what you’re doing, and particularly industries, that’s always it, that’s always gonna be a struggle as well, like, you know, interestingly, when we were first raising from angel investors, we were positioned at the time as FinTech, just because FinTech was able to raise a lot of capital back in 2018. Right? And then now that we’re less focused on FinTech, and more broadly, are no code, the early investors are struggling, right? They’re like, Oh, like that, like Checkbox is doing well, but that’s not what I invested originally in for and how do I now help them how I can’t like, How do I open doors? And how do I add value? Because at the end of the day, investors want to add value. Yeah. as well. And so yeah, it’s it’s interesting. It’s interesting. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 21:15
It’s like going from being a great tennis player into being a basketball player. They’re like, okay, it’s still athletics. But um, I can’t help at all like, yeah, basketball, but like, now, what do I do? Exactly, exactly. So talk to me a little bit about no code. And again, the market for no code is way different than it was back in 2016. Even if you don’t start with that, just tell me about why this matters so much.

Evan Wong 21:42
Oh, absolutely. In 2016, no, code was not a term at all. I think it was popularized kind of in 2020. So very, very recent. And funnily enough, between 2016 and 2020, we were we were constantly struggling on how we define ourselves, like people ask, what is checkbox? And we struggled? Because the label didn’t exist. It just

Michael Waitze 22:01
didn’t make sense. You don’t know. Stop asking.

Evan Wong 22:05
But I’m so glad I can just say no code now. Yeah. So yeah, so no code. I mean, it’s it’s this whole concept of how do we empower the everyday sort of person to do software development? How do we democratize software development and digitization? And often no code is also associated with the term called Citizen development? Right? Like, how do we actually empower the everyday citizen to create direct software? Now, why is this important? It’s important because there’s this there’s this huge like gap between the demand for digitalization and the ability to deliver on it, right? You take businesses a good example, you have HR departments still working in spreadsheets, you have legal departments working in, you know, templates, and, and phone calls and emails. And no matter what department you’re in, there’s always going to be manual work. And everyone wants digitalization, but but the IT team, they’re busy, they’ve got a huge backlog, and they can’t prioritize everything. And that’s never going to change, that’s always going to be a huge gap. And that’s where no code for the citizens sort of developer, you know, empower those functions, empower the legal team, empower the risk team, impart empower the HR teams, who understand their own processes their own, you know, knowledge, to just use, drag and drop and build build automation tools themselves.

Michael Waitze 23:22
So when I was at Morgan Stanley, back in 1990, right, when I moved from New York to Tokyo, I took over somebody else’s job that had built a spreadsheet to report p&l, and you’ll love this, but they’d actually built that spreadsheet in Lotus 123, which you’ve probably never heard of. But anyway,

Evan Wong 23:37
in passing in,

Michael Waitze 23:39
deeply investing, those of us that have used it can still remember the menu commands. But I was a big proponent of using and using Excel This was before was super popular. And part of the reason why was because there was a visual basic macro recorder. So I can literally go through all the steps and I wrote them down. And then I recorded all of them. And it spit out some visual basic code, which then I could turn into macros that I could use, and I could tweak it a little bit. And it made me look like a rockstar to the people to whom I was recording. It’s important though, right? Because it taught me about software and productivity. Once I saw that I couldn’t unsee it. And then I kind of did things like that for the rest of my career, which changed my life. But the idea that I could take a process that was literally taking seven or eight hours and turn it into a process that took about 30 minutes meant that I could be way more productive and add way more value. And if you’re saying that, again, that wasn’t sort of drag and drop. It was understand record and do all this stuff. But if you’re saying now that that type of citizen coding, I can’t remember what you called it or citizen development. Yeah. is now becoming easier and easier and easier to do. Well, that matters. Yeah,

Evan Wong 24:51
that’s exactly right. Now that’s exactly right. And and the example you gave is perfect. It’s exactly that. But taking it even even further down, kind of entry point. You know, a really good, I always like to give this analogy, it’s kind of like, you look at graphic design, right? Or you look at like a single graphic design for now. So you look at graphic design. And previously, you would have to hire a graphic designer who would spend, you know, a couple of months, if not years really perfecting the art on, like, you know, Photoshop or Illustrator. And it was such a high, you know, bar to actually produce nice designs. Whereas now you’ve got software companies like Canva, that just make it super easy to create these beautiful sort of designs, the everyday person can do it. And it’s very much around how do we democratize access to these kinds of, you know, how do we how do we actually make this a citizen level access point? And that’s what we’re doing with software now.

Michael Waitze 25:42
How do you handle stuff like code management and versioning? And I’ll tell you why I think about this, one of the reasons why I switched years ago, right at that time from Lotus, into the Microsoft Excel and using Visual Basic was because the guy that wrote the macro for the for the Lotus 123 thing was gone. Yeah, yeah. And I couldn’t understand it. Everybody told me that when I took over this job, I’ll never forget this, this guy was a genius. And I looked at the code that was developed, and I just didn’t understand what it was doing. So I literally threw it away and started from scratch. How do you handle code management? versioning and stuff like that? Or is that not meant to happen? I mean, you must have developed something for this. Yeah.

Evan Wong 26:23
Yeah, that’s, that’s a really good, like point and a really big problem, regardless of you know, whether it’s Excel or in Lotus Notes, or more modern sort of workflow automation technologies, like it’s how do you actually create continuity in the tool and minimize key person risk? Because, so that there’s a few things. So the first is sort of the user experience of the tool itself, because the more understandable it is at the get go, the more intuitive it is, and the easier it is to actually pick back up, you know, for a stranger that’s just new to that particular, you know, workflow or application. Right. That’s point number one. Point number two is actually around governance, which you often can borrow from software development principles. If you think about just traditional coding, as well, you look at how software teams run, you know, they also have individuals coding, and you know, they leave organizations. So what do you do with that code? Right. And it’s about leaving proper comments, having things like P programming or peer review, so that not only one not, you never have only one person who’s aware of how the thing was actually done. Documentation, that kind of thing. There’s, you know, there’s a governance layer, there’s a technology and UX layer. And that’s basically how you have to get around it.

Michael Waitze 27:32
Did you learn a lot about software development by building this business?

Evan Wong 27:35
Oh, absolutely. I, I’ll tell you, it’s quite funny. When I when I, when I saw the Checkbox, you know, I come from a commerce I come from, like a business and law background, right? Like, like, almost no, like the, I can pretty much say no software technology background. And I remember when we started it, I Googled List of software terms, you should know. And it was like, that’s awesome. It was like a list of like, 200 terms. And I made it a point that every single day, I would learn 10 things. And that’s how I started, man. That’s how I started, I started like, just reading on terminology. At some point, James, when he was coding, the MVP, needed a bit of help. So I learned a bit of CSS and HTML, and I put a bit of code in and just put just for everyone’s comfort, that code is no longer in the code base. So just just so everyone’s clear that, you know, but um, but yeah, now that, you know, when you when you’re in software company and you save in that environment, you will naturally just build that capability. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 28:32
Yeah. I mean, I just think building software is fun. And again, I’m not a coder either. But because of that experience that I had back in 1990, it built into I told you a bunch of other situations where I had to know stuff. And the more I learned, the more I loved it, I was never going to be a great coder. But this idea of software developing actually developing the stuff to make my life easier and more productive was so much fun for me. And in a way, I still do it today. There are so many proxies that I have that I used today that I automate, and it makes my life 1000 times easier. People always ask me, like, how big is your team? And I’m like, Well, there’s a guy named Michael. Anyway. When you’re building a company, in Australia, particularly in the early days, did you sometimes feel like you were operating in a vacuum? You know, like, it’s just remote. That’s not a it’s not a problem, per se, but it’s just a fact. Right? It’s far away from everywhere else. It’s got a really good market itself. 20 something million people, but there’s 7 billion people or more than live outside. Did you feel at the beginning like you were operating in a vacuum and is that different today?

Evan Wong 29:41
It’s actually a bit of the reverse, like when you’re first starting off 20 plus million people’s enough. Like when you’re first starting off, like you know Australia was was big enough, as you say that there’s a pretty you know, there’s a there’s a relatively strong economy for the size of the of the country. Very, yeah. And you know, I’m based in Sydney and that’s really where the Hobbes as well. And so you know, the other day it was enough that was enough for us is that it’s actually now at this stage that we’re starting to really feel the constraints of the Australian sort of market, then the nature of markets, as well as like, you know, the classic innovation, when you call it the innovation curve, like the Crossing the Chasm curve, where you’ve got your, you know, your innovators, your early adopters, your, you know, majority, late majority, etc, etc, all the way down to laggards. And whilst the market is a certain size, it’s distributed on this on this on this curve. And so in the early days, yeah, you’re going to have some quick wins, and eventually get to the point where it’s like, oh, yeah, like, I can still see growth in this market that there is, but we’re gonna work written, like, much harder to break through into that into that majority section of that curve. And we’re really feeling that now. Right? Like, we have a really nice set of customers on our books, but but to kind of push further than that. It’s, you know, a lot of work. So we’re now expanding a lot more into international markets, right? We have customers already throughout Asia, in Singapore, in Malaysia, and Hong Kong, over to our neighbors in New Zealand and just started getting some customers in the US, where we’re assigned to it also expand more more into as well,

Michael Waitze 31:12
right. So you’ve just raised a decent amount of money, you’re opening an office in the United States, we talked earlier about how important that team is, and sort of the cohesive part of that team is also really important. How do you expect? And it’s really an expectation, right? Because there’s you don’t kind of know yet but how do you expect to maintain maintain, excuse me, the quality and consistency of your team members as you grow, particularly as you grow remotely? Right?

Evan Wong 31:39
That’s a question I’m asking myself right now, actually. It’s, it’s, it’s a tough one. And look, it’s one that I first of all would say, I haven’t had a lot of experience with it. Right? I’m actually going to be reaching out to people to get advice on this people who are, you know, few steps ahead of me? Because I wouldn’t be it wouldn’t be sensible for me to say that I already know when I can. Now this because I because I don’t like that humility is important, so that you can actually do the right thing, especially when it comes to people and culture, you really don’t want to mess that up. So important. Yeah, so important. And so I think, you know, my approach right now is like, one, just being mindful of the fact that being a distributed team requires extra effort requires extra attention, you got to be conscious about it, you know, you have to try and maintain inclusiveness for people who may not be a head office. The second thing is just setting expectations. So, you know, I literally made a post earlier today, talking about getting together in the office and being patient with with us as an organization as we learn to be more distributed. So it’s just, you know, asking for a little bit of leeway, but knowing that we are actually going, we are doing things about it. There’s a whole bunch of tactics, right? It’s like, what is your meeting cadence, we literally just shifted the company or hands to a different time, so that we can actually accommodate for a more, you know, global global workforce. So it’s just a whole bunch of these things that you got to do and in combination, you know, hopefully, you can maintain the quality and the culture throughout different different time zones and different countries.

Michael Waitze 33:05
Yeah. Let me tell you a funny story. From my perspective. So I worked in Tokyo for 22 years, right for Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and for Citigroup as well. And because the head office for all those companies like the way they looked at the hierarchy, right, it was New York was the center of the world. And then it was kind of London in Europe, and then there was Asia. That’s what it felt like to us, I’m sure, yeah. And London would argue that it felt differently to them didn’t matter. They were in the middle timezone. So for them times weren’t really a big deal. But we literally could have meetings at six o’clock in the morning, because in New York, that was five o’clock at night, or six o’clock at night, or at 11 o’clock at night, because that was 11 o’clock in in New York. And nobody seemed to care that much about it. And this has not changed much for me, even though I’m not working there anymore. I had a recording scheduled tomorrow for 6am For a person that’s based in on the east coast, the United States. And they changed it. So I saw that this morning. I was like, Yeah, okay, better time, except they rescheduled it for 1230 in the morning. Because that was that’s like 1230 in the afternoon for them. Yeah, it’s just hilarious. But you’re right. Yeah. You have to be cognizant of these things to make it better. And more mindful for the rest of the team. Yeah,

Evan Wong 34:18
absolutely. Absolutely. And in our context, sometimes it’s about running, you know, the same meaning for for the same team, but in different locations twice. Yeah, it’s actually doing that as well. And then having a way to stick stitch the two different teams and meetings together. Like it’s just being, as you say, cognizant of it. Yeah.

Michael Waitze 34:37
What is the competitive landscape look like for you? I mean, you guys are gonna keep growing. You’ve got global customers, you’re opening an office in the United States. What does it look like to you in the no code space for from a competitive standpoint?

Evan Wong 34:49
Yeah, like like it like I said, like we started in a time when no code wasn’t even a label. Right. And that’s not to say that we were the only ones we definitely weren’t. But it’s it’s not enough for her to stand up as its sort of name until very recently, and even then, no code is an umbrella. umbrella term. Yeah, it’s very much like saying we’re an AI company, right like that. That could mean so many different things. And that’s the same with no code. Like the there’s many different types of no code like we like for example, you know, a very commonly known no code technologies like air table, or like Zapier or Zapier, depending on where you come from Zapier, they’re nothing to do with Checkbox, and we have nothing to do with them. Like we’re very, very different. No co technologies, right?

Michael Waitze 35:30
You’re not competing with air table or Zapier at all? Not at

Evan Wong 35:33
all. Not at all. Yeah, exactly. But there are other vendors out there that that are more directly competitive with the Checkbox in a space that we call expert Process Automation. Right? It’s like EPA. It’s like the flip side of RPA. Right? So it’s like no code for expert process automation. And there’s a few there’s a few players like globally, but the globally, you could definitely count them all on like the two hands. Right? And directly directly competitive probably on the one hand, right? And so it’s a really interesting time, where, where’s this going to go? Are there going to be more plays that will emerge over time? Or will there be sort of like a survival of the fittest, or, and if you look kind of at a very similar space a few years ago, where RPA that I just alluded to robotic process automation really took flight, you look now where that’s a bit more mature? Well, it’s quite mature now. There’s, there’s really like three very dominant players globally, and then a whole bunch of sort of, sort of mid tier ones as well. But there’s definitely, you know, it’s never gonna be a monopoly. The world’s big, big enough. Yeah. And in software, there’s often a few sort of, you know, key winning players. And I think that’s probably what’s going to evolve as well, in our space. Yeah. To

Michael Waitze 36:41
me, this looks like an oligopoly space, it almost looks like a car company business, right? Where you can have 15 car companies, they all make kind of different kinds of cars, like nobody who’s buying a Chevrolet is buying a BMW, and both of them are valid products. That’s right. Yeah. And I think it’s the same thing in the in the EPA space, and in the no code space. Absolutely. The last thing I want to ask you before I let you go is, Are your parents still nervous?

Evan Wong 37:09
They are so funny. They’re so funny. So so when I, when I started my first so when I started hero, the first business they were like, no, like, focus on University, that’s gonna be your future. Like, this is just a side thing. Like, why are you pouring so many hours into it? And then when that starts to take off, they were like, Why aren’t you focusing more on it? It’s doing so well. Stop studying. Yeah. And then when I finished off University, and I decided to get into get into Checkbox, they were like, Why are you doing Checkbox here is doing so well. You should just you know, focus. And then when, obviously Checkbox is doing well, now they’re huge, huge, outward supporters of Checkbox. So, you know, I would say they’re not they’re not nervous anymore, except for the fact that every time I tell them things at work, you know, you know, it’s a roller coaster ride during startup and sometimes I share the stuff at the bottom of the of the of the roller coaster and they they look more nervous than I am. I’m like, calm down. I got this. It’s fine, but they’re freaking out. They’re like, Oh my God. But that’s all good and fun. scaring my parents like that every once in a while.

Michael Waitze 38:14
I love it. I love it. Okay, look, I will let you go. I really want to thank you for doing this. Evan Wong, a co founder and CEO of Checkbox.ai. This was awesome.

Evan Wong 38:22
I loved it. Thanks for the conversation, Michael. Appreciate it.


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