Penske: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory"?
Born in Nanjing, China, I started to learn how to code at age 9 and began to compete in Olympiad of Informatics while I was in elementary school. Before college, I gained lots of interests in building software and started a website that provides a platform for people to share their invitation code to exclusive web services.
I attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology to study Computer Science full-tuitiontuition scholarship. Throughout my years back at Rose, while I was working on various extracurricular activities and jobs, I couldn’t help but notice the rapid changes that were happening in mobile internet out there. That was when I realized as I was training myself to be a software engineer and computer scientists the best way to build on what I know is to start a startup. So I dropped out of school and began the journey.
Penske: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think one of the most interesting and rewarding experience was the acquisition of our competitor app Monkey. Monkey is a hugely popular social app for teens in the US, in fact one of the most popular new socials apps in 2017, reaching as high as Social Top 5 in the US iOS App Store for many months. Even though HOLLA had a larger user base worldwide, Monkey was our goal to beat for the US market because Monkey brings such a unique brand unity and user community from its extremely niche but focused target audience. The founders of Monkey, Ben Pasternak and Isaiah Turner, have done a tremendous job on the product, and when they reached out to entertain the idea of an acquisition, it was an astounding moment for us. The founders expressed that they wanted to move on to other ventures and felt that HOLLA was the best home for Monkey. It’s a very unique experience to be recognized and affirmed by one of your biggest competitors, and asked to take over their prized creation. Since then, HOLLA has acquired Monkey and brought the teen-popular phenomenon under its wings. Collectively, the 2 apps have acquired more than 20 million users and created more than 3 billion matches worldwide.
Penske: So what exactly does your company do?
HOLLA aims to connect users around the world in more realistic and engaging ways through the use of video chat communication. Millenials and Gen Zs are connecting differently than the previous generation, and internet friends have become more and more common. Before HOLLA, most people are making friends through traditional text-only apps, but the younger generation craves authenticity, engagement, and content on demand. We’ve taken video chat and applied it in a meaningful new way, to allow users to meet cool and like-minded people around the world and engage in genuine face-to-face conversations. It’s the closest thing that can mimic how we make new friends in real life, but now it’s in the digital world, while drawing a sharp contrast to the heavily curated and filtered culture of older social media platforms. Moving forward, we hope to continue breaking down the limitations of the physical world (e.g. location, time, environment, and format) and allow users to connect more efficiently, accurately, creatively, safely, and seamlessly. In return, we hope to empower users to express themselves, discover the world, enjoy the moment, and have fun together.
Penske: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Because HOLA connects users in a much more engaged and intimate way, we actually have become a platform of relief for many introverts or lonely people in this world. We get so many emails thanking us for providing a platform for them to be able to share a part of themselves with the world because they don’t have anyone to talk to in real life. We’ve gotten reviews in the app stores from people thanking us for allowing them to still feel like a human being because there are finally people willing to listen to their story. We’ve gotten emails where our users shared that they have depression, and that having quick conversations with real people makes them feel less alone. They would have these moments of deep sadness and they would jump on the app and talk to a few people and the anxiety would be over. I personally matched with someone who was on the brink of suicide because he was so engrossed by sadness and he couldn’t share with any of his friends or families because of the tough image he needs to hold up. He wanted to be a pro-boxer in New York but haven’t caught his big break, and is juggling between training and 2 jobs just to stay afloat. On a positive note, we’ve had many users that shared with us that they met their husband and wives on HOLLA, or their soulmate. We also have many talented people on here, from magicians to rappers, from people doing cool vape pen tricks to people in crazy costumes, you never really know who you’re going to match with, and that’s the most exciting thing about HOLLA. These are the stories that keeps us going every day, allowing us to feel like we are really making a difference in this world. Due to the unique way we decide to connect our users (through face to face video chat rather than just plain text chat), we are able to stand out and separate from other less intimate and less engaging social media platforms out there.
Penske: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I am grateful for all the support my girlfriend Susan has given me. To all the ladies out there - it is a really bad idea to be in a relationship with startup founders. They are sometimes egoistic, very often careless in relationships, and almost always a pain in the butt to deal with. I always feel like I could need more support when I run into difficulties, but the problem is there are few people in the world that are able to empathize with what I am going through, and that’s where Susan comes in. Unconditional support from Susan has repeatedly given me the motivation I need to do what I strongly believe in and is so passionate about.
Penske: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When we build products and services like HOLLA and Monkey for tens of millions, we feel strongly about the potential impact our doings could bring to our users. We try our best to build communities within our apps that could make people feel better, not worse. Quite often we are faced with challenges to choose between short-term benefits for the company (revenue, user growth) and long term community robustness. We always choose the latter. This is the least goodness we are bringing to the world, and something important to start with.
Penske: What are your "5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO" and why.
- Team is the most important deciding factor for the success of a new venture. This goes from founding partners to employees. Keep the team close-knit, elite, focused, and driven with top-talent people.
- Don’t try to create demand out of thin air. Just because you think it’s good, doesn’t mean anyone else does. Get the value of your idea validated first by confirming with real users with similar pain points. Find product-market fit early before you do any kind of promotion or that leaky bucket is going to keep on leaking..
- Find a mentor relevant in your field, it will save you a lot of precious resources such as time and money.
- Cut your losses early. If there are people under performing or projects/features that you know in your gut is not working out, don’t let it drag out just because you are avoiding the inevitable. Be vigilant.
- Have a single driven goal, and make sure everyone on the team is aligned and understands it. Only by the collective effort of focusing on the same thing can you create a result that truly makes a difference.
Penske: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I would love to have a private breakfast with Vitalik Buterin, founder of Ethereum. I truly admire those who are crazy enough and smart enough to work on life-changing projects to help humanity advance. He’s also my age (younger, actually) so we might connect better. I also prefer meeting with someone who talks really fast because I’d assume I will only get to meet him once. Might as well get the most out of him.