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On May 5th at Beijing’s funky co-working space Tech Temple, Startup Grind’s Beijing Chapter hosted its inaugural event by welcoming Eric Feng. Feng is currently the CTO of Flipboard, and previously was the founding CTO of Hulu and a former venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins.
Feng actually has close ties to China, as he spent time at Microsoft Research in Beijing he also founded the video startup Mojiti, which was ultimately acquired by Hulu and became the core technology behind the heavyweight online media company.
Eric Feng spoke to a packed house about the trials and tribulations of his entrepreneurial journey, and gave aspiring entrepreneurs his unique advice about how to approach some common problems.
Feng grew up in Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated as the number one ranked engineering student. His first job out of college was at a particularly entrepreneurial software firm called Trilogy.
Here, management encouraged employees to take risks. They had a program called Project Lose2K, where employees were given US$2 000 dollars and told to bet it all on a single spin of the roulette wheel. Feng didn’t win anything from his turn at the wheel, but the experience of taking a big risk stuck with him.
For someone who grew up in Texas, China was not initially in his plans. However, he was lured to Beijing by the prospect of working at Microsoft Research in Beijing, the lab that MIT’s engineering publication ranked as the best R&D lab in the world at the time. “Not the best in China or Asia, but the world.” Feng emphasized, “So I just had to check it out.”
After three fantastic years at Microsoft, Feng was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. He had created and sold a startup early in his career while at Trilogy, and he was itching to do it again. However, back in 2007, Beijing was a very different place. “If you were doing a startup, people thought you were a little crazy.”
He noted that at the time, there was a sparse ecosystem, no community, and nothing close to the conferences, events, co-working spaces and level of activity that has since developed. Enthusiasm for early stage investing was also low. As a result, the startup he founded, Mojiti, was entirely bootstrapped. Luckily for Feng and his team, Mojiti soon found a buyer in the group that would take his technology and team and turn it into Hulu.
Always be recruiting, don’t listen to your investors
When asked about some key nuggets of wisdom he can share from his startup career, Feng highlighted the following:
- Always be recruiting: The first and most important role of a founder is to build a team. It shouldn’t be just a priority, but the number one priority. At Mojiti, Feng would do whatever it took to get quality talent, including promising to “get them a job at Microsoft in six months if it didn’t work out.”
- Solve for cultural fit: On the subject of how to recruit, Feng had some very specific advice. Since startups are businesses that are still trying to find product-market fit, there is a very high likelihood that the skillsets you think you need now will be different in three months. In the early stages of a startup, the team should always solve for cultural fit and potential, not specific expertise.
- Plumb your networks (and the networks of your employees): Recruiting is so important that Feng institutionalized the process. When new employees come into Flipboard, they are asked to go through their LinkedIn networks and recommend ten other people they think might be a good fit for the company. Being proactive about hiring is crucial, and Feng believes that in the most successful teams he’s led, over half the hires came from referrals. At Flipboard, he estimates the number is 60% or more.
- Don’t over-implement on engineering: One of the most common mistakes Feng sees in startups is the tendency to build the “most scalable system.”
Remember, he said, you don’t even know what your product will look like yet. The most important question a startup has to answer is product-market fit, and until that is done, there is nothing more important to be working on. As an engineer, he understands the allure of building something awe-inspiring from a technical standpoint, but that’s a “problem you have to earn your way into,” not something you should focus on from the outset.
- Build a product people love: Growth can be engineered, but until you find a core group of customers who absolutely love your product or service, you haven’t achieved product-market fit and should not focus on scale.
Feng left Hulu for Silicon Valley and a stint with the preeminent venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. He admitted he was influenced by mentors like Jerry Yang, who told him that he would have to spend time in Silicon Valley to really know the tech industry. However, the clincher was the opportunity to work with a personal hero, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, on cleantech, a cause for which he cares deeply.
Having spent time as both an entrepreneur and investor, he cautioned entrepreneurs not to over-rely on investors. “Don’t listen to your investors,” Feng said, “not because they aren’t smart people, but because they cannot possibly be as knowledgeable about your business as you are.”
Confident in Chinese engineering talent
Finally, Feng reiterated his excitement about the local engineering talent in China. From his days at Microsoft Research, Feng views China as a hub for some of the best engineering talent in the world.
Indeed, when he set up the engineering team at Hulu, half of the engineers were located in China and were responsible for some of the most difficult engineering problems the company faced, such as core search, recommendations, and other features. As the CTO of Flipboard, his plan is similar. While Flipboard currently only has a handful of staff in China, Feng expects to hire a local engineering team to build localised features.
This article by Jack Wang originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner. Image: Tech in Asia.