THE BLOG

Charles Lee, Co-Founder of Genee, Talks About His Biggest Letdown

06/24/2015 01:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

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The journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur is never clear.

In all honesty, the journey is more of an expedition, where failure, not success is the only guarantee. You must approach entrepreneurship with a few basic assumptions:

  • The marketplace is constantly changing, so it's imperative that you are constantly scanning for those changes;
  • Technology is a tool that must be used to provide a unique solution to a problem, but at the right time; and
  • Building a team that is both passionate and smart is critical but if there is no cultural fit, then the team's cohesion suffers.

So how can you work through these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities? You must focus on your mission and not the product.

The mission is the reason you are in business. The mission is the long-term plan that survives a fickle market, technology disasters and the replacement of a team member.

Charles Lee understands the importance of a long-term mission statement, especially if the company is to survive for 100 years.

What has been the biggest letdown in your career so far?

In 1999, I was the fifth employee at a startup, Backflip. The founders had a vision of creating a personalized Yahoo search through online bookmarking of web pages. I believed in the founders and they were charismatic in their long-term vision. From an engineering perspective, we were working at the forefront of some truly interesting technologies, such as search indexing, natural language processing, automatic categorization, content sharing, and authorization models.

The company grew quickly, and the level of talent was top notch. However, a year later in the face of missed expectations, the founders pivoted quickly to something completely unrelated to the original goal.

I left the company with misgivings about the founders having given up too early on a vision that they spoke so passionately about and that I believed in. However, the letdown truly materialized later as other companies in search, social networking, content aggregation, crowdsourcing, adwords, data analysis, and machine learning emerged.

In hindsight, I believe that timing was not right from both a technology and user perspective. I learned a lesson about having a long-term mission statement to believe in, and providing a solution and technology to a current problem that users can find immediate value from.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Think long-term and have a mission statement that can get you through the messy middle. But more importantly, you must understand when it's the right time to marry the current problem and technology so you can offer immediate value to customer.

Can you tell me about a time when you almost gave up, how you felt about that and what you did instead of giving up?

As an entrepreneur, you're constantly faced with putting in a lot of hard work and not seeing a reward immediately. This is especially stressful when you have risked your livelihood and the financial picture of the company is bleak.

I co-founded a company named Hyperic with four other founders in 2004. It had been a year since we started the company and sales had been uneven and unsteady. My wife became pregnant with twins and another co-founder's wife was also pregnant. When things looked particularly dire, the other co-founders and I sat down to discuss the future openly.

As I looked around the room, I saw that I was not just among a group of co-workers. They were also my friends, whose talents I respected and company I enjoyed. It was clear to me that beyond the financial gains, we were already successful in building a company that I looked forward to working for everyday. I believed that this group of smart, talented individuals could achieve something great together.

So we pressed on and looked at other ways to evolve the business so that sales numbers were not the only measure of success. That led to a commercial open source model for Hyperic, and we built a community of contributors and IT professionals that really broadened our reach.

Entrepreneurial Tip: The journey of an entrepreneur is hard; sometimes lonely. But when you surround yourself with people who are smart, talented and driven - you have a formula for achievement.

Tell me about a recent project or problem that you made better, faster, smarter, more efficient, or less expensive?

We started Genee specifically to tackle the problem of time, effort, and stress being wasted on coordinating and optimizing our schedules. This is a common problem, and the only solution thus far has been to hire an executive assistant that can understand your requests, knows your preferences, communicates with others on your behalf, and makes intelligent scheduling decisions.

Clearly, that is not an option for most people, and yet, we all juggle our schedules just as much as any executive.

We feel that with the advancements in natural language processing, artificial intelligence, cloud services, and mobile devices, the time is ripe to bring a technology-based solution for this age-old problem. Genee provides the same level of functionality and care as a human assistant but surpasses them in certain respects like cost, response time, and data and systems integration.

Entrepreneurial Tip: If you want to put a ding in the universe, find a pain point then engineer a unique solution that will provide immediate relief.

How do you see the company changing in two years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?

One constant you can count on for a startup company is that it is continuously evolving and changing. Complacency is the leading indicator of imminent failure for a startup. As a startup co-founder, I am mindful of both internal and external forces of change.

As a company, we are guided by our mission, but we need to be aware of market trends and environments to continuously update our solutions that deliver on the promise to help coordinate and optimize people's times and schedules.

As an example, the most popular interface for our hardcore Genee users is to interact through email. However, in a couple of years, as messaging becomes the platform (like Facebook Messenger), users will want to coordinate and schedule directly during their chat sessions without leaving the platform. We have to ensure that we build our technology so that we can go where the users and markets are to continue growth and stay relevant.

The internal change will likely be the organization's size. Company leadership, roles, organization structure, and processes are different when you have five employees, 50 employees, or 500 employees. While we don't yet have a forecast of where we will be in two years, I have to be the driver of those changes as the company scales. I have to understand how the magnitude of growth translates into success and exercise good judgment along the way.

Entrepreneurial Tip: You must be a student of market trends and the environment - this strategy will allow you to guide your company through its evolution.

How do you design a company that will be around for 100 years?

It's an extremely high bar for a technology company to be designed to last 100 years, considering how quickly the world has changed before and after the popularity of the Internet.

Good examples of technology companies that have been able to endure and stay relevant are IBM and Apple. I believe, aside from having created a company culture that fosters continuous innovation and reinvention, that those companies adhere to their mission and core strengths.

It's not necessarily about Mission Statements, as they often evolve and take on different words or meaning as products and markets evolve. It's their internal compasses that are timeless and drive decisions and execution.

IBM, for example, is about building great client relationships and ensuring client successes. That has taken them through a wide gamut of product categories from hardware to software. IBM is truly a 100-year-old company that is a mainstay in technology.

Apple was founded with a mission "To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind." That mission has taken them from a computer kit for PC enthusiasts to the largest company in the world delivering products ranging from computers, phones, and music.

We like to think that we are following in the footsteps of giants and focused on building a company that delivers virtual assistant technology that is personal and delightful. Hopefully, that mission will be as true today as it is 100 years from now, and as a company we will have delivered on a wide range of amazing products in those 100 years.

Entrepreneurial Tip: If your company is to last the test of time then you need to focus on your mission statement and a culture of innovation.

How can entrepreneurs find success in a marketplace that always seems to change?

It's precisely the constant changes in the marketplace that creates ample opportunities for entrepreneurs. Otherwise, existing players would prevent anyone from entering their market given their financial clout and footprint.

As entrepreneurs, I think success depends on our ability to detect market changes early and use them to our advantage, because these market shifts have the potential to change the game and put new entrants in a better competitive position against established companies.

For Genee, we saw a number of changes that made it possible to offer a free scheduling assistant for everyone:

  • Smartphones got everyone to manage their calendars electronically and made their calendars accessible from the Internet
  • Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is mature enough to allow machines to understand the nuances of sentences (not just words) in natural language
  • Large amounts of data can be analyzed and processed results can be delivered in real time

By leveraging these advancements in technology, we can deliver solutions for existing problems in new and innovative ways.

Entrepreneurial Tip: Be a student of the market but keep in mind that markets will change. It's your responsibility to deliver solutions in new and innovative ways.

Question: Clarity of purpose is important to an entrepreneurs success. What does your company's mission statement read-like? Share your answer on Twitter.

Ramon B. Nuez Jr. writes about how to make ideas happen and interviews some of the most influential CEO’s in the startup-space.