How to get Guy Kawasaki to invest and become a mentor, work with distributed teams across Asia and the US and many other topics are the subject of this week’s podcast with Hung Tran, the Vietamese founder of ed-tech startup GotIt!

Transcript of the Interview

Hung [Tran], after moving to the States and getting your PhD in computer science and having taken up the post as assistant-professor, you know, still a few steps away from that coveted professor-ship, but still on track towards it, you jumped into startups and ed-tech. Why would you do that?

Hung: My passion is education. Whatever I can do to contribute to make education better, I would do it. Being a professor is pretty nice, but I felt like I could have a bigger impact through technology to support education. That's why I moved to a different track, away from being a PhD candidate.

We'll dive into what GotIt! is in a second, but you've basically jumped into this business since 2011. Any moment in that space where you thought: "If only I had stayed in academia?"

Hung: I would say so. Recently, there's been a lot of moves in education, where people look at  ways in which technology could make education better. I believe it's the best time ever to join the movement. A lot of people talk about how to use technology to tailor education to every single person and then to have a very personalized and customized learning way for people. To help people learn better. That's pretty much one of the biggest reasons I decided to jump into the field.

We have bigger ambitions. We don't want to be doing education alone, we want to be the place where people can share knowledge. Wherever they are and whomever they are. That's what we aim for.

Let's talk about GotIt!, Hung. You call it the world's first on-demand platform for knowledge, but it's different from, let's say Quora or Khan Academy. Could you elaborate a bit on, in what ways that is true.

Hung: Every day, you have questions to which you don't know the answer and would like to. Typically, you have three ways to have your question explained. First, you can ask your colleague or the people around you. Sometimes, they're available and know the answer, but that's kind of 50/50.

Second, Google. You use search and if your question is broad, you get a million results. Good luck with that. On the other hand, if your question is too specific to your case, you may have nothing at all come up.

Third, a community-based platform like Quora or Stack Overflow or Yahoo Answers, the problem there is that you may have very good answers, but you don't know when. For example, Quora might get you awesome answers, but it might only come weeks later. By the time you get your answer, you might not need it anymore.

With GotIt!, we've tried to own the problem. We're very fast. Right after you post the question, within seconds, we connect you with the real experts, who can talk to you and will be able to help you solve your problem. Second, is the guarantee.

We've got experts all over the world. We bring them in, test them and train them to make sure that we guarantee the quality. When you ask something on Quora, you might get a couple of answers, but who guarantees that it's right? That's the difference.

With GotIt!, we've got two things we're proud of. First, the speed - you'll get your question explained within ten minutes. Second, we guarantee the quality of the explanation. That's the difference.

Hung, you've just explained a couple of USPs of your product and how that differentiates from some of the other products out there in the market. Obviously there have been similar battles in the past, let's say, in terms of video recording format, where you had VHS and Betamax, where Betamax was objectively better, VHS still won out because of adoption. In terms of your user acquisition strategy, how are you going to make sure that you are a top product for consideration for your customers.

Hung: The reason the product has a very good adoption rate and traction is because we spent a lot of time studying user behavior and spent a lot of time to dig in the data we collect about our audience.

The key thing is to understand the audience. With GotIt!, we've spent a lot of time with that. For example, we know that with our audience, which is high school students and early college students, what they do every day from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed, they use their mobile phone to take pictures, post and chat.

Because apps like Facebook and Instagram have trained them so well. They do this like natural behavior. We've incorporated this behavior into our app where we see exactly the same behavior. People take a picture of what they don't understand from the text book or lecture notes and post it to the platform and then chat with the expert. They don't have to do anything different.

That's why, when we show that to people, they know how to use it very well, because it fits with their daily lives now. That's the reason the app got a lot of traction right after we launched.

You count Guy Kawasaki, the former Chief Evangelist of Apple and currently the Chief Evangelist of unicorn Canva as one of your personal advisors. How did you make that happen?

Hung: That's an interesting story. Actually, it's a cold call to Guy. Nobody believes that. For us, we had to do our homework. When you want to talk to some people like Guy to be your advisor, you need to do your homework to see what he wants. We spent a lot of time to watch his presentations and read his book and we kind of knew we fit with what he wants.

Guy really likes the foreigner founder and Asian founders specifically. Something with education is what he really is about. That's why we thought that we had something that really fit what he wants. Based on that knowledge, we sent him a cold email. Somehow he replied and we got into a Google Hangout, talked to him, showed him the product and he really liked it.

Eventually he put his own money down as an investor, not just an advisor. I would say, it's lucky, one of the luckiest things that happened to us as a company.

What was the key difference between your pitch and the hundreds of other pitches that Guy gets on a weekly basis?

Hung: I would say, for Guy, you need to have something to show him. You need to prove to him that you can do things. Other than that, he doesn't care. At the time we reached out to him, we already had the product and we had users.

Most of the startups don't make anything, they just talk. When we talked to him, our product spoke for us. Because of it, he believed that we could get somewhere and that's why he wanted to help.

What has been the value of his advice to your company?

Hung: How you market our product to the market and other marketing subjects, Guy has a lot of insights about that. That's one of the things. He's really good at marketing, so whenever we need something, like, say, hiring marketing people, we ask him for introductions or we send people to his office for the interview.

Also, the connections. This guy lived most of his life in Silicon Valley, he has connections with almost anyone in the Valley. When you need to connect with someone you don't know, but you don't have people around you to connect to the person with, the very next link would be Guy for us. Somehow he can make all of that happen.

What advice do you have for startups looking for mentors who have the same influence and expertise like Guy?

Hung: First, you have to be sure that you've made the product or an MVP version of it, so you can show people your ability to execute. A lot of people have great ideas. With the idea alone though, you achieve nothing.

Ideas only have value if you can turn it into a product or service. First, you have to show people that you can make the MVP. Second, you have to think about, if the thing that you are doing also aligns with the advisor's interest. If not, it can be very difficult.

Third, you have to make sure that there's something the advisor can do that's of value immediately. It won't work if the value-add is for something way off in the future. It needs to be about something he or she can help with now, like connections, some advice about the product or even the copy of your marketing materials. Something concrete.

Hung, you run a business with a distributed team across Vietnam as well as the United States. What are some of the pros and cons of this model?

Hung: Yeah, I think that the pros are obviously the cost. The cost is 10x different. You can do it much cheaper. We call it our unfair advantage. We can do it ten times cheaper, so that means, with the same funding we can potentially have a lot more runway.

Secondly, in terms of cons, it's a lot about management. Because the difference in the cultural background, in the way people work and the different mindsets, you have to spend a lot of time to train the team. They can behave and think like the engineers in Silicon Valley.

You have to put a lot of overhead early on to get the team. That's the main thing. Other than that, I think it's like other startups. We don't really see the difference after you get the team fully on the same page with your US team.

What are some of the major differences in terms of working style between people in the United States and Asia?

Hung: I didn't do a lot of work in Asia, so it's difficult to generalize. I will speak just for GotIt! Sometimes people just do what you tell them to do. Initially they will not say: "that's a stupid idea." This is very different from the way we work in Silicon Valley. When you throw out an idea, someone is going to tell you that it's stupid. In Vietnam, sometimes, people sometimes get scared of doing that. They go out and do it, and later we recognize it was a stupid idea.

The second thing is, I would say, the language barrier. Sometimes it causes trouble. We are halfway around the world. Everyday we only have a couple of hours of overlap to work with each other. A lot of things rely on email communications and very quick interaction. If your language skills are not good enough, you will miss a lot of the important points in the meeting. That's another one of the barriers. With the current team, we train them very well and we bring them to the US very often so they can work with people in the US. We have a very solid team at the moment.