Chau Nguyen started his first startup at his dining room table when he was 25. That venture grew to more than 20,000 clients and was later acquired by a major public company on the West Coast. What drove his success wasn’t sheer will, but an unwavering dedication to product validation and treating every aspect of his business as an opportunity for salesmanship.
“I realized that selling a product is the essential piece to entrepreneurship. You are always going to have to sell something, right?” Nguyen says about convincing others to buy into a company’s vision, “You are selling a product or a service. You are selling when you are recruiting, when you are asking for money. You are selling with leadership, when you are constantly asking for others to rally. If you can sell people, then you have a huge step towards being a good entrepreneur.”
Last week, Nguyen roused an investment into his latest venture, Hirewire, via Atlanta startup heroes, Paul Judge and Allen Nance of TechSquare Labs. The undisclosed total will go towards the $3.8 million that Nguyen has raised to-date for the app that is disrupting the hiring industry.
In eight months, Hirewire has gone through two major product iterations, done massive amounts of consumer-driven testing, and earned legions of early adopters, including 3,100 employers just in Atlanta.
“I think we can do something really great for the City of Atlanta. I believe this because, if you think about what Groupon did for Chicago, it put Chicago on the map,” notes Nguyen about utilizing a startup like Hirewire as a vehicle for other B2C companies. “We want to be able to bring it to the rest of the world, and be able to say, ‘This started right here in Atlanta.’”
Here, the CEO and founder of Hirewire shares about the bumpy and rewarding aspects of startup life, why you shouldn’t go all in with just any idea, and how a “lazy” and “average student” can find their life’s purpose with the right dose of passion.
What was your road to entrepreneurship?
In fifth grade, I was selling friendship bracelets. I was terrible at making them, so my sister would make them and I would then sell them at school. [laughs] There was something that clicked then. You could go to people, and say, “Hey, buy this,” and then there is a transaction that happens. I think early on, I really knew that I liked that process. I was a kid with a lemonade stand, friendship bracelets, and then, back in the day, when people had CDs, I was helping people back up their copies. There was always really that entrepreneurship spirit, even when I was young.
My dad was an electrical engineer, who went from working for a big company to starting his own. I watched him. As a kid, I, basically, saw him put a company together from nothing. I saw all the little scrappy things happen, and, as kids, we helped him out.
You launched Hirewire less than a year ago, with your initial product launch this January. Can you speak to your successes with user acquisition and funding?
User acquisition has been a blessing. I think it is a function of two things. One, we are going back to a problem that clearly exists. We aren’t trying to fight really hard to get users, because they get it. The gap that is out there today and what we are giving them is huge. It is not like we are giving them something that is a little bit better than what is out there, we are a lot better. That allows us to have a lot of organic acquisition. People talk about it and then they come to us.
The other thing is that we have been very focused on product. Everything else matters, but the product matters most. Most of our time, resources and money are spent on nailing the product first. The only way we can win is by providing an exceptional user experience. You should be able to be done using it, and be like, “You know what, I am going to tell someone about this.” That is what great consumers do. Our user experience is not an accident. It is about solving a problem and giving them a product that works and goes beyond the status quo. That has really been how we have been able to acquire so many users.
In doing so, we have had a lot of traction out of the gate, which has made it easier to raise money. It is never easy to raise money, because you really have to convince people. When the stars and moon align and you have a great team, a great market, are solving a problem, and can show that you are doing it everyday, and are focused, then only do people believe you. That goes back to sales. Your investors have to be sold on the team, the product, the traction, the vision, and all that.
Hirewire just launched 2.0. Can you talk about the upgrade?
In the beginning, jobseekers would post themselves for sale, essentially: Here is what I am, here is what I do. Then, they would get found by employers. What we found was that that wasn’t engaging enough for jobseekers, who would be like, “What do I do now?” So, sometime in the spring, we decided that we needed to change the app fundamentally. We hired an in-house team of engineers, whereas [before] we were outsourcing at the time. We wanted to create more of a Tinder-like environment, where employers could see jobseekers and jobseekers could see employers. They could swipe on each other. It has made a huge difference, a truly huge difference.
In terms of validating an idea, what mentorship do you give, as a second-time founder, to others to determine if their product is viable or sellable?
I think it starts with solving a problem. You have to think, Is this a problem today and how big is it? Is it a nice-to-have or is a big problem? You don’t want to do the opposite, where you have an idea and then just go after it. Don’t do steps 2 or 3 before doing step 1, which is validating a need. You can do that by not just saying, “What do you think,” but by going to potential customers.
That’s what we did with Hirewire. Even though I have done this before, I didn’t just assume I knew what people wanted. We went out and met with a lot of employers and asked them about their hiring today. We then said, “We have an idea, what do you think about that?” You have to validate to build a mold that people want.
Essentially, if you give your users what they want, then you will win. If you make your users like what you built, that is a lot harder to do. We basically, reverse-engineered the problem. We were like, You have a problem, we know how to fix it, here is our stab at it, what do you think? And then we go back and build it, being very iterative about the process. What is scary is that most people skip step 1, hence, why many companies fail.
So, before you go out and buy a domain or create a logo, like many people do, first go out and ask, “Does anyone care?” Then find out how many care; ask, “Is it big enough to matter?” Then go out and pursue it.
What was the leap like to start your first company?
The transitional step was sales. I learned to sell when I was in college. When I first started selling, I got the feeling, I can be good at this. It was the first time that I was passionate about something. Before that, I was like you’re an average student, just kind of lazy with no full-time commitment to anything. Then, dead-on, all of a sudden, I got addicted. I knew what I wanted to do.
Then, fast-forward to my first job out of college. It was running a sales team of college students. Basically, I got to teach, coach and mentor people. I was young, too. I was a 21 year-old managing 20 year-olds [laughs]. That taught me about leadership, development, and recruiting. By starting my career off in sales and management, I matured very quickly and learned how to run a business.
So, then, after doing that for five years, I thought, You know, I can do this on my own. The ultimate itch was that I learned a lot, gained a lot of confidence and experience, but wanted to go on my own and risk it. I wanted to leave this comfy job, that was paying really well, and go and try something that was higher risk but higher reward.
When I was 25, I started my own company – CampusSpecial. CampusSpecial was basically GrubHub and Groupon for college kids before there was GrubHub and Groupon.
How was your first startup successful?
I started that company at my dining room table. We had no funding. I was a first-time entrepreneur. I was young, and thought it was going to be so easy. [laughs] And that first year was the most humbling and difficult and challenging time of my life. Partially, because it was hard anyway – starting a company from nothing – and because the first time is really hard. My expectations were way too high. We had to fight for every client. Every day was a day of survival. It was scary. We thought we weren’t going to make it. We definitely thought we were going to close the business. So, then, having started the company, being way far into it, already leaving my cushy job, I thought, Oh, my God, this was a mistake. There were two options: To sink or swim. So, we started chipping away, we grinded away and survived that first year.
We actually did really well, but it was really hard. We did a million dollars in our first year, but we could have closed shop at $100,000. The first $100,000 was exponentially harder than the next part. It was really about not giving up. That was a big, early lesson.
That company grew 20-40% every year since that first day. We grew to 20,000 clients in 165 cities. We had revenue-positive of $10 million. We were a profitable company, and then we sold it to a public company out West. So, that was the contrast of barely-survive-almost-dying to [getting] to the point of being acquired and having a great exit. It was a happy ending, I suppose.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs to not give up?
Well, it is tricky, because, sometimes, you should give up. Let me provide some context there. Assuming you have a good idea and have a concept worth doing, that’s when you don’t give up. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if you have a worthy idea for pursuing. You have to validate that idea before blindly going after it. That’s why the idea of “never give up” may be a bad suggestion, because the concept just may not have any legs. When you do, that’s when it becomes golden. Then most of the game is just showing up and grinding a way little by little. That all-in focus can produce a lot. It can’t be a half-ass effort, where you think that a little bit of time will be enough. Giving up and entrepreneurship are two things that just don’t go together.
You experienced an acquisition and could be enjoying the sweet life. Why did you, a year or so later, decide to jump into a new venture, Hirewire?
Two reasons: One, my wife wouldn’t let me stay at home anymore [laughs], and, two, I think you should start a company when you just can’t not do it. When something becomes a burning passion, it supersedes everything.
For me, I had a lot of fun and satisfaction from solving problems, even though [it is often] hard. I felt kind of empty. I learned so much and had so much experience, that I knew I could leverage that. It felt like a wasted opportunity to not go through with this thing. So, yes, I could not go out and bust my butt like I have to, but I think that is a sign of good entrepreneurs. It is about being passionate about the problem. You have to be committed, like having a child committed. It is fun solving problems that matter.
The kind of company that we are trying to build is a massive problem for a large audience. It hasn’t been disturbed for 20 years. That kind of problem requires love and dedication. It can’t just be like, Okay, I’m just going to play around with this. I’m not that kind of entrepreneur, who can have six ventures; I have to have just one.
How has the Atlanta community supported your growth?
Atlanta has been a great market for us to start in for a lot of reasons. One, the tech scene is hot and getting hotter. You see all the incubators cropping up, and you see the increase in national attention from investors and VCs. I think, for us, Atlanta has been a really enterprise software environment. This makes us a bit different. It helps us stand out.
We have also really utilized Atlanta as a test market. We really have used Atlanta as an incubator to perfect the recipe before we go to scale. We have been able to grow to 3,100 employers in town. We are able to get great feedback, whereas in other places, we would have to call. Here, we have face-to-face relationships with 3,000 people in Atlanta. That is a lot of feedback. If you are trying to build a product that people love, there is nothing better than going out your backyard and meeting customers face-to-face.
Atlanta also happens to be one of the [cities with the] highest restaurants per capita. Since the restaurant vertical is our first test vertical – since we aren’t going to be just a restaurant app forever – it has been really wonderful.
With that in mind, what are your goals in the next 6-12 months?
It changes every 30 days. It has only been seven months. In the next six months, we will have nailed our product and started monetizing. We will be scaling outside of Atlanta, and will have raised our next round from VCs. It will be in that exact order. It doesn’t make sense to pursue one without the other.
So, nail the product, show some scale, get some funding to really scale. We think we are moving fast now, but once we hit the scale point, that’s when you start blitzing fast. Ultimately, that will mean that we will have solved the problem at a small scale and then proved that we can spread it. That is the ultimate for our company.