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Making Something From Nothing: Wayne Chang of Digits On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Nothing really matters except how polished and how great the products are to your customers and what will have the most impact on their lives. However, when building your company internally, creating a culture where you accomplish goals together is key to growing your business. In great startups, culture often starts from the top where founders and managers can lead with empathy and create a culture of teamwork. Great founders don’t just build great products — they build great teams that then build great products.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wayne Chang.

Wayne Chang is a serial entrepreneur and investor, who’s been named one of Forbes’ Top 50 Angel Investors and one of 40 Under 40 by Boston Business Journal. Chang’s ability to meld psychology and strategy has led to magical product and design experiences that have scaled to more than seven billion devices. He cofounded Crashlytics (acquired by Twitter for over $100 million), cocreated Fabric (acquired by Google), and won an Emmy Award as a producer on the environmental documentary Chasing Coral. A college dropout, Wayne has been awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Throughout his career, he’s been involved in over eighty start-ups and twenty-four exits, resulting in over $40 billion of value created. His latest company, Digits, is backed by $32 million from Benchmark and GV and is setting out to revolutionize business finance.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up basically an orphan. Before immigrating from Taiwan, I lived on rural farmland where I had no shoes, wild dogs, and saw real poverty. I arrived in the United States when I was six to stay with relatives but was pretty much left alone. I remember putting down my blankets on the floor each night and picking them up every morning until I ran away when I was 18 years old. It wasn’t until college that I had my own bed.

I would escape by going fully into this toy — an Apple IIe “green screen” computer — and learning everything I could about it. Who knew this toy would be the start of an entire revolution that would change the world?

Side story — I ended up dropping out of college because I had some success with my early startups and projects. About ten years later, UMASS Amherst invited me back to be the commencement speaker and gave me an honorary doctorate — for that little orphan boy, this was extremely validating!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney.

This quote has always stuck with me from childhood. Where I grew up, it was sink or swim, and I had to imagine my way out and discover the true barriers. With each new phase of my life, I continue to strive to do the impossible.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The writings of Kapil Gupta have given me a new, unencumbered look at the ephemeral state of society. Every decade culture changes — generations change what’s right and wrong, fashion trends go in and out of style. Gupta’s worldview removes all of that and just looks at the static state of the world, not focusing on the comings and goings of society.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

Getting someone excited about your idea and making them see it as a part of their day-to-day helps translate that idea into reality. For example, if a new idea that you have can impact someone’s workflow, don’t just tell them about the idea, create it for them so it’s easy for them to say, “Oh yes, I want this and can use this as part of my every day.” This includes creating mocks and different parts that make the idea more real to convince individuals to get to that human response level.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Who cares! Ideas don’t always have to be super unique — it’s more about the pervasiveness, distribution and execution of the idea. The number of people your idea can impact is based on the execution in itself. If you’re looking for the uniqueness of the problem, it’s like searching for uniqueness of a meal. It’s more about how well the dish is prepared vs. how unique the dish is.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

All the other stuff is just details. This is the important question: can you get the person on the other side to have a greater than 50% chance of telling someone else about your product? It’s important to hone in on your idea until you get to that point. Everything else — patents, trademarks, distribution — come really easily after you find the fit of the product. If you take those steps prematurely, it’s easier to get bogged down in the motions before you get to a product that people want. Incredible focus is needed to make an incredible product.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Building a company externally is all about the perception of the execution.

2. Building a company internally is all about empathy and teamwork.

3. Chasing profits as a startup is a fool’s errand initially.

4. Work backwards.

5. Do things that don’t scale at first.

Nothing really matters except how polished and how great the products are to your customers and what will have the most impact on their lives. However, when building your company internally, creating a culture where you accomplish goals together is key to growing your business. In great startups, culture often starts from the top where founders and managers can lead with empathy and create a culture of teamwork. Great founders don’t just build great products — they build great teams that then build great products.

When growing your company, chasing profits, returns and ROI as a startup is a fool’s errand initially. First and foremost, the quality of the product matters the most, and revenue and capital are just byproducts of great companies that build those products.

Finding your audience and working backwards is also key here. The first step is finding your audience and then building your product. Write the blog post announcement and then build the feature list from that. Doing this work backwards is much faster and more efficient since you start with the end-goal already in mind.

Finally, premature scaling kills creativity while simultaneously making it harder to move fast. Taking things slow and creating the best possible product needs to be at the forefront of your business rather than worrying about how to mass produce a product. Do the first thing, first.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Finding your audience needs to be the first step ahead of building your product. If you have an idea for something, make sure to test it with whoever you think is going to buy it. You don’t have to build it just yet. First, you can do the paper prototype — something to just show your audience. If you are really passionate, you might even get a designer to make it look more realistic and show it to people. Most likely, they won’t like it on the first pass. But that’s fine! They can offer you feedback, learn from those takeaways and then come back with another version.

If you keep following that process, it’s only a matter of time until you get to a version that will resonate with your audience. Starting with the audience first is a much shorter, more pleasant, and more fun path to startup success.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Personally, I would not recommend using a consultant when starting your company. You are their customer, and they will charge you for their time. For you, finding customers should be your first goal when starting a company. An invention is useless without a customer base, and you don’t need an invention agency to do that for you.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Venture capital is great if you have an idea that has a very large market and you’re looking for scale. Bootstrapping is also great if you have a lifestyle business that provides income to mainly support you and your family or a very small number of people. There are obviously exceptions to both, but those generally hold true.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

This is a hard question — I would like to think that I have used my success to make the world a better place, but that really depends on the perspective. Have I used my success to make the world a better place in terms of innovation and technology? Sure. I am investing in 80+ startups, and we try to make lives easier through these companies. I am also involved in climate change technology and funds, like Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon to help make this world a better place in that way. There are so many ways to make this world a better place that you don’t really need success to do it — you just need the want and drive to accomplish those goals.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We are at the cusp of a mental health revolution. There is still a stigma as the pandemic roils on and remote work becomes the norm. As human psychology is more understood, mental health should naturally become one of the biggest topics of the century. Most medications, diseases, and issues almost all target or spring from the brain and its neurologies — and why is that? A healthier mental workforce and a better mental health population would be transformative to society.

We are very blessed that 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, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sadhguru. His perspective on life and how people go through phases is very spiritual and philosophical. It frees people from what’s institutionally taught. Also, he just seems like a lighthearted fun but deeply insightful person to break bread with!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis

819 Followers

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market