"Design is about how a product works, not how it looks." This maxim of Royce Hong, founder of Taiwan's IPEVO, should tell you right away that Hong isn't your typical startup CEO. As the company's chief executive and Big Head of Design, Hong's long years of experience help him to excel in his duties as both a leader and a creator, while injecting IPEVO's products with the right balance of form and function. And despite what one might expect, Hong's background in design rather than engineering hasn't hindered his success in the tech industry one bit.
The Never-Ending Road of Creation
Following an accomplished career in Japan and Taiwan, Hong and three others banded together to form an international e-consultancy called Delirium, which brought modern expertise to clients like 7-11 and Nokia. Hong excelled in his digital consulting career, but as management duties overshadowed opportunities for creativity, his passion for design and innovation inevitably drew him back to his roots.
In 2007, Hong was asked by leading Taiwanese online retailer PC Home to design the IPEVO Free-1 USB Phone, which soon became a Skype poster product. Though archaic now, the Skype phone played a major part in getting internet users comfortable with making calls over the internet, and its success led Hong to his eventual leadership at spin-off company IPEVO. Hong was in fact hesitant to become the company's CEO, not wanting his life to be taken over again by management duties. But in the end, he decided to take the risk, saying “To have my designs speak to the world is a great opportunity."
IPEVO is known for it digital devices like document cameras, interactive whiteboards, and educational accessories primarily for K-12 classrooms. But the company didn't start out this way. In the beginning, Hong focused on one problem: webcams were becoming popular, but they weren't flexible. What if he wanted to turn his computer camera to show someone a piece of art, a document, or even his dog?
Hong's solution was a camera with a movable neck, which came out around the same time the iPad emerged. After the product launched, IPEVO ran into a stroke of luck: Apple salespeople trying to sell the iPad to U.S. school districts used the $69 camera to demo their products. Surprisingly, the teachers seeing the Apple demos were more interested in the IPEVO camera than they were in the iPad!
“Our product became a bottom-up education technology,” Royce explains. News of IPEVO's Taiwan-made products spread quickly across the U.S. educational system, and before long, school teachers were clamoring for their school districts to buy the products. Typically, it's tough for a company to break into the education market because school district bureaucracy can be a nightmare. Yet, thanks to demand from the teachers themselves, IPEVO is now a registered vendor with over 51% of public schools in the United States, and its products are used by thousands of educators across the country.
Once a designer, always a designer
You'd think that Royce Hong would be satisfied with the successes he achieved with both Delirium and IPEVO, but creative minds never rest. Hong's latest project takes him away from education and lets him make waves in his favorite sport. A major F1 fan, Hong enjoys the precision involved in racing, both in car design and the performance of the drivers.
In 2013, Hong attended TEDxTaipei and met Azizi Tucker, a Tesla sourcing manager who spoke at the event. With Hong’s affinity for design and Tucker's passion for speed, they established XING Mobility, the first-ever electric race car and supercar maker in Taiwan. Since late 2014, Royce and Azizi have been planning their cars’ introduction into the market; in the meantime, XING Mobility has been attending car races to collect data on existing models and perfect their design as well as showcase the brand name at events which may later become markets for XING products. A drivable electric race car prototype was unveiled at TEDxTaipei in October 2015, proudly touted as being designed, engineered, and made in Taiwan.
Growing with your company: Key lessons for startup founders
Given his extensive experience in design and leadership across multiple industries, Royce Hong has a lot of advice to offer startup founders who are just finding their way. Here's what Royce has to say:
- Find your mentors.
"I really wish I'd had a mentor," Hong says. Leaders have different things to worry about at each stage of growth, and he would have appreciated guidance as he grew his company. After years of having to find his own way, Hong now relishes the opportunity to act as a mentor to young local startups throughout their growth stages.
- You won't get anywhere without discipline.
When asked how he can possibly juggle so many jobs and projects, the designer explains that he has worked extremely hard to attain his current status, and nothing has come easy. He warns that, whether through the early stages of getting revenue and users or in the later stages of running a larger company, it’s the blood, sweat, and tears of diligence that separate the failures from the successes.
- Company culture starts with the founder.
Hong explains that a company’s culture is very important, as it is usually based upon the personality of its founder. That personality ends up determining the nature and reputation of a firm. Business integrity and personal humility are both important elements of success. “Know yourself," says Hong, "not just an idea or product, but how your personality will grow and affect the future of the company.”