In many ways, Wretch Chien epitomizes the young startup founder of the sort made famous by geeky young entrepreneurs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. An engineer by trade, he built a product he thought his friends and classmates could use, then recruited those classmates to help turn it into a viable business. In the process, he got a crash course in all the essentials of startup entrepreneurship, including management, finance, and legal lingo, before eventually seeing his company get acquired by one of the biggest names in tech: Yahoo! Inc.
From founding to acquisition, Wretch's story may perhaps sound fairly typical in the startup world. But what makes his story unique is that it didn't unfold in the era of Facebook, Uber, the Apple Watch, and Product Hunt. Instead, it began more than a decade and a half ago, in 1999.
As the millennium was drawing to a close, Wretch was a budding young hacker at National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) who’d just started his first forum, 無名BBS, which was popular among the programmers at his mostly male university. While working toward his master’s degree in 2003, Wretch collaborated with his classmates to add features and make his site more stable. As Wretch points out, this was no easy feat back then. At the time, AWS didn’t exist, and the talented young engineers spent a great deal of time building their own cloud technology to support the growing platform.
But what was it that turned a simple BBS filled with young geeks into one of the most famous websites in Taiwanese history? Wretch credits two things: the explosion in digital photography and, a bit ironically, women. Those geeky classmates he worked with began to enter relationships, and their girlfriends took a liking to the blogging features on the site because they could upload their photos to share with friends in a blog format. At the time, even the US didn’t have a service that could do this seamlessly -- you’d need separate Blogger and Flickr accounts for that.
Gradually, women became the heaviest users of Wretch.cc, and the site took off as the top blogging platform in Taiwan, making its humble founder a household name.
From the dorm room to the board room
With popularity came heavier demands. Wretch ultimately chose to drop out of school to focus on building his growing business, giving himself a deadline of a year to make it work, or else he would return to his master’s program. Naturally, he hoped for the blessing of his family as he made the jump from full-time student to full-time entrepreneur. “I prepared for that conversation for a long time,” he says.
Ultimately, the young founder’s family worries were unfounded. “Surprisingly, my mother was very supportive.” She told him, “I see what you mean. You should do it.” What he hadn’t understood before was that he was following in his father’s footsteps. Though he passed away when Wretch was young, he had been an entrepreneur as well, and to Wretch’s mother, his foray into entrepreneurship was a natural progression for her son.
The uphill battle of an inexperienced founder
But as a young founder with no business experience, Wretch faced a steep learning curve. Furthermore, the company would need funding in order to keep running and growing, and investors who had been burned during the dot-com bubble and bust of the ‘90s simply weren’t interested. Even worse, by his own admission, Wretch wasn’t in the best position for seeking investment.
“If I took an investor point of view and looked at myself 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have invested either! I didn’t know legal, accounting, even building a cloud,” Wretch says. Though he thankfully had the support of his talented engineering classmates, he still needed to be able to explain the business to investors, and so he enlisted the help of both his accountant and his attorney, telling them “I don’t understand any of this shit, but I feel I need to.” With their tutoring and advice, Wretch gradually gained the skills he needed in order to be a successful CEO.
All this work paid off for Wretch and the classmates who came together to build Wretch.cc. By the time the company was acquired by Yahoo! in 2007, the blogging platform was serving 6 billion page views monthly, making it one of the most successful internet companies ever built in Taiwan. What’s more, besides heading to Silicon Valley to join Yahoo management after the acquisition, Wretch also went on to continue his education, earning his MBA at Stanford University.
Wretch now spends his time helping founders pursue their dreams as a venture capitalist with AME Cloud Ventures, and also serves as a mentor to Taiwan-based startups via Taiwan Startup Stadium's Founders League Mentorship Program. He has gleaned a great deal of knowledge from his own startup experience, and appreciates the chance to encourage first-time founders as a mentor and investor. Some key pieces of advice from Wretch:
Learning English is more than just about language skills
Surprisingly, by the time Wretch.cc was acquired by Yahoo, one of the key skills Wretch had not yet mastered was English. During the acquisition talks, his financial advisor also served as interpreter, and Wretch explains that it wasn’t until he joined the Yahoo team and relocated to Silicon Valley that he really began to speak English fluently. And it wasn’t only English that he needed to master, but the “corporate language” of Yahoo and the “cultural language” of the US. Communication goes far beyond language, he says, and things like Family Guy and nights out playing beer pong went a long way in helping him navigate the world of startups in Silicon Valley.
Passion is key to making your startup successful
Wretch emphasizes that it’s important to go into startups for the right reasons, not just because startups are cool. He says that many founders fall for the romantic startup story without really knowing what they’re getting themselves into. “They need to be driven to do it no matter how bad the external environment is because they love it, and are passionate about it. It’s not good to say: I want to do a startup and then find some idea -- you need to love that idea, you need to want to spend the next three to five years on that thing.”
Mistakes aren’t the problem -- NOT making mistakes is the problem
“I always think mistakes are an advantage of startups,” Wretch says. He points out that the bigger a company is, the fewer mistakes the company can get away with. Therefore, startups should take advantage of their size by making as many mistakes as possible. “Mistakes are valuable, and necessary for building a business or even an industry. If you make mistakes efficiently, you can take advantage of those mistakes if you can catch them early enough.”
When asked about the similarities between his startup story and that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg -- starting in a dorm room, building a product for fellow students, leaving school to pursue his dream -- Wretch jokingly says “That was totally my story! The only difference is that I was born in Taiwan!”
More seriously, he explains that geography should not be a limitation for aspiring founders. Every place has advantages and disadvantages, he explains, but a good entrepreneur knows how to make the pros and cons of each place work. ”Being in Silicon Valley has taught me what separates the really successful entrepreneurs from everyone else,” he says. “You just have to be a better entrepreneur.”