Wenming Kuai of ION Take Charge: “You have to know what customers need”

You have to know what customers need. Any App, SaaS, or software has to meet a business or personal need. To succeed as a business, it cannot just be based on cool technologies. People do not pay for your technology if they do not need it. VR (Virtual Reality) Movies are a failed example. As part […]

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You have to know what customers need. Any App, SaaS, or software has to meet a business or personal need. To succeed as a business, it cannot just be based on cool technologies. People do not pay for your technology if they do not need it. VR (Virtual Reality) Movies are a failed example.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wenming Kuai.

Wenming holds a Ph.D. in Math and M.S. in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is an experienced business executive with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry. Mr. Kuai developed the concept for the ION platform in 2017 and has spent four years on its research and development.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Before creating the ION app, a digital workplace, I had been running GBTI Solutions, an IT services company, for 12 years. Since its founding in 2005, GBTI has provided IT services to companies like HSBC, Citi, General Motors, Sprint, Coca Cola Enterprise, Anthem, Wells Fargo, American Red Cross, Isbank (in Turkey), and Mobinil (in Egypt). Additionally, GBTI has provided IT services to federal and local governments — clients include the Department of Homeland Security, Library of Congress, Railroad Retirement Board, Department of Education, Department of Veterans Affairs, US Department of Agriculture, US Navy, US Army, US House of Representatives, and Peace Corps.

I graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Master’s degree in Computer and Information Science and a Ph.D. degree in Mathematics. My Ph.D. dissertation was on Neural Networks, combining computer science and mathematics. That was in the 1980s when machine learning was not as prominent as it is today.

After graduation, I joined Quantum Development Corporation and participated in and led the development of an Artificial Intelligence product called Quantum Leap. In marketing the product, the most significant barrier was our customers’ knowledge gap in using the advanced technologies. I helped start the service practice. Having realized how essential professional support is for clients in technology adoption, I joined Cap Gemini and KPMG Consulting to learn the service business. I then joined the software company Chordiant and supported the development and implementation of its CRM, Workflow, and Rules products.

I founded GBTI with the philosophy that the success of any project is pivoted on a few good people, serving as the nucleus of the team. With that philosophy at the core and a laser focus on getting good people, GBTI was uniquely able to enter the federal market very quickly. I had the concept for the ION platform in 2017and have spent four years in its research and development. It is now in Beta production. ION Take Charge, Inc. was formed in April 2021 to market and operate ION, with the official launch targeted for March 1st, 2022.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

GBTI had an established system for sourcing and vetting candidates which proved to be very successful. Or it was so until later in 2017. I interviewed a candidate for the DevOps position. During the background investigation, I discovered that the candidate used another person’s resume and hired a proxy from India in conducting the phone interview. This person exploited the remote nature of the process. It was a shocking discovery and made me realize that the world has changed, and we must change with it.

Trust of supply has become a serious issue. You can have trusted companies in your supply chain, but the trust issue is rooted in people in the remote work environment. Unless we solve this trust issue, remote work will always remain on the sideline of opportunities for employees and employers alike. Since then, I began examining a technology solution to solve this human trust of supply issue. That journey led to blockchain technology which was designed to solve the trust issue through zero-trust mechanisms.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In implementing a complete and trusted digital workplace to support remote work based on blockchain technology, we ran up against some technical challenges. Although blockchain technology shows a lot of promise, use cases for commercial applications are still very rare. One problem with blockchain technology in creating security measures is the recoverability of its prime keys. The NIST security standard requires user keys to be recoverable, but blockchain technology is inherently designed so that keys are unrecoverable. We can solve the recoverability issue, but that can lead to user privacy breach issues. There was no known solution at the time to solve these problems.

In order to overcome these security challenges, we realized we would need to redirect our resources to dive into intense research and quickly. The issue added is that research is costly and requires substantial funding, and we had lost our service revenue by refocusing our science and engineering resources.

With reduced service revenue and increased spending, the outlook was dim, and things got hard. We pushed efforts forward based on the solid belief that our solution will help our country be more secure and provide many a better quality of life.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

We got a big break in 2018 when we landed on a small business innovative research (SBIR) contract from the US Special Operations Command. We got SBIR Phase I and Phase II with a total of 2.4M dollars funding. This allowed us to conduct the necessary research, solve the technical challenges we were up against, design and develop the app, and complete the Beta production release.

We are still enhancing the app, but we are able to get most resources back to services. We plan to build up the vendor population (individuals and small businesses) to 10,000 before the platform is officially launched.

In the meantime, GBTI and partners will be the main buyers and the distributors. GBTI has developed a consortium of 30 small, medium and large businesses to jointly pursue federal opportunities. Some of them have already signed up as distributors to promote ION to their customer base. We will continually expand our distribution network to include more partners.

Unlike many innovative technologies, vendors have to convince the users why they need them. With ION, everyone I’ve spoken with sees the need for the app, the value, and its vast potential. Our grit and resilience have led us to the creation of a powerful application. The same determination and stability will help us overcome the many more challenges lying ahead of us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When we first started, we were thinking of launching a new cryptocurrency called IONCoin. This would allow us to use ICO (initial coin offering) to quickly raise funds without going through the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) approval process. That distracted us from building a functional application to achieve our goal of a fully trusted digital workplace with tight security and privacy measures.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out in many ways. We can identify the following as primary ones:

  • We focus on the trust of human supply and designed it from the ground up;
  • We designed ION to allow mega projects from the federal government and large corporations to be delivered on the platform;
  • We designed ION to bring work to people no matter where they are;
  • We designed ION to help people overcome the difficulties in starting up their own businesses;
  • We designed ION to allow people to have a career entirely from remote work.

The federal government faces a severe talent shortage issue. The workforce above age 60 and those below 30 have a 3 to 1 ratio. In the technical area, it is 5 to 1. With baby boomers retiring fast from the federal workforce and not enough people to replenish it, the large number of legacy systems will not have enough people to maintain them. If we do not solve this problem, we face a national security issue. Because we live a lot longer, many retired workers choose to take up some part-time remote work after they enjoy full retirement for a few years and visit all the places they want to see. They do not wish to fight commuter traffic and be bound to a single location. ION provides a perfect solution for the retired federal workers to help maintain the legacy systems continuously.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Consider having a hobby that you can easily switch in and out of work. You may not want to pick a recreation like skiing or cave diving that takes a lot of preparation and requires extended time away from work. However, considering getting outside, doing some yard work, visiting the park, Taiji practice, playing a musical instrument, or simply watching a movie would all fit the bill. When you get frustrated with running your business, just put the work down and pick up your hobby to let steam out. After you return from a short break, you may find a problem that felt so big now feels a lot smaller.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

In my case, it is not a single person. I am lucky to have met with many great people along the way who helped me get to where I am today. The first person was John Sanders, a former IBM partner. The second person was Gary Haddon, a former IBM project manager. The third person is Michael Martys, an Automation Officer from the Library of Congress. John helped me get GBTI started. Gary helped me get GBTI expanded. Mike helped GBTI enter the federal market. I had a personal relationship with John and Gary before I founded GBTI. Mike and I had never met before our first contract with the Library of Congress.

When we planned to enter the federal market, I talked to several experienced business developers from small and large businesses. Their advice was that I needed to be prepared to spend two years and a quarter-million dollars to make it happen. Without working for the federal government for a single day and without having a relationship with a single person inside the federal government, my odds were even lower. After seeing an opportunity from the Library of Congress in 2010 that perfectly matched our capabilities, we submitted our proposal and forgot about it. Soon after that, we received a contract award. That was less than six months from our initial planning, beating all odds. Mike picked us purely based on our technical merits, not on prior relationships. Then Mike and I met and had a long talk. We shared a lot of the same philosophy. That was our very first prime contract and the beginning of a long journey in the federal market. People who value you just based on your technical merits, not through a filtered lens, are a pure gem. Mike is one of them.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Due to the focus on the trust of human supply, we do not just let everyone register as users to inflate the numbers. Our system has already blocked many robots and fake users from registering. Due to this unique feature of our platform and what it will accomplish, we have chosen to keep our platform in beta as we build our initial user base to 10,000 contractors (we call them vendors on ION); we aim to launch in 2022 officially. We currently interact with about 5,000 contractors and take time to put them through the vetting process. We also educate our users that it is in their best interest to wait a little longer to ensure that all users’ reputations and the platform are protected.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We let vendors register and use ION for free. Buyers also use ION for free to collaborate in the requirements creation with a limited number of users. If the number of users from a buyer exceeds a specific number, we charge each user a transaction fee. We also charge a transaction fee when a buyer makes a purchase from a vendor. We have considered using the current pricing model of the freelancing platforms, which charge vendors subscription and transaction fees. We decided not to use this option because we do not believe people should spend money before making money. Another reason is that ION is focused on megaprojects with massive budgets. Buyers have the financial means to pay for the fees.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. You have to know what customers need. Any App, SaaS, or software has to meet a business or personal need. To succeed as a business, it cannot just be based on cool technologies. People do not pay for your technology if they do not need it. VR (Virtual Reality) Movies are a failed example.
  2. You must have privacy and security built into it. Any App, SaaS, or Software is susceptible to cyberattacks. If you cannot protect users’ privacy and business security, users will not be confident in using it. SolarWinds can afford to have security breaches. But when you start an app, a single incident can kill your business.
  3. You must put top priority on user interface and user experience (UI/UX). Many powerful technologies fail in the market because users have trouble using them. Apps like TikTok are very successful, not because of the underlying technology, rather the intuitive user interfaces.
  4. You must have user support. No matter how good your UI/UX design is, users will have questions and issues. If they do not have timely support, they will quit using it. A Zendesk study shows that nearly three out of five consumers report that good customer service is vital for them to feel loyalty toward a brand.
  5. Your product must adapt quickly. Technologies change very quickly. Emerging technologies today may become obsolete in five years. But you cannot wait five years before you upgrade your technologies. AOL faded because it failed to adapt.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Yes, with ION, we have indeed started a movement.

Please read our ION Manifesto from the ION home page: https://home.ionnaire.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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