Managing people is the hardest part of the job: Though revenue growth, fundraising, and product/market fit are all difficult problems to solve, what keeps me up most nights is the people. I intentionally invest a lot of my own time and resources to making Bokksu an inspiring, transparent, and fun workplace for my employees. Despite all that effort and high employee satisfaction, turnover happens. However, I’m happy to report that the intentional into building a good culture does pay off because we have seen very little attrition among our team over the last four years.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Taing, founder and CEO of Bokksu. Bokksu is the first global platform, marketplace and community for discovering authentic Japanese snack foods by directly partnering with local family makers to deliver both their snacks and stories to people worldwide. Taing is an entrepreneur, business pioneer and cultural advocate.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Danny! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Thank you for having me! My parents were Chinese-Cambodian refugees of the Khmer Rouge and, in 1979, fortunately found their way to New York City where I was born a few years later. Growing up, I saw them both work hard and overcome challenges every day despite their lack of English proficiency and educational background. A large part of my inspiration and motivation to start and grow my own business is thanks to having watched my parents do the same thing despite much tougher odds.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I’ve always been deeply passionate about Japanese food and culture, which is why I moved to Tokyo after college and ended up living and working there for four years. After moving back to NYC, I had naturally brought back a large suitcase full of my favorite Japanese snacks I discovered during my time there. After just one housewarming party, the entire suitcase of snacks was devoured by my friends, which is when I realized that it wasn’t just me, other Americans also loved Japanese snacks, but they didn’t know how to find and access them.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
The most important and efficient way to test a good idea is to create an MVP (minimum viable product) and launch it as early as possible. Without getting the product/service into the hands of consumers early and re-iterating off their feedback, it is almost impossible for founders to find product/market fit by themselves. For example, I beta launched Bokksu from concept to prototype in just two months using snacks and paper boxes I purchased retail in order to start taking beta subscribers and surveying them for how to improve the product.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
First, I would strongly advise that not every single hobby or pastime needs to become a career. There are a lot of conditions that need to be met such as if there’s a need for the new product, if there’s a large enough addressable market, if the margins will be good enough to operate a business, and so on. If many of those conditions are sufficient, then start small with the MVP and test running the business to see if they enjoy turning their hobby into a living.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
For me, it’s by having a grand ambitious vision for my passion and business. It was fun and exciting in the beginning to create the best authentic Japanese snack box, but my long-term mission is to create the world’s first e-commerce and media platform for Japanese culture discovery. By always having the next big challenge waiting ahead, even after clearing a milestone, I’m able to stay motivated and inspired.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
The best part of running my own business is that I get to choose who I work with, so I truly love going to work every day as I genuinely like my entire team. Having a harmonious and motivated team is of utmost importance especially in a small startup, which is why I interview most intensely for culture fit. Consequently, my employees are also the most difficult part of running my own business because despite investing significant energy, time, and money into creating an open, inspiring, and fun work environment, sometimes life happens and teammates have to move on for uncontrollable reasons.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I first started my business, I truly thought there would come a time, after having worked hard enough, when everything would get easier and the business would run itself. I’ve now learned that as your company grows, there are always new challenges you never expected such as scalability, human resources, global market trends, and so many more.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
This happens way more often than people think! When I get into those moments, I have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to remind myself that despite the current hiccup, things aren’t that bad. I’ve fortunately had the experience of having had “real” jobs at larger established companies like Google and Rakuten, so I can easily remind myself that those work environments don’t inspire and motivate me the same way that running my own business does.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the first year of trying everything to scrappily grow Bokksu, we reached out to many influencers on YouTube in hopes of securing in-kind agreements since we didn’t have any marketing budget for paid ads or sponsorship. We found great success with some of the influencers we worked with, in particular, with one Cosplayer, who gave us great unboxing review videos that always converted some new customers. It was only four months into working with this YouTube Cosplayer that we discovered she also used those same costumes on very different video platforms to create content that was much more let’s say, adult-friendly, than it was kid-friendly. We were surprised and bemused, however our brand never appeared in the other videos.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Without a doubt, my father has been the biggest inspiration and had the most impact on my desire to be a great leader. Despite massive language and educational barriers, he worked his way up from washing dishes in a restaurant to starting his own wholesale business to still successfully running it to this day.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m proud of having impacted the world in three distinct positive ways:
- By directly partnering with 100+ year old family snack businesses throughout Japan and delivering their products and stories worldwide, I’m able to help sustain and empower their traditional craft, culture, and history.
- For other people like me throughout the world who are passionate about Japanese food and culture, but are tired of one-dimensional portrayals of Japan (Pokemon, geisha, etc.), I’ve created a real bridge for them to taste and experience many deeper facets of Japanese culture.
- I’m most proud of having created a safe space where my teammates can bring their full authentic selves to work every day and be heard regardless of gender, race, and more.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It only gets harder with more challenges as you scale up: I naively used to think that once I simply hit the next big milestone (xx revenue, xx subscribers, etc.), things would become smooth sailing and I could have some more time for personal life. However, I soon realized that by hitting each new milestone, new challenges would pop up that we would have to deal with both in the short-term and long-term from not being able to fulfill boxes fast enough when we experienced hyper-growth to having to do risk hedging planning for natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
- Managing people is the hardest part of the job: Though revenue growth, fundraising, and product/market fit are all difficult problems to solve, what keeps me up most nights is the people. I intentionally invest a lot of my own time and resources to making Bokksu an inspiring, transparent, and fun workplace for my employees. Despite all that effort and high employee satisfaction, turnover happens. However, I’m happy to report that the intentional into building a good culture does pay off because we have seen very little attrition among our team over the last four years.
- Do not sign long-term contracts: Even if the relationship with the vendor/partner seems to be good at first, you will never know how they perform until you begin working with them. So it is important to never sign 1-year or more term contracts without exit clauses as you might need to exit that relationship earlier.
- It is never too early for good financial accounting: Though it might seem like it’s not important with all the other things you need to do in an early-stage startup, financial accounting is vital for not only understanding one’s own unit economics and growth strategy, but also to save a lot of the money you will have to pay down the line to an accounting or law firm to fix the books if they’re a mess.
- You will fail and make mistakes, and that’s OK: Nobody is perfect and knows how to do everything the best way from the start. What’s most important is to own up to the mistakes, learn from them, and reiterate to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is true of product development, marketing, human resources, and every other aspect of running a business.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible 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 absolutely need more Asian-American business leaders, and the best way to make it happen is to support and empower each other as a community. I would never have been able to grow Bokksu to where it is today without the help of friends and mentors along each step of the way. This is why I intentionally connect with the next generation of Asian-American entrepreneurs to help freely give advice and introduce them to my network, which I hope in turn inspires them to do the same for the next generation after them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In direct contrast to the widely-accepted mantras in the startup world of “growing at all costs” and “breaking things along the way”, my father drew on his own experience of running a company for over 30 years and advised me from the beginning that “successful businesses are not built overnight”. Though it’s the hyper-growing startups with huge fundraising rounds that steal the spotlight in press mentions and more, there’s also a huge inherent risk of growing too quickly as growth comes at a cost and can be very expensive. Seeing his real-life example of building his business brick by brick over many years allows me to take a step back and assess my own startup with a critical eye and see that it’s not necessary to 10x every year as long as we continue to grow and operate sustainably.
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I truly admire Ali Wong for her hilarious, non-apologetic, and authentic messages about what it’s like being an Asian woman in modern American society. She broke barriers and expectations with her first Netflix stand-up and continues to do so with her writing, acting roles, and overall success.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.