“Leading instead of following.” With Douglas Brown & Allison Huynh

Leading instead of following. Try to find a new angle to solving a known problem. Many people are not good at test-taking. There are expensive test prep classes that cannot be afforded by a lot of people. My new product solves that financial disparity.Validation — talk to your ideal customers and use that feedback from […]

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Leading instead of following. Try to find a new angle to solving a known problem. Many people are not good at test-taking. There are expensive test prep classes that cannot be afforded by a lot of people. My new product solves that financial disparity.

Validation — talk to your ideal customers and use that feedback from every interaction to improve your product and customer service.

Investor relationships are essential. Keep your investors fully informed about good news but especially bad news. No surprises. When you need more money, it will be a lot easier.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Huynh, CEO and creative vision behind MyDream Interactive a software and development studio focused on making immersive experiences, games, cryptocurrency, and other digital products with a purpose.

In addition to award-winning games that are fun to play, the company is dedicated to creating educational entertainment and recently released Adoraboos, an interactive learning app and game, that helps kids with vocabulary, SAT/ACT prep, and learning blockchain concepts. As an engineer and research scientist at Stanford University and a mom of three teenagers, developing lifelong learners is Allison’s passion, which is why she developed Adoraboos to provide a virtual learning platform to help her kids learn about new subjects and prepare for college exams.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My interest in education was sparked at a very young age. My father was a pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force; and I was born in Vietnam just as the war was ending. My family and I were not allowed to leave, but we eventually made our way to Alaska as refugees. I couldn’t speak a word of English, but I had a teacher who truly cared about me and was passionate about helping me learn. I quickly became an English speaker; and it was at that point that I decided that I too would someday inspire others and help children learn.

In school, I excelled in math and sciences and received a scholarship to Stanford, focusing on computer science. There, I developed a desire to create my own tech-related business; however, when I married and had three wonderful children, I became a full-time mom for many years and put that dream on hold. Little did I know, motherhood would further inspire me as I leveraged experience from being a mom of teenagers to identify a gap in the gaming industry for test prep education, positive role models, non-violence, and creativity in the games kids play. I wanted to create a fun product to serve those needs. I saw unmet needs for teenagers and used my engineering skills — and a dose of imagination — to create my company’s core product.

One of my teens is super smart but not so good with test-taking. So, I developed this product to help her improve her test-taking skills — which is a requirement for any college-bound student. Our gamified test prep makes learning and prepping for vocabulary and technical jargon a breeze. And, this easy learning approach can be applied to professional education for technical sales reps as well as graduate student entrance exams like the LSAT and the GMAT.

As an engineer with a STEM background, I am in a unique position to implement my creative vision by designing games for millions of kids and families and creating better test score outcomes through Adoraboos, our at-home learning app that is helping kids during the global pandemic. My kids are always finding new ways to learn, even as we are doing distance learning; and they are always inspiring me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

One insightful story is an experience I had with my daughter that inspired me to solve a big problem. My daughter is a highly creative, non-linear thinker. Although she is great at problem-solving, she never did well on tests. I shared my concerns with my colleagues and we were able to design a set of mini-games to help people of all ages prepare for tests, whether they be SAT, ACT, LSAT, or some other professional exam. Even though students may know the subject, they may not be good at test-taking. Adoraboos makes test preparation and learning new topics really fun, like playing a game. This taught me that we can take insights from practical dilemmas we have in real life.

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?

There was a time when I needed to edit a PDF to send to a potential investor, but I wasn’t sure how. This was not something that was taught at Stanford back in the day. Thank God, I have some tech-savvy teenagers in Silicon Valley. I learned that even in this position as a leader, it’s important to ask for help when it’s needed. I also learned that it helps to have young sharp minds around and to bake their favorite cheesecake whenever I ask for help!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that 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?

One of the most difficult trials I faced early on was trying to be a perfectionist right at the start. Being a passionate visionary can be tough when the technology takes longer than expected or the first product doesn’t turn out as well as desired. I had to learn early on to accept that I don’t have to be perfect at the get-go. For example, we were designing the characters for the Adoraboos and we wanted the horns and face to be perfect. We, perhaps, spent too much time talking and designing the animals to be cute and adorable. We designed a total of 12 versions and tested them. At the end of the day, people loved the first version. From this, I learned that sometimes your gut reaction and the first iteration works best. It’s important to test early and often; and believe in yourself. Technology companies and all company development requires iterations and refinement. The most important part of making mistakes and trial and error is learning from them very quickly. Don’t wait until the twelfth version to test things out like me!

It is easy to get caught up in the product journey and magnify and catastrophize every failure or mistake. Even during times where I wanted to give up, I reminded myself of why I started and to enjoy the journey. I encourage anyone who is building their dream to not lose sight of what you are aiming to achieve in the big picture. Trust your intuition so that you will come out on the other side as the totality of the product comes into focus. Stay the course, but get feedback early on.

None of us are able to 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 about that?

I’m really grateful that MyDream has such a great team, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such talented, dedicated individuals. I’m especially grateful to Matt and Tammy Laverty, who are such gifted artists and product specialists.

I have also been befriended by Myron Scholes, the brilliant financial economist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Myron has been so encouraging, and his wise advice is grounded in his lifetime of success in academia and the investment world. I am so fortunate and grateful for his mentoring and friendship.

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

My favorite quote is “This above all — “To thine own self be true” — William Shakespeare. It’s relevant to me because I follow my passions and interests; and if I am being true to myself, I know I can’t go wrong!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the main point that your company is helping to address? What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At MyDream, we are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. I encourage everyone to think in creative ways that forge new pathways, such as making education, AI and robotics accessible to all. For example, there are many test prep apps and many fun, casual addictive games for kids. We decided to combine these two genres and create a satisfying, addictive way to learn test prep for subjects that otherwise would be tedious.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m currently working on a really exciting and life-changing project with Prof. Ken Salisbury at Stanford University to develop a robotic third arm that will help people with disabilities and the elderly population to be more active in society. From my observations, there are very limited options available and one robotic arm does not fit all. Most robotic arms are industrial and are used to automate manufacturing. We are making these arms low-cost and bringing some of the functionality to end consumers. We are hard at work, discovering ways to make our technology more accessible and useful to people with disabilities, senior citizens, women, and anyone in need.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’m excited to see more women on boards and in positions of leadership in tech companies. Peggy Johnson, who was so successful at Microsoft and skyrocketed through glass ceilings at several major tech companies, is a role model for me. Hiring more women is not just the right thing to do socially, but it’s the right thing to do for your business.

I am happy that women in tech are emerging and “creating a league of their own” much like women’s tennis in the 70s with Billie Jean King, and lately with women’s soccer and basketball leagues.

Startups and VCs operate similarly to the NFL in that both create, buy, and sell equity. For decades, they have been male-only leagues. Women now are creating niches and markets in Silicon Valley such as dating apps that allow women to have control (Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel) and clothing sites (Rent the Runway).

As a mother and entrepreneur, I was able to identify vacuums in the market and develop products the market is seeking. My education app, Adoraboos, and my robotic third arm at the Stanford lab are a result of my combined experiences as an entrepreneur, scientist, mother, programmer, and designer.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

There is no doubt that gender roles are changing — but not rapidly enough. Gender stereotypes are still holding women back. I’m often asked, “How do you juggle being a CEO and having a family?” My male counterparts are rarely asked this question. It will take a cultural shift in changing attitudes towards women and breaking down stereotypes.

Young women must be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM. Women can’t make it to tech companies when their STEM interest is discouraged early on. Stereotypes and cultural norms smother girls’ interest in STEM. Educators should encourage girls to pursue these subjects.

Next, we need to champion female mentorship to combat gender inequity. Mentoring is one lever we can activate to advance more women in their work and help them gain access to capital and economic opportunities they might otherwise lack. I was lucky enough to have a mentor as I started my first company; and it was incredibly important in my growth and development as an entrepreneur.

My advice to women in tech is don’t compare yourself to others; and especially, don’t compare yourself to your male counterpart! It’s important to create companies that have a unique, personal vision for the future you want to live in.

It’s also important to leverage your unique experience. In my case, my adult life experience has been as a mother and a mother of teenagers. I have seen the gap in the gaming industry and the lack of useful, fun products to help with test prep. I have also envisioned wearable robotic products for women, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. My dream has always been to have positive role models and creativity in the games kids play (instead of violence) and to create products and services that fulfilled those needs. I was not the only one to see these unmet needs — millions of women voice the same concerns. But I decided to do something to address these challenges. It’s important to find your niche and do what compels you.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Even successful businesses have moments when growth plateaus. The most important thing to do is to use data to quickly diagnose the cause of the stall and make swift changes, even if that means shifting your strategy, reimagining your company, or some sort of organizational design. In order to boost growth or sales when things look dire, you must be transparent and address the reasons as to why things have slowed down. Sometimes difficult questions need to be answered. Why have sales slowed? Are there low-cost competitors that have not been addressed? Is there a shift in consumer valuation? Do I need to make significant management changes? It’s important to continue the innovative process and to constantly pivot to stay current and fresh in the consumers’ minds.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Companies can create very high performing sales teams by being agile and insight-driven as products, markets, regulations, and customer needs evolve at an increasingly rapid rate. Consumers’ needs are in constant influx.

For example, look at the needs of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual needs are completely different from what they were a year ago. A company’s sales team needs to constantly reassess the demand for products and services based on the cultural landscape. They should be ready to adapt to a changing marketplace by being customer-focused. Predicting future trends and applications is integral to having a successful sales team.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Being authentic and honest is more important than exaggeration. The market quickly discovers hype; and if you don’t have a quality product addressing demonstrated needs, you will fail. I try to be authentic in my approach. I can teach people and children with my app, but I don’t promise to do anything in 30 days or try to hype the product in any way. I think that people are attracted to that candor.

I also make it a priority to respond to feedback and reviews by listening and making changes to the product. It’s so clear that the user experience needs to be meaningful, valuable, and effective. The customer you acquire now can be a long-term customer if you establish a relationship of trust and reliability.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

We are product-centric and have forums and feedback for all our products so we can gather customer feedback to make our products better. I do think it’s important early on to be very niche and really solve the problems for your small community. This will give you a loyal following who will follow you as you create new products and services in the future. There’s a lot of talk about finding the largest markets possible and building products to fit those markets. The truth is that women are the vast majority of consumers. If you have a passion for something, you will be passionate about sharing your experience with your customers. That passion will come through in the customer service experience; and it will likely create a domino effect with your employees, who will absorb that passion and momentum to make customer service great.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

My advice is to ask yourself key questions like what are the top three problems customers have with your product? Is it speed or ease of use? Is it the cost? Then interview your customers or send out a survey. I have even used online systems like Survey Monkey to elicit customer feedback. Sometimes consumers will provide feedback for free or I will sometimes give incentives like a gift certificate to fill out a very detailed survey. Once we have one hundred different surveys, then we use our analytics to make meaningful changes and figure out the features or services the customers really want and where we can improve.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Impact first, return on capital later.

With Adoraboos, we are making it free to play. We are most focused on providing value by improving vocabulary and helping kids improve their SAT/ACT proficiency. Money is just a measurement of impact.

2. Authenticity

I developed Adoraboos because one of my kids is not good at test-taking, although she’s very intelligent. Smart kids and people don’t necessarily take tests well. However, tests are a part of our lives: Bar Exam, MCAT, SAT, ACT. This is something that was a reality to me, and I first solved the problem for me and my family.

3. Leading instead of following

Try to find a new angle to solving a known problem. Many people are not good at test-taking. There are expensive test prep classes that cannot be afforded by a lot of people. My new product solves that financial disparity.

4. Validation — talk to your ideal customers and use that feedback from every interaction to improve your product and customer service.

5. Investor relationships are essential. Keep your investors fully informed about good news but especially bad news. No surprises. When you need more money, it will be a lot easier.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. 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. 🙂

The landscape is changing. You can be a player and equity owner, and not just sit on the sidelines of the NFL and Silicon Valley. Create a league of your own. We are seeing more and more examples of this in the tech sector. We women in tech are striving to form alliances and to learn from each other about how to build successful companies and overcome our unique challenges. We are also still forming our social networks to help mentor the next generation and help each other.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

Whitney Wolfe from Bumble, and the Jennifers of Rent the Runway, and the Kang sisters from Coffee Meets Bagel. Each had specific insights into the markets because of who they were and brought ideas to the market that their male counterparts might not have discovered, much less know how to address. Like them, I am an innovator who has found new needs that have led me to develop new solutions. My parting advice is to dream about a better future and chase that dream. As John Lennon famously sang: “You may say I’m a dreamer.”

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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