There’s the misconception that founding a company is the result of a solution materializing, and an entrepreneur’s sheer willpower in peddling this solution to potential customers. Instead — how it actually goes is this: founder thinks of idea -> conducts customer discovery -> figures out the problem/solution isn’t actually as valid as they thought -> find another problem space -> iterates on solutions for the problem until they arrive at one that is innovative AND scalable.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Montgomery Ngan and Hannah Le.
Monty graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Economics and Business Analytics. Prior to his current startup, he founded an indigenous language preservation platform in the Philippines, which won the Harvard Social Innovation Competition, was recognised by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and which he left with the Philippine Department of Education. His other work experiences include consulting for McKinsey and Company and working for a real estate development firm in Florida.
Hannah has worked on projects bringing technology to the real estate and finance industries. Hannah’s passionate about bringing the forefront of tech and applying it to archaic industries. Projects she’s worked on include using CRISPR to reverse aging in fruit flies, simulating soft robots to walk on new environments, and personalizing doses for prostate cancer patients at Princess Margaret Hospital. She has presented her research at global conferences such as Microsoft Inspire with President of Microsoft Canada, South by Southwest, #meConvention, #movethedial Global Summit, and more. With both technical knowledge and experience consulting on products for Microsoft A.I. School, TD Bank, and WealthSimple, she is leading software development.
Hannah and Monty are the the founders of Ascend Build, which helps real estate developers, asset managers and property managers optimise their pricing and purchasing decisions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?
Monty: I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. My informal introduction to entrepreneurship started when I co-organized medical missions to provide free healthcare and medicine to underserved rural communities. After seeing how much impact a high schooler could create with enough people-mobilising, I turned my attention to another issue I resonated with — disappearing indigenous languages. In my third year of high school, I founded an educational platform that taught the stories and grammar of a Philippine indigenous language. I pitched it to the Department of Education, which partnered with me to build the platform and launch it. A year later, I graduated from high school. I knew I wanted to learn and build in a world-class environment, and decided to move to the US for college. The itch to create never left me, and I’m building again in a field I became interested in after doing real estate policy research as part of my undergrad.
Hannah: I was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam. As a kid, I have always been inspired by how technologies such as regenerative medicine and A.I. could shape the way humanity operates. I really wanted to be a part of it, but the infrastructure in Vietnam didn’t allow for much exploration at a young age. After reading a research paper on tissue engineering by a lab staged in Toronto, I decided to move to Canada by myself at 16 to get started in wet lab research. Through The Knowledge Society, I followed my curiosity to dive deeper into genetics and machine learning. While working on a generative design bridge project, I realized how 50% of my time was spent aggregating zoning information from 20+ sources, as opposed to the actual design work. After meeting with Monty, who used to work with a developer in Tampa, we both agreed that information in real estate is extremely fragmented. Shortly after, we sought out to build Ascend — the united source of truth for data in real estate, starting with rentals.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We were interested in how generative design could be utilized to create better cities. We started off with this idea and interviewed real estate developers, architects and property managers across Canada and the US. We realised a more pressing problem to real estate developers is the lack of an efficient way to price rental units. We dug more into this — and realised how across the board, data in real estate is disaggregated and hard to visualise. Real estate developers would have rental data that was 3 months old and didn’t show them what the rent differential between a 2bd on the 2nd vs 22nd floor would be. A client of ours told us how they had been looking to solve this, and would pay us if we could build an effective solution. Once we launched, more customers started approaching us! We realized there was a deep need for real estate developers, investors and asset managers to both price their units effectively and de-risk their expansion to new markets.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Hannah: When I was 17, I joined The Knowledge Society — a human accelerator that exposed me to emerging technologies as well as different philosophies and mindsets. It completely changed the way I saw the world. In a short 8 months, I was able to work on genetic engineering tools to reverse aging in fruit flies, simulated soft robots to walk in different environments, ML algorithms to predict cancer before it occurs with and presented my work at Microsoft Inspire alongside the President of Microsoft. I was also exposed to some of the most salient problems that are happening around the world. Before, learning about sciences has always been fun, but now it’s necessary. Through The Knowledge Society, I had the biggest mindset shifts: I have the power and agency to work on these difficult problems to create net positive value for humanity, and I don’t have to wait to make it happen. My first mentors Navid and Nadeem Nathoo, whom I met through TKS, definitely have been foundational to help launch me into the entrepreneurship path.
Monty: Hannah and I are part of a fellowship called Interact. The mentors I’ve met through the community — Michael Akilian, Maran Nelson and Sarah Nahm, among others, have helped me think through being much more intentional about the way I spend my time and the problems I want to solve. They’re all some of the most competent people I know — but also the most grounded and thoughtful. They’ve been a huge influence in the way I’ve gone about my life: letting myself be known more through the quality of my work and the care I put into the relationships I build.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Some of our customers are surprised by how fast we take their feedback and incorporate them into our product. We are obsessed with building a great product and bringing customer delight on a weekly, if not daily basis. To us, our customers are our partners — that means they have our phone numbers and call us at any instance they encounter any bugs or have any inspiring ideas for the product. Building an extremely tight partnership with our customers has enabled us to experiment and take more risks than incumbents, while ensuring that we have a top-notch product that customers love.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Monty: One of the most rewarding things for me is building relationships with driven founders and seeing their growth. I’ve been a mentor for the League of Innovators, a nonprofit incubator dedicated to developing Canadian youth founders. It brings me a lot of joy being able to mentor high school and college founders.
Hannah: I love being the connector and fostering new relationships between current or aspiring founders. By being part of different communities such as Pioneer, Interact Fellowship, or TKS, I find it fulfilling to help out and facilitate new collaborations between people from all different backgrounds.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Storytelling — A large portion of building a business is inspiring others and building strong relationships. When we started out, we had limited resources. When reaching out to people, we always led with our mission — making real estate more transparent. We found a team of 7 students that initially was supposed to help out for the semester. A full year later, 5 of them are still working with us. When we ask why — they say it’s because at any point in time, they know how the work they do (fixing a bug, making a deck, optimizing SEO) will help us get closer to an overall mission they also care about.
- Determination — You never know when you’re one call away from a life changing event. We started an initial version of Ascend (called Prosperea) in March 2020. Our original hypothesis was that utilizing generative design to create optimal building structures could help developers and architects in their roles. We conducted over 70 customer discovery calls where several potential customers said they were interested in helping, but never followed through on purchasing the platform when it came to paying. We continued conducting customer discovery calls though and started hearing a very different story — developers were more interested in de-risking pricing and purchasing decisions. The work of designing initial building massings they trusted architects to do far better than software. About 7 months in — we spoke to a developer who offered to pay us if we built out the rental tool that’s now a core part of our business. If we had given up at any point in those 7 months, we wouldn’t have come to start Ascend.
- Helpfulness — Many of the best opportunities we have had are because of serendipitous interactions with people who believed in our mission and helped us along the way. Our first instinct when meeting someone is to see how we can become additive to their lives. Often, it comes in the form of introductions or sharing resources. It’s through this mindset we’ve met many of our closest friends and mentors. The communities we’re a part of — both formal and informal — are the reasons we’ve been able to supercharge our personal and startup growth. We’re only here because of the mentors that believed in us — and in the same way want to continue connecting people and increasing the rate of serendipitous interactions.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
At the early stage, revenue metrics such as MRR or ARR can be a powerful signal. We realized this can be a double-edged sword. Hyper-focusing only on areas that generate revenue quickly while overlooking the 5–10 year vision of the product can lead you to a local maxima. Once we realized that our generative design tool did not generalize to the larger market, although a few customers may pay a lot for it, we decided to pivot to focus on building something that unites all fragmented data in real estate (a vision we saw addresses the needs of a larger market). At the moment, it felt risky since our first customers were all centered around the generative design concept. We believed that this was the better decision for the company in the long run though and followed through.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We received a lot of “nos” on our journey. I remember there were instances where people thought we were “too young” to be working in real estate, and we had to walk away from nearly 100 calls where there was no success. Although it was disheartening at first, we strongly believe that if we are determined and continuously reiterate, we would be able to build something that people want and add significant value to the world. On the 101th call, we received our first yes. This fueled the momentum for our start-up. People typically consider the runway of an early stage company to be defined just by money, and fail to recognize how equally important it is for the founders to have the faith and mentality to figure it out against all odds.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Finding a group of mentors and peers who inspire you and with whom you can be completely open and vulnerable. We joined a fellowship called Interact where we met with a group of mentors and founders each week. We’d highlight our progress and any changes to the articulation of the problem we were solving, and ask for advice on problems we’re facing. Being super open with a trusted group of peers who were duking it out every week, just like us, helped us put our lows into perspective. Seeing their growth also inspired us — and sharing the joys of their successes would push us through weeks when we were in the midst of a series of rejections.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
1. Spending days not “working” and instead reflecting and thinking. It’s been easy to get stuck in a flow and forget to reflect on our experiences and growth. The growth of your startup depends on your growth as a person. Taking a day (or more) to cleanse your mind and be more introspective helps you become more intentional about your growth and your company vision
2. Immersing ourselves in a community of founders. We’ve weathered many of our lows through the help of other founders in Interact who have gone through the same rejections. Being able to celebrate the highs of your friends and understanding the pain it took to get there puts your lows into perspective
3. Building our mind muscles as much as people optimise for building physical muscle. A very underrated skill that’s helped the both of us is being calm and tough. At the same time, we’ve found several exercises have been very helpful in keeping us intentional. These are: reframing, identifying root causes of problems and addressing them heads on, identifying productive thoughts/worries versus non productive ones.
4. Generating quick wins to build momentum. It’s easy to fall into an emotional slump after hundreds of rejections as a founder. We found creating space for wins and celebrating them helped us get through the lows. Quick wins don’t need to be life changing — it could be building out your website, launching out blog posts, or de-risking a specific hypothesis.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
We’ve met many founders whose first instinct is to raise a bajillion dollars. I’d advise them to be VERY intentional about their company and ask the following:
1) How scalable is your idea? How big is the market and how much of that you can realistically capture? ( anyone can say a market is worth SxBn)
2) If it is big enough — is this something you can see yourself working on for the next 3 years or more?
3) What would you use the money for now?
Many businesses are not venture backable, and we’ve seen founders raise too much capital, too quickly for startups that do not have a scalable business model. Venture backed founders need a very different mindset to a lifestyle business owner who wants to scale more slowly, continue being profitable and pass it on to their kids. The latter is an achievement in itself, but we’ve met many founders who misalign their funding with the way they want to run their businesses. At the same time, taking on venture funding means committing yourself to a problem space for at least a few years. If you’re not sure about this — there are many other ways to get smaller grant funding that can help you de-risk the hypotheses you have about your business and your willingness to work on the problem. There are multiple grants such as Amber and websites like Riipen and Internfromhome where founders can get funding or free intern help. Finally, I’d think about what you would use the money for — is there a need to start scaling or can you take on non-dilutive grants first? In our case — we chose not to raise money even after being presented with term sheets early on because we wanted to be very intentional about testing our hypotheses in the market, and only taking dilutive capital when we start scaling rapidly.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Be customer-focused vs solution oriented
There’s the misconception that founding a company is the result of a solution materializing, and an entrepreneur’s sheer willpower in peddling this solution to potential customers. Instead — how it actually goes is this: founder thinks of idea -> conducts customer discovery -> figures out the problem/solution isn’t actually as valid as they thought -> find another problem space -> iterates on solutions for the problem until they arrive at one that is innovative AND scalable. We thought we would sell developers on automating building outline generation — instead we found out the problem they were all focused on is a lack of centralized and easily digestible sources of data to make decisions with. Our solutions have been focused on different iterations of this problem statement since.
2. Take a hypothesis driven approach
Hypotheses enable you to have a set of beliefs to drive towards with intense focus, but ones which you’re never too stuck in to change if evidence convinces you otherwise. Over the past 8 months, we’ve kept track on a weekly basis of the top hypotheses we’ve had about our market. When we started it was: “Site feasibility research is a time consuming task for real estate developers and can be automated”. Now, it’s “Maximising access to real time data and visualisations will have a significant impact on de-risking pricing and purchasing decisions in the real estate industry”. Within that, we’ve segmented potential customers into more granular personas (e.g. brokers, asset managers, lenders). Having this data now allows us to run tests to better determine which customer segment our hypothesis holds most true for. If false, we move on. Being hypothesis driven has helped us iterate on and experiment with different ideas and customer types with more focus and intentionality.
3. Invest in mentors and relationships
We could not be where we are today without mentors and friends who put their bets on us early on. I remember early on, when we were struggling to find key industry contacts, some of our first mentors Daniel Dubois, Nathan Palin, and Jake McEwan were so generous to help and introduce us to some of our first clients. They helped us refine our value propositions and navigate early customer conversations that were key to the growth of us as founders and Ascend. Starting something has its emotional ups and downs, so building a support network and finding your tribe early on is key to overcoming those struggles and celebrating quick wins together, all of which become the fuel that propel your start-up forward.
4. Know when vs not to scale
It’s easy to want your baby to grow as quickly as you can. Going full speed when your wheels have a tear on it only causes your car to break down faster though. After our first client signed on with us last November — we were ecstatic. We thought we were ready to launch a rocket ship and build out a sales team. Our mentors counseled us to work on our product more, flesh out processes and be very intentional about how and when we wanted to grow the company. If we had scaled then, we would have burned money selling a platform that had not yet solved (and is still constantly iterating on) the root cause of our clients problems.
5. Think long-term
Think about how paradigm shifting your solution can be for your problem space. Customer discovery calls often give you only incremental changes — it’s up to you to synthesize these and think about longer-term impact. When interviewing our clients for future features- we noticed many of them suggested souped up versions of products they had seen on the market. If we listened to everything our customers said — we would have created a platform similar to our competitors and focused solely on improving visualisation of rent and land transactions. Instead — we realised a lot of their pains came from a lack of easy access to real time, granular data that affected rental and purchase decisions. Because of this, we’ve set our sights on becoming a universal source of truth for real estate data instead of just a visualisation tool.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
1) Scaling too quickly — we see many founders ramp up their team when they haven’t found a good product fit or have an unsustainable business model. We’ve seen many founders go all-out too early, ramp up their sales team and have to lay off early employees after realising they were chasing a problem that customers didn’t care about solving enough or was too small.
2) Become emotionally attached to a solution — In psychology, there is a cognitive bias called the “IKEA effect”, where humans place a disproportionately high value on things that they create. If you give birth to a baby, it’s difficult to kill that baby. One way to overcome this is to be hypothesis and data driven. Ask yourself what five things that need to be true for the business to be successful, and design your product in a way where you can collect data to test those hypotheses. If any hypothesis fails, that means one should perhaps reflect on the problem and the solution they’re developing. When you need to, kill your baby.
3) Ensuring a strong and transparent relationship among co-founders — Many early stage companies fizzle out because of founder conflicts. Squashing any misunderstandings quickly and having open channels between co founders to surface conflicting thoughts is critical. A best practice we’ve seen is having co-founders work on a mini-project together first and test interpersonal fit before committing to working together full-time.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Figure out what gives you the most rest. Personally, I (Monty) get the most energy from interacting with people — whether it’s exchanging ideas with acquaintances or spending time with friends. I used to think I could spend an entire week grinding out projects without seeing anyone but burned out by Friday. I forgot I was about ~98% extraverted and actively gain energy from being around people. Once I realised this, I started scheduling activities like customer discovery calls — one of my favourite parts of being a founder — towards the end of the day to give me an energy boost. During the day, quick activities I’ve found that bring me the most rest are 1) meditating, 2) going on walks and 3) working out. Find activities that are most restorative to you, and build in time when you tire out to do them.
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. 🙂
Moving to North America and trying to found a company as an immigrant was hard for us. For most of our entrepreneurial lives we’ve had to rely on a patchwork of blog posts, calls to pro-bono lawyers, and hearing best practices through the grapevine. There is no organised method of helping immigrant founders, especially those from Asia where both Hannah and I grew up. I’m in the early stages of building out TBA — an organization connecting high-potential Asian immigrants (creatives, founders, etc.) with already established Asian leaders in the US to help them navigate building their dreams in a country where it’s still surprisingly hard to navigate starting something of your own as an immigrant. If you want to be an early joiner of our community email us at [email protected]!
We are blessed that some very prominent 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Brandon Turner — we first became interested in real estate after listening to his Bigger Pocket’s podcast. The work he’s done to make real estate investing more accessible is awesome. We would love to chat with him about community creation, as well as his thoughts on tech gaps real estate investors face.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Hannah: Twitter or LinkedIn
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!