Get Creative. You’re solving a problem because it still exists. Clearly, the way it’s being addressed today isn’t working and likely, for good reason. So, in addressing your own challenges along the way, it’s critical to be creative. Sometimes the most obscene, out of this world solutions are the only ones that make sense. I ran poker games to pay for developers, slept on airport floors to avoid crazy NYC housing, and lured customers and advisors in on the premise of being a guest speaker (and then planned the entire event around them). The list of crazy things I did to get the job done are endless.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Annee Ngo.
Annee Ngo is an innovator, tech-maven, and the Co-Founder and CEO of SoftServe, a customizable, game-based learning platform designed to teach and empower soft-skills in middle school and high school students.
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?
When I was 10, my brother and I hosted a lemonade stand where we sold our Mom’s soda-infused, sweetened limeade. In elementary school, I made crafts from home and sold them to my classmates for quarters (my best seller was a threaded friendship bracelet). And in high school, I took on the marketing class and sold snacks to my neighbours from out of my locker. Although I never imagined a career in entrepreneurship (I didn’t even know it was a thing back then), looking back, it seems as though it was always with me.
Instead, I was on the trajectory to work on Bay Street in Toronto as a corporate lawyer. But, an opportunity to build my first company quickly took me back home to Vancouver. At the time, I was enthralled by the sport nutrition and supplement world. I saw what it had done for me personally and wanted to share this knowledge with the rest of the world. My partner and I raised 40,000 dollars through family and friends to open up our first retail store.
While the business would eventually grow into multiple locations and evolve from retail into distribution, I saw our opportunity shrinking as new entries into the space included e-commerce giants like bodybuilding.com and Amazon. This is when I left for San Francisco to better understand how tech would impact our business. Instead, I learned how tech would impact the world. I was immersed in communities of people that aspired to solve the biggest problems and saw no barriers.
Inspired, I decided I was going to spend the rest of my life teaching entrepreneurship. I found my way into my second company, ProtoHack, where I would eventually take on the role of President and Co-Founder. Within two years, we would host ProtoHack’s code-free innovation challenges (hackathons) for over 20,000 aspiring entrepreneurs in over 30 cities around the globe.
There was a moment when we were hosting ProtoHack for TED in Vancouver when we realized that the challenges these C-Level Executives from Fortune 500 companies had were the exact same problems that the high school students we grew up with had. Every group we encountered over the years had the same difficulties answering the question “what problem are you solving?” The empathy and curiosity needed to produce great ideas and solutions was missing. This discovery would lead us to SoftServe.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
We spent a couple of months in Palmdale, California working with three classes to workshop SoftServe before development. Amid multiple scares across the nation relating to mass shootings and gun violence, we were right in the thick of it. As my Co-Founder Ruks and I were making our way to the school for our workshop, we were met with parents and teachers scattered across the parking lot of the entrance way. A student had threatened the school and we were in lockdown. No one was allowed to go into the school or out of the school. The students were trapped inside. It was in that moment that I had full clarity on the impact of an educator in America today. They are superheroes, playing countless roles for their students. For some students, they’re therapists, parents, friends, mentors, and caretakers. And on this day specifically, they were their protectors. I felt more motivated that day than ever to do everything in our power to service and support teachers.
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?
We were just wrapping up our program with NYU’s StartED and I was working out of a friend’s co-working space after a brief holiday celebration there. I indulged in one glass of wine (which for me, was one glass too many) and I felt so courageous that I went from the top of my VC wish list down, and starting sending emails. It was my first draft, laden with many typos, and before I had time to edit it, I had accidentally hit send. My body temperature immediately rose and I could feel my entire face flush. I was mortified and thought I’d never get the chance to pitch her again. To my surprise, within minutes, she responded with an invite to her office the next day. Everyone was just about to break for the holiday, so I was beyond shocked.
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?
The definition of ‘hard times’ has evolved. It was hard to tell my parents that I was leaving law school — my Dad cried and it broke my family for what felt like an eternity. It was hard to have all of my credit cards declined and to put away the groceries that I couldn’t afford because I needed to pay company bills instead. It was hard to feel like I was a terrible, unqualified leader for the umpteenth time.
While I’ve thought about giving up on building SoftServe, I’ve never even entertained the thought of giving up on solving this problem. Empowering human soft-skills is something that I will work toward no matter the company or role. Today, SoftServe is simply the most effective way to achieve this goal.
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 want to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of teachers and students that took a chance with us. Thank you for letting us into their classrooms to learn from and to share SoftServe with. Thank you to the iLead Charter School in California, Avenues World School in New York, Windermere Secondary in Vancouver, York Catholic Schools in Toronto — these are a few of the very first to welcome us into their schools. It truly takes a community. Through our in-classroom workshops, we were able to take SoftServe from a prototype made of sticky notes and pens into a physical card game and eventually into the digital learning platform it is today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
This quote by Maya Angelou promotes learning and grace. It was written for a human, by a human. In life, especially as an entrepreneur, it’s so easy to hold judgements of others and ourselves. To simply recognize that we are all doing our best has been liberating.
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 pain point that your company is helping to address?
Students are not being taught the critical soft-skills they need for real world success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
SoftServe is leading the soft-skills revolution. We’re leveraging technology to empower human soft-skills like curiosity, empathy, and creativity. SoftServe is a game-based learning platform for soft-skills. In less than 5-minutes a day, SoftServe makes it possible for educators to support student learning of soft-skills.
We are a founding team of immigrants and refugees who all followed a traditional education path only to find ourselves building a solution that challenges the existing learning model in schools. Our respective experiences have led us to believe and act on this belief that the traditional education has little to do with our preparedness for the ‘real world’. To change this, we have to shift the focus toward developing critical soft-skills like curiosity and empathy early on.
As a straight A student in high school, I learned how to memorize content. This skill actually was a disservice to me as I entered post-secondary and the working world. I couldn’t memorize my way out of a disagreement with colleagues or moral debates in Philosophy 100. In the real world, what counts is your ability to build relationships and problem-solve.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are actively working on the Soft Skill Index, a dynamic score that can quantify the widely accepted as subjective, contextual, and abstract concept of soft-skills. It’s a numerical value that expands and grows with a user as they develop their soft-skills over time. Inspired by the Elo Rating system of Chess, the Soft Skill Index will quantify the qualitative. Providing educators and students a way to understand and evaluate soft-skills is the first step to developing them.
More immediately, we’re opening up access to more educators. If you’re a middle or high school teacher looking to bring soft-skills to your students in 2021, please sign up for our waitlist / book a demo: www.getsoftserve.com
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?
No. What needs to change is that everyone practices greater empathy. When we think about the challenges that ‘women in tech’ face — they’re nuanced and unique. The first thing we need to do is to stop treating all of us like we’re the same. As a woman, immigrant, refugee, and person of color — I too recognize my privilege as a middle class citizen with access to all of my basic needs from healthcare to housing. But the challenges I face with the status quo is a distant thousand miles away from the person next to me. We spend a lot of time coming up with broad, sweeping solutions and statements; what we should be doing instead is better understanding the problem by asking critical questions like who does this really impact and why? Who really cares about this and why?
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?
My experience has led me to believe that men are treated as the individuals they are and women are treated as a collective. There’s a bit of empathy that’s been displaced in the favor of our male counterparts. In an equal number of conversations, I’m hearing “It’s so advantageous that you’re a woman,” as I’m hearing “It’s too bad that they’re a woman.” I am Annee. I am a founder, entrepreneur, revolutionary, creative, daughter, sister, friend, partner — I am so many more things than my gender. I should be treated as the unique, audacious, and resilient human that I am. I think that if this happened more frequently, advocacy and opportunity would improve.
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”?
Revisiting your own soft-skills and asking the most difficult questions is step 1. Who cares about this problem and why? “Restarting your engine” begins with better understanding the problem you’re solving through a lens of empathy and curiosity.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Yes, prioritize soft-skills. Empowering your sales team (for us, this applies to our entire team) with the skills to ask great questions and practice empathy is step #1 in training and development. When we’re equipped with these foundational soft-skills, meeting all challenges is possible. Team members are more resourceful, creative, and critical in their thinking. They’re independent, accountable, and aligned. This applies to every level, including management. Some great exercises include SoftServe 😉
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?
Live events or webinars are our most effective tool for user acquisition. In fact, it’s also been the most effective way for us to engage with some of our long-term advisors and team members.
My go-to strategy is to invite a guest speaker using LinkedIn that comes from a field of expertise connected to soft-skills. This is easily found by searching their hashtags: #softskills. If there’s a fit, I reach out to them either by requesting a connection (on LinkedIn, this allows for a brief personalized message) or by finding their email using RocketReach.co (they give you the first 5 email searches for free). When they agree, the event planning begins. We focus the event description on our target demographic. I create the event on Eventbrite and invite educators from our mailing lists from there so it feels more organic.
The events serve multiple purposes: they’re a great resource for content that can be repurposed in the future, speakers often share the event with their network, there’s brand affinity with your company and the speaker, you become a subject matter expertise alongside your speaker, and it’s a very organic way to introduce the product. About 18% of event attendees convert into demo bookings.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Involve Customers in the Process
While we were building SoftServe, we relied heavily on user feedback. Oftentimes, the product would be so buggy that it was impossible for a user to get through. As we were introducing new changes in architecture and logic, this would lead to even more cosmetic and syntax bugs. It felt never-ending. However, we were very honest with our first users. Sharing the narrative that they would be an integral part of our product development helped to create a sense of understanding when the experience failed them and even fostered a sense of ownership.
2. Build a Community by being a part of the Community
We’re involved with our community of educators in every way. It’s always a dialogue, not a monologue. We ask questions, field questions, and propose questions. We can’t be of service to them unless we’re understanding what their challenges are. In everything we do from social media to sales, we have educators involved.
3. Make it Human
In building a company for learning soft-skills, this is where we truly practice what we preach. In all of our communications, it’s a human that’s writing and responding. We write casually and with consideration. We’re empathetic, caring, and kind. This is also a stellar strategy and effective strategy for sales.
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?
Providing excellent customer service and support is the most important step in reducing churn. We involve customers in every part of the process — from building, testing, to sharing SoftServe. This, in turn, has allowed us to build an engaged and growing community of educators that feel a sense of pride and ownership over the product and company’s success. We write the way we talk and do our best to ensure that tech and automation enhances the human experience.
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.
- Do Something You Love
Building a company is hard enough as it is, so I always encourage anyone who’s about to start, to do something that they love. When things get tough (and they inevitably will), it’s the one thing that will supercharge your resilience and allow you to get through challenges of all sizes. I think a great place to start is to ask yourself “Why am I doing this? Why do I care?” (re: Simon Sinek’s infamous ‘Start with Why’)
2. Get Creative
You’re solving a problem because it still exists. Clearly, the way it’s being addressed today isn’t working and likely, for good reason. So, in addressing your own challenges along the way, it’s critical to be creative. Sometimes the most obscene, out of this world solutions are the only ones that make sense. I ran poker games to pay for developers, slept on airport floors to avoid crazy NYC housing, and lured customers and advisors in on the premise of being a guest speaker (and then planned the entire event around them). The list of crazy things I did to get the job done are endless.
3. Ask for Help
As leaders, we’re prepared to give advice and provide feedback, but often forget to ask for it too. This doesn’t just have to come from mentors and advisors, it can also and should come from your personal network of friends and families. When I felt like I was going blind from researching teacher emails, I asked my fiance to volunteer his time; my brother became our in-house QA, and my best friend was our social media manager for a brief period in time. Sometimes the fear of being a burden or signalling that you’re failing gets in the way (aka your ego), but know that you have a community around you to support you in every way they can.
4. Give Yourself Grace
What you’re doing or about to embark on is tough. You’re going to fail a lot, but do not beat yourself up over it. Give yourself the space to fall because that’s how meaningful lessons come to be. The worst thing that can happen is you fill up your mental and emotional space with feeling upset over being upset. If you’re going through something, focus first on your health. I’m grateful to have access to an incredible therapist that I meet with at least once a month, regardless of how things are going.
5. Have the Audacity
Ever feel like you don’t have it in you? That your resume isn’t polished enough or that you’re not qualified for the role? Well, being a founder that’s solving an important problem in the world requires that you have the audacity to try. Do your research, ask for advice, and then give it a go. Being afraid is normal, but leaning into that fear so that you can get things moving is the only direction.
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 time for a mass soft-skills revolution is now. The pandemic has shown us that what we’re missing from our world today is greater humanity. Empathy and curiosity should be foundational to every education. This revolution starts in schools. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we are systematically behind in our classrooms. The Industrial Revolution had passed before we introduced vocational training and as the Technological Revolution is in our rearview mirror, governments throw STEM stickers on everything.
This obsession that we have for developing hard skills will leave us lost to machines and AI. We need to stop focusing on delivering for the sole purpose of economic output and instead, recognize that our ability to adapt is wholly dependent on developing our soft-skills.
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 🙂
Oprah. She is the epitome of empathy and creativity, and human in all of the most beautiful ways. I truly believe that our aspiration for the world is one and the same — for us to thrive in our humanity.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!