Yuchun Lee is a big fan of bootstrapping and operating a lean startup. It’s paid off pretty well for him so far, including an IPO and acquisition for around half a billion dollars.
From being a young coder to a high stakes gambler, venture capitalist and founder of several companies, Yuchun Lee has learned a lot about starting, funding and managing businesses.
Yuchun Lee recently appeared as a guest on the DealMakers Podcast. During his exclusive interview, he shared how he got started in entrepreneurship, his biggest lessons from high stakes games, what you do when you sell a company for hundreds of millions of dollars, how to survive recessions, and many more topics.
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Made In Taiwan
Yuchun was originally born in Taiwan. His father was an oil tanker captain, who growing tired of always being away on the seas found an opportunity to open a company in the US with an ambassador. The whole family immigrated together.
Lee says he has always been interested in startups. He was especially fascinated with the commerce of buying and selling things on margin. It’s always been a part of his DNA.
A self-admitted nerd, he started his first company while still in high school. He spent a lot of time playing with computers and became pretty proficient with Apple.
So, he started a company helping professionals with drafting on Apple PCs. It was the first program of its kind. It made him some good money, but he was determined to go to college.
Hustling the Original Hustler
Lee attended MIT for both undergraduate and graduate school. He considers it a very humbling experience. A place where you meet many smart people and build a great network. There he met many great people who are still involved in his companies today.
He even joined the MIT Blackjack team. The infamous group that’s not very popular with casino owners. You may have seen the movie “21” based on their story.
Yuchun found this experience very much like being an entrepreneur in a startup. Yuchun states “There is a lot of camaraderie. You are David versus Goliath, taking on these big organizations. You have to learn how to act. It’s both thrilling and nerve-racking.“ He once won around $80k in two minutes.
He even sat at the table with Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. With a whole crowd watching them, Flynt lost a million dollars that weekend.
Learning to live with uncertainty was one of his big takeaways from that experience. Something you must do to survive as a startup entrepreneur. There are many unknowns, a lot of risks, and even if you count the cards perfectly, you can still lose money.
From his perspective, you must have the emotional fortitude, and stomach to stick through the downturns. He states “believing that if you’re doing the right things, and over the long haul, you’ll end up winning.“
From Bootstrapping to IPO
While still at MIT Yuchun started his second business. A hardware business creating PC compatibles.
They imported parts from Asia and built them in their dorm room. At one point they were probably the lowest cost-producer on the East Coast.
Then he decided to learn what it is like to be inside a very large, successful and established company by going to work at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
Once he learned the dynamics of a larger corporation, he took the plunge into his own big startup, Unica. Their goal was to offer enterprise marketing management and cloud-based marketing solutions to companies in different industries.
They launched in the middle of a recession and essentially bootstrapped for seven years until they were ready to go public. At one point, they were one of the fastest-growing companies in America.
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What he didn’t expect when preparing for the IPO was that having too much money in the bank wasn’t necessarily a plus. Their banker advised them to dividend out the $70 million they had in the bank.
Lee credits their fast growth and success with building a very customer-centric business and spending in a very disciplined way.
Going public offered its advantages such as visibility, liquidity for investors, and social proof to attract more customers. Of course, it means many more tasks for the CEO, and when the market’s expectations spiral beyond reality, sooner or later you’ll have a down quarter. From Lee‘s perspective, this is inevitable.
Over its 18-year history, Unica only had one down quarter. That’s despite going through three recessions, two wars, and a global currency crisis.
IBM ultimately acquired the company just a few years after the IPO in a deal worth close to $500 million. Storytelling is critical for a transaction of this nature to happen and having a solid acquisition memorandum that captures the essence of the business is key. For a winning acquisition, memorandum template take a look at the one I recently covered (see it here).
Weathering the Storms
All entrepreneurs will face challenges. To get to this exit Lee and his team certainly had their fair share.
There are times when you just have to pay the rent. He remembers having to contract himself out to do programming work to keep money coming in, and even running up $200k in credit card debt, but he persevered. His tips for making it through include:
- Treating every moment of adversity as an opportunity to grow
- Being prepared and expecting tough times
- Building a truly customer-centric business
- Being willing to listen and take tough feedback
- Knowing when to shift sales from a revenue-generating strategy to a cost savings strategy
Today, in addition to being an Executive in Residence with General Catalyst, Yuchun Lee heads up Allego which provides sales learning and readiness tools for companies like BlackRock.
They are turning the learning process at organizations upside down where companies create entry systems so that representatives can learn everything they need to become effective. This helps to have employees with consistent messaging throughout the organization.
Allego is experiencing tremendous growth already. In 2017, Allego was the fifth fastest-growing software company on the Inc. 500 and 62nd overall. It has been growing at 140% per year.
While mostly bootstrapped, Allego has raised a small amount of capital from investors such as General Catalyst.
For those that are fundraising, not long ago I covered the pitch deck template that was created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted. Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400M (see it here)
Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
- What triggered IBM to buy Unica
- Why his latest startup sought out a more remote location to be headquartered
- How much money Allego has raised so far
- What he would tell his younger self before starting a new business