First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Cheng: Thanks, we are okay. Our team members spread across HK, Taipei, London, Sydney, etc. Luckily, no one/close family members were infected. Cities are locked down and forced to WFH like everyone else.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded FormX and Authgear.
Ben Cheng: I founded the companies 12 years ago after graduation, and we started by developing a few camera apps on iOS/Android like ActionSnap, each with a few million downloads. Later on, we take this digital product experience to build products MVP for other startups, and lately, with Enterprise to assist digital transformation. We built products to help Digital Transformation and have two products: Authgear and FormX.ai (brief intro and case studies follows) and now run a team of 60 employees.
How does FormX and Authgear innovate?
Ben Cheng: We have a remote-friendly culture before COVID-19, but the team mostly enjoy hanging out together, business/product/engineers hang around in office chat and exchange idea, make a quick sketch, discuss solutions to technical problems
Now we have to switch to a remote-first environment when we found it hard to replace hang out, so we try to replace it as much as we can. We moved all town hall online, moved more casual chat to Basecamp message or brainstorm in long-form letters; we used video configuration call way more now, and drawing Whiteboard collaboration with Apple Pencil 2 became routine for many of our product and design team members.
We are still trying to talk with potential or existing clients as much as we can over video call to get their feedback and needs.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ben Cheng: Business-wise: We lost quite some clients in the retails and travel industry at the beginning of the year, but we found the IT needs and spending keeps going strong with other industries, so turns out it is okay.
Cultural-wise: We cope with a remote-first environment with a lot of efforts, including like video conf mentioned above, figure out what is a good headset setup for different environments, and make people get used to long-form letters and async communication as much as possible; We also pay special attention to coaching, how do we coach and share experiences with each other in the new situation? We found video recording for knowledge transfer particularly useful too.
Sales-wise: our sales prefer to have video conf instead of f2f meetings, so it’s been more productive, we actually wish more businesses will get used to the video conf sales call so we can continue expanding our sales effort online, instead of more expensive local f2f meetings.
Our product FormX actually found a new type of clients under pandemic. As governments and NGOs have different relief funds/plans for society, we see a surge in the need to process documents/applications and need solutions to use machine learning to understand the applications. For example, the Li Ka Shif Foundation Instant Relief Fund distributed HK$1B. We work with Google Cloud to use our product to process all applications faster. Specifically, our application automatically extracts all Company Name, Address, Date of Expiry, and Business Registration number from all submissions to speed up the process.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Cheng: We had to refocus our resources and reprioritize our efforts away from the markets in other countries we’ve been reaching out to, as some were heavily affected by the pandemic. It was regrettable that we had to suspend or postpone some of our plans. On the bright side, we found opportunities by tapping into industries forced to digitally transform due to the pandemic. A lesson for us, too, is that switching gears can take some adjustment period and constant experimentation because we have to tackle uncertainties, and we’re fortunate that we can do so.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Ben Cheng: For a few months, we are unsure what will happen next — actually, we still don’t know how the economy will turn out.
We try to make a plan, stay positive, have the team buy-in, and understand, which is very important. We learned that, at least for a startup environment, it is okay, to be frank and transparent with what difficulties you have, even as a founder, so that other people can help and be willing to take one more step to assist the business go through a hard time.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Cheng: The pandemic has certainly put a damper on businesses, but on the flip side, it compelled many companies to rethink and redo how they do business so they can cope with the new normal. Oursky is no exception, but we’ll remain optimistic and use change to our advantage.