Finding Entrepreneurial Success in Unexpected Places

We’re featuring Liang Deng, the the Chief of Staff a Kansas City-based Backstitch.

Backstitch is a fast rising tech startup that builds tools for organizations to better engage with their employees.

We talk about Liang’s early experience selling custom gel pens inspired him to work in entrepreneurship, and why startup life isn’t always as glamorous as it seems. Liang is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Episode Transcript

ILV: [00:00:00] Good afternoon, Liang. Welcome to money memories. How are you?

Liang: [00:00:03] Well, I’m doing great. Thanks for asking. Yeah, and I’m really happy to be here.

ILV: [00:00:07] I’m so happy to have you stoked to be able to have a conversation with another fellow Quaker. What’s your earliest or most impactful money memory?

Liang: [00:00:18] When I was a little kid, we had a bunch of people at my elementary school collect these like, big gel pens.

It was really weird because, we had straight up gel pen vending machines. And they had like all sorts of colors. So what I ended up doing, was, I go to Walmart and like, whenever my parents were there and I’d buy like a few multi-packs of these gel pens and then I would take them apart into their individual components and I’d actually sell individual components or sell customized pieces to like the other kids in my elementary school. It was like I said, really kind of kiddish, you know, nowadays as an adult, I’m thinking who in their right mind wants to customize and like collect different colored pieces of gel pens.

I’ve used this for like stories for interviews and things of that nature still with the back of my mind, thinking this is something that’s for kids, but I’m sure I could spin this into something on, “Oh yeah, I’ve always been entrepreneurial. Right. I saw, I saw a need that was being undressed by a current inefficient system. And I found a solution that not only satisfies everyone like the consumer’s needs while also making a profit for myself.”

]ILV: [00:01:27] That’s brilliant. How much, how, how long did you do this for and how much money did you make? If you can remember that?

Liang: [00:01:34] I can’t remember how much I made, but because mostly because I was not very disciplined with my own funds, so at least I was covering my costs and then literally every other piece of profit I had, I just immediately spent on snacks.

ILV: [00:01:49] So was that the first of your many side hustles, did you pivot to middle school and high school and try something different? Or did you kind of put a pause on your entrepreneurial endeavors until you entered the working world?

Liang: [00:02:02] Well, that’s a great question. I was a saxophonist that was, I did a lot of competitions,

I didn’t actually want to do it. My parents basically forced it upon me, but then it turned out I was really good at it. And, I’m very competitive. So I enjoyed winning medals, even if I didn’t really enjoy practicing so much. But because of that, I started actually teaching private lessons. So it was mostly during elementary and middle school, students or children that were basically just beginning because also brought in the fact that not only can I teach your child, how to get started playing a saxophone. I’m very familiar with a ton of different saxes and with a ton of different brands.

And I could even give you recommendations on what type of instrument you should buy. What are the proper accessories that you can utilize to better conform with their own system or their own playing styles,

So I offered myself like those things as part of my services beyond just the, teaching, right. And the tutoring part. And. It went, it went pretty well. I had a couple of students.

]ILV: [00:03:02] Did those experiences, were those, what inspired you to pursue entrepreneurship? ,

Liang: [00:03:07] I only came to Penn knowing I was going to study entrepreneurship. In fact, Penn was my top choice. So, basically all the pieces worked out really together for me, one of the things that we did at Penn, I don’t believe they do it anymore, but 10 years ago, when I was a freshman, they did was, they had this course called management 100, which for a lack of a better term, I’d like to describe as

ILV: [00:03:33] The dog tank, like the shark tank, like a dog pound it’s like pit bull against pit bull.

Liang: [00:03:38] And you know, those were the same words I wanted to use. Even before we, even started the class. They actually took everyone in our group and had this meet before school started during new student orientation and well, I even said. I came to Penn because I wanted to study business specifically. I wanted to study entrepreneurship one day.

I want to have my own startup. And then later when I exit from that startup, I want to have four startups. And I just want to keep doing that for the rest of my life. I said that. And so it was something that’s when I even stepped foot into this school, it has always been a goal for me.

ILV: [00:04:13] Where did that kind of inspiration for that path come, come from?

Liang: [00:04:16] So my parents are immigrants. They came to the U.S. from China. They’re both their specialty, as well as their parents specialty and their parents specialty were all doctors.

Even though this is very stereotypical, they wanted me to grow up and to become a doctor as well. And. I think it was my desire to not become a doctor that actually pushed me towards business and entrepreneurship. So rather than it being something I grew up with, it was something that I didn’t grow up with that I realized I wanted.

So, Penn, I participated in a lot of different entrepreneurial competitions. I had been in a bunch of groups.

I’ve taken like a ton of entrepreneurship classes, even ones beyond just the ones required for graduating with that, a sub-concentration of entrepreneurship,

I worked for a couple, startups around, they really didn’t go anywhere for a long time. I ended up just actually waiting tables. You know how things are sometimes they don’t work out.

I’m not really mad about too mad about it because I knew the inherent risks that I, I was like, well, this is what I get. So I was in San Francisco and I started, I needed kind of a change of scenery and I actually, one of my really good high school friends, he was, going to the University of Kansas as a med school to pursue his like PhD and stuff. And, I decided, you know what, well, he said, well, if you’re not really doing much, you want to hang out with me for a little bit. Cause I’m moving to KC. And I was like never heard of Kansas City before, except for the fact that I know they were the first city in the U S with Google fiber.

So I went there. I, you know, did the business spiel, networking, lot of cold emails, all this random stuff, a ton of coffee meetings. And one thing that was really nice actually about the KC community itself was that, people were always willing to sit down with you, talk with you, do a coffee meeting.

So, what ended up happening was throughout all my different connections. I talked to some people who connected me to other people, connected me to more people, so on and so forth. Eventually I got connected with, the managing director of the Techstars program in Kansas City. For those not too familiar with entrepreneurship Techstars is what people would, honestly even refer to as the, top three, the big three of the entrepreneurial accelerator space. That includes Y Combinator as well as 500 startups. So it was the Techstar accelerator, and they were focused on, really mobile technology. They actually hired me as a staff member of the program.

Many of those companies are still up to date today as they do really impressive stuff. Like, not including the company that I ended up working for.

Afterwards Backstitch brought me on board. It was actually a pretty fantastic ride because we had about four people. At that time, it was the three people that came for the program. And then they hired me and I was the fourth person.

This includes the two cofounders and then one developer and then me, and then we were growing. We, we grew up like pretty decently really acquired, like better honed the product, better built, a team, but straight up last year, so, the 21st of June, 2019, there was six of us beyond that. We also had, one customer, well, two customer success people, but one of which was specifically focused on graphic design, six people.

In the past year or so, we’ve grown closer to 19 we’re growing like crazy.

And it’s been like a very, very fun ride. Especially as I mentioned, when I was there, there was four of us.

ILV: [00:07:46] So I think that that’s amazing. What I also love about this story is that, I think it highlights a different side of entrepreneurship. So oftentimes we think about it as I need to start my own company or whatever. And this just highlights that there’s, so there’s opportunities. If you can capitalize in, if you’re interested in, to become at the ground floor and to really still be a part of that growth. How has that, I guess that affected you in any way, working at seeing the startup scene, like working in KC.

Liang: [00:08:10] so I actually think it really meshed well just with my own personality because, I like that kind of uncertainty, for lack of a better term, I actually like the, quote unquote underdoggedness of it. So I actually liked the smallness because I liked that, In a way, I guess, that kind of entrepreneurial story of those, of like an individual startup kind of mirrors, the entrepreneurial story of like the KC or those other cities, like communities in that right now, they’re starting off small, they’re the underdog, but they got that hunger, right.

They really want to go and build and establish themselves. And that type of, I guess that type of attitude or culture, or however people want to call it, I think really contributes to something special.

ILV: [00:08:58] That’s awesome. That’s amazing. if you could leave our audience with one piece of advice, for people who are interested in entrepreneurship, but maybe don’t know where to start, what would it be?

Liang: [00:09:05] I don’t want to say temper your expectations because that honestly kind of sounds rude, but there are a lot of cool things with startups. There’s a lot of really high highs. There’s also a lot of low lows that I’ve experienced all of that, but I don’t even mean low lows.

Like yeah, your company is shuttering down. Everybody’s getting fired. I mean, maybe not low lows, but. The boring mundane things. No one ever thinks of like when we were building and scaling out our company, just even in the last year, as I mentioned what we basically went from like six to 20 plus, I had to look at so many different offices.

I had to figure that out. We have, I had to order a furniture. We were assembling conference room desks and chairs, like close to midnight while it was raining. And it turns out that there was a leak on our ceiling and all this other stuff like, yeah, everybody loves to think of the super sexy, awesome pitching in front of an audience of thousands of people at demo day or TechCrunch Disrupt or whatever.

And you definitely get to experience, oh that you also get the experience, the random stuff. No one thinks about like assembling furniture, looking at offices, figuring out exactly how am I supposed to read this resume and ask the proper questions and know that this person wants to work here or is good at working here.

Like all this other stuff people don’t really think about. And yet they’re also important pieces of doing a startup. And my takeaway for everybody is, when you’re willing to do entrepreneurship, you have to be willing to take in all those different kinds of experiences. But the mere fact of having these experience is what really caused me to grow and improve myself. And for you guys out there, that’s definitely kind of the attitude or experience that you just have to be willing to have.

ILV: [00:10:51] Well, thank you so much for your time, Lang thank you. Not only for agreeing to record this, but for also answering all of my annoying SEO questions as I, as I am on my way to building my brand empire. It’s, it’s really been a pleasure speaking with you and it’s a pleasure knowing you

Liang: [00:11:07] Well, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks a lot for having me here. And as you mentioned, definitely has been a pleasure and hopefully we can also continue the conversation and continue on.

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