As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chao He.
Chao He is the founding partner of Swenson He, a digital product agency in Los Angeles and Dallas. He currently leads the engineering and design teams in executing the firm’s mission to deliver unmatched client results in the software consulting industry. With several patents currently pending for his work in the field of mobile technology, Chao is a leader in the practice areas of visual and user experience design as well as software architecture and engineering. He has a successful record of helping clients drive projects from conception to completion, with relentless focus on intelligent design, precision, and efficiency. Swenson He was founded in 2014 by Chao and his fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, Nick Swenson in an effort to fulfill the increasing need for companies and organizations to build sophisticated, robust mobile apps. Prior to building Swenson He, Chao was on the founding team of Rest Devices, a Boston-based consumer products company and maker of the Mimo baby monitor.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Nick and I met at MIT as undergrads and always respected each other from a very early stage. We recognized that we had complimentary skills. At the time it was related to academic work but also in our fraternity responsibilities that we recognized the leadership qualities in each other. By the time we left school, we had already worked together in varied capacities and 2 years after college decided to team up, knowing we ultimately wanted to work together. Swenson He itself came out of the functions of what we had already been doing early in our professional careers. Nick was working on a web-based startup doing backend engineering. I was doing frontend work for a hardware company and we realized our skills matched up once again. Every mobile application needs a frontend user interface to display its functions paired with strong backend architecture. We started to share our ideas in order to figure out how to work together on side projects while still employed with our primary jobs. The catalyst for starting the company was a referral from simple human and they ultimately decided to test out working with Nick and I on their mobile app. It went very well and we delivered what other companies could not. The relationship grew to fund our first year of business and we later branched form there with a sales process and marketing funnel to bring in new clients.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Looking back at it, we can laugh but at the time it was nerve-racking. It was only our 3rd client, a relatively large project, who wanted us to build a full-fledged social media platform. They had a celebrity name attached to it, but he was not as involved but left his partner in charge who had little business experience and very unrealistic expectations. It escalated to contentious legal conversations and as just two new kids starting a company, we were terrified. The matter was quickly resolved but it taught us how to pick clients to work with going forward. When starting a business you are so eager to take on any new clients that you ignore client red flags or personality differences. You need to grow your business with the right type of client but in this particular case it taught us what traits to look for and that the warning signs are there.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I could suggest the classic ones such as The Art of the Sale, but we didn’t necessarily have time for that in the early days. All of our reading and content consumption was reactionary based on new clients and sometimes you seek knowledge out when you run into a specific situation. With a small business it is more than just being able to plan out your books, but I would argue it’s more like a snowstorm… it hits you all of the sudden and you adjust by building a shelter and finding warmth.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our genesis story has always been based on striving to the be the best. A lot of companies have the delusion that since you put your name on it and are personally involved, it will automatically be the best. We made sure no stone was left unturned and that any value we could provide for our client, we did. Everything was based on a manifestation of the idea that we would always provide the best client value. We are always striving to execute the final 1% percent. The alternative is what we saw out there where many service providers just go through the motions of the requirements and product delivery. For us, that was a lazy way of doing things because that approach doesn’t work with financial services or banking. We wanted the relationship to be a sacred bond because they are entrusting us with a vital part of their business. We wanted to respect their efforts of starting their own business and match their level of investment in the initiative. When you put your business and trust into someone else, you want them to do it the right way. We were seeing a lot of half-baked solutions from other providers, so we made sure to go the extra step and follow through as if we were doing it for ourselves.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our guiding principal is a constant need to strike a balance between planning and hoping. You always want a plan for solving the next problem. Whenever you are presented with a problem, you need to plan your roadmap of what you expect to invest in an initiative and on how much you plan on spending vs. income. There is no way to predict the future so there is also risk in over planning. I am sure if you ask any other business leader what they thought their biggest issue would have been for 2020, no one would have guessed Covid 19. For the most part, no one saw this coming. Trying to predict the future is decidedly a difficult task but you want to have some guideposts that you are working towards. Going on your gut instinct is the balance to be struck there and its the sweet spot with appropriate checks and balances in place to access risk. Essentially you need to know what you are striving for but not so far as getting too wrapped up in what’s going to happen in the next few months or year. Sometimes you have to rely on your best instincts, or you won’t’ get things done. Nick, my business partner, by his very nature is a planner while I take a slightly different approach on why you make a decision and it’s not always based on number. Our partnership is how we find a happy medium and we have found this has served us very well.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The lines between work and personal have been very blurred. My commute is 15 seconds but I sit in my home office from when I get up and until I go to bed again. On weekends, I try not to work or even go into my office but during the week, there is no sense of “I am home now, so I am going to check that tomorrow.” Even for something as mundane as eating, I will forget to because it’s not part of my work at home routine because I don’t see other employees heading out to the lunch room as I usually would. We have been working towards a flexible work from home structure for a while now but something unique to our company is we do think things will fundamentally change. There is an uncertainty if we will even go back to an office in the future or stay remote permanently. That uncertainty is something we are struggling with and being in the services business, it takes on more weight because client facing interaction will still be needed but we are not sure what that will look like in the future. On a personal level, as an owner it keeps me up at night and lack of ability to plan for how these things will pan out.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our plan is to focus on sales and develop our inbound strategy. The way to think about this is that things won’t go back to how they were but certain things like relationships and a deep network of business contacts will not go out of fashion. Those core principals will remain even if you no longer can shake hands and go to conferences. Relationships will still be useful so falling back on those core principals and also reflecting on how to implement them is in this new world. Relationship driven sales and partnerships are a need but our strategy is learning how to execute on that post Covid.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was younger, my mom would teach me ancient Chinese poems as a homage to our heritage. The one that has made the most impact on my life translates to “greater heights, grander sights” meaning if you want more or to be better, faster, stronger, the only way is to work for it. The harder you work the more you will be able to achieve.
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