As a part of my series “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond Chang Chairman and CEO of Agrify, which is a Nasdaq-listed company and an innovative provider of advanced cultivation and extraction solutions for the cannabis industry. In addition to his role at Agrify, Raymond serves as the Managing Director of NXT Ventures, an early-stage investment fund based in Boston. Raymond is a serial entrepreneur by trade. He founded GigaMedia, the first broadband Internet company in Asia, which went public in 2000 on Nasdaq. Raymond also founded Luckypai, a leading TV home shopping company in China.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved solving big problems — especially using data, science and technology to do so. If you look at my career, that’s basically what I’ve done. I started out by bringing broadband telecom services to Asia, and we went public with that company in 2000. In my next venture, I wanted to bring an alternative retail distribution channel over to China, where people traditionally had problems accessing retail shops, and I ended up launching a highly successful TV home shopping business.
I’ve kept my entrepreneurial spirit alive throughout my career, which has culminated in my current role at Agrify. I was drawn to the cannabis space after seeing the amazing medicinal benefits cannabis could offer people. My mother-in-law was a cancer patient, and cannabis offered her real relief that other medicines could not deliver. That was basically my first exposure to cannabis. While I’m not a regular cannabis user myself, seeing how cannabis helped my mother-in-law piqued my interest, and from there I decided to go to MJBizCon in 2018. Back then, I didn’t know anybody in the industry.
While at MJBizCon, what I discovered was a bunch of vendors selling individual components, what I’d call piecemeal solutions. So, for example, there were probably about 40 or 50 vendors selling different variations of LED lights, and they knew everything about the impact of lights on plants. But when you talk to the growers, you realize that nutrients, environmental control, grow racks and other cultivation components are just as important as lights. However, there was nobody around to offer them a fully integrated, holistic solution that met their needs. So I saw a real opportunity to deliver a comprehensive, next-generation cultivation solution to the market, which would harness the power of technology, be easy to use yet robust and versatile — and most importantly, would help commercial customers grow better quality cannabis at scale. That was my initial vision for Agrify.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Early on, we were exhibiting at a cannabis trade show and a man came up to me and said, “I really like what you are doing, but is this really going to change the industry?” It was an interesting comment where on one hand he’s telling me “Hey, this is really disruptive, really awesome,” and yet at the same time he’s also saying, “Dude, you guys are not going to go anywhere.” So I was really puzzled by both sides of that statement, and it prompted me to think that maybe he was just openly wondering if we were perhaps a little too ahead of our time.
This led to more reflection, and one thing I came to realize was that our salespeople were focusing too much on the tech side and not enough time on the real value props. In this industry in particular, not everybody knows or cares about the underlying science and tech elements — they just want to make sure the technology really works and will give them the best return for the money. This was a huge wake-up call for me, and it’s why we now place such a huge emphasis on making our technology understandable and relevant to people in the cannabis space.
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?
The funniest mistake was back when I was doing television home shopping in China at Luckypai. This was my first time doing television home shopping, and for three minutes straight, we weren’t getting any phone calls, and I was getting really worried and puzzled. What were we doing wrong?
Later on, what I realized is that when the show host just keeps talking and talking, people don’t have time to respond. So the more you talk, the less phone calls you’re going to get. When you actually bring your speech to an end and have a call to action, then people respond.
This was a major lesson for me. When it comes to selling, it’s not so much about just going out there and pitching, pitching, pitching. Oftentimes, it’s about basically sitting back and listening. That’s when the customers actually respond to you.
This was a big eye-opening moment for me, and it had a strong influence on how I approach sales. I think listening is more important than just pitching all the time. And while I had to learn this lesson in a roundabout way, it’s helped me tremendously throughout my career.
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?
My former colleague Chester Koo. He was actually my biggest supporter and the chairman of the first company that I founded, GigaMedia.
I remember the first time I went out to lead an M&A transaction. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate everything I’d learned, and I really wanted to impress Chester. So I remember staying up two or three nights in a row, and I came up with what I thought would be the most advantageous deal for us.
I was so proud of the ideas and the plan that I presented internally, but instead of receiving any type of praise, Chester looked at me and said, “Raymond, this is horrible.” I’m like, “What are you talking about this is horrible? This is the best. How could we get a better deal than this?” And he said, “How would you feel if you were on the other side of the fence?” And I’m like, “Why does it matter? Who cares? This is a transaction.” But he kept asking me that question. Then he just said, “Look, Raymond. If you really want to be successful in business, leave something on the table for the other side because that’s how they keep coming back for more deals.”
I’d never thought of business that way. I had always thought of business as being a series of one-time transactional agreements, where it was critical to try to get as much as possible out of each one. This was a big lesson learned. Life is short, and you’ve got to think about how other people feel along the way. How you treat other people is how you will ultimately get treated as well. If you really want to be respected and have sustainable success, you need to do business the fair way and always think about transactions from the perspective of whoever you’re negotiating with.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
People from different backgrounds bring unique perspectives and values to the table. How I was raised and how I look at things are very different from the next person. It’s more beneficial to have ten awesome and crazy ideas versus one. Ideas build off one another and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Promoting inclusion, diversity, equality and giving everybody a chance to speak are crucial to any organization, no matter the industry.
We are committed to all of these things at Agrify, and our collection of diverse thinkers makes us who we are and makes us better. The cannabis industry is unique as there are subject matter experts who had previously been underground due to prohibition, but they have invaluable knowledge when it comes to cultivation. Their perspectives are different from mine, as I come from a more traditional corporate setting, but the ideas and strategies that we move forward with together are stronger because they are well-rounded and well-informed.
I truly believe the combination of diverse perspectives is really what’s best for the company.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
For every position that we try to fill, we’re committed to attracting the widest applicant pool possible, and we do our best to speak with candidates from diverse backgrounds.
And we look at diversity not only in terms of race but in terms of gender, in terms of social and economic backgrounds, religious backgrounds — across every measure. Inclusivity is always our goal.
We also see the importance of approaching our customer relationships in the same way. Here in Massachusetts, one of our customers is a social equity program applicant. While he may not have the financial backing of large corporate investors, he is bringing opportunity to underserved communities, and we are honored to help. Part of our mission is to give back to society, and we take this responsibility very seriously. We know people of color have suffered disproportionately during the cannabis prohibition and yet are currently underrepresented in the cannabis industry as a whole. We are dedicated to being an active force for change by giving back to communities most impacted by prohibition.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I would say that as CEO my primary responsibility is to make sure we have sufficient resources to execute our business plan — this has always been one of my key tasks. In addition to this — and this may sound kind of funny — but I’m always looking to find and develop the next person to take over my position.
I’ve always believed that if I can have people around me that are smarter and more capable than me, and they can actually be in a position to take over, then we would be in an amazing place as a company. A lot of founders and CEOs feel like big decisions come down to them, that they always have to do the most important work themselves, that they’re the best person for the role.
I think that mentality is very dangerous because it’s egotistical and self-promoting. I know our company would be much better off if all the key executives would be able to take over my position because under that scenario, we would have tremendous talent and depth on our team. On top of that, we would be much much better off because we would not have to rely on just one person to do it all.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I often say, a CEO is not a boss. A CEO is more like a coach. You lead by example. You lead by mentoring others. And you lead by having the next person who takes your place be a superstar. And that’s probably a little bit different thinking than what’s traditionally out there. For me personally, I would rather be the best coach than be the MVP on the cover of a magazine.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
While we are a non-plant-touching company at Agrify, it is critical for us to understand the horticulture behind growing cannabis, and I would say that I never imagined that the science of growing cannabis would be so complicated. I’m generally a quick learner. In all the other industries I’ve been involved in, I’ve been able to pick things up and grasp new concepts at a rapid pace.
But when it comes to cannabis, I feel like I’m learning something new every day. The science and tech aspects of this industry are so much more complex than I think a lot of people realize.
This is something that really surprised me in a big way because a lot of people look at it like, It’s just growing weed. How difficult could it be? But there’s just so much that we’re discovering, so many variables, so much that is still unknown. I think we’ve just barely scratched the surface at this point.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think being an executive is just a job, and I believe most people are capable of doing any job they put their minds to. However, given my experiences, I really feel as if it’s important to have a sound rationale behind wanting to be an executive. Number one, if you are purely financially driven — if your goal in life is just to make money — I don’t think that’s the right motivation or strategy.
I’ve always said as a startup entrepreneur, you have to think about how you can make an impact on society. If you can truly make an impact, then the money will often follow. So that’s one — don’t be purely financially driven.
Then secondly, you need to know how to work in a team environment and be a team leader. Trust me, there are situations when having the right team and partners around you will make or break a business.
Then thirdly, you need to be super passionate about what you do and love to face challenges every day. Being an executive is not easy. This is a job that is constantly changing, and you have to be quick and agile, ready to face multiple sets of challenges on a daily basis and willing to pivot if necessary.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Focus on people in a truly meaningful way. This is not a responsibility that should be delegated exclusively to the HR director. It must come from the top. You have to make people feel like they are part of a family culture.
For some of life’s biggest moments, like when a colleague is getting married, having a baby, or maybe there’s a death in the family, you need to show that you genuinely care. It’s important to let people know that you are always there for them, and that should absolutely extend beyond the work setting.
Then when it comes to diversity, equality and all that, you really need to practice what you preach. Go the extra mile to promote inclusion. Lead by example. These things are super important and are embedded in every aspect throughout our company culture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In life, there are so many great ways to give back. You can give back by making charitable contributions, and I’ve done that. You can also give back by creating the best possible products that positively impact society — that’s something we strive for. Building a successful company means every employee at the company shares in the success and has the resources to pay that forward in their local communities.
You can also give back by training the next generation. I’m doing that at Agrify, and I’ve done that in all my other ventures. I’ve also taught entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management and at Babson, training the next generation of leaders.
There are multiple ways that you can give back to society, and it doesn’t all have to be financially driven. There are other ways to make the world a better place. So be creative. Make giving back your focus. Really stop to think, what can you do with your resources and how can you make the biggest possible impact.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I shared the story about always being fair. Always think about who you are negotiating with and don’t take everything off the table. That’s number one.
- Business is tough; you have to have the stomach for it. Just to give you an example: In 2008, when I was doing the television home shopping in China, our business was fantastic. It was really growing like crazy. But we had to raise additional capital to expand. My partner at the time wanted to negotiate for even more, but I insisted on just going with what we had. We actually did a deal with Lehman Brothers. About four to six weeks after we closed that deal, Lehman Brothers actually went under. And then during the entire year of 2008, we went into a recession. So yeah, stay humble and don’t be greedy.
- Make sure you always have the resources. It’s critical to have a very strong balance sheet and cash flow because that’s how you will prosper during the good times and persevere through the bad times. For example, right now, even though our industry is down, we actually just went out and raised another $135 million. Yes, we had to give away quite a bit of money, but at the same time, I believe we’re one of the most well-capitalized companies in the industry, and we’re going to do great things with that. So make sure you always have sufficient resources to execute on the business plan.
- Be ready to pivot. After moving back to the United States in 2014, before taking on Agrify, I was actually doing venture capital. One thing I can assure you — and this applies to every company — whatever business plan that you have today will be different a year from now. Things are always changing. The one thing that is for sure is that market dynamics will force you to have to change your plan. So be ready to pivot.
- And lastly, have a succession plan. It’s better to have smart people around you who are capable of taking over than having a bunch of yaysayers that won’t challenge anything you do. That’s the best way for a company to continue to grow and be successful in the long run.
I think those are probably the five things that I think would be helpful to other people in the same boat or to anyone who’s starting or looking to start a new venture.
That’s what I learned throughout my career.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I wish that every government in the world would look at cannabis differently because this plant really has so many medicinal benefits. Of course, if we could turn back the clock, I obviously wish that this plant would have never been classified as a Schedule I drug.
If we could actually put together an international effort, maybe something led by the UN, to really restudy the cannabis plant, people would realize that there are way more positives than negatives for legalizing cannabis. And really, so many people around the world could benefit from using cannabis.
It’s going to take an international effort. Obviously, more and more countries are deregulating. It’s very encouraging to see that, for example, now in Germany and France legalization efforts are progressing. While I believe more countries are going to join these efforts, the movement is still not moving fast enough. I really wish that people would be a lot more open-minded.
I think we’re moving in the right direction in the United States, and I’m encouraged by that. But internationally, we’re, again, just barely scratching the surface.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a Christian, and Proverbs 3:5–6 has always been my favorite quote. It says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will set your path straight.” This is something that my mom really embedded in me ever since I was a little child, and it’s had a tremendous impact on my life.
And I do believe that if I lean on Him hard, He would help me figure things out. I think He would help to make sure that everything goes according to His plan, not my plan. And hopefully I can bring more positives than negatives to this world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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
That person is Bill Gates — the reason being that he actually invested in my first venture, GigaMedia. I had an opportunity to shake Bill’s hand at one time, and we exchanged a few pleasantries, but we never got into a real deep conversation. If I had an opportunity to sit down with Bill today, I would love to ask him what it was about GigaMedia that made him want to invest.
And then secondly, I’ve always admired everything that he’s done — how he could step away in his prime and create this amazing philanthropic effort to focus on the environment, focus on finding the next cure for cancer and all these other endeavors that would impact a huge number of people around the world.