At JFDI, in block 71, Meng Weng Wong is bringing his Silicon Valley startup experience into Singapore. Building a high-tech business vs. a brick-and-mortar one takes a different perspective. The extra complexity and risk involved in raising million-dollar investments from external sources, not just friends and family makes it a unique project. Building a computer product also involves special risks.
While an undergraduate at UPenn, Meng Weng Wong spent his early career in the United States starting pobox.com, the first commercial email service. He helped pioneer an antispam standard called SPF – a standard which Hotmail and Gmail still use today. He also co-founded Karmasphere, a big-data company.
In Part 1, Singapore needs Silicon Valley’s open source culture, I discussed how Meng wants to bring Silicon Valley’s open-source culture to South-East Asia through the new accelerator he founded in Singapore at block 71, JFDI. In this post, I focus on the story of how Meng got started on his journey through his passion for email.
What made you found pobox.com during college at UPenn to pioneer email?
I got my first exposure to the Internet in 1992. It was in a different place back then and I fell in love with email and computer-mediated communications. When I was spending so much time online in college, I found out that I was much better at typing than talking.
Linux was becoming popular. Perl was also the language of the 90s. I bought a few O’Reilly books and learned by myself the technical skills that went into the first version of Pobox.
I did not want to come back to Singapore and be in the army. Because I had been admitted to university, I was able to defer. If I didn’t come back to Singapore after university, my parents risked losing the financial bond we left with the government. I thought that if I made enough money to pay the bond via my startup revolutionizing email, then I wouldn’t have to come back – 3 years in the army presented a huge opportunity cost.
Then, I decided to start Pobox with a good friend from college. It was 1994 and everyone was starting Internet companies out of their dorm rooms. He was to be responsible for the development of the business, and I was to be the geek. The idea of revolutionizing email came from a lunch meeting I had with an experienced businessman.
Eventually, things between my original partner and myself did not work. My girlfriend who was doing a business degree at Wharton took over the company. She knew better than I did on how to run a company. I was happy to be the technology co-founder.
Email was a passion, and the Internet was wide open. I enjoyed making a difference and soon we had tens of thousands of customers.
What were the main challenges and lessons learned at pobox?
First Lesson: The core technology took only a few months to develop. Everything around the technology – the “whole product” – took 6 times longer. Now I tell people that a business that can create a whole product is like a restaurant that can offer an entire dinner experience. Cooking a steak is not enough – many programmers think that because they can write code, they can start a company. It’s not that easy.
I sometimes compare doing a first start-up to making pancakes. The first one rarely works. The pan is too hot, the batter is too dry, something is wrong. But you learn. The second pancake usually works a lot better.
I didn’t know anything about business even though I’m a 3rd generation entrepreneur. I liked to read, I liked to program. It took a couple of months to build the product. We couldn’t even take payments online for our product. The process of building a “real company,” along with a billing system, took another year.
Second Lesson: Don’t let drama take over your business and make sure the founders’ values are aligned!
My girlfriend was bossy and always seemed to know what to do. Naturally, she ran and built the company. We, the co-founders, didn’t want to do it. And then, there was drama around the direction of the company. That’s what happens when you have college kids doing it for the first time. The education system does not prepare graduates to startup a scalable high-tech company. That’s why I’m passionate about JFDI and about providing up-and-coming entrepreneurs what is needed to be successful.
Any Lessons Learned at Karmasphere?
Karmasphere was created as an attempt to eliminate email spam using authentication and reputation. I was already leading an open-source, open standards effort in the authentication sphere. At its peak, the SPF project, which later turned into RFC4408, had over 2000 people on the mailing list. And soon, we managed to get Google, AOL, Microsoft on board with us.
I met the cofounder at an email conference named ‘The Inbox Event’. He was the conference organizer and invited me to give a talk. He asked me how to make antispam a profitable business. I told him I wanted spam to go away entirely without needing antispam altogether. Maybe I was naïve, but through that discussion, the framework for the beginnings of Karmasphere was laid out.
We made many of the common mistakes in year one. It would have been very useful to have a structured approach to customer development. Back then, the approach to building an Internet product was not as well documented as it is now. I now preach the lean start-up methodology everywhere I go.
Using our own money, we started building a reputation system, which I thought was a public good for the Internet. I also thought that if the Internet worked like a proper state, the government should be paying for it.
A major pivot happened when we got funded by VCs. Eventually, one tool we’d built turned out to be useful for Big Data in general (not just antispam). We then pivoted and got funded on making Hadoop and MapReduce tools easier to use by commercial customers. At this point, we were getting pretty far from the original vision, and I had to return to Singapore for family reasons, so I passed the company on to the next CTO.
It was a fascinating introduction to VC. I learned lots going to Sand Hill Road looking for Series A funding. Now I’m applying everything I learned during my Pobox, SPF, and Karmasphere days to helping startups in Southeast Asia and doing what I can to contribute to the growing ecosystem in Singapore.