You Have This Network for the Rest of Your Life – Interview with Elton Chan, Alumnus of Y-Combinator
Tell us about yourself and what led you to start Branch8.
I was born in Hong Kong and I spent half my life in Hong Kong and half my life in Canada. I went to University of Toronto and after I graduated, I went into consulting. I worked for Accenture and did some IT Consulting. After a few other gigs, I joined Rocket Internet, working on Lazada. We built the Amazon of Southeast Asia, so that was quite exciting! I was in the Hong Kong offices, so we were doing Crossborder e-commerce. At the same time, my friends (Matt and Tim – also co-founders of Branch8) were suppliers and sellers on online marketplaces. They were doing well, but they had this pain point of listing and managing multiple marketplaces at once. We decided to combine our strengths, and the idea of Branch8 came about. We then applied for YC, and we got in. Our 4th co-founder, Jackie, had a very strong background in technology as he graduated from University of Waterloo and previously worked at Microsoft and Facebook.
Could you tell us about your startup that was in Y Combinator?
Branch8 helps sellers list and manage products on e-commerce marketplaces. You can imagine Amazon and eBay. There are many of these types of platforms in the world so we help sellers and suppliers to get onto these, instead of going on each one, one at a time. You can simply list and manage your products on Branch8.
Why did you decide on Y Combinator?
To be honest, I personally didn’t know what YC was, but Jackie is a software engineer. He did computer engineering so YC was a dream. So we applied, got an interview, got in, and we thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” For me, personally, I didn’t know more of what YC was until afterwards – until we were in it, doing it, and then I understood “Whoa, this is very helpful to our startup.”
What was your experience like at Y Combinator?
You met people that truly wanted to change the world. People could talk about changing the world, but you actually see people acting it out and wanting to make the world a better place. It was cool to see these people that really wanted to help. I mean the partners at YC had built successful companies, but they still came in and helped us. It was meeting these [mentors] that made the difference and then they sort of told you, “You’re not really too far off, so it’s not impossible. It’s not a dream. It’s achievable. The things you read on TechCrunch, it’s achievable.”
Do you feel like the most valuable part of YC was all of these people, all of these mentors, or was it something else?
I definitely think it’s the network.You get into YC, you have this network for the rest of your life. I would put it this way. Instead of you paying for an MBA, this is like them paying for you and you getting this network and money to build your company. In Hong Kong, we have Roy, co-founder of Teamnote – a YC company as well, who continues to mentor and help us.
How can people best leverage their experience at an accelerator?
Learning – trying to learn how to think and execute like them. I’m always reminded by them to talk to users. But it’s actually really hard to talk to your users, because you have to consider what kind of questions you ask – would you ask questions that are biased?
Do they pair you up with the mentors?
During my time, they split you up into 4 groups and each group had 3 group partners, and then every other week we would meet up once to have a progress update with the whole group. Every week you would set up office hours with the partners and you bring your problems. They don’t really want to hear what’s good because good things are assumed to happen.
Did you feel they helped you to execute things (for example, figuring out good questions to ask your users or did you have to figure it out on your own)?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Every company is different and every context is different. They could give you a methodology, different types of questions to ask users, things they’ve done in the past they’ve seen that worked or not worked and then you try it, track your results and see if you replicate it.
How do you think that accelerators in the U.S. differ from accelerators in HK? What are your thoughts on accelerators in Asia?
I’ve never been to one in HK but I can say YC is really good. Roy from Teamnote, as previously mentioned, is a great guy who lets us use his office and truly cares about how we are doing. That’s hard to find. In Hong Kong, most people kind of keep it to themselves. They think, “If I let you succeed, then I will fail,” but a lot of times in Silicon Valley, their mindset is, “If I help you to succeed, then I will succeed as well.” If everybody does this, then everybody wins. That’s why I don’t think we’re afraid to share what we do with people, because executing is hard. And it doesn’t hurt to see other people succeed because it helps the entire startup ecosystem.
Do you think accelerators are suitable for everyone?
I think YC is amazing. I’d be biased but I think most people come out of YC saying it’s worth applying.
Are there certain personalities/traits more suitable?
No, I think there’s a wide range of factors in how YC accepts people. There are some major things. It’s all the information you can find online. It’s not a black box. All those questions they list out online, those are really it. There are questions such as, “What does your company do?” or “Is this a personal painpoint?” They are very simple questions, but if you can’t explain it concisely then there may be issues during your interview.
At what stage should people consider applying for YC?
I think at any stage you should apply.
Do you feel that there are certain times it’s too early or too late?
No, I don’t think so. Just apply.
Our audience is mostly people in the startup community. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t think too much and execute on what you’re thinking. And then talk to users.
I remember in Jessica’s book (one of the co-founders of YC), she was trying to find out what is the the main factor that successful entrepreneurs have and I think the conclusion is being relentless and having perseverance.
Where is Elton now
What’s been your experience like after YC?
Now we’re doing Cadobox also. We had started doing Cadobox as a side project and then we started getting traction. Half the team works on Branch8 and half the team works on Cadobox. Under Branch8 there are two parts, the Branch8 we started with that focuses on enterprise type of deals for launching on multiple platforms and then Cadobox focuses on food delivery.
Two of the co-founders, Tim and Jackie, thought “I want to make healthy food. I want to make it affordable,” so we were making it and we were posting it on Instagram and then suddenly friends started asking. Soon enough, it was strangers asking. So what we did was we built Cadobox. Cadobox delivers healthy food that has new dishes daily through a Facebook chatbot (eatcadobox.com). We believe eating healthy doesn’t need to be boring.
How does it work?
People can go to eatcadobox.com, select the Facebook chatbot option, then press “Send Message”. They will be able to view the menu and order lunch between 11:15am to 2pm. We send out our menus daily.
People can also order via Whatsapp and email.
Why did you decide to do a ChatBot versus other alternatives?
A chatbot takes a few clicks and no downloading, so why build an app when you can just do this?
Are there certain areas you deliver/don’t deliver to?
We deliver to all of Hong Kong. For Central, Sheung Wan, Admiralty, there is no minimum. For the rest of HK Island there is a minimum of 2 lunches, and for Kowloon side there is a minimum of 3 lunches.
What’s next for Cadobox?
We’re still in the early stages, so we’d like for any readers to come try us out and support a fellow startup in Hong Kong. And as usual, give us the opportunity to talk to you and get some feedback. We’re also working with corporates, so if you have events or bulk orders, then come try us out as well.
Do you feel that your experience at YC has helped you in building Cadobox?
I think we’re more focused on listening to our customer’s feedback.