Interview with Kitae Kwon, serial entrepreneur: Startups are like riding a tiger

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Interview with Kitae Kwon, serial entrepreneur: Startups are like riding a tiger

Company-engineer-turned-entrepreneur Kitae Kwon talks laptop attachments, beginner’s naiveté, and why startups are like riding a tiger.

Can you tell me about your first startup company?

My first startup company was LandingZone, which began in March, 2011. I designed a computer docking station for the MacBook Air. I came up with the idea, filed the patents, built up a team, completed the designing, handled crowdfunding, import/export logistics, and then delivering world wide. I was there for the whole process and it was quite an experience. We raised about $2 million for it, and I believe the company is now profitable.

How did you first decide on that initial docking station?

It was quite accidental. I was working as an engineer when I saw the MacBook Air announcement in October 2012. I noticed the electrical sockets on the left and right sides and came up with a mechanical latching system that you could attach to the laptop. I shared this idea with a coworker and he really liked it. He dragged me to the Apple store that same day to check if it could work, and it could, and he offered $50,000 in investment.

That’s a really good coworker!

Yeah, and it really came as a surprise! He was also an engineer, and not much wealthier, so for him to invest in someone he didn’t know very well there must be at least some potential. I remember a conversation we had in the car, driving to a lawyer’s office to file for the patent. And he casually asked me, “Hey Kitae, how much money do you think we need to raise for the company to be profitable?” I replied “Hmmm, maybe $200,000?” And he laughed at me saying I was way too naive, and that it would probably cost about $500,000. But it turned out to be over $2 million. So I guess we were both pretty naive.

I hear you are going to launch a new product in a couple weeks?

Yes, well, I’m hoping it’s a couple weeks. I’m working on a universal smartphone mount that could be used in many, many locations–in the car for navigation, or the backseat, or a desk or wall. People use their phones all day long, holding the phone for extended periods of time and that can be unpleasant. And in some cases it can be very dangerous, like when driving. So there are lots of models on the market but each one is a single purpose mount. When you travel somewhere, you don’t want to have to pack a collection, you just want a single tool. This is my product idea: a versatile, multipurpose All-in-One smartphone attachment.

Are there any lessons you learned from your first startup that you plan on using for this next project?

What I learned is that the more money you raise, the more people become involved with the product’s development. You end up collecting investors that want to know what’s going on, and who will want to influence your journey. But ultimately, they are not the customers. Ultimately, every company should be funded by its customers. Even the biggest investors can’t fund a company forever.

So if you’re only focused on collecting investors, especially investors that only care about the payoff, that don’t align with your vision then it will be very difficult to balance the investors’ demands and successfully complete your product. You end up shooting for two different targets.

Would that be your main advice to other entrepreneurs as well?

Yes, but also keep in mind that everybody wants to start their own startup. They need to understand the problem they’re trying to solve, and if the pain point is not big enough or desperate enough, than people may not want to pay for your startup. And the second thing is the size of the market. Whether your working on a solution for a very silly or very gigantic problem in the world, if the market is not big enough it won’t work. And that’s the responsibility of the entrepreneur. If the market is big or growing, that can offer lots of opportunities for the people you employ, too. And the startup can keep expanding.

How did you get involved with the Bootstrappers Breakfast?

I was working at a coworking space for my first startup and I saw one of their flyers. I found the concept of “bootstrappers” very interesting and ended up attending a couple meetings. Sean shared some very good advice, asking us to clearly define what we were working on. I’m a big fan of Bootstrappers.

Anything else you want to add?

If I knew everything at the beginning, before deciding to go through with the product, I would not have started the company. I was definitely not prepared. But somebody once told me that entrepreneurship is like riding a tiger. You start off with the goal of climbing a tree to get a fruit. But then you fall and land on the back of a tiger. And the only way to survive is to hold on. If you drop the idea, you die. So once it starts you got to hold on!

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