Harrison Tang, the CEO and co-founder of Spokeo never backs down from a challenge and despite this success didn’t come easy for him.
He didn’t speak any English and desperately wanted to go back to his home country when Tang first arrived to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 13. He read Jane Austin books and copied pages from the dictionary to learn the language.
He met his future business partners at Stanford University where he ended up studying electrical engineering. Right from his parents’ basement in California, Spokeo, a leading people search engine was launched by Tang and his co-founders Eric Liang, Ray Chen and Michael Daly soon after they were out of graduate school.
But before finally reaching profitability the team had to survive near bankruptcy and had to pivot from their original idea. Now Spokeo posted $78 million in revenue for 2015 and has more than 18 million unique monthly visitors.
“My dad, he always wanted me to have the attitude of solving problems. It was about not giving up,” Tang said.
The project started with the development of software as Tang and his co-founders holed up in his parents’ house in the greater San Jose area in 2006.
Initially planned to be a tool that helped people connect their different social media platforms on one page, Spokeo had been conceived as a social media aggregation platform.
But people weren’t very interested in their idea, they soon realized. The likes of Spokeo and many other platforms were being pushed further at the time when MySpace and Facebook were gaining traction.
A search engine where you could look up people’s contact information — phone numbers, email addresses, and social media platforms seemed to show more promise, the team found out after doing market research. This forced the team to get back to the drawing board.
However they were greeted with closed doors when they started looking for funding after getting excited about their second-generation idea.
“When you’re a newbie right out of college, no one wants to give you the money. We tried, but venture capitalists turned us down or gave us very ominous terms,” Tang said.
Spokeo nearly failed in 2008.
The team was quickly running out of options as it wasn’t finding a good way to generate cash.
“When you really need the money, when the light is flickering and is about to go off, no one wants to give you the money,” Tang said.
So they managed to secure a total of $250,000 to fund their project from their respective parents.
“I had to go to my dad. The first thing he said was, ‘I had written it off when I gave it to you,” Tang recalled.
“Building a business isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he remembers his father then telling him.
“I took that to heart and we kept fighting on,” Tang said.
They were encouraged to rent office space in the nearby city of Mountain View after they were asked to move out of his basement by Tang’s father. The move helped Tang focus.
The Spokeo team invested in developing a new business model with the cash infusion from family members and a new location.
Tang and his team switched their strategy from an advertising model to a subscription model realizing that people were willing to pay for information on others.
At the same time, they bolstered their information sources to include historical records, criminal records and other public documents and concentrated on a more intuitive user experience.
Today Spokeo has a team of about 200 people in its headquarters in Pasadena.
“I think the key thing is your attitude,” he said. “Take [challenges] on instead of running away.”
(Adapted from CNBC)