Geng and I talked about:
- Finding the true pain points of your target audience
- Using college and graduate degrees in unexpected ways
- Being a non-technical guy at a tech company
- The risk (or lack thereof) in starting your own company
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TranscriptClick to read full transcript
Jennifer Fultz 0:52 Welcome to the show.
Geng Wang 0:54 It’s great to be here, Jennifer.
Jennifer Fultz 0:56 So tell me in your own words, what do you really do for a living?
Geng Wang 1:00 What do I really do? So my title is CEO and co-ounder of Civic Champs. But I think you’re trying to ask, you know, what do I do do, if you will? So as an entrepreneur, I think my job is to provide the vision and also the general leadership for the team on where we want the company to go. But because I’m not technical, a lot of my job revolves around sales. So whether that’s selling new prospective clients or selling employees on the vision and joining us for this journey, that’s a big part of what I do as well.
Jennifer Fultz 1:44 Okay, can you tell me a little bit more about Civic Champs, what the organization is, what’s your product?
Geng Wang 1:50 Sure, absolutely. So Civic Champs, we’re a social enterprise based here in Bloomington. We also have a small office in Pittsburgh as well. Our mission is to make volunteering a frictionless experience for both the volunteers and nonprofits. And so our first product is a mobile application that automates volunteer hour tracking. And so we create little geofences around volunteer events or sites. And when someone shows up with their Civic Champs app, they can just tap a button that says check in, and they get checked into the event. And when they leave, it’ll actually prompt them say, “Hey, Jennifer, it looks like you’re done for the day. Would you like to check out? And so it’s very seamless and easy and they can… The goal is to allow volunteers to do that across any organization.
Jennifer Fultz 2:39 So do you sell your product primarily to nonprofit organizations? Are those your main customers for this?
Geng Wang 2:47 Okay, yep. So most of our clients are nonprofits, but they span the range from places like a community kitchen that has volunteers to organizations that provide volunteers like a Rotary.
Jennifer Fultz 3:00 And what was your inspiration for starting Civic Champs and designing this particular product?
Geng Wang 3:08 Yeah, I think the original inspiration…so we pivoted. The original idea was really to create a mobile game for volunteering. And that was inspired by two sort of trains of thought. One is I enjoyed gaming, but it’s a little bit of a guilty pleasure. And so I thought, what if you could create something that was both fun, but also did social good, and so you could feel good about it at the end of the day.
Jennifer Fultz 3:32 Like Pokemon Go for volunteering?
Geng Wang 3:34 Exactly, exactly. So an example of that is the city of Bloomington does not have a digitized map of all the light fixtures in the city. And so there’s no reason you and I couldn’t go around and take photos and geo tag them. And we upload and create this great map. And I’m sure if you overlay that information with, let’s say crime rates, you, you would get interesting insights. Right? We ultimately decided not to do that for a number of different reasons. But in that process, we got to talk with a number of nonprofits. And we realize that they just have much more fundamental pain points. And while a Pokemon Go for volunteering is cool in concept, it’s not really what would help them the most, right? And so, Civic Champs was really born at that moment to help address these more core pain points of the nonprofits, including things like tracking their volunteer hours, engaging them, etc.
Jennifer Fultz 4:31 I think that’s a really important point for founders and entrepreneurs, ’cause people come up with cool ideas that they really like, but it’s not always what their target audience needs the most. You know, one of my mentors had this example of selling drill bits. Nobody buys a drill bit because they want a drill bit, they want a hole in the wall to hang a picture, right, and the alternative solution would be like a command hook or something like that. So I think, I think that’s a mistake, not mistake, but just sign of error that a lot of younger freelancers and creatives make is like “Oh, I want to do this really cool thing.” But is it actually meeting anybody’s needs?
Geng Wang 5:14 The job to be done so to speak?
Jennifer Fultz 5:16 Yes, exactly. The job to be done. You have a background in…you went to Michigan State right?
Geng Wang: I did! Go green!
Jennifer Fultz: I went to Ohio State, so I guess the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Geng Wang 5:29 Yeah. At least for two games out of the year.
Jennifer Fultz 5:33 Yeah, it’s really strange being in another Big 10 town. Coming from another Big 10 school, but we survive. I do get some funny looks with my OSU t shirts on, but it is what it is. So how did your…and then you have a MBA from Harvard?
Geng Wang 5:48 Yes. Yep.
Jennifer Fultz 5:49 How did your education or any of your previous work experience prepare you for this current role that you have?
Geng Wang 5:56 Yeah, that’s a great question. I think from an educational standpoint, certainly, if you think about the MBA, I think a lot of the fundamental business concepts are taught in an MBA. And so that’s certainly been helpful. I think I had a little bit of a head start since I worked at McKinsey before going to Harvard. That a lot, you know, that also taught you a lot of sort of basic business concepts. But more importantly, how to, you know, do analyses and break down problems and how to think critically, I think that was a big part of what I learned out of consulting. I think from Michigan State, I did a major in supply chain management that was in the business school and then I did international relations that was out of the James Madison College. And so those two degrees I think combined actually provided a great couplement. So on the business school, certainly you learn about business. Supply chain was also great because unlike a lot of other business topics, there’s a right answer. Right, you can optimize your, your inventory. And I thought that was that always spoke to me having sort of, quote unquote, the right answer.
Jennifer Fultz: It’s kind of like a game too. Like you either get stuff where it needs to go or you don’t.
Geng Wang: Or you don’t. Right, exactly. And then it’s very data driven, and I tend to be more analytical. And so that was, that was really helpful and then two, you know, when you think about international relations while you know, Civic Champs is not an international company, but I think that degree helped broaden my perspective. You got to understand and learn about different cultures, which I think is ultimately helpful as you’re building a company and trying to build empathy for your customers.
Jennifer Fultz 7:41 Yeah, definitely. I majored in English and also molecular genetics, and I’m not really technically doing anything with those degrees anymore, but like, you know, like you said, the analysis, the critical thinking, the problem solving, those really can transfer. Those have transferred into all of the many adventures I have tried to do over the last 10 years. Yeah. What does a typical, if there is one, a typical work day or week or month kind of look like for you?
Geng Wang 8:14 Yeah. So I’ll start with the month, that’s a little easier. So I tend to spend about two weeks a month here in Bloomington, a week in Pittsburgh, and then a week somewhere else traveling to different places, usually here in the Midwest. I think if you look at a week to week basis, we have our standing team meeting on Mondays and then we have a product meeting on Fridays, but most of my days, is really around sales. And so whether that’s meeting new potential clients, onboarding folks, following up with them, that’s probably what I do most of my days. I think that you know, when we’re fundraising, obviously, that’s also a big chunk of it as well.
Jennifer Fultz 8:58 How much of a hand do you have in the development of the product itself?
Geng Wang 9:04 Yeah, great question, since I’m not technical. So I have a great technical co-founder. And we have a great head of product, Chris. And so for me, it’s really providing them guidance from the client perspective, since I am sort of face to face with clients all the time, and understand, sort of translating, “Hey, you know, it sounds like they had this need,” and working with them to say, “Okay, how do we address that need?” Not necessarily what specific feature they asked for, but more, “Hey, here’s what they want to have happen. How do we, how do we accomplish that?”
Jennifer Fultz 9:39 Right. Clients, clients don’t go around thinking about features. They just think, “Oh, I have this problem and I want to solve it. I don’t know how, I don’t really care how. I just want it solved.”
Geng Wang 9:50 Although they do sometimes communicate that in the form of a requested feature. And just, understanding that they may not actually want that specifically, but something to address whatever it is that they’re trying to solve.
Jennifer Fultz 10:04 Mm hmm. Did you start out with this co-founder, I guess you kind of started at the same time to develop the product, or did you end up…How did you build your team?
Geng Wang 10:13 Yeah, great question. So I’ve two co-founders, Ryan and Mike. They, they’ve been with me sort of from the beginning. I started doing this full time a little earlier in February of this year. They joined full time in May. Ryan needed to graduate from his MBA that was, that was a minor detail. And then Mike needed to move down from Ann Arbor to here, Bloomington, and so that took a couple months. But yeah, they were sort of with me from the beginning. And even Chris, you know, I would say he was with us, you know, really from the beginning as well.
Jennifer Fultz 10:50 I think a lot of…I don’t know if this your experience, but I think a lot of founders start out kind of wearing every single hat. You know, they’re the accountant, they’re the bookkeeper, they’re the janitor, they’re the designer. They’re everything. But it sounds like you’ve brought in a lot of talent and you have a lot of people working together with you. So that’s, that’s really, that’s really awesome. How do you decide which pieces to take on yourself and which to, which to hand off?
Geng Wang 11:21 I think it’s just based on things that you’re most interested or passionate about, relative to the other folks in the room. So for example, with Mike, who’s our CTO and lead engineer, and Chris, who heads product, I think they’re a great couple minutes on that front, where Michael is really engaged on doing new technical development. And Chris is really great at a lot of the fine details and pushing the product and release schedule. Whereas you know, if you look at Ryan and I we also have a great couplement in terms of our working styles. Ryan’s much more detail oriented than I am, right. And he really keeps me on track and in a lot of ways and handles a lot of the operations and finance stuff that I probably would not enjoy as much of but also, you know, probably get eight I’m not not as good at,
Jennifer Fultz 12:20 Yeah, I’m finally reaching the point in my freelancing business where I’m like, okay, there are things that I just don’t enjoy, or it takes too much time for me to do. I can hand that off to somebody who is much more qualified, probably enjoys it more and can do it a lot faster than I can and that’s, that’s been a really good feeling, actually.
Geng Wang 12:40 Absolutely.
Jennifer Fultz 12:41 It’s kind of along the same vein, what are some of the challenges and rewards of being an entrepreneur?
Geng Wang 12:50 So I think the main reward is seeing the product come to life and seeing your vision come to life. I think that is that is first and foremost the biggest reward. And really, the only way it comes to life is if it works for your clients or customers. And so, seeing positive reactions from them, “Oh my goodness, this is so easy,” or, “This was going to save me so much time,” or, “I can’t believe I never knew this existed,” that kind of stuff. I think that is probably the most rewarding piece of it. I think understanding in this context that we’re helping sort of with a social mission is also very gratifying. And so we track things like how many total volunteer hours have come through our system, how many volunteers are we tracking, things like that. I think on the challenges, right, this is not unique to us. But I would say that those challenges shift over time. And so at the beginning, it’s really around, “Hey, do we have a team that’s willing to work on this with me? And, and I’m excited to work with them?” to, “Oh my god, goodness, we have a bunch of people, how am I going to pay for them?” And so, you know, fundraising and making sure you have enough funds. And then it’s like, “Okay, well, I just convinced all these people to trust me and this vision I have, now you got to do it. Can we deliver on that vision? And sign up folks? And now we’ve signed up, folks. So now, you know, can we deliver on on the promise that we just made to our clients, right?” And then so on each stage, I mean, sometimes they coalesce and it happens together, but oftentimes, I feel like it’s a little bit of a staged stress points, if you will.
Jennifer Fultz 14:52 But then meeting each of those challenges is probably very rewarding.
Geng Wang 14:57 Yeah, I would say so. I mean, certainly they’re important milestones for us as a company. It’s hard to enjoy them in the moment at times. Yeah. Because you just move on to the next thing. Yeah, I agree. It’s important to look back and say, hey, look how far we’ve come and all the amazing things that we’ve done.
Jennifer Fultz 15:17 I think the great and not so great thing about having your own business is that you’re never done. And there’s always something else to do, but there’s all but that also means there’s always room to grow and room to improve. At least I find that.
Geng Wang 15:31 Yeah, I think one of the benefits of being entrepreneur is you do grow much faster relative to other roles. And people always told me, a number of analysts, when I was in consulting, to take more ownership and really make this your own and I think it was hard to really grasp what that meant before starting my first business with Rent Jungle.
Jennifer Fultz 16:03 Yeah. How has your experience as an Asian American, maybe particularly an Asian American in the Midwest, how has that shaped your perspective? Or maybe actions as an entrepreneur?
Geng Wang 16:18 That’s an interesting question. There’s no counterfactual. And so it’s hard for me to say what I would have done differently. Certainly, you’re always shaped by the opportunities that present themselves around you. While there’s lots of nonprofits and service organizations across the world and really across the US, being here in the Midwest, I think we have a greater density of that, right. So if you think about cities like Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, I think each of them ranks the number one in terms of foundation dollars per capita, or nonprofits per capita. This is really a hotbed for nonprofits. I think that’s part of it. I think from the perspective of being an Asian founder here in the Midwest, right? I mean, the first thing I can think of is my name’s not phonetic, right? And so there’s, you know, small things like putting the pronunciation of my name in my emails and things like that. And I’m not sure that necessarily shapes what I do differently. But it certainly impacts the overall experience if you will.
Jennifer Fultz 17:37 It’s just something that you have to live with. Do you have any advice for Asian Americans who want to be founders either in the tech industry or in another industry?
Geng Wang 17:50 Sure. I think this is something I thought about fairly recently, which is there’s a lot of Asian Americans in top tier schools. Certainly in entry level consulting, banking, technology roles. I think there’s actually not that many folks in sort of senior leadership. So if you look at the top partners at venture capital firms, or if you look at the largest technology firms, it’s getting better and there’s more diversity, but there’s not as many as one might expect. And I think there’s a number of reasons for that. But one of them, in terms of founders, I would say, you know, there’s there’s not as much risk as you might perceive. There’s, to me in terms of being a founder and entrepreneur, I think this is particularly important with Asian American founders, perhaps based on their upbringing. You know, they’re risk averse, right? Your parents that want you to be a doctor or a lawyer or, you know, something, and the professional class. And so there’s also a lot of pressure at times to adhere to that. Right? And I’m certainly, you know, I did go to business school. And so I can’t say I fully ignored those things. But I think if you have a passion for something, and you really want to try it, a lot of folks think about the risk, and maybe that’s even more firmly ingrained, because your parents teach you about like, “Oh, my God, this is so, so risky.” But really, if you think about it, if you become an entrepreneur it’s not like your value as an employee decreases ever, right? And you can always go back to what you were doing at a minimum, right? And more likely, you know, you would have the opportunity to do new and cool, better things, right? Because companies are often looking for folks that can “take ownership” or perhaps have a more innovative or entrepreneurial bent to them to help drive new innovations within those companies.
Jennifer Fultz 20:08 Yeah, I think that has been my experience to, as I’ve started a variety of different freelancing and entrepreneurial ventures. I’m trained as a teacher. And that’s a pretty good fallback. Like I can always go back into teaching. I don’t know that I want to at this point, but I think that’s a really good point that the risk is not always as high as we think it is. Chances are, you know, if you’ve made it far enough to be able to start your own business, you’re probably not going to just like crash and burn completely.
Geng Wang 20:46 Right. And even if you do, right, it’s all about did you learn from that experience? And certainly there was the opportunity costs, and the stress and all those other things that come with being an entrepreneur. But to your point, you can always go back to what you’re doing or, you know, leverage the things that you learned and do something even better the next time around.
Jennifer Fultz 21:10 Yeah, for sure. Alright, well, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Geng Wang 21:14 Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Jennifer. Glad to be here.
Geng is a proven serial entrepreneur with a keen interest in social impact. He is currently the CEO and co-founder of Civic Champs, a social enterprise that creates technology solutions for nonprofit organizations to automate volunteer management. The goal of the company is to make volunteering a frictionless experience for both volunteers and service organizations.
Prior to Civic Champs, Geng co-founded two companies based in Pittsburgh. The first company, RentJungle.com is an apartment search engine which was sold in 2014 to The Rainmaker Group. The second, Community Elf (rebranded as Cosmitto) is a social media management agency which was sold in 2017 to a private equity firm. In addition, Geng had the honor of spending 4 years at McKinsey & Company, as an advisor to senior executive clients at Fortune 500 companies – helping them solve their most pressing strategic and management issues. Geng holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Michigan State University.
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