From algorithmic trader to startup founder – Nancy Hua, CTO & Co-Founder of ApptimizeFeatured

Hi, I’m Nancy Hua, CTO at Apptimize, a company I co-founded in 2013 and was CEO of until October last year. Our mobile-first experimentation platform allows product teams to update their websites and apps in real-time for A/B testing and feature rollouts. We're probably installed on your phone right now because we work with top 10 apps in every category in 100+ countries. Prior to founding Apptimize I worked in algorithmic trading.I’ve written about the life experiences (here) that led me to leave finance and start my own tech company and would love to share more of my views about life and leadership with you here.Ask me anything about starting a company, working in the enterprise business, building teams, cultivating company culture, MIT or anything else!
Could you share with us how you dealt with transitioning out of your role as CEO and also why you made this decision. Do you feel comfortable not being the CEO of your own startup?
Honestly, I had been thinking about transitioning since before our Series B in 2016 because I was really tired and I could tell the next phase of growth was going to be even more work. But I didn't think I could stop being CEO because fires kept popping up and I felt it was my responsibility to solve it. I always felt this crushing responsibility for the team, our customers, our vc's. Thus in my head it was always, "I'll hire a CEO right after I raise the Series B and can give the new CEO a full tank of gas," but then as our Series B was closing I saw we had to totally rebuild our sales team, so then it was, "I'll stop right after I rebuild this team and get revenue up again," and then it was, "Right after I hire good execs for these key functions." On the side, I would complain to my founder friends about not wanting to be CEO anymore and surreptitiously interviewed some candidates, but I kept being scared to make the move because I worried that our company would die if I wasn't CEO anymore. I also felt like I couldn't tell anyone about wanting to stop being CEO because they'd get scared and leave, or it'd distract them uselessly, or they'd think I was weak- many seemingly normal reasons that were actually ultimately about me being scared and wanting to control the situation. It was when I finally hired an amazing executive team in H1 2018 where I understood what it meant to have real partners in the business and be open with them about everything, including my fears. So that's when we started the official search and trialed a bunch of candidates. I was scared that my execs would leave with the uncertainty of who was going to be CEO and several often repeated that they didn't think operational issues were our bottleneck for anything, and for a time we were thinking about hiring a COO instead of CEO, but I didn't think that made sense for a company our size. Everyone acknowledges my executive team is amazing and I relied on their judgment a lot in the search. We chose our new CEO because he has an amazing background running, IPO-ing and selling many companies worth $800M+. Now my life is really easy. The week we hired the new CEO, I wrote my first (and hopefully last) song because I had so much excess creative energy. I started writing a YA science fiction book. Last week I ordered my lunch and dinner order for the first time in years- previously I'd felt too busy to bother with this and would just eat others' remnants for food. I think I'm best at starting something up and running it for a few years. I'm proudest of the hires I've made and how I ran the company from 2013-2016. But since then, I could tell I was trapped in responsibilities I was competent at or even the best person to do given the situation, but not something that was my genius.
I read through all your replies in this AMA, and thank you for being so open with this community - I learned so much!
Wow what a story - thanks for being so honest. Leadership is so glamorized by the media... there's so much focus on the success and far less on the work (and sacrifice) that creates it. Thank you.
wow, thank you so much for your honesty! I totally understand what you mean about not wanting to look weak to your team, I have been there before. Wishing you much more success with your business and thanks for taking the time out to reply.
I'd love to know how you determined your company values and how you hold yourself and team mates accountable to them?
We set our values based on what we thought made us successful and it's an important part of what we think allows us to win. Thus if someone is behaving counter to our values, that's a serious issue because we believe it jeopardizes our team's ability to succeed. Early in the company, we each listed things we'd done that made us proud or excited and then we grouped these accomplishments/ events into concepts that formed our 4 values. I include them below along w the scoring of how we do performance reviews which is how we hold ourselves accountable. Strategic Focus:1 = Executes tasks but without understanding the wider context and doesn't make improvements, 2 = Understands context and is able to make improvements, 3 = Can set priorities and make a significant impact. Ownership: 1 = Needs heavy supervision and struggles to figure out how to accomplish goals. Does not hit goals/ quota, 2 = Completes job duties and achieves the set goals (hitting quota, ships on time), 3 = Raises issues when necessary to help hit personal and team goals (makes sure team hits goals, not just their own goals).Hunger for Excellence and Growth: 1 = Outcomes are subpar or underwhelming, 2 = Complacent with satisfactory results, 3 = Always improving results/never complacent/pushes to constantly improve."The Right Kind of Ambition" (Collaborative Teammate): 1 = Blames others for failures and is not helpful to team mates, 2 = Is helpful to others, 3 = Pushes team members to improve and genuinely cares about the team, has "the right kind of ambition" where they care about the company doing well.
I absolutely love these and how you score. Thank you for sharing!
+1, this system so helpful.
Love the article on Inc, especially the last part on what success really means. I'd love to hear more about how to make the transition of the company from "about expressing yourself (any founder's)" to "making sure the team is learning, that they're hitting their personal goals, and that we're all connected and growing." And what are the signals that you have successfully done that?
I listen to feedback from the team to see if they're learning and feeling fulfilled. I have gotten feedback that I'm good at calling out touchy topics so we address them immediately and never have anything taboo or an elephant in the room, which I think is important for maintaining openness.
That's great insights, @nancy! Thank you for sharing!
I’m really appreciating your blog and other articles as well so thanks for sharing!I’m curious about something technical. My business provides solutions for e-commerce, and many retailers are trying to figure out why lots of people browse on mobile but most complete their purchase on devices with larger screens like desktop or tablets. I have my own theories, but I’m wondering if you have insight on this based on your work? Or if you've seen the opposite?
I've found it depends on factors like the type of purchase. Lots of people find it easier to comparison shop on web instead so they identify the items on mobile but then move to web to confirm the channel they want to purchase through after doing more research on discounts and pricing. There are also often better login and autofill features on web which makes it more convenient, thus it's important to have a native app on mobile as much as possible because that creates a permanent presence which makes the experience more convenient for consumers.
Thanks so much for your insights on this, and to all the other questions which were great. I've learned a lot, and really appreciate everything you've shared!
What learnings can you share in your early days at Apptimize as a first-time founder? Any advice or tips for first-time founders on how to get through the early stages/years of their start-up?
I didn't know anything when I started the company but luckily there was a ton of content on seed stage stuff from Y Combinator and various blogs. I was always reading and talking with other founders. My advice for first time seed stage founders would be to 1) learn as much as possible from others so that you're not reinventing things that are not core to your company's unique competitive advantage/ innovation, ie. invent whatever it is that helps you uniquely solve the question of "why does my company deserve to exist?," but then for everything else like how you pay people and do titles just do whatever's really normal because the rest of the world has probably converged on a solution that's pretty good and you should just focus on your unique thing,2) notice why you're doing things and be authentic to yourself. I was accustomed to being an achiever and collecting awards and jumping through hoops and getting caught in fundraising hype because I was good at it and liked being "high status," but I've learned more and more how these things are a waste of time and take you away from living what you truly view as a fulfilling life, which is a view you have to consciously form over time instead of borrowing from what everyone around you is saying. I started to notice more when I felt I was doing something out of fear or ego instead of because I wanted to learn and grow or because I wanted to connect with others and have a positive impact on the world. It took me time to be discerning about my motivations for different tasks and listen to myself better. I've learned that doing things out of love and growth are more long term sustainable and successful than doing things because that's how everyone does it or because that's what others seem to approve of.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice for creating and running Apptimize, what are some things that you would tell yourself?
Wow, impressive career so far! You made the transition from CEO to CTO. I'm wondering how this transition happened for you. I'm also curious to know what you learned along the way? More specifically if you have tips on how to manage time/stress and what challenges you face being a female CTO?
I'm putting together a CTO dinner so I can talk with other CTO's about their experience. I haven't been CTO long enough to really know but so far everything is way easier than being CEO so I'm super happy. I think the CTO role is less well defined than CEO so it depends on the type of company. I'll let you know as I learn more.
In the Inc article, you mention, “Stick to the cultural fits in our hiring profile“ as something you would do differently if you had another company. As a early-stage founder who has not hired her first full time team member, what advice would you offer?
I got lucky because my first hires were better than me and people I really trusted. Make sure the people you hire are doing it for the right reasons and are aligned with your vision for the business. Don't hire someone you don't respect or like or can't argue with because you're going to spend a lot of time with this person and it's important to have good communication and conflict resolution habits.
I just read your article on Inc. and loved it!After you left algorithmic trading, what main challenges did you face starting your own business? How did you approach them?
I wanted to learn as much as possible to start up Apptimize and my method for doing that is to read things and talk with lots of people. That's why I felt I had to move to Silicon Valley from NYC to start my company because all the startup people I knew were out here, as were the authors of all the blogs and books I was reading. Silicon Valley is not that small so after I arrived it was easy to learn faster from all the thought leaders around me.
Did you handle any of the early day fundraising and what advice would you give early founders in that area?
I did all the fundraising for the eventual $20M+ I've raised for Apptimize. My advice is to get any money in the door because that builds a snowball effect that gives you confidence and momentum to close the rest of the round. Y Combinator made raising our seed round process fairly easy because we immediately had exposure to many top seed investors. We also got amazing intros from friends like my MIT friend Aditya who'd just raised money for his YC startup- he gave me a ton of good advice about our pitch and individual tactics like how to send a good followup email. We also got great intros through investors like Tom Moss who's another founder. Do a good job with these precious intros because your friends' reputations are on the line. If you can close any of these investors, then the rest will come because they will be happy to give you more intros.
Hi Nancy – Thanks so much for joining us.As a reminder – this AMA is part of our ongoing series with experts in the community. Please reply in the comments with your questions for Nancy and she will be online later this week to answer. She may not get to every question so we'll be ranking them by popularity (based on emojis). If you want Nancy to answer a question, add an emoji to let her know.
Nancy – thank you so many great insights and answers. We really appreciate your time!This AMA is now over everyone!
Congratulations on the recent acquisition Nancy. How was the overall experience of getting acquired?