The Warlord In the Park: How x-Googler Andy Cheng Used Constant Problem-Solving to Deliver Better Products to the Market and Grow His Startup

foundi Founder Andy Cheng

Douglas Crets, Communications Master

Douglas is the English Master in Communication. A passionate marketing strategist and content writer, he spent three years with Microsoft in Silicon Valley managing the global social media marketing strategy for BizSpark, Microsoft’s Azure and software program for entrepreneurs. Douglas has a deep love for technology, literature and travel. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. One day, he hopes to travel around the world for a year.

First attempts at startup products usually fall short. This can be really frustrating, but early-stage founders don’t often realize that these false starts are real opportunities.

Why? When founders give this product to new users, they are trying to help a new customer fare better than those “normal” people who do things in what founders consider the “old way.”

Most people using a new feature or a product for the first time are used to doing business, or experiencing something in what they consider the normal way. They are not like the founder, who has dreamed up a vision of how things should be done. When a founder gives this new product to a potential customer, he or she is trying to do three things:

  1. Sell the product!
  2. Integrate this new vision into the customer’s reality.
  3. Solve a problem that often a potential customer didn’t even know they had.

This new approach takes time to understand and appreciate. It’s almost like taking someone and plopping them down in a new culture, or in a different era somewhere far into the future. By giving these potential customers something very new, they will approach it with some skepticism, some doubt, and some reasons why it won’t work.

As a result, it’s inevitable that a first trial will end in incremental data and not much customer acquisition.

But this new confrontation with tech is a chance to seek feedback. This feedback creates a cycle of improvement. This is why founders who struggle with their own problem first usually have a better chance of finding product-market fit.

I will tell you a story about a founder who went through the AppWorks Accelerator and launched his own product successfully to demonstrate this point.

The park

It was a spring day in Taipei around the year 2011 and then-Googler Andy Cheng was looking for a house to buy. Married and with a young son, Andy wanted a property his family could grow into. A real estate agent showed him a house in a desirable neighborhood. A stretch of park just behind the house meant this was exactly what he was looking for.

Andy nearly made an offer. Then he found out that the park was slated for school construction. Rushing to close, the broker hid this from Andy. The seed of an idea was planted in Andy’s mind.

“I thought, ‘Man, what else have you not told me,’” says Andy, as he looked back at how he developed foundi (AppWorks #8), a real estate listing platform.

The first thought Andy had had when he set to work was not: How could he solve the problem of a culture of manipulation and secrecy that seemed endemic to real estate brokers?

He only sees that his startup could make an impact in that area in retrospect. Like many founders, Andy’s MVP alone didn’t help the real end user — at the time, house buyers — but it started a process that eventually got him there. And this is really important for early founders to understand.

A new product alone is never enough to create scale and customer growth. You have to do a whole lot of digging to get there.

How it all started

From Andy’s perspective, there were so many houses to choose from, so wouldn’t trust and honesty be the winning factor for an agent closing a contract?

Andy learned that relatively low-paid real estate agents live off of commission, and in doing so, they often worked in ferocious competition against each other, even in the same agencies. In contract bidding — even before negotiations — the potential future sale of a home often goes to the agent that creates the most perfect too good to be true contract. House sellers want a good return, so agents will find ways to make their pitch of the future contract as lucrative as possible.

It doesn’t matter if the price is true, or if it accurately reflects the true conditions of the house. It’s every man for himself.

It gets worse!

Since every agent is motivated by commission, agents who are first to find the listing will also try to hide the listing info from other agents, making it nearly impossible for other agents to pitch a contract.

This unethical weirdness became more than an engineering puzzle for Andy, who was quite proficient with software programming and maps. Previously, he had worked as one of Google’s first hires in Taiwan, managing a team of engineers in the maps division. Code and problem-solving are in his wheelhouse. “I always go to the computer to code, to figure things out,” he says. But to tackle this problem, he had to go beyond the screen.

He created an early version of foundi. House sellers and buyers would use that version to find information about listings. But they took this info back to agents and used it to try to haggle better deals. This put burdens on the buyers of houses, though; this was exactly the position Andy was in before and didn’t want.

The founder becomes the warlord

He booked meetings with influential agencies and set up face-to-face consultations. He discovered that real estate agents were typically not the best performers in school. They are also technology-averse. It explained a lot.

With the right technology, they wouldn’t have had to be dishonest to compete. By sitting down and walking through foundi features with early adopter agents, Andy finally got to a point where he was able to convince more of them to use the product.

Like an arms dealer selling his weapons to different cartels, Andy started to spread his tool to different agencies. Whereas previously agents in the same agencies would be pitted against each other, teams began to perform at a higher level. Other agencies saw agencies doing better, and wanted the same tool.

“I felt like I was a warlord,” Andy jokes.

Has he made the market more transparent? It’s hard to say this early in the game. But according to Andy, this counterintuitive outcome holds promise.

By taking away the old things that made agents competitive — their secrecy and manipulation — he has actually made real estate agents more competitive. Therein lies a fundamental concept of startup building, and the core reason why data drives product development. Early-stage founders might take note of this technique.

Now, Andy’s customers number about 12,000 agents of the total 40,000 in Taiwan, who rely on foundi to serve their customers better and in turn maximize their income. Andy takes a long-term approach to this door-to-door sales effort.

Creating new tech to solve real problems is really the experience of giving people new mental models to live a better life. If a founder has a good head on his shoulders, and is passionate about what he’s doing, he will eventually build something that people need, in a market people didn’t know could exist. No newly launched product can do this immediately. It’s always a process, and it involves founders stepping away from the computer and even leaving the building, to get it right.

Answers, and your product, exist in people’s heads and hearts, whether they know it or not. As a founder, you are quite simply the enabler that will help them experience that by delivering a tangible good that unlocks a mental model. Think of it as a game, with a constant state of going on side quests. Without those quests, you cannot complete the journey.

Why Hiring for an Early Stage Startup Is a Lot Like Dating — It’s All About the First Impression

If you want to bring quality staff onboard your startup, it helps to sell yourself in the most attractive way possible

Izza Lin, Recruiting Master

Izza is a Recruiting Master responsible for advising AppWorks Startups on all talent acquisition matters. Before joining AppWorks, she built a successful early career in headhunting firms such as Rising Management Consulting and Recruit Express, where she specialized in recruiting quality talents for internet and e-commerce companies, guiding hundreds of engineers, product managers, marketers and general managers to fulfill key positions for her clients. In between Rising and RE, she headed Southeast Asia Market for an e-commerce startup, USO HK, where she found her passion for helping small guys break the status quo. Izza received her B.A. in Economics from Washington State University and spent 5 years of her childhood in Myanmar and Cambodia. This diverse background has inextricably contributed to her love for traveling and “wine tasting”.

When founders are working hard during the early stages, most of their time is spent in building product, launching the product and raising capital.

Recruiting in today’s age is mostly an afterthought. However, in the bigger picture, when you’re building a startup that is meant to conquer a market in the long-run, finding talent is just as important as business development, product development, or acquiring customers, if not more.

Like the classic chicken-and-egg situation, savvy startup founders delay their hiring until they can afford it, yet, their business can’t afford to grow until their team has grown.

However, business growth can be extremely difficult unless you have the right team. Being stuck in this dilemma can be very frustrating.

At some point, founders need to get good at hiring for themselves. So, for beginners, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice to help conquer the recruiting hurdle easily.

It helps to use an analogy, so let’s use dating.

Just like dating, hiring is about searching for quality versus quantity and being able to convince that potential partner in the very first encounter. Whether you are looking for the ideal hire or the perfect match, this ability to attract people is key. Here is what you can do for your startup. 

Company introduction and job description = dating profile

Let’s start by comparing the creation of a job description to how you might create your own dating profile. When you first register on a dating app, you tend to put the most appealing photos on your profile, along with a personal description, interests, and what you look for in a match.

Your hiring profile should look much the same. You want to share quality information that will trigger people’s interests.

Seduce your audience

“I am Asian, 5’3, love drinking wine.” 

If this is my dating profile description, it is unlikely that anyone would swipe right. Unless I have a really hot profile photos.

The common mistake with many startups is that they use the lazy cookie-cutter three-line introductions.

For example: 

VIVACIOUS is an AI-based dating app for iOS and Android. It was founded by a group of National Taiwan University Engineering graduates in 2019.

VIVACIOUS is a top 30 dating app on Google Play and Apple App store, and now has over 30,000 downloads.

So the question is, how do you expect to stand out if your description looks like a “copy and paste”?

It needs to be unique. A good profile should take potential hires on a journey, sharing values, mission and vision (VMV), and also helping them understand who you are as a founder.

Instead of a three-line description, I may write a profile description (like the one below), showing how the company is unique: 

We are a group of National Taiwan University graduate engineers who saw a problem shared among our peers. Many people struggle to find a date due to the lack of opportunities in their busy schedules. Using AI, we have created a unique dating platform experience called VIVACIOUS to help bring people together on an intimate level and bridge that missing happiness. Just a few clicks away, you can begin an adventure to find your significant other.

As a Master of Human Resources, you will be leading our engineering and marketing team on a journey that will help many lonely hearts find the love they deserve.

For big corporations like Apple, Google, or Microsoft, their reputation needs no introduction. However, startups are much different, as most are relatively unknown. Your profile is an opportunity for you to attract potential hires, just like you would when using a dating app. 

Knowing your position, market value and how to write a job description (JD)

If Keanu Reeves is my type, my dating profile should not just say, “looking for Keanu Reeves look-alike”. This is because looks are not everything, as a matching personality is just as important.

Let’s say Keanu’s looks is equivalent to a candidate’s skill qualification, personality is the determinant if one can work well within the company culture. If the potential hire has the looks “skill” but not the personality, be aware that they may not be an ideal candidate.

Be sure to elaborate when listing out a Keanu Reeves description, by combining both looks and personality. This way candidates can better understand if they will potentially be a fit for the position on your team.

When writing the job description, I would suggest listing bullet points, from most important (must have) to least important (nice to have/ prefer). Remember to keep it short and concise, without cluttering the page. Listing out too many points can work negatively by limiting your funnel. Always be aware of who your audience is and the market value of a position.

If the description is for a senior position, but the title and salary appear as a junior position, you are unlikely to attract the candidates you are after.  

For example, the Human Resource position for “Vivacious” may appear as: 

Vivacious is looking for an experienced HR Manager to join our growing team. The HR Manager will be heavily involved in operations execution and strategic planning.

This role will be responsible for the development of compensation & benefits, performance management, employee relations, talent development program, leave processing, training, and onboarding.


1.Ability in executing HR tasks with extreme efficiency and limited resources

2.Have experience designing, building and leading the implementation of strategic scalable HR initiatives

3.Adapts and thrives in a demanding, start-up, fast-paced environment

Good to have:

1. Minimum 5 years’ of HR experience

2.Experience with start-up companies is a plus

3.Payroll experience 

Know where your target audience (TA) spends time

If my interest is drinking wine and I am looking for someone who would enjoy drinking wine with me, then attending a wine tasting event to look for a potential match would probably be an ideal place to start. 

This is the same in hiring. When you are finding talent, you have to think about where your talent would spend their time.

Do they show up at certain events, work for certain companies, or have their own Facebook group… etc?

Start by looking in the right direction, and focus on those online and offline locations.  

Know the competitor

Know your competition. Gather as much information about your competitors, such as their job posting content, company performance, company culture, strengths and weaknesses.

This information will be helpful when determining the strategic positioning of your startup to potential hires.  

Have your pitch ready 

Hiring moments can sometimes appear at the most unexpected times. You should always be ready to pitch your startup, otherwise, an opportunity with a talented candidate could be missed.

Be confident when giving your pitch, keep it short, concise, and most importantly, be persuasive.

Referrals are key

We focused on the points above first because they need to be fully understood prior to the most important step of them all — asking for referrals. Referrals are critical relationship keys that unlock doors and allow you access to more potential new hires. 

Searching your existing circle of resources for suitable candidates should always be your first step. You can usually find what you are looking for when working through people you trust.

Often times, it is usually a faster and more cost-effective way to hire. Instead of relying only on job postings, career sites or recruiting services, focus on building a stronger network.


The hiring chicken-and-egg problem is frustrating but not impossible. It can take months to find the right candidate. So it is crucial that you have a plan and a strategy ready.

Start crafting your startup profile today, practice your pitch, and when the opportunity presents itself, you will be prepared to win the perfect candidates that will change the game for you.

【If you’re a startup currently or prospectively employing AI / IoT or Blockchain / Crypto, be sure to apply AppWorks Accelerator’s AI & Blockchain only batch.】

Photo by Tumisu courtesy of Pixabay

4 Factors Turning Vietnam into Southeast Asia’s Next Growth Story

Vietnam is increasingly a thriving tech ecosystem connected with SEA

Jun Wakabayashi, Analyst (若林純 / 分析師)

Jun is an Analyst covering both AppWorks Accelerator and Greater Southeast Asia. Born and bred in America, Jun brings a wealth of international experience to AppWorks. He spent the last several years before joining AppWorks working for Focus Reports, where he conducted sector-based market research and interviewed high-level government leaders and industry executives across the globe. He’s now lived in 7 countries outside US and Taiwan, while traveling to upwards of 50 for leisure, collectively highlighting his unique propensity for cross-cultural immersion and international business. Jun received his Bachelors in Finance from New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Several batches ago, we started to see a steady influx of Vietnamese founders applying to our AppWorks Accelerator. It was a rather curious phenomenon because at the time, we had only begun expanding our scope outside of Taiwan to include Southeast Asia and had really only seen inward interest coming from developed markets like Singapore and Hong Kong.

AppWorks Analysts Natalie Lin and Jun Wakabayashi (from left to right) join several Vietnam founders at an AppWorks Founders Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam November 2019

Indonesia had long been earmarked for obvious reasons, but Vietnam was nowhere on our radar. And yet, we ended up having founders of startups such as Innaway (AW#17), (AW#18), KardiaChain (AW#18), and Abivin (AW#19) join our program. Granted, each of them had different motivations for coming to Taiwan, but it was enough to pique my interest in understanding the Vietnamese market, specifically the context and mentality in which these founders were coming from.

A handful of trips and dozens of meetings later, I’ve grown to become quite fond of the ecosystem in Vietnam. There’s an almost festive-like energy reverberating throughout the local startup scene. The country is experiencing a level of economic prosperity it has never seen before, and as a result, a generation of eager entrepreneurs laser-focused on tapping into the limitless possibilities at hand. Based on my observations, there are several key factors currently driving this growth.

The macros

Vietnam’s ascension to the regional, if not global, spotlight has been nothing short of an economic miracle. Just three decades ago, the country was one of the poorest in the world, with gross domestic product per capita treading around US$100 and over 70% of its population living in poverty.

Thanks to the Doi Moi reforms introduced in 1986 that gradually saw the liberalization, privatization, and diversification of its economy, Vietnam today is a comfortably middle-income country, with an accelerating market driven by a large, increasingly wealthy, and digitally connected middle class. From 2000 to 2015, Vietnam exhibited an average GDP growth rate of 6.9%, most recently clocking in at 7.08% in 2018, placing it among the fastest-growing economies in the world.

With 95.5 million people, Vietnam boasts not only the third-largest population in Southeast Asia, but also a young one, with over half under the age of 35. Levels of disposable income have also never been higher, and internet and mobile adoption are becoming more ubiquitous among its consumer base.

These are the fundamentals that should whet the appetite of any early-stage investor worth their salt, and many seem to agree. In the 2019 eConomy SEA report by Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company, Vietnam was designated as the third-most funded country in Southeast Asia after Singapore and Indonesia, having attracted over US$1 billion in funds over the last few years. The country’s internet economy has expanded by 38% on an annualized basis since 2015 – growing far more quickly than its regional peers with the exception of Indonesia – and is now set to reach US$12 billion or 5% of its GDP in 2019, according to the report.

It was only a few years ago when Vietnam lagged behind the majority of its peers in terms of capital allocation, deals done, and overall interest. But now, the conversations are evidently shifting from “Why Vietnam?” to “How do I get a piece of Vietnam?”

The tech talent

A classic characterization of the ideal Southeast Asian startup is one that is headquartered in Singapore, targeting Indonesia, with designers in Thailand, customer service in the Philippines, and engineers in Vietnam. It’s a gross oversimplification of each country’s strengths, but it’s nonetheless rooted in some degree of truth.

Vietnam’s heavy investment in science, technology, engineering, and math education over the last 15 years, combined with improved internet connectivity and a young, low-cost workforce, has spawned a thriving IT outsourcing industry. Vietnam is now home to roughly 30,000 IT companies, while churning out 80,000 IT graduates a year from its universities, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology. The country has also usurped China as Japan’s second-largest software outsourcing partner, right behind India, and houses substantial research and devvelopment bases from the likes of IBM, Intel, Oracle, Samsung, and Grab.

What does this mean for startups? This country is producing a legion of skilled developers ready to join a startup or bootstrap one of their own.

Many of the local founders I met previously worked for an outsourcing company (or in many cases simultaneously), but turned to entrepreneurship and startups in search of greater opportunities for growth and impact.

Of course, the talent pool is not without its challenges. The talent is certainly there, but it’s raw, and it’s young. As the ecosystem is still relatively nascent, there are very few people who have experience managing teams and solving problems at scale.

Moreover, while Vietnam’s education curricula in technical subjects like math and science have evolved tremendously in the last two decades, outsourcing is still an inherently low-level, low-value process, leaving a void of product-focused engineers that understand the holistic impact of their efforts on end users.

Nevertheless, the foundation is there. Vietnamese students regularly outperform the majority of their regional peers, while notably surpassing student performance in several Western countries, such as the UK and the US. Especially now, as we embrace the onset of deep technologies like AI and blockchain, Vietnam’s massive talent pool – if properly refined and nurtured – gives the country a unique comparative advantage over other Southeast Asian countries when it comes to producing prospective tech startups.

The sea turtles

In Taiwan, they’re called “hai gui;” in the Philippines, “balikbayan;” and in Vietnam, “Viet Kieu.” Collectively, they’re commonly referred to as “sea turtles”: locals who lived overseas, typically in Western countries, and eventually returned home to work or start their own businesses.

These returnees are often a primary driver of value creation for developing markets. That’s largely due to the experience gained, best practices learned, and network accumulated from some of the world’s leading universities and companies, which they’re able to integrate into their own ventures. Among Southeast Asia’s current crop of unicorns, the majority of their founders received some form of education abroad. For example, Grab’s Anthony Tan, Gojek’s Nadiem Makarim, and Traveloka’s Ferry Unardi all studied at Harvard Business School.

Looking at Vietnam’s current startup hall of fame, the majority of founders studied abroad at some point or another:

  • Son Tran, founder of, University of New South Wales
  • Hai Linh Tran, co-founder and CEO of Sendo, Nanyang Technological University
  • Ba Diep Nguyen, founder of Momo, Curtin University
  • Tuan Pham, founder and CEO of Topica Edtech Group, New York University

And the list just goes on from there. In fact, even Minh Le, chairman and CEO of VNG – the country’s one and only unicorn – received a part of his higher education abroad at Monash University.

But this is just the beginning. There’s an estimated 4 million Vietnamese currently living overseas, with more than 130,000 of them studying abroad every year. Ho Chi Minh itself receives approximately 30,000 young Vietnamese returning from overseas annually to seek business and startup opportunities. The government has also doubled down on its efforts to attract overseas talent by creating relaxed visa programs for Viet Kieu and exempting them from certain investment requirements.

The homegrown ecosystem

Although Vietnam has yet to produce a regional success story the likes of a Grab or Shopee, the country does have its fair share of rising stars and homegrown champions that are effectively holding their own against foreign entrants. There’s for ecommerce (reportedly raising over US$100 million in its latest round), Momo for e-wallet (recently raised US$100 million in series C funding), Zalo for messaging (owned by VNG), and also a handful of local ride-hailing contenders including Be (started by VNG’s co-founder) and FastGo (recently expanded in Singapore).

The fact that consumption hasn’t been completely dominated by international companies is indicative of a robust, end-to-end, and local ecosystem, underpinned by key pillars of support including angels, institutional investors, accelerators/incubators, media, and co-working spaces collectively split across major tech hubs in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and Da Nang.

The tone at the top has also played a pivotal role in the proliferation of the startup scene in Vietnam. Techfest, for example, is an annual event organized by the Ministry of Science and Technology that draws out over 5,500 attendees, 250 investors, and 600 startups. Earlier this year, the ministry also hosted the first iteration of the Vietnam Venture Summit, which brought out over 100 domestic and international funds to “unfreeze capital flows” and jumpstart innovation.

The time is now

Vietnam has come a long way since its agrarian roots. The country’s transition into the digital era is full steam ahead, with the transformation of its major cities into sprawling metropolises and key economic centers already well under way.

And the ones at the heart of this metamorphosis are the Vietnamese people, defined by a growing population of students, coders, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

For locals, there’s never been a better time to start a business. The country’s overall development and rapid urbanization over the past 20 years, sprinkled in with a formidable sense of national pride and ethnic belonging have collectively opened up a waterfall of opportunities that are now ripe for the taking.

For international stakeholders, especially those from developed markets where several generations of serial entrepreneurs and investor know-how have already run their course, there still exists a level of experience arbitrage in Vietnam. It’s a unique window of opportunity to diffuse tactics, playbooks, and best practices into an emerging market just now coming to terms with increasing affluence, consumer sophistication, and digital transformation.

【If you’re a startup currently or prospectively employing AI / IoT or Blockchain / Crypto, be sure to apply AppWorks Accelerator’s AI & Blockchain only batch.】

Photo by InstagramFOTOGRAFIN courtesy of Pixabay