From a Class Project to a Million-Download Company
The co-founder of Greengar talks about how she had to close one company in order to start another one.
By Thuy Truong (Co-founder & CEO, Greengar)
While products are the core of a technology company, building a company takes more than just great products.
Greengar started in 2008 with one developer, Elliot Michael Lee, the founder of the company. He developed his first app, the Brain Tuner game, as a way to learn Objective-C. It’s a very simple math game that anyone can just pick up and play for a few minutes. Brain Tuner became an overnight sensation with a million downloads in a couple months and it eventually paid off his USC tuition that year.
While taking the computer graphics class at USC, unlike classmates who focused on impressive 3D objects, Elliot built on his simple productivity app, Whiteboard: Collaborative Drawing. It enables two iOS devices to connect and draw together in real-time. He published a polished Whiteboard app on the App Store, and recorded one million downloads in only two months.
After graduating in 2009, I went back to Vietnam to start my first Parallel Frozen Yogurt shop. With over three years of experience in retail banking and marketing, and a degree in computer science, my first business venture in Vietnam had nothing in common with my background. After the grand opening, Parallel became the iconic brand for premium products, superior customer service, and a viral marketing campaign on social media. I put everything I had into the shop, heart and soul: I was able to secure many prime locations, negotiate each and every single deal with vendors, and expand up to five different stores.
Parallel become the biggest curiosity that made Elliot take his first trip to Vietnam in 2010. Despite having over six million downloads across his apps, Greengar was still a single-person company. In 2011, I helped Elliot to hire his first developer in Vietnam to create the Android ports of all Greengar apps. The team grew bigger and we decided to move from a living room office to an office building. However, managing a team of developers and running a company takes more than just having an idea or writing lines of code.
In 2011, the company scaled so quickly that we had over ten full-time developers and many interns. Our company retreat in the summer had 18 people including family members. Greengar also brought the first Hackathon event to Vietnam and attracted over 100 participants and produced over 25 mobile applications within 48 hours of hacking.
I made my decision to go full-force with Greengar in 2012 after many sleepless nights. I opened each store, decorated each tile on the wall with my own hands, and the day I shut down each store, it was painful as hell. However, if I’m going to spend my 20s building a company, following the entrepreneur’s path, I would prefer to take the risk and build something that touches more people’s lives than just being the best frozen yogurt chain. I remember when my team helped me to carry a piece of ceramic to a corner of the shopping mall, and I had to break it into smaller pieces in order to dump it in the garbage area. The minute I broke that piece with my own hands, my heart was totally torn. Most entrepreneurs write the story of how they started a great company; there should be more people who dare to write about how they finish their companies.
It was the most awkward moment when I sat down with my best friend, my co-founder of Greengar and told him that I want to drive the boat from now on. Though Elliot is the best engineer, great innovator, and the best hacker that I’ve met, Greengar needs an experienced leader who can build the vision and direction, execute the plan, and passionately take the company to the next level. At the end of the day, we both want the best future for Greengar, and that’s what really matters!
After five months as CEO, I took Greengar from Ho Chi Minh City to Silicon Valley. Our motto “fun • simple • useful” became “the next revolution in collaboration technology on mobile platforms,” and we evolved from an app development company to a platform builder where developers, educators, and thousands of students are waiting for our next launch. We accepted our first-ever outside financing from the top-tier accelerator program in Silicon Valley, 500 Startups, and moved our team to Mountain View while blowing past 14 million total downloads of our apps.
I came to the US ten years ago speaking broken English, and struggled in the classroom with listening to professors and taking notes at the same time. I wished there were a tool that I could use to synchronize the notes of my professors with my notebook so that I could focus more attention on listening and understanding the lecture. In the past ten years, many technologies have changed, but no one has come close to solving my problem. While talking with many educators and students from Georgia to Massachusetts, Chile to Vietnam, they all have this problem in their classrooms. Now’s the time for someone step up and solve it, and who better than the person who has this problem herself?
Building a company takes more than just great products; it takes time, effort, commitment, vision, direction, execution, and passion!
About the guest blogger: Thuy Truong is the CEO and co-founder of Greengar, maker of mobile real-time collaboration apps. Greengar’s latest product is Smartboard, which launched on February 14, 2013. Thuy is a serial entrepreneur from Vietnam with many years of experience in customer services, finance, food and beverage. She holds a B.S. in Computer Science from USC. Follow her on Twitter at @thuymuoi.