Surround yourself with driven individuals – Mike Cheng, Snip.ly founder

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Mike Cheng is the founder of Snip.ly, a social media conversion company and Lumen5, a video content marketing company. Mike spoke to ScaleUp Magazine on his personal and entrepreneurial life.

Tell us about your professional journey so far?

I was born in Hong Kong, raised in Vancouver, but my professional journey began in Toronto. During my final years at Simon Fraser University, I was accepted into a program called The Next 36. The program selects 36 ambitious students from across Canada to form 12 teams of 3 and each team is coached by mentors to build a startup over the course of 9 months. Every participant from across the country had to gather in Toronto and live with their cofounders in a dormitory while building a new company together. It was through this experience that I met my current cofounders, Christopher Bowal and Nigel Gutzmann.

Tell us about your company. What challenges you faced while growing your company and what you did to fix them.

We launched Sniply in early 2014 and operated for several years with great success. However, the technology industry is a fast-moving space and we were quickly faced with somewhat of an existential crisis. Sniply helps businesses manage hyperlinks for marketing purposes, but we observed an internet that was increasingly moving away from text and rapidly towards rich media content such as images and videos. Hyperlinks thrive on the open web, but the open web was losing market share to a new private web, namely Facebook. With businesses changing their marketing strategy from link sharing to content production, we too had an important decision to make. Even though the platform was still growing and all the signals show that we should move full speed ahead, we could not ignore the threat of becoming obsolete in an evolving landscape. As a result of a very difficult decision, we decided to go all-in on developing a new product that will allow us to capture the rich media trend. The result was Lumen5, a video creation platform which we launched in 2017, and the metrics are already showing faster growth rates compared to when Sniply was first released several years earlier.

Your Successes/failures in life.

One of the greatest successes in my life is undoubtedly the progress we have made with Sniply. It was my first real attempt at building a technology company and the result was far beyond anything I had imagined. Sniply powers over 41 million hyperlinks and has reached over 256 million people from across the globe. One of our proudest achievements is to have come this far by bootstrapping since day 1, staying lean, and growing without any funding.

One of my greatest failures has been to continue running my previous startup, Needle, for longer than I should have. Needle was a hiring platform for creative professionals. Our prospects were saying great things about our product, and our investors were applauding our progress. Yet my instincts told me that the opportunity was just not there. We continued developing the platform, wasting valuable time and resources, which we eventually terminated. Contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of positive feedback. Praises come easy and criticisms are hard to find. It was through this experience that I learned the importance of listening to your gut as an entrepreneur.

What choices did you make in your life which made a significant difference in your life?

The choice to pursue entrepreneurship has become far more life-changing than I had anticipated. As I have come to realize, entrepreneurship is more of a lifestyle than a career path. My work has become so much more than a job that I work. I have my operational responsibilities such as customer support and product management, but I also have a whole different realm of responsibilities. I think about the type of work culture we are building, the opportunities we are presenting to employees, the lives we are helping them build through our company. There is great complexity to aligning practical business goals with more profound culture and community goals. Working with top-tier talent naturally implies that they have many other career options, hence a lot of thought goes into how we can cultivate a talented team while ensuring that everyone’s work is meaningful and fulfilling. With power comes responsibility, and this responsibility has shaped me.

Walk us through your workday?

I always start my day with our users and customers. I go through a lot of user communications such as support tickets and contact form submissions. We are a team of engineers building a product for marketers. This is why it is absolutely essential for me to remain in constant contact with our users, to ensure that I can always have a thorough understanding of what the market needs at any given time. These conversations with our users often trigger new ideas which result in innovations that propel our company forward. Customer support is a two-way street. Helping our users resolve their problems is just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding why they encountered the problem, why they care at all about the problem and exploring the countless ways we can solve each problem is the true substance of customer communication. Following customer support, I often dive into product management work to maintain a healthy alignment between what our users want and what our team is working on. I review our product roadmap daily and check up on progress on the various components we are working on to ensure that everything comes together on schedule. Since my background is in design, I also regularly go through our product and perform some quality assurance work while keeping an eye out for potential areas to improve the user experience.

How do you keep yourself productive and motivated?

I believe that motivation is a cycle. By surrounding myself with driven individuals, I am motivated by their commitment to the product. In turn, my drive inspires my colleagues, and so forth. The culture and environment is the key to keeping everyone productive and motivated. Not everything goes as planned, but as long as we tackle every problem as a team, the team spirit always carries us through the obstacles. Asides from the company culture and work environment, I am a strong believer in overall health. Sleep early, eat well and take breaks. They say an average “overnight success” takes 10 years, which means pacing and slowly building a strong foundation should be more beneficial than rushing and overworking yourself.

What do you do to keep yourself on the growth path?

I believe curiosity is the key component for personal growth. I always try to learn a little bit of everything. When I have time, I often do a little bit of coding, I’ll make a few sales calls, do some design work, chat with some customers, and participate in as many aspects of our business as possible. I believe growth is all about learning, and effective learning is driven by curiosity.

What tools/apps do you use for managing work and life?

I strongly believe that a healthy mind and body will net the best long-term results. I use an app called Gratitude which is what they call a “gratitude journal” and I have a habit of logging things that I feel thankful for. This is an important practice for me because life can move so quickly and it is important for me to make sure I acknowledge things that I am grateful for. I also have an app called “Daylio” which I use to track my mood throughout the day. This helps me gather some insights on when I am most and least productive, allowing me to plan my days accordingly. I also use the “Sleep Cycle” app to measure the quality of my sleep, as I believe good rest is a key component to productivity. On occasion, I will also use “HabitBull” to build new habits from everything as generic as regular exercise to something as specific as drinking 8 cups of water each day.

Your favorite books?

A friend recently recommended a book called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F” which I found quite enjoyable. The book talks about how, in the grand scheme of things, most things simply do not matter. In the business world, so many things can happen on any given day. As much as we are naturally inclined to focus on the little things, we should never lose sight of the truly important things like family and friends. At the end of the day, we work in pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. I always enjoy books that remind us of why we started our journeys in the first place.

People who have inspired you and made a difference in your life.

I grew up with the fascinating stories of Steve Jobs. Before Jobs, entrepreneurship was never really something I had considered. In my mind, it was all briefcases and business suits. With his turtleneck and eccentric personality, Jobs broke that business stereotype for me. I became fascinated by the idea of breaking rules and building products. It was fascinating to me because Jobs was not some historical figure I learn about in textbooks, and his story was unfolding before my eyes as I was going growing up. His departure and return to Apple, involvement with Pixar, and all the product launches along the way. Although he was by no means a personal mentor and we certainly never met, but I do consider Steve Jobs to be an inspiration in my life.

How do you hire your team? What traits do you look for while hiring?

We look for the authenticity of character and genuine curiosity. Many things do not withstand the test of time. Our product may change, the technology we use may change, the skillsets we need may change, and so the only constant thing that remains is a character.

What advice did you get which changed your life?

One of my mentors, Dean Hopkins, once told me that I should see every stakeholder in our business as a family member. He calls this “the extended family”. This includes customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and just about everyone that has anything to do with your business. This advice was important because it introduced me to the idea that business building is really about looking at the bigger picture. It taught me to care for and provide value to everyone involved in the organization. As a business, we must provide value for our customers, create opportunities for our employees, generate returns for our investors, and everyone is part of an ecosystem which promptly falls apart if anyone gets neglected or left behind.

What advice would you give to people looking for success and growth in personal and professional life?

I believe the most important insight is to realize that nobody truly knows what they are doing. People, regardless of how successful they are, are almost always living life one step at a time. There are too many infinite possibilities in everything we do, and there is no such thing as a perfect plan. Be comfortable with diving into the unknown, be confident that you will only get better at improvising. Curiosity and courage are the only two things you need to grow.

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