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Hikari Senju is the founder of Omneky, which uses the latest deep learning algorithms to generate personalized ads and manage advertising accounts for a small monthly subscription. The Harvard Computer Science graduate sold his previous startup, Quickhelp, to Yup.com.
Frederick Daso: When did you first gain interest in being a founder?
Hikari Senju: If I had to pinpoint to an exact moment that I realized I wanted to be a technology founder, it would be in high school when I interned for my uncle, who ran a small enterprise social networking startup (kind of like Yammer). That summer, I remember watching Reid Hoffman’s interview, where he talked about how social networking was revolutionizing everything. In that cramped office with eight other employees working on a Yammer clone in Tokyo, listening to Reid Hoffman, I realized that technology entrepreneurship was what I needed to do. In technology, you always have to be innovating, and I loved the constant change, independence, and comradery, the feeling of being at the forefront of societal change.
Daso: What were the essential experiences that helped you be in the position you are today?
Senju: As a freshman at Harvard, I cold emailed Peter Boyce, who at that time had just founded Hack Harvard and Harvard Ventures. He responded, and that was my first entry into the Harvard startup community. I studied computer science and regularly attended the events organized by Peter, where I met like-minded students. They would become core to the network of founders I am connected with to this day.
As a junior at Harvard, I started Balloon, an on-demand meetup app, with my college roommate David Taitz. I was CTO, programming the app, and David did the design, marketing, and fundraising. We won a grant from the MIT Club of New York, worked out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, and got into the summer incubation program at DreamIt Ventures. That startup failed, but it was a fantastic learning experience.
As a senior at Harvard, I started another company called Quickhelp, an on-demand tutoring app with another dorm-mate, Mazen Elfekhani. I built the app over a couple of weekends and at a hackathon, and within three months of launching, we had over 30,000 monthly active users using the app. This company then received funding from Rough Draft Ventures, Dorm Room Fund, and won a grant for winning the Harvard Innovation Challenge. With this funding, I decided that post-graduation I would focus full-time on Quickhelp. I slept on the floor of Mazen’s dorm (he was a Ph.D. student) and worked from the Harvard Innovation Lab, living off their cup noodles.
Because Quickhelp wasn’t growing fast enough, I flew to China, which had a vibrant edtech space, to see if I could learn and expand Quickhelp. At that time, an edtech founder, Yu Minhong, was idolized in China with a hit movie and successful IPO of his company New Oriental. In Beijing, I met Cindy Mi, the founder of VIPKID, who agreed to a partnership to provide access to my tutors on Quickhelp to the VIPKID Platform for commission. I then got similar agreements with other leading Chinese ESL platforms, including Hujiang, SayABC, and 51Talk. This turned around the business financially.
Back stateside, I met Naguib Sawiris, the founder of Yup.com, a competing on-demand tutoring platform. I think he liked my hustle, and he offered to acquire Quickhelp and bring me on board as the Head of Growth at Yup. I first said no, but given that the Chinese ESL platforms’ commission business was a tough business to scale, I ultimately decided to sell and join Naguib.
It was at Yup that I learned an incredibly large amount about the marketing industry. I was shocked by how little marketers knew about what works when it comes to advertising content, and that the process is mostly that of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. I wrote a script to automate key-word bidding on Google Search that drove down acquisition costs 90% and helped run an inside sales team focused on selling tutoring packages to parents which got the company to a $1m run-rate. I was also looking for my next idea. I realized that there was an opportunity to utilize computer vision to quantify advertising design and use machine learning to generate personalized advertising content. So I left after about a year and a half to start Omneky.
Daso: Who were the critical individuals or groups that contributed to your professional success, and why?
Senju: Peter Boyce at Hack Harvard, Harvard Ventures, and Rough Draft Ventures. My first cofounder David Taitz. My Quickhelp cofounder Mazen Elfekhani. Cindy Mi at VIPKID. Naguib Sawiris at Yup. And more recently, Village Global and Richard Socher.
I had met Anne Dwane, a partner at Village Global, at an ed-tech conference in Beijing, and I had stayed in touch after selling Quickhelp and moving to SF. She invited me to attend Erik Torenberg’s On-Deck events, where I got to know Erik, another Village Global partner. And I was incredibly lucky to receive my first investment days after leaving Yup from Village Global. They incubated my company for the first six months, hosting weekly dinners with other portfolio companies where we discussed challenges and shared learnings. They invited me to LP events, where I met the successful founders I idolized growing up. The village hosted educational sessions on fundraising, managing burn, and cap-tables. It does take a community to build a successful company, and Village Global was critical in getting Omneky off the ground.
Richard Socher has been a godsend. He is a legend in the AI community (for co-authoring the ImageNet and GloVe papers) whose advice on AI has been incredible regarding Omneky’s core ML product. Socher has also introduced us to top journalists, venture capitalists, and technology executives. Richard has been an incredible angel investor in Omneky, and I am so thankful to be able to work with him.
Daso: How did you prepare for yourself to become a founder?
Senju: I read a lot. My favorite founder biographies include:
- The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky
- Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff
- Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman
- My Years With General Motors by Alfred Sloan
- Principles by Ray Dalio
- Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
- Titan by Ron Chernow
- The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles
- Sam Walton by Sam Walton
- Startupland by Mikkel Svane
- From Impossible to Inevitable by Jason Lemkin
- Peers Inc by Robin Chase
- Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
- House of Morgan by Ron Chernow
- Mellon by David Cannadine,
- and more here!
Daso: Were there any particular clubs at school that were excellent resources for breaking into your current field?
Senju: Hack Harvard, Harvard Ventures, and Rough Draft Ventures are great resources founded by Peter Boyce. The Dorm Room Fund community is also phenomenal. The startup events and groups organized by Peter Boyce introduced me to other students with similar passions, investors who could fund our ideas, and experienced entrepreneurs who could show us the way.
Daso: What do you think stops most people from becoming a founder?
Senju: One big obstacle to founders starting companies is financial. It is challenging to start a company if you need the consistent income of a job (due to debt, providing for others in your family, etc.). So increasing the access to capital so more people can take the risk of starting a company is vital. Early investments from Rough Draft, Dorm Room Fund, and Village Global were essential in getting my companies off the ground. Another critical factor is networking. It does take a village to start something successful (people to fund and advise you, introduce you to customers, to buy and market your products), and getting into those networks is critical.
Daso: Looking back, would you change anything about your professional path?
Senju: My favorite quote is, “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits” by Thomas Edison. Given the current COVID environment and the critical demand for online education, I wonder if I sold Quickhelp too early. I made the best decision with the information I had at that time, and I’m doing great now. Still, I wonder if I was a bit more patient with Quickhelp’s growth and ground it out a couple more years, Quickhelp may be the leading online education platform today.
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