I never intended to be an entrepreneur. It's not a sexy job.
Danny Taing, 2023 AD
Entrepreneur, boulderer and native New Yorker, Danny Taing, shares his story on bootstrapping Bokksu to a valuation of $100M, and getting laughed out the room by investors along the way.
All words by Danny Taing in conversation with Seneca.
My dad started out washing dishes, my mom in the garment district. No bank would loan my father money when he was starting his retail business. So he’d have to take out loans from his partners in Hong Kong with 20% interest. He was hungry. He was trying to provide for his family. It was seven days a week, 12 hours plus in the store daily. Grueling. Now that I run my own business, I have so much respect for him, it's insane. He never even had a high school degree, and didn’t know a word of English. 40 years later, the business is profitable, thriving, and he owns the assets.
My parents were dropped off in the Bronx, $20 to their name.
My parents were born and raised in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge happened in the seventies as a byproduct of the Vietnam War, and things got really bad. Luckily they were sponsored by the US. I remember a story from when my parents first moved here - my Dad brought home a sandwich for my mom to eat after work, and my mom looked at it and just started crying because she didn't know how to eat this thing. In Asian culture, you always eat things with chopsticks, or spoons for soup. They were so far from home.
I never thought I'd be an entrepreneur.
I saw my parents and how hard they worked, I never thought of it as a sexy job. And I'd see all the failures. The vast majority of startups fail. Also, all the examples of entrepreneurs I saw in the space at the time were people that I couldn't see myself being. I saw two archetypes. There was the small business type, which was my family or my relatives that ran liquor stores or restaurants, with all the grueling, nonstop work and thanklessness of their jobs. And then I saw this pompous, in your face, straight white men archetype where it required you to almost be somewhat unethical and flashy. Neither of those appealed to me.
I have that restless gene, I need the next challenge.
I joined Google in 2008 right before the big recession. Stuck around for a year, but couldn’t see myself living the suburban life in the Bay Area, especially since as a gay man, I couldn't even get married in California at that time. So, I quit, and moved to Japan to study Japanese at Waseda University. I joined Rakuten as they were globalizing and “English-izing”. The work was great, they really pushed me, but the work culture was strict and traditional, hierarchical in a lot of ways. I actually had to go back into the closet for the first time since high school. After two years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to be somewhere I could be my full self. So I journeyed back to New York.
"That's nice, so you'll get to maybe 1,000 users max?"
I was bootstrapped for the first three years of the business. From early on I was having conversations with Angel Investors, asking for help and what they thought of the business. They were not interested. In fact, they were convinced I would fail. The second they heard Japanese snacks, or family business, they're like, "Oh, so niche. It's so niche." Many, from their limited worldview as straight white men investors, could not see beyond their own bubble. Who could possibly be interested in Japanese snacks? Must only be anime nerds right?
I want people to be their full authentic self at Bokksu.
If I'm going to devote my everything and my personal savings to this company, I want to be able to be my full authentic self here. And I want people who work here to be able to do the same. I haven’t been able to do that in a workplace before. At Bokksu, we value respect, empathy. We don't actually hire for diversity. That just is the end product of these other values we care about. Humility, curiosity, hunger. These are all values that I feel like I embody and that I'm instilling into my team. Finding people that share these values, and care about the mission, has been one of my greatest joys.
Two things kept me going.
The first. I was really passionate about what I was doing. It needed to be something that I was okay doing all the drudge work for. I love doing the research for what we now call the Culture Guide Magazine. Researching the histories of the family businesses, learning how German roll cake called Baumkuchen entered Japan during World War I in the 1910s. And then the second reason is that we just kept growing. I would continually be getting feedback from my customers. Hearing them feel as excited as I did about this product was incredible and they could tell how earnest I was to make this better. That positive feedback loop kept me going.