Alex Chung is a modern renaissance man – programmer, graphic artist, serial entrepreneur, and MMA trainer are only some of the hats he wears regularly. He currently serves as VP of Technology at Artspace, where he began working after selling his last company to Google (The Fridge, which later become Google Circles). Alex is a Lua advisor and has built numerous companies focused on group interaction and communication. We spoke with him about his background, the social network he built before Friendster and Facebook, and the experience of running a business centered around creative pursuits.
Interview after the jump…
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on this thing called Artspace, which is like the Etsy of really high end gallery art. Right after The Fridge, I was about to start another company, but was really burnt out so I went around almost to every startup in New York at the time to see who was doing something cool. I also have a bunch of side stuff I do, but I’m taking a break from it right now to concentrate on Artspace. There is a personal project I’ve been working on for a few years that’s gonna be awesome! It’s been in alpha test for a year with my friends, and I finally cracked it. So as soon as I have some free time…it’s gonna be amazing. It all runs under the the umbrella BFF technology – technology for your best friends.
Academically, you have both a tech and an art background, is that right?
I spent 9 years in undergrad – total ADD. Why would you want to leave school? Its just a bunch of cute girls and all you do is go to class. First, I was in-state at the University of Washington, then I went to the San Francisco Art Institute and then to Parsons for graphic design stuff. At San Francisco Art Institute I studied new genre film and experimental film. I built a video scratching system so I could scratch old 30’s and 40’s movies. I would re-purpose them and scratch them into these collages. I took a whole series of Muhammed Ali films and digitized them, and had a performance where I would have him dancing to waltz music with his opponents.
I hear you also practice Mixed Martial Arts, are you the only developer you know who submits people in their free time?
No, when you get really into it, it’s more methodical and a lot of the better guys are really smart. A lot of the guys I train with are PHDs, scientists and many are professors. I used to compete more frequently, but I plan on having a fight next year.
What was the last company you founded?
Well, the last one that got any press was The Fridge. The Fridge was a lightweight social network – a disposable social network that I built in 2003. My friend named it because the refrigerator was the one place in our apartment where people shared all their photos and things. I built it for my friends before Facebook and Friendster. I wasn’t smart though, I was just a kid, so I didn’t think about making it huge. Then Friendster came by and everyone thought it was awesome, but we had all my friends on The Fridge, like 500 people using it in college, so we just used that. But when Facebook came, I thought Facebook was better so I shut down The Fridge in 2006, then I brought it back in a couple years because Facebook got boring after two years. I thought we needed something that was a little more private and more flexible.
Based on your experience with people using small flexible groups to interact in a social/consumer setting, what do you think about how small group interaction would function in enterprise software – as is the case with Lua?
I think group interaction is better for enterprise than for social purposes. The biggest thing I learned from The Fridge and from running a social network for 10 years basically, is that it’s really hard to organize people. You can only have a cool generic party that’s actually fun once in a while, but try to get people to come to your house for a party everyday — it won’t work. With the business side, you have a leader, or someone who is like “the mom” or “the coach” telling you that you have to do something and forcing everybody to act. That’s the only time that a sustainable social group messaging platform really works. So in your case with Lua, it works really well because you have a direct objective, and you have somebody like a director or production manager who is running this network – there’s an actual goal to the interaction. Activity based groups were what we worked on because generalized socializing gets boring. There has to be strong leadership and it has to be a real activity, like making a film for example. That’s why it’s perfect for enterprise.
Can you speak to working at a business, like either Artspace or Lua, where the product is centered around artists and trying to supplement creative processes?
Well, I think artists aren’t necessarily the most organized people or even the best people to work with. But there is a lot of energy there and everybody has ideas. The best ways to work in those situations is if you can just build tools to enable creative people to create but while being just a minimal framework for them to do that, you enable them to maintain a lot of energy and do what they want – and that’s where things get really interesting. With any kind of tool for creative people, you have to make sure that the tool is creative enough that it lets them get their voice across. Technology still has a bad flavor of “Oh, I have to use this for work,” it’s still work related to some extent. So if you can have your product come out and not be invasive then people wont see it as a tool and as a threat.
What is your personal history with entrepreneurship?
This is like my 9th or 10th startup now. The first real job I had was out in New York at Anderson Consulting, and I worked there for like three weeks and then my friend started a startup in San Francisco. This was like 1998, and I quit to work at my friends company. There were about 5 or 7 of us and we built the world’s largest CD trading company, it was called SwitchHouse. We got $13M in funding, went from 5 employees to 100, opened a huge warehouse space with thumbprint access, Nerf guns, and foosball – it was the total “dot com.” We burnt through all of our money in a year. We had a million users, then we burnt out, everybody got pissed off at each other and the company folded. But it was one of the most fun times ever, trying to build something new. Once you have a million customers, you can put something out and 20,000 people are like “this is awesome!” After that, I was always in startups.
What is the worst/hardest part of running a startup?
Having to go around and fund-raise sucks, and you have to have the right team. You gotta have a great team of people that you really trust. The best teams are people you have been friends with way before, so you can’t bail on them and you will always be there for them.
What’s the best part of running a startup?
The best part is making something new and having a vision. You have an idea and you’re making something nobody has ever made – that’s the best thing you can possibly do. If not, you’re just an employee and you aren’t the master of your own fate. Knowing that you can have a vision and create it is the most powerful thing, that’s the most powerful part. I feel like most entrepreneurs are like artists, they have a vision and they want desperately to create it. If you aren’t an artist of that kind than you aren’t an entrepreneur.