Han Jin (Lucid) | How a Tenacious AI Startup Founder Went “Whale Hunting”
In this edition of our German Accelerator Coffee Sessions, Andreas Hofmann, Program CEO German Accelerator Silicon Valley, interviewed Chinese born German founder Han Jin, who launched Lucid, the world’s first AI-powered 3D vision platform, without a cent in his pocket. This is the story of an award-winning, multicultural entrepreneur who chooses growth over comfort anytime.
Han Jin, Co-Founder & CEO of Lucid and German Accelerator mentor (©️Lucid)
Han, you have a very inspiring story. You were born in Beijing, China then moved to Germany at the age of 6. Now you find yourself in Silicon Valley as a successful founder of an AI startup and a mentor for young entrepreneurs. How did you end up in the U.S.? Tell us a little more about that journey.
At the time when my family moved to Hamburg, we were one of the very few Chinese families in the area. Because I was a little kid, I picked up the German language and culture very swiftly. After attending high school in Hamburg and completing my undergrad in Karlsruhe, my international journey began with a masters program at the University of California Berkeley. Over the course of the next years, I studied, worked, and lived in 8 different countries while taking any job from translating and working in call-centers to doing public services, to tutoring and teaching tennis, just to support my single mother.
The reason I chose the U.S. for my studies was simple: Karlsruhe had a good university, in fact, there are many great universities in Germany, but it was not ‘on the map’. I wanted to go to a university that was well known globally and so I left for America, leading me into a career path of product/program management and operations in technology.
After graduating in 2012, I started my first job as a product manager at Sandisk. It was different from what I do now, but I learned how to create scalable processes and how to launch new products into the market – important skills that helped me start my own company three years later.
Admittedly I did not have the most linear career, but these unique experiences defined my mindset and adaptability to challenging environments and adversity while having to deliver high-quality results with teams under enormous pressure.
What were some of the differences between your experiences of the U.S. and the German education system?
Education in Germany and in the U.S. are very different. In Germany, the professor’s introduction goes something like “look to your right and look to the left. Those people won’t be there anymore next year.” Classes start off very large and students get filtered out along the way. You are trained to be a very competitive, single fighter. Not surprisingly, the success rate of German startups with single fighters is higher than in the U.S. and you’ll find a lot of companies built from leaner teams.
In the U.S. it’s harder to get in, but once you are in, they are going to help you get through it. In your welcome speech, you are likely to hear “look to the right and look to the left – these are the people you are going to build your next big dream with.”
In the American system, I learned that “if you want to move fast, move alone. If you want to move far, move together.” I had to learn to work with people in teams with different talents, ideas, and backgrounds. Nowadays, I believe that only together you can build something really big.
Yes, I actually had a very similar experience studying in Germany. Was it at university that you had the idea to found your own company?
When I graduated I essentially had three options. The first one was to go back to university and do an MBA. The second was to return to Germany and become the managing director of a 500 employee startup in the MedTech space (this offer was given to me through family relations). The third option was launching my own company. I chose the third option, probably the craziest among them.
I had no savings, no investments – nothing at the beginning. I drove Uber in the evenings and rented out my bed a few days each month on Airbnb in order to pay my bills. It was after 8 months of intense hustling that I got my first investor on board with a check for $75K. It was not much, but it kept the business going. Looking back, it was absolutely crazy. Now, our startup Lucid, has multiple offices spread across North America and Asia, such as Santa Clara, CA, Chicago, and Taipei, Taiwan, generating millions in revenue with more than 25 employees worldwide.
It’s amazing how far you have come. How did you forge the idea for your company, what inspired you to go into AI?
When I first set out in 2015, it was during the time that VR just started ramping up. My co-founder Adam Rowell (now CTO) and I met at a Starbucks where he showed me a demo on a VR headset. It was the first time I experienced something like that. I was flashed by the virtual experience of a baby crawling towards me, trying to touch my nose. It felt so real. Adam told me about the research he had been doing in that space. Essentially he was trying to reproduce human vision and capture the world in the same way our brain processes it. I thought “that’s a great idea, but the real problem in the market is content”.
The problem is that if there is no content, there will be no new platform, no self-expression, and no consumption. If we just put a headset out there, nobody will buy it. The question was, how can we create more content? And how can we enable people to create more content themselves?
While larger corporations generally tackle the problem by investing in content production, as a startup we thought about the problem differently and that the only way to make VR successful is to empower people to create content or convert content.
So you met Adam at Starbucks and saw a market opportunity. How did you go about creating the company around it?
I quit my full-time job so I could spend day and night working on the problem. We needed all the help we could get and reached out to friends to ask for their support over the weekends. At the beginning, there is no way of being selective about who is working for you, you just have to find the people who are crazy enough to believe in the vision and take on the challenge.
So you identified a content problem and built a solution for it. Fast forward to where the company is today – you are using AI to capture 3D and depth. Can you explain in a few words what your platform does?
We started with hardware. The pain point was the same, but how we tried to solve it initially was different. We built a camera that allows you to capture 3D and sold it to consumers. We worked our way into retail, sold thousands of units through Best Buy, Amazon, and other stores. The hardware business is tough because you have to raise large amounts of funding and can not make a single mistake (not like with software). We did break even after the first year of pumping cameras into the market and that was amazing for us. But what then? Profitability doesn’t mean you have a scalable business. What really matters is how to get to the next version and improving in the next iteration. And for that, you need to raise capital again in order to ramp up production.
In the meantime, we saw that the greatest opportunities and the most revenue were really on the platform side – empowering more customers to convert their content into 3D either by producing new content or turning existing content into 3D through our existing AI software. So we dropped the hardware side and drove that capability to as many users as possible through an app which made us the go-to platform for 3D content and data.
So basically you have a two-sided market – you’re creating something for the producers of content and also for the devices the people use to capture that type of content. You’ve been very successful at handling large customers like Huawei, Lenovo, and Samsung and convincing them to take a chance with your technology. I know how hard it is to deal with a company of that size. How did you do it and what advice do you have for the people who want to get in with the big companies?
Any business idea you pursue, many people will say that you will fail. Many VC’s asked us, “how are you going to sell to those large customers – they have huge organizations, so many decision-makers and are so unpredictable.” I was a single salesperson so it did seem very daunting; however, I took on the challenge.
Another VC once told me that “being able to execute on what you do is like hunting whales.” To me, those large corporations are all like whales. So I said, “ok, let me show you how to do whale hunting.” That analogy stuck with me ever since.
I soon learned that it’s a combination of factors that ultimately boils down to two very important aspects. First, understanding a winning sales strategy. What does it mean to work in a corporation, how do you work your way in, and how do you drive different decision-makers to the same goal? It’s definitely not easy, but I believe anyone can teach themselves anything in 3-6 months. I threw myself in there and studied everything I could find on the topic.
Second, get the timing right. Large companies often start reaching out one year in advance. They will meet with you, try to understand your product and they’ll tell you – no, it’s not the right fit for us now. Initially, they may not see your vision and that’s OK. Then, when the market starts moving towards that vision and things start to become real, they suddenly realize they need it and that’s precisely the time frame you have to fall into. If you show up too early when they are only just exploring the market, you will always just be one of many. So yes, we talked to the Apples and Googles of the world early on and they passed, however, we knew that the wave was coming and that one day they were going to run into it. As soon as Samsung started getting their headsets out there they realized “omg, where is the content” – that was the perfect timing for us to swoop in.
That sounds like quite a challenge and it requires so much dedication. I remember the burden we put onto companies at the time wanting to deal with Samsung and it was just incredible. It speaks to your tenacity that you have been able to pull this off and get your company this far.
With Lucid, an AI vision platform for devices to capture 3D and depth, you are in a very competitive space – how do you maintain your competitive advantage?
I used to think that competitive advantage is like a secret sauce, something magical that no one can reproduce. In the meantime, I am a bit jaded and don’t believe that anymore. I also don’t believe the only way a startup can succeed against the big guys is incredible technology – unless of course, you have a Ph.D. and 20 years of award-winning research under your belt. It’s more about understanding what the “secret sauce” could be and knowing how to fight in the market.
There is a book called ‘Art of War’ by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu – an ancient Asian philosophical perspective on combat. To some extent, doing startups is like “fighting a war” and different military strategies can be applied to execute on business operations. The book, for example, introduced me to the concept of smaller and larger troops. Larger troops can’t move as fast and they can’t pursue something small. Smaller troops, on the other hand, are much more nimble. Similarly, startups are much more agile and have a leg up because bigger companies are slower to realize what consumers need. A startup can find a handful of customers, understand them deeper than anyone else, and then scale from there. As a bigger and public enterprise, it is challenging to do that because you can not throw so many resources and so much research on a small market or project that generates only a few million in revenue and miss your quarterly targets. That’s something only a startup can do.
So true. This is what I tell the companies here at German Accelerator, too. Only because there is a lot of competition in the space, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. You can be baking better bread and delivering it in a new way to your customers that sets itself apart from all other bakeries.
We once had a conversation with a prospective acquirer and the response from him was “this is great, but you guys only have a $500M market – I need a trillion $ market for it to be worth pursuing.” Those kinds of conversations are very eye-opening. As a startup, you project the growth of the market and grow with it, but large corporations don’t have that foresight – they need it now. That’s why they are missing out on so many future innovations.
Exactly. A small crumb for a big corporation is a big nugget for a small one. So during the current coronavirus crisis, what advice do you have for startups to continue making progress?
Every crisis also bears an opportunity and one big advantage here is that other people are slow, too. As an entrepreneur, it gives you more time to think things through. If you are working with larger corporations you will experience how they need more time to adjust to the changes. That is good for you because they are even slower now. It’s an opportunity to use this time to think about how to run the company remotely and how to optimize sales processes from a distance. You probably never had the time to do this before.
The second advantage is striving for operational excellence. For example, how can you optimize your cash burn and decision making for resource allocation? Every penny now counts. What we did, for example, was to streamline previous execution iteration into strategic iteration, spending more time testing the market with non-cost experiments. We even started implementing some of the organizational processes which I learned in large corporations. The previous day-to-day operations of the startup did not allow us to implement these things earlier, but now that everyone is slower, we can use this time to redesign this because it will pay off and lead to leaner operations in the long-term.
Coming to the last question here, what is the best advice you ever got from an investor?
I have gotten so much great advice. Even rejections are great advice. One investor explained it to me in terms of Judo. In Judo, you don’t need to be large, muscular, and strong to win. That applies not just to how you address the market, it applies to everything you do as a startup. I always think of it in terms of a tiny person fighting against a giant. Judo is how you leverage that giant’s weight in order to throw him on the ground, and that’s how you should be thinking about competing against the big guys.
Right, deflecting the enemy’s power against themselves. That’s a great analogy. It was amazing to talk to you, Han. Thank you very much for this chat!
About Han Jin
Han Jin is the Co-Founder & CEO of Lucid, an AI startup developing the world’s leading 3D technology using deep learning to mimic human vision for mobile devices. The company empowers its customers to generate 3D content with its products and solutions.
Born in China and raised in Germany, he studied, worked, and lived in 8 countries before graduating with a masters from UC Berkeley which directed him initially into product/ program management at SanDisk, and later into founding, operating, and fundraising for startups in AI and computer vision. He closed multi-million funding rounds and deals while scaling startups to global locations and profitability.
He received the global Golden Stevie Award for Best Entrepreneur of the year 2018 and is one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in consumer electronics. Inc Magazine featured him on its May 2017 cover as one of America’s 30 rising stars and Business Journal named him as one of the 40 Under 40. Han and Lucid have been featured in Business Insider, Wirtschafts Woche, Computer Bild, The Verge, TechCrunch, Fast Company, and CNET among others.
Lucid is a leading AI platform startup developing software solutions for 3D content generation based on machine learning. LucidPix is an app that allows users to take 3D photos, add fun 3D frames to photos, and share these photos on social media or within the app’s community of 3D fans.
About German Accelerator Coffee Sessions
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