Kai Yuan Neo: Engineer to CEO, Edtech Localization Playbook, Build vs. Sell in Boom vs. Bust - E230

· Singapore,Podcast Episodes,Purpose,Founder,Start-up

“As I was studying engineering, I realized building products and bringing them to the world is not just about the technical aspects of it, but also about the business aspects. It’s about how to bring it to the market, sell it, and market it. By meeting more individuals who are involved in business, I could be more well-rounded and better prepare myself to ship some of these products to the world.” - Kai Yuan Neo

Kai Yuan Neo is the founder and CEO at Rocket Academy, a live-online coding bootcamp based in Singapore that helps career switchers become software engineers. Launched in 2020, Rocket has trained over 1000 students in its intro coding courses and over 100 students in its career conversion Bootcamp course. To date, 100% of Rocket's Bootcamp graduates have received software engineering offers within 6 months of applying, from companies such as Grab, Ninja Van, Zendesk, Foodpanda, Circles. Life and Decathlon.

Prior to Rocket Academy, Kai studied Computer Science at Stanford University and worked as a software engineer at Meta, Alibaba, Nuna and ErudiFi. He loves reading autobiographies, playing guitar and enjoying a nice cup of tea with friends.

Jeremy Au (00:29)
Hi Kai Yuan. Really excited to have you on the show. You are obviously a great founder building in education tech, which is something that is so important for Southeast Asia, and you also happen to be a graduate of Stanford, which is the arch enemy of my alma maters of both UC, Berkeley for football, and Harvard for capitalism slash liberals. Could you introduce yourself real quick?


Kai Yuan Neo (00:51)
Yes. Thanks so much, Jeremy for having me. My name's Kai Yuan. I am the founder of Rocket Academy. Rocket Academy is an online coding Bootcamp that trains software engineers and helps them get jobs at tech companies. My background is in software engineering. As you mentioned, I studied computer science at Stanford. I worked as a software engineer before doing Rocket Academy. Super excited to be here today, thank you for having me.


Jeremy Au (01:14)
Talking about your early days, I noticed that US Stanford started computer science, which makes sense. It's a great place for learning engineering, and yet I also noticed that you are taking activities like Stanford Consulting as well as Alpha Kappa, which is a business honor fraternity. I'm kind of curious, what were you thinking at that point in time? Were you like, I wanted to be an engineer but also do business or you know, how does that work?


Kai Yuan Neo (01:44)
I think this goes back to even my decision to join Stanford in the first place. I applied to Stanford because I wanted to learn engineering, and I wanted to learn engineering because I wanted to build products. I was inspired when I was younger. My family got one of the iPods when they came out, and I was inspired by, Its ability to delight the customers, delight the users at the time, and I wanted to create similar products in my life that could delight people, hence the draw toward engineering. And I didn't even know I wanted to do coding at first. I thought I wanted to do mechanical engineering as a general form of engineering. To give myself the most options in terms of what kinds of products I could build. But quickly at Stanford, I stumbled upon computer science. I loved the classes. I enjoyed solving problems in code on my computer, and, of course, there was demand in the industry, so I stuck with it.


As I was studying engineering, I realized, hey, building products and bringing them to the world is not just about the technical aspects of it, it is also about the business aspects. It is about how to get it to the market, how to sell it, how to market it. And I thought that by meeting more individuals who are involved in business and hopefully learning some of it myself, whether through them or working on some of these consulting projects, that I could be more well-rounded and better prepare myself to ship some of these products to the world.


Jeremy Au (03:06)
What's interesting is that you chose obviously to go on to join startups. So what was your decision around the first engineering jobs that you first went out to do?


Kai Yuan Neo (03:18)
And to be honest, when I was in school, the first internship is always the hardest to get as many computer science students will know and boot camp graduates as well. I was lucky that Stanford had a program which tied up with tech companies in China at that time. It was a convergence of my interest. I wanted to learn more about China and they had opportunities, internships at tech companies in China, and so I was lucky to get offered an internship as a software engineer at Alibaba Cloud back in 2012, which was super early days for them, but they're already relatively large at the time, and so that's where I started my learning in coding. It happened to be at a big company. I wanted to learn from some of the bigger or more established players.


The summer after that, I was lucky to get an internship opportunity at Meta or, what used to be called Facebook. And I learned so much there. Really, I got to work on the site performance team where we were optimizing some of the tools to help engineers. Make Facebook.com more efficient and so learned a lot about the backend stuff, using version control, collaborating with teammates.
During that internship, I got to intern again at Facebook in 2014 in New York, so I tried out a different office. I got to work on the iOS team. Worked with some of the most fantastic engineers that I ever met in my life. When I was working with my manager, really taught me so much about debugging. How to solve problems, not just in a coding context, but in life. I thought those are some of the best growth experiences that I feel like I've had in my life. More so probably than in the academics. When I graduated, I think there was a lot of startup hype at Stanford. This was Silicon Valley, this was 2015. This is, the boom period, and Snapchat had just come out of Stanford in 2013, 2014.


They were getting huge. Classmates that had gone there and their stock was suddenly worth massive amounts. The DoorDash co-founders were my classmates and they had just gone out. Of course, they were still building them. There was still a lot to grow from that point, and I was thinking, Hey, you know, I feel like I want to learn more about the holistic aspects of what goes into building and shipping a product, and I felt like I would get more of those learnings working at a smaller company where I could get exposed to the different functions of the business, more so than if I were at a larger company.


Focus on a specific aspect of a specific product in engineering, hence my decision to focus more on startups. When I graduated, and I was very lucky when I graduated, where one of my closest friends and a few other close friends who I'd been doing CS with, they had joined the healthcare data analytics company called Nuna Health. They invited me to interview and try out the interviews and luckily I got an offer, I was super excited to work with them cuz they were super capable. The team was working on improving healthcare in the US, which I thought was a super fantastic mission, and the interviewers, many of them, were experienced engineers from places like Google and Amazon and experienced places in Silicon Valley.
That's how I ended up going into the startup world. And since then, after that opportunity, I personally realized I wanted to come back to Singapore for personal reasons, more family and personal identity, because I grew up outside of Singapore and I continued on the startup trend because I felt, yes, this turned into a longer answer than I thought.


But, the reason why I'm doing startups in, Singapore and in general is because I feel, there's an opportunity and almost a responsibility to do so on my part because I have this safety net of being a software engineer, and I feel like it is through startups and entrepreneurship and building international businesses that we can grow the pie of our economies, whether it's in Singapore or Southeast Asia and through growing that pie, then our governments can redistribute that pie. But before we grow the pie, It's difficult to redistribute. And so that inspired me and that's why I've gone down this path.


Jeremy Au (07:13)
That's interesting because the first job that you took up was engineering manager at Danacita ErudiFy, which is about education and also has a similar mission, in terms of, equity and education. So there you are, engineering manager and then you decide I'm going to be a founder, right? So what was that transition point? What kind of pushed you there?


Kai Yuan Neo (07:39)
So actually my first job was a software engineer that was at Nuna Health in San Francisco and after that I went on to be a founder in Singapore. Initially, the idea was to build an app to help families coordinate care for older adults, especially their loved ones. With medical conditions or chronic medical conditions, that evolved into becoming a community for families of caregivers with dementia. I was working on that for a while, almost a year through that process, I learned a lot about doing startups, learning a lot about what makes for a business idea that customers are going to pay for, I think it is an important cause, but the business wasn't the right business.
People really need physical care in their homes. We were not providing that, and I decided to move on. That's when I moved to Indonesia to join Donnacita, which is now a ErudiFy with friends Daniel and Naga and, it was a great experience learning about the Indonesian market, working on student loans, which I felt was meaningful in that market. After about a year working there, I decided, okay, I still want to be an entrepreneur. Even though my first idea didn't work out, I'm ready to come out again and try something. And I've learned something about the Indonesian market, so I want to explore that. It took over six months of exploration.


I was looking at different ideas at the time. This is mid-2019. It was the heyday of a lot of these unicorns happening in Indonesia and I was looking at ideas in areas like logistics, cuz there's a lot of e-commerce that was booming. So logistics needed to power the e-commerce or maybe e-commerce enablement-building software to help companies or to help merchants manage their sales across multiple e-commerce platforms. Other random ideas, even like on demand like fried chicken, there were a few on-demand companies that started then, and even things like English education marketplace in Indonesia. And ultimately, I never found the right combination of idea and team. Cause, I always had this feeling like, what do I really bring to the table as a co-founder?


I'm an expert in coding and I'm the tech guy, and I felt like I always needed a CEO who was a domain expert, whether in Indonesia or in the particular domains I was looking at to lead the company. And it was around that point in time where I stumbled upon news article about Lambda School in the US raising a lot of money, close to a hundred million dollars.


I was inspired because I felt like this is a cause. First of all, this is a cause that I care about. I've interviewed engineers over the past years and I had thoughts around what coding bootcamps were producing, what engineers were coming into the market. And I felt like this model of online coding education presented an opportunity to bring coding education to more people at a high quality and, and that's where I was inspired and decided to pursue this idea.


Jeremy Au (10:27)
What's interesting of course, is that it's a common story, right? I think founders in Southeast Asia with some experience in the US and looking at comparables about the US, and then localizing that for Southeast Asia, and I think that's what happened for Grab. They were both Harvard Business School MBAs who were in the US and decided to bring, Uber back to Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. I think we also see some other companies that have done that. So what was your approach and your thinking about how to localize the education tech model to Southeast Asia in terms of your plan and how did that maybe fast forward a few more years? What, else did you learn from then? Or what if you had a time machine, you could go back and tell yourself and say, hey, on that Google Doc, I thought it was this, this, this. These are the assumptions I would change, now that I've done it.


Kai Yuan Neo (11:08)
So when I first started, I'll be honest, I was just thinking, let me just clone this thing wholesale, like every single detail of what they're doing, uh, almost every single detail. Let me just clone that and see if I can replicate it here cuz that's it. It seems like it's working there. So let me just do it here. I quickly learned a few things after launching. So the Model Lambda School in the US they were famous for doing something called the Income Share Agreement, where students pay $0 upfront and they pay a percentage of their salary after they graduate.


That model was very popular for many years, I think since somewhat been disproven, even Lambda school themselves have moved away from it. At the time in Singapore, I was applying, I did research. I just, chose Singapore as the starting market for Rocket Academy, doing online coding education because I felt like it was easier for me as a Singaporean to do it in Singapore. The ability to pay would be higher and, so I could make more revenue from fewer students, easier to get started. English language is the dominant language in Singapore, so it would be easier for me to get started teaching. Generally, people have a bit more space at home and have internet, fast internet that they can depend on, so online works a bit better.
So those are the factors that led me to choose Singapore. Initially, I just wanted a copy in Lambda school and just put it here, but quickly I realized that Singapore is a regulated market and the coding boot camps in Singapore, the ones that students will be choosing between when deciding on whether to join Rocket Academy or another boot camp, they are subsidized by the government.
In order to get on this government subsidy, we have to follow a set of rules that the government requires of these schools. And at the time, they were, not comfortable with us doing an income share agreement, charging zero upfront, and collecting money after getting a job. So that's why we never actually did that. We pretty much charged upfront from the start. There were other aspects of this model in the US that we did copy. One of them was having a slightly longer course, or actually in Lambdas school's case, they were much longer. Traditional coding boot camps are three months long. Lambda's score was nine months long.


We took a middle ground, we said six months, and I thought that the reason I chose six months or a longer course was because I felt like with a longer course, students would be able to learn more comprehensive stuff. I wanted to incorporate more computer science concepts that boot camp students typically don't learn, and that employers ask for. This was something that I repeatedly heard from employers about boot camp graduates, is that they lack computer science fundamentals. They're not as strong as CS grad grads in that regard. And so I thought I could address that with a longer course. Fast forward, a year or two, and I've learned a few things about this.


One of them is probably the most significant lesson about this business and schools in general maybe, is that the quality of a school is largely judged by the alumni for better or worse. The quality of the alumni is largely determined by who is coming into your school. For better or worse, my original hypothesis had been, let me just create a better course and I will naturally produce better alumni, but I had overlooked the fact, at least in the beginning, that the quality of students matters just as much, if not more than the quality of the course. And so through this realization, Rocket Academy implemented more screening measures. We implemented introductory courses that students have to pass before they can join our boot camp course and things like that to ensure that we can ensure we have the highest quality students, which can produce high-quality graduates, which can then have this positive effect of having strong alumni.

Jeremy Au (15:02)
Yeah, I think that's totally fair. Right? And I always tell people after going to both UC, Berkeley, and US and Harvard, I realize that the teaching is not much better. I think they use the same textbooks, they use the same case studies because Harvard actually gives out the cases that you can buy and you can train them yourself. Right? Uh, you know, maybe, I think the professors at Harvard MBA are often very much new professors or some experienced and they're obviously doing some research, but not necessarily the best teachers. I think Harvard is really about what the world wants to send, go there, and then everybody who's the best self-select to go there.

Kai Yuan Neo (15:43)
Yeah, and I think that's, to inject a little bit here, the school that I mentioned earlier, Lambda School, the model that I was inspired by, they've struggled in the last few years. industry observers will know this, and a large part of it is because they increased student body at such a pace that the education quality couldn't keep up and good students didn't necessarily want to go there, many of the graduates were not actually succeeding in getting sophomore year jobs, which turns off good students from wanting to go there. That is why I hope Rocket Academy can succeed, which is that, hey, we keep the bar high, and we make sure the students continue to be the best students coming here. That is a self-fulfilling cycle.


Jeremy Au (16:26)
That's the tricky part. Because at the start you said, “I want to decrease inequity”, which is a very common point of view for every education tech founder. In fact, that's something I care about personally. Yet at the same point in time, that implies to some extent mass, right? You know, larger cohorts. There's another angle of course, which is what you're talking about, sense of quality, sustainability, flywheel, right? Self-reinforcing cycles around quality, and the third angle I would say is like there's also a venture bank angle. Which is to grow as quickly as possible. Hopefully, they get as much money as possible as well. I think there's always something a bit interesting and exciting whenever someone says mass education for all and then a VC on the other side would be like, wow, that means a lot of money since everybody's gonna pay a lot of money to do it. So I think that was a very nice alignment, as long as everybody believed that the bus could move forward.
And it feels like the wheels on that bus have kind of fallen off a little bit over the past one year. I think that was already before the winter of tech. A lot of these economics weren't really working. So what do you think is happening here? I mean, like you said, industry observers know that Lambda school, which is now the Bloom Institute of Technology, it wasn't really working out for a while, so on and so forth. What do you think people don't get about the space from your perspective?


Kai Yuan Neo (17:50)
Yeah, I think one really important thing to debunk is that and this is not just for Rocket Academy or even education, I think the unfortunate reality of capitalism is that we need to make money and it's easier to make money from the people that have than from the people that don't have money. In our case, if we want to produce- coming back to the education context, if we wanna produce a desirable school, what are the most desirable schools in the world? They are not the schools that, unfortunately, they're not the schools that accept everyone.


They happen to be the schools that are selective, that have the best students and the best graduates, at least in the short term. When we're building the brand of the school, that precludes, that means we can't be mass. So I just have to rule out being mass from the start because if we wanna create a valuable brand that is desirable, that people pay thousands of dollars for to succeed and become software engineers, we have to be selective and we have to take the cream of the prospective students and, I think of it a bit like a Tesla model where Tesla started with a super expensive car and then they eventually made more affordable cars over time as they had more capital and could become more mass over time.
I see that as the direction Rocket Academy is going. We want to start in developed markets like Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and hopefully, the US after that. And we want to build our brand as the place that can train, and attract the best software engineers. Once we have that brand, we can start to offer lower-cost products for the mass market that we can charge lower amounts to more people.
It may not guarantee or may not even have a majority success rate of helping them become software units, but at least it helps them get their foot in the door in the subject or the industry and, and that. So that's how I see the direction of Rocket Academy, how we would eventually grow, and how we would eventually, potentially reach a venture kind of scale if we were to go down that path.
Because if we look at the edu-tech companies that, are venture back today, they are mostly these lower-cost lot mass market, whether it's Coursera or Udemy, right? They are these lower-cost mass products. For Rocket Academy, we're starting from a different angle. We're building the brand first, and eventually, if we want to reach more people and reach more scale, I think we're gonna have to go down to the mass, but we're not starting there.


Jeremy Au (20:34)
That's very true. I think there's Harvard University and I think people forget that Harvard University comprises Harvard College, which is what most people think of Harvard. There's also Harvard Extension School. And I think it's a good education, but I think it's a tier lower. I think I was just discussing last week, we have a workers' party representative, James, and he's very transparent. He went to Harvard Extension School, so it's totally fine. And then obviously people jumping on him and say it's not the same as Harvard, but it is. It’s just Harvard University has two sub-brands. I would say that's actually the same at the Harvard Business School. Harvard Business School has the main MBA program, which is what people think of, but it's also the global management program and the shorter courses, that are very profitable. But also, you would say in terms of the candidate quality, it’s a different type because they're more experienced executives, but not necessarily the same caliber selected as they would be for the MBA program.


Kai Yuan Neo: (21:28)
Rocket Academy is trying to do that, and I think we can be more scalable with our and lower cost with our online model, which can help us pass those cost savings to our customers, our students, and be more disruptive in that sense.


Jeremy Au (21:44)
That's the tricky part. Which is when you say that is like, I think the end goal is there. I think it's so clear to me. In 10 years you want to be the premier brand across South East Asia, for example, or wherever it is. Then you have this access, right? You can call 'em scholarships, you can call them open access, you can call them all kinds of financing programs that could make it happen. But I think on the way to get there, I think the problem for almost every education tech founder I've noticed is. Should you go for sustainability first or in the unit economics, or should you go for growth?


Kai Yuan Neo (22:11)
I think in the current market environment, sustainability is the way to go, but I, feel like in the current, current market environment, I can't depend on outside investment. So we, as a company, just need to make sure we can stand on our own two feet and set our own destiny.

Jeremy Au (22.27)
Was there ever a world where everybody was rushing towards capital and growth? Do you think there was ever a world where founders could say, I would like to raise all this money and I would like to focus on the unit economics and the profitability?

Kai Yuan Neo (22:41)
Yeah. Well, the funny thing is like I mean just three years ago before covid, I was just hearing all these stories of- for example, some founder would ask to raise X amount and then- and I'm using SoftBank as an example here, but, other VCs would offer double that amount and be like, why don't you just pay customers to use your product. And at that point in time it just felt like, whoa. Like customer acquisition above all else, a land grab just burns fast, as long as you're growing, it's okay. There will be another. You can always raise another round after that. And that, I think there was a slight pause when Covid first started, but then we saw people raising outrageous amounts during Covid as well.

I mean, I don't know if it's outrageous cause I don't know the internal financials of those companies, but it just seemed like massive amounts in a really short amount of time, and then all of a sudden in the last year, it just seems like a complete reversal and people are laying off and then investors are scared, and money is drying up in a sense. So you would know better than me. I just need to be in control right now and which is why we are setting ourselves as Rocket Academy on a path to profitability.


Jeremy Au (23:53)
How do you think founders feel in your community? How do you feel about this switch? And you felt like it's a bit abrupt, or schizophrenic, maybe?


Kai Yuan Neo (24.01)
Yeah, it's life. There are booms and bust cycles. As founders and entrepreneurs, we need to be adaptable. At one point in time, there was a wave of AI, right? Everyone's pitching themselves as an AI company, and if you did that, you could get lots of money. Same for Web3, and the founders that succeeded, maybe didn't buy into their own hype and they use the hype as a way to raise money, but then they're actually using it prudently. I think those are, the ones that can work the system well. Yeah, so maybe, the system will revert back to a boom cycle in one to two years, and we'll be back to raise lots of money when you can because it's available. So we just have to adapt to the times.


Jeremy Au (24:43)
Could you share with us a time that you personally have been brave?


Kai Yuan Neo (24.00)
I would say I think of some difficult moments in Rocket Academy, we haven't been a hundred percent successful with all of our hires in the past. So when some folks that we hired were not working out, we as a team and I personally have had to make the decision to let go of some people and I think I think it's a bit self-aggrandizing to call myself brave for doing this. But I honestly think if I hadn't been able to step up to myself and make a decision and make execute letting go of some people at the time, I wouldn't deserve to be CEO of this company. So I would consider that one of the harder things that I've had to do as a founder.


Jeremy Au (25.23)
It's a good reminder because you set out to be an engineer, but you always had an eye on business. Then, you were always looking for a CEO, as a co-founder, and then you became a CEO. Now like you said, you've been stepping up into that role. What would you say are some of the things you had to unlearn from being someone who was more of an engineer and a leader that way, versus choosing to become the CEO?


Kai Yuan Neo (25.59)
Yeah, I think what I'm gonna answer here is something that I share with founders that I meet that are just starting off as well, which is that selling is just as important as building. As an engineer, of course, we love to build and we just want to code and build a beautiful product, but there's no use in doing that if nobody's gonna use it or buy it. So I think talking to customers, being able to get out of my comfort zone and talk to more people as customers, partners, investors, teammates, I think has been really important for not just running a company, but even building a product because you need to know what people want. So selling is just as important as building.


Jeremy Au (26:39)
Well, I like that. I think people, a lot of people feel like selling is more important, and some people feel like building is more important. How do you toggle between both those modes?


Kai Yuan Neo (26:47)
For sure, every season, every quarter in the past year has been a different focus for me. At one point it was managing the team, learning how to be a better manager, learning how to make sure we run meetings effectively, learning how to make sure everybody knows what they're supposed to be doing, and can be working hard toward that thing without stepping on each other's toes too much. Another season might be fixing the product because our product is not where it needs to be and I really have to step in to work with the team to make it happens. Another season might be growth where we're not seeing enough student numbers and we need to fix our funnel.


We need to figure out why we're not attracting enough leads and getting enough students in the funnel. And so I have to go in and work with the team to address that. So I think at any, any different season, the focus will be different depending on what the business needs. And so as a founder, as a CEO, we might be toggling between selling and building, but you can't live without one or the other.


Jeremy Au (27:52)
When you think about all of that, how do you feel has been the fastest way to accelerate your personal growth in selling? Because you were primarily building before, so that feels like something that you're comfortable with, but, what helped you ramp up?


Kai Yuan Neo (28:06)
Yeah, I think when I was younger, I like to organize gatherings with friends, so I think I have a bit of a natural tendency. I'm a bit of an extrovert. I like talking to people. I like hanging out with people. So I think that has helped. And one of the activities that I did while I was in San Francisco, coincidentally, that I think it's one of the most valuable experiences in my life has been attending Toastmasters, which is a public speaking group. It's not a paid group. It's a voluntary group where a bunch of people get together and talk, give speeches to each other, or review each other's speeches. But that was one of the most valuable years of my life where I found a community of really supportive people, and I felt more comfortable talking to people.


They don't just do prepared speeches, but also impromptu speeches, and, that helped me just get out of my shell a little bit. And last but not least, doing it. There's no substitute for being a founder and learning how to talk to customers or managing a team than just doing it. So for any aspiring founders out there, I would say there's no- yes, books can be helpful, but there's no book that you will read that will fully prepare you for doing what you need to do.


I've, I've been on a five year journey since I first started entrepreneurship, and I'm still at the very beginning. I hope you don't have to take as long as I did. But, I've certainly appreciated all the lessons learned along the way, and that's what's led me to be better at selling today.


Jeremy Au (29:40)
When you think about Toastmasters, and you felt like that was helpful, what about it was helpful to you? I mean, cuz you were engineering, but you were also at Stanford, at a business frat, you already were an executive. So I guess what about Toastmasters felt like it resonated with you and your prior background.


Kai Yuan Neo (29:58)
Yeah, you know what I really liked about Toastmasters, I've been to the Toastmasters Club in Singapore, and I thought it was fantastic. What I really liked about Toastmasters, San Francisco was that the people that were part of this club were from completely different social circles to the people that I would meet in my regular job or my friends from Stanford in San Francisco. Most of my friends from Stanford, San Francisco, and the people in my job were working in tech. They were like, they were like around my age, 20 to 40. And they were engineers or they were tech workers living in San Francisco. But the people at the Toastmasters, there were tech workers in this Toastmasters club, but a lot of them were in very different roles in government, they were in sales, they were in wealth management, they were working in retail. They were doing less concentration on tech stuff, but above, more important than that, it was just this magical, really supportive community. People were, people were always supporting each other.


After the meetings, we would go out and have dinner or drinks together and it really helped people come out of their shells because there were some people who were more awkward in the group, but when they would feel comfortable getting in front of the group and giving speeches and hearing feedback about their speeches, they would come back the next time and they would do better. And that's what I experienced. Some of the things, even some of the speech- cuz when people give speeches, they talk about their personal life journey and so I learned so much about these people just listening to their speeches and hearing how they learn things.


Some of the takeaways. I keep with myself today, one of them, maybe I can share here, and I remember it's an impromptu speech that this one person gave. His name is Sean, and he said that every day I wake up and I do three things before anything else. One is breathe: I take a deep breath. Two is drink some water: Take a sip of water. Three is: Think about what I'm grateful for and just like simple anecdotes like that shared by other members of the community who each have their own challenges and personal issues with their job, with their families, and whatnot. It is a very incredibly uplifting experience, and so it's not just about public speaking, it's really about growing as a person in the community.


Jeremy Au (32:11)
As you think about all of that, how do you feel about the values you're bringing back to what you're building? What's the magic that you hope everybody brings home at the end today?


Kai Yuan Neo (32:00)
This is something that I learned while working as an engineer, I'm not sure if it came specifically from Silicon Valley, as no technical problem cannot be solved. When I look at our students at Rocket Academy and I see them, they're making career switches. They're taking a bet on themselves. They're putting aside for a while the things that they've learned in their past career or their past degree, and they are moving into a completely new degree. It's daunting. It is intimidating. There is nothing that cannot be done through hard work, time, and the right connections. Rocket Academy is here to help them with the connections and that brand to help them get their foot in the door. With their hard work they have shown me that they can all succeed.


So I think it's that optimism that I'm bringing back that it's like US is a huge country. Maybe China's also a huge country, but as humans, we're not different from them. We can do just as well if we're given the right opportunities in the right environment, and we just believe and we put in the hard work, and that's what I hope to impart to our students. Our community at Rocket Academy is so strong. Our alumni, they support each other. We all believe in this and I hope we can grow this community, not just for Rocket Academy, but for Singapore and our region as well, to have that optimism that we can come up as well.


Jeremy Au (33:46)
Well, thank you so much for sharing. I would love to paraphrase the three big themes that I got from this. First of all, thank you for sharing about your personal journey as an engineering student to engineering manager, to CEO, and to founder, going back to being an engineering manager and then being a founder again. I think what's driving you is your desire to fight inequity and to build something that makes sense for Southeast Asia, which is something that I really resonate with personally. The second, of course, is you shared a lot of advice around, I think the product market fit and the founding idea about how you search for ideas, how you're testing different ideas, how you met different founders, how you thought about different roles for yourself and who you need as your co-founder. I think it was very interesting to see how you saw something in the US but then you chose to localize it and then you quickly learn the different things you need to do differently to make it happen in Southeast Asia. I think that's really helpful for a lot of folks who are aspiring to be founders or founders searching for a product market.


Lastly, thanks so much for sharing about your bias, to build versus sell, and what you've learned about selling. I think you shared that in the context of Toastmasters. You shared that in the context of your own, professional journey, and you shared it in the context of how you've chosen to ramp up your personal learning and all that is happening in the context of the boom and bus cycle of startups and fundraising and venture capital. So, thank you so much for sharing.


Kai Yuan Neo (35:12)
Thank you so much, Jeremy. Appreciate you having me.