Echelon 2014: Serial entrepreneur Stephen Wang reveals past mistakes
The Co-founder of Rotten Tomatoes and Alivenotdead on remaining unfazed when co-founders leave and being resilient in the face of downturnsBy Elaine Huang 11 Jun, 2014
Most founders make mistakes. In fact, it is probably statistically impossible for a founder to never make a single mistake – whether deliberate or unintentional. Most entrepreneurs “screw up”. Stephen Wang, a keynote speaker at Echelon 2014, is no exception.
Wang started programming at age 12 and has founded five companies and exited two. He is most well known for his co-founder role in online movie and TV database Rotten Tomatoes and online artiste network Alivenotdead.com, both of which were sold to bigger companies, namely IGN Entertainment and Migme (formerly known as mig33) respectively.
He is now working as a Senior Product Manager and Director: User Growth and Engagement at Chinese messenger app WeChat for Tencent.
While raising funds is important, Wang said that it isn’t quite the most memorable aspect of entrepreneurship he holds dear to his heart. He shared “You only get to hear about the success story… Instead what you remember (as an entrepreneur) are upturns and downturns.”
When Wang started his first company, he lost two of his co-founders in the very first month of operations. It was a traumatic experience for the entrepreneur.
He noted, “I could have stopped right there, but instead I found Patrick (Lee).” Later, Lee also joined as a co-founder in Rotten Tomatoes and Alivenotdead.com.
However, the same thing happened in Wang’s last venture Alivenotdead, when Lee contracted an illness and had to leave the company mid-way.
According to him, entrepreneurs should conduct a test to determine if they should bring in co-founders. He added, “Imagine doing the company, but one or more co-founders want to leave, will you still want to do the company?” (Sic)
“They’re not always going to be there. … It’s not whether you get along well,” said Wang, adding that the individual needs to be so excited about the idea that he or she “would be willing to go ahead with the idea even if their co-founders are not onboard.”
Rotten Tomatoes was first launched in April 2000. Four years later, it was acquired for an undisclosed sum. After a series of various acquisitions, the current database belongs to Flixster, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
However, it almost did not make it. Just about two weeks after the team launched Rotten Tomatoes, the dotcom market decided to take a hit. Furthermore, in 2011, the advertising market — which is crucial for the film and TV industry — took a further hit after the September 11 attack. “Our primary source of revenue stopped existing…,” said Wang.
These circumstances are right to be termed “unforeseen”; no one could have known that the terrorism attacks were coming, or that the Great Firewall in China would block Alivenotdead in 2007.
However, both companies did manage to get back on their feet in due time, even though their business plans were thrown out of the window by circumstances which were difficult to mitigate.
On one hand, Rotten Tomatoes was able to recover quickly, but Alivenotdead did take quite some time to focus on the Chinese market, instead of looking at Southeast Asia, which could have been just as valuable then.