Joseph Fung is the CEO of Kiite Inc., a Waterloo-based startup with an AI platform set to transform the workforce. A seasoned entrepreneur with a passion for harnessing tech to realize the best human experience, Joseph’s former company, TribeHR, sold to Netsuite in 2013. Now, as he guides Kiite on a trajectory toward transforming the way we work, Joseph took some time to connect with us to dive a bit deeper into the details of his vision and Kiite’s AI platform.
You’ve recently announced that you’re launching a startup called Kiite. What is your mission? And why do you think this is important?
Kiite’s mission is: we’re trying to supercharge the workforce.
If you take a look at workforce demographics and trends, all of the data shows that we need to reshape the way we do people management. We’re also going to face a future where our most experienced and expensive resources aren’t our most productive.
We’re building a platform to automate all of the routine parts of people management thus giving employees a more autonomous and engaging experience and making managers dramatically more productive.
You’ve grown several tech companies before Kiite. What is most important as you look to make the first hires? What qualities do you specifically look for while choosing leadership within the company?
Some of the mental characteristics are the same regardless of it’s an individual contributor or a leader. We’re looking for diversity of thought and background. In the very, very early days you need to imagine all of the potential customers and partners that you will work with, and the more diverse your team is the better equipped you are to imagine those thoughts and beliefs. We also look for diversity of demographics and education – for us that means pulling in people who have engineering degrees, business degrees, arts degrees, no degree… We look in all roles for very strong empathy – the ability to truly put yourself in the shoes of others not only makes your team dynamics significantly better but it allows you to connect with your customers in a very profound way.
Specifically to leaders, we look for a healthy understanding of servant leadership, who realize that there are roles out there in the team that move more quickly. We tend to look for people that are smarter than the founding team – if we always emphasize the idea of bringing on people who are more skilled and more capable than the original team members then we’re going to continue to improve and grow.
You left a great job to do another startup. We know it’s really hard work. What keeps you energized and motivated to do it again?
I find that having a really good challenging problem to work on, something you really feel like you can sink your teeth into, is extremely satisfying and as you make progress on it it’s extremely rewarding.
The complexity and intensity of the challenge is always very profound – I like to look to solve problems that tackle very large populations – often the problem and solution are not obvious and your team really has to think differently and challenge assumptions to make something work. That’s where you can deliver a solution that no one has ever thought of before and that’s a lot of fun – to do it first and to do it better when it’s a really tough environment is incredibly energizing.
What do you do outside work to fill your energy reserves and keep you sane?
Finding the right ways to re-energize is always really tough.
When you’re running an early stage company all you really want to do is work on it in every waking moment, so pulling yourself out of it is always hard. I try to spend a lot of time with other founders and other startups – those I’ve invested in or those I’m working with or those who are mentoring and coaching me. Sharing problems they’re working on and discussing ways they’re tackling them is always inspiring and helps keeps the bar really high for how I execute. I find it a great way to keep going and keep my eye on the ball.
What are a couple of key learnings that you’d like to pass along to people working in startups?
Depending on their stage the answer varies – I find that mostly people are working on their first company – so for them, the first thing I’ve taken to heart through my experiences are – I try to make sure I think about the tough questions before I get there. I would advise people to think through the really terrible/difficult situations and how you would react to the problems you’re going to have and the decisions you’re going to make in those situations.
You have to ask yourself “What happens if my co-founders quit?”, “What happens if we suddenly run out of money?”… Think through those situations first and plan how you’re going to react, because you can do it way better when you’re in a rational state of mind. In a start-up it often feels like a never ending list of crises so it’s helpful to list some of them out and tackle them up front.
The second thing I always suggest that people keep in mind is that it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon. It feels like you’re running fast and running hard but it’s always going to take longer than you think and very often success isn’t about ingenuity but about staying power and being able to keep working at it. It’s important for people to remember that they need to keep their eye on the long term goal.
You could build Kiite anywhere in the world. Why Waterloo and why Canada?
We’re looking at building tools and products for customers that help them deliver and get a much better work experience relationship with their employers. When I think about building that in Canada, the diversity of the workforce population that we have, the positive and inclusive culture that we have – and specifically when I think of Waterloo – I think of the brilliant engineering, psychology, entrepreneurial ecosystem here. All of those things make it absolutely perfect for Kiite.
We’ve been able to create a workforce that is half women, has more data scientists than engineers and half of the team are immigrants so it’s a very diverse workforce. It is one of the few ecosystems in the world that have all of the ingredients that we need and I don’t think we could have done it as quickly as we have anywhere else.