Anastasia Leng, co-founder of the custom product site Hatch, talks to TechRepublic about getting the startup bug, constantly evolving in her career, and staying optimistic.
Anastasia Leng worked her dream job at Google for five years. She started out in Mountain View, California, but soon transferred to London, which was her home base for the majority of the time with the company. From there, she traveled to Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, Western Europe, the Middle East, and other locations around the world. She worked on product marketing and business development, and became fluent in four languages.
It was a thrilling job. But one day, Leng woke up and realized she was too comfortable.
She had just helped launch an entrepreneurial center in London with Google, where she saw a community of creative founders and makers thrive on taking risks to start their own companies.
"It introduced me to a whole new community in the tech world," she said. "People who took risks and put everything on the line for something they really believed in."
Leng had caught the startup bug. She started talking with a friend and co-worker at Google, Ryan Hayward, who she had attended the University of Pennsylvania with, and the two came up with an idea that was the genesis for Hatch.co.
Hatch was created to be a new kind of e-commerce experience. It enables users to utilize a community of artists, makers, and designers to customize products they want to buy. Buyers are now part of the process, having a say in the creative process and in the details of the product that they want to purchase.
Leng and her co-founder, Hayward, came up with the idea because they were both trying to solve a similar problem. Hayward wanted to buy a friend a painting as a gift, but didn't want to pay the exorbitant prices that custom art costs, but he didn't want to just find a generic painting at the store.
Leng realized that the shopping process was unnecessarily difficult because whenever she wanted to buy something at the store — a pair of shoes, or a necklace, for instance — there was often one thing she didn't like about the product. Maybe it was the color, or a bow on it she didn't want. Instead of paying money for something she wasn't fully committed to, she thought the buyer should be able to customize the product.
So the two took a leap. Hayward moved from Tokyo to New York, and Leng left London to relocate to the Big Apple as well.
"Sometimes you just get an idea in your head and can't get it out, and there's no rhyme or reason, but you're fixated on that idea," Leng said. Such was the case with Hatch.
Hatch, which was founded in 2012, began as Makeably. Last year, it went through a rebranding to the name Hatch to better serve the needs of people who wanted to do their own customizations. Today, over 1,500 live products are available, and buyers can customize designs right on the site.
Though the company raised $650,000 in seed funding in the beginning, they still haven't taken off completely. In a time when companies are being bought out left and right for billions of dollars, Leng said she tries to remember most startups take many years to take off.
"As founders, we are own harshest critics, and where we want it to be and where it is now are a million miles apart," she said. "We want this to be a billion dollar company, and within a year and a half, that's not where it is, but we know it's just going to take more time for us."
To deal with that reality, Leng and Hayward decided early on in this venture that they wouldn't accept failure.
"The chance of failure is really high, but you put it aside and very early on, we realized if things are not going well, failure was not an option," she said. "You have to embrace the fear and never think about it again. It's harder than it sounds but it's something I really try to do."
The allure of building something from the ground up started early on in her career at Google. One of the first projects Leng worked on was monetizing advertisements on social media sites, specifically MySpace. After that, what tied all her roles together was that no matter what she worked on, she gravitated toward very early stage, exploratory products.
"I got excited about that, a project that had no precedent, no established way of doing things," she said. And that realization about herself stayed with her throughout her time with the company into her startup career.
"It's very exciting, very thrilling and I personally thrive off that kind of work, but to some people that can be really quite scary," she added.
Thriving off of that fear — that thrill — has helped Leng take a step back and look at the big picture. She has huge ideas, and because her worldview is so expansive, she takes almost every challenge in stride. It's served her well so far, and she strives to continue learning. Maybe it's her sociology and psychology background. Maybe it's simply her personality. But Leng constantly worries about the impact she wants to have on the world. She wants her startup, as well as the thousands of others, to change the world for the better.
"You actually have the ability to significantly alter peoples' lives." she said. "We are now opening up the web and institutions that have forever been closed to empower [people] to make their own decisions."
In her own words...
What excites you most about technology today?
"In general what I find most exciting is we are now getting much more into a realm where technology is penetrating areas that have a really deep meaningful impact for people. It's no longer that impact the 1%. These are the tech projects that impact everyone around the world regardless of their socioeconomic status."
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
"Don't think about starting a company, but think about building a business...There's almost allure to start a company but a lot of people are not prepared to build a business...[Also] I think one thing I learned pretty early on at Google, and something I remind myself of all the time — it's even more true with having my own company — at the end of the day, it all boils down to people. It sounds like a gigantic cliche and I realize that, but it comes down to being able to connect with someone."
What do you like to cook?
"The best thing I've probably ever made was a wasabi crusted sea bass with honey and sweet potatoes. That was the peak of my culinary career. On a daily basis it's pretty basic, like soup and chicken fajitas. I'm not the best cook, but I try."
What music do you like?
"I have the worst taste in music. I think it's because I grew up abroad. I moved to the US when I was 14. I blame it on that. I was born in Moscow, lived in Vietnam, Budapest, Hungary, Bahrain... so now I listen to whatever is on the radio, which I know is appalling."
What are your other hobbies?
"I do a lot of hiking, cycling, I really like being outdoors. I'm a very avid reader. I have a book club in New York, a book club with friends in London, so I read all the time."
- Angie's List founder Angie Hicks: Web pioneer. Industry leader. Midwesterner.
- Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant: Engineer. Entrepreneur. Mother.
- Nelly Yusupova: CTO. Entrepreneur. Risk-taker. Movement-starter.
- NBA CIO Michael Gliedman: Innovation chief. Video maestro. Musician.