Learn about the inner workings of TagHawk, the first community-based resale marketplace, with insights from Ding on how he manages his company and personal life.
- COMPANY: Genesis of idea, target market, revenue model, customers acquisition, tracking metrics, and product development.
- PERSONAL: Finding solutions to challenges, getting help, constant learning, founder networks, daily tools, work-life balance, and lessons learned.
[0.01] Anil Hemrajani: Welcome to Inside the Startup, a show where we look at how startups operate. I’m Anil Hemrajani, the founder of Startup Sidekick. My guest today is Ning Ding He’s the founder and CEO of TagHawk. TagHawk was founded in 2018 with the mission to be the largest and the first community resale network in the US. Ning is a logical, optimistic and ambitious entrepreneur. He’s a Boston college alumnus. He has worked and studied in four different countries in the past, including the US, UK, Australia, and China and he has worked for some big brand names like Uber and Ping An Group. And he finally decided to settle down in Boston to start his new career at TagHawk. Ning was born as an adventure and always dreams big. He sets up his goals and never quits, easily. Welcome Ning. How’s it going today?
[0:56] Ning Ding: Yeah, pretty good. How are you doing?
[0:58] Anil Hemrajani: Doing well. Doing well. You know, really excited to talk to you about TagHawk. I really like what you’re doing and you’ve got, you know, you’re a world traveler, so you’ve got a pretty impressive buyer yourself. So with the company and you have been looking forward to this.
[1:12] Ning Ding: Yeah, I’m glad to share.
[1:13] Anil Hemrajani: So let’s talk about your company first. Can you describe your app a little bit and what the value proposition is?
[1:22] Ning Ding: Yeah, of course. So I started the company by the end of 2018, right after I graduated from Boston College. So basically we’re a consumer e-commerce marketplace. So we allow the users to buy and sell used products, but within their communities like apartments, universities or clubs. So you can picture as like a community for eBay, something like this, with a community concept. So I would say the most unique feature is our community networks. You can find almost any communities like your apartments. You may belong to any sort of clubs or universities. So you can feel free to join any of them. We aim to build the largest community network in the US.
[2:04] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. And one of the things that I liked about it was that it’s, you know, like when I was looking into your website, that it’s such a great alternative to things like Craigslist, because I know I want to sell a lot of used stuff, but I’m always afraid of like who that person is going to be that’s going to show up at my door, you know, the uncomfortableness of meeting somebody like that, you know? So I like that you guys provide an alternative to that. And even the idea of like having instant messaging built right in where you can just kind of communicate. So how did you come up with the idea? Like, was it like a problem you saw yourself, was it a passion from college days?
[2:43] Ning Ding: Oh, I would say it’s from my personal experience. Like you just described, I moved a lot. I mean from different countries to countries, location, I mean, cities to cities. So I buy and sell a lot of used products during this time. So I have a lot of experience in this industry. And I noticed there are two common pinpoints among all the platforms, no matter it’s Craigslist or Facebook marketplace. So the first one would be it’s a trust and a safety concern, like you mentioned. We never know who will show up in front of our door. It’s really hard to build credibility between yourself and others in the public, especially for girls. They always have concern to invite people to their homes or to meet someone on the street.
So that’s the first big pinpoints. And the second one will be the delivery issue. So a lot of times you will find the products are really affordable, so like 80 or 90% off, but people are having a hard time to bring the items back to home unless they have a truck, but most people don’t. So it’s really hard to find affordable delivery service, to deliver solutions for used items. So I think there should be a better way to better sell items. There should be better ways that I don’t need to worry about the credibility of the buyers or sellers and also I don’t need to worry about the delivery solutions. So I believe the best way would be why not just shop with your communities? If you can shop your products from upstairs from the neighbors, so both pain points are resolved. So that’s where I come up with the idea sub-community buy and sellings.
[4:11] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah, and those are, you know, the best ideas when you have experienced it yourself. And like you said, moving around in different countries, you know, you kind of selling used things. So how did you validate the idea when you first came up with it? Like, did you, you know, talk to potential customers? I mean, how did you go about doing that?
[4:29] Ning Ding: Oh, I would say it’s already validated package because people are looking for substitutes of some like Facebook groups or WhatsApp groups. So I notice that people are using the … They’re already, I mean, have a demand for community buying and selling. So they are using some substitutes like Facebook groups, or WeChat groups or WhatsApp groups. So these groups are designed for chatting. They’re like a social media. They’re not designed for buying and selling, but people will use it to post their items anyway. So that means people have the demand to have the desire to share their products with their communities, like in different colleges or in their apartments. Even like each department has there something called the intranet, meaning they have internal listing for their residents to post items.
So, all these facts represents people have the demands. So I would say before I even started the company, I see the demands, I see these facts, so I know people already has demands. You just need a better way to unite all these, I mean, different channels, need a better way, a more efficient way to do the community buying and selling.
[5:31] Anil Hemrajani: That’s a good point. Yeah. That, you know, the concept’s already been validated, so you’re not, you know, building like, I mean, creating a new market per se, you’re just doing it better. And so are you guys funded, are you bootstrapped?
[5:43] Ning Ding: We’re bootstrapped. We raised for some funds from friends and family. Mostly from my families in the past. So we haven’t received any official round yet, but we are racing right now.
[5:56] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. No, I mean I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble because you already have the traction and, you know, and like we were talking about earlier, I mean, your reviews on the app store, you know, were excellent. So what’s your team makeup like? I mean, do you have co-founders, I mean, and you know, what about like developing? Is it onshore, like offshore remote? I mean, everybody’s remote right now, but…
[6:17] Ning Ding: Yeah. So at the beginning of the, I mean, really beginning, I was the only one, the solo founder on this end where I’ve, I mean, founded the company. So we have another teammates called Jim Waters. He comes up in, I think in 2019 May, so around that time. So he came to me. He joined the team as a second person. He’s a really senior guy who has more than 30 years experience in marketings. And also he started his own company in the past and sold it. So he’s a sale entrepreneur, really experienced one. So his role is VP of marketing and also the president. So he helped me to set up everything. He helped me, we launched the products together actually. So he’s just kind of like a co-founder, ways off the equity. And so that’s the case.
And then we have another guy called Parikh. He’s a CTO but he’s like a part-time CTO because we can’t afford the full-time one. So he has somewhat six years experience in coding and operations. And then we have another younger person called Carina Shi. So she’s a recent graduate from Rochester University. She’s really smart, but of course and experienced, so but she’s pretty passionate. So that’s our teams. Regarding the technical development, we use a combination of like internal CTO like Parikh plus our outsourcing team based in India. So that’s how we use this combination to lower the cost and also make sure the quality is good.
[7:50] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. No and whatever you’re doing, it’s working, like I said, with the reviews and all that, it’s, you know, positive. And so what’s your revenue model like, I mean, how do you make money?
[8:01] Ning Ding: So first one will be pretty straightforward. We take a cut from transaction. We charge 8%. So that’s pretty common. And also second one would be optional service. So we call them highlight service. If you want to sell your products faster, you can pay a small fee, like $2 a day or $2 for two days to highlight your items. So that’s also a really popular service in this industry. And third revenue model we call them tagger creation fee. So it’s always free to join any tag. If you belong to any sort of communities, you could just join them for free, but if you want to start your own community, you need to pay a one-time setup fee for that. And then lastly, we have advertisements. We don’t take it out for now, but we will be to have them in the future.
Just one more comment on the tag creation part. I forgot to mention before, we have a really unique feature for the community owner as well. So we empower the community owner to take a cut from transactions. That it means every time when there is a person in your community buy or sell products, you can get a cut from transaction as well. So you can decide how much percent you want to take. If you want to take 10% for every hundred dollars buy and sell in your community, you take $10. So that’s how we help the community owners to raise some fund to help this operation.
[9:12] Anil Hemrajani: That’s interesting.
[9:13] Ning Ding: So yeah, that’s also a really good marketing channel for us. I mean, as a community owner to have the incentive to promote his products because the more person they have in their communities, the more attractions they have. The more revenues they will take. And of course, the more revenue for us as well. So that’s why we encourage users. We encourage the people to I mean, build their own communities. And also that’s also the reason we charge a fee for that.
[9:37] Anil Hemrajani: Wow, that’s an interesting model. It’s like, almost like you have your big community, but then within that, you’ve got the sub communities, you know, and yeah, I really like that idea. And so how do you acquire your customers right now, like with marketing and say like, how do you do that?
[9:52] Ning Ding: We use both online and offline part. So for online parts, most effective one will be the Facebook and Instagram ads. So is paid ads; straightforward, a little bit pricey, but mostly efficient. Our customer acquisition cost is around 50 cents. And we also use some other traditional like email marketings or like website, et cetera. For offline, we mainly use partnerships like I mentioned before. We partner with different communities. So we pitch to the community owners, we talk to them, say, hey, we have this good platform. Are you ready to bring your peoples onboard? And once you bring them onboard, you can also get some revenue from it as well. So most of them, they say yes. So once they onboard with us, they can bring their members so we have our customers as well.
So that’s our partnership campaigns. And another really good point for them is for each community, we also have a group live chat. So if you want to talk to a community members, you can just open the group chat and send a message and all of them will see it. So it also has a kind of like a social element there. So that’s also my favorite part because I realize people have the demands to talk to their community members, people needed to talk to their neighbors or like the club members. Currently there is no way for them to talk to each other, unless you knock their door. But knocking the door is not always the option, right. So I believe you need a virtual way to do that. That’s why we have this group chat.
Another, I mean, offline channel is we have ambassadors in a lot of like universities or anywhere that’s possible. So we have ambassadors program and we also sponsor events within communities. For example, we used to host event in apartments beside MIT. So by this way, we also acquire a lot of community members.
[11:37] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. And I mean, is it mostly like colleges or is it apartments, you know, type communities? I mean, what are your main customers?
[11:47] Ning Ding: That depends. We don’t have a really, I mean, dominate one. I would say we have some universities, some apartments, some clubs. The only difference is how soon you can close the deal. Like for universities, that depends who do you talk to. You talk to student union or talk to the, I mean, the school directors or something like this. Or for apartments usually take longer, like maybe the apartment will get back to us in two months. But for clubs, they may … some of them may respond really quick. Like I said, okay, we will do this next week. So it’s really fast, but some of them respond slowly. It may take like several miles to close them. So I would say we don’t have any specific preference. Communities can be anything, any community, any group with buying or selling demands. So that’s the case. Yeah.
[12:37] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. And what kind of metrics do you track? You know, is it like the number of communities, number of signups? I mean, what’s, you know, what are some of the metrics?
[12:47] Ning Ding: I would say the most important one will be the users, the downloads. So we have been operating for 13 months already, so roughly over a year. We acquired more than 100K in downloads, more than 55K registered users. And also another one will be the communities. So we build more than a hundred communities so far, and also partners. We partner with many reputable communities, like university like Syracuse University and also like apartments, like Tobin Company. So that company build apartments for MIT students. And I was always partnering with companies like WeWork and some organizations, we used to partner with United Way or and MSPCA, et cetera.
[13:31] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. That makes sense. And on the product development side, you know, you mentioned how you’ve got the CTO and then you outsource to India. What kind of process, I mean, do you guys follow, like, are you following agile methodology, like two weeks sprints? You know, how does that work?
[13:46] Ning Ding: I mean that’s a tricky one because we plan to select Agile methodology because that was my major when I was in college. I’m a certified PMP. So I was pretty familiar with agile. However, I mean, that’s only a theory. When we decided to apply for it, where you lead us off the track. I mean, we sometimes start with the Agile but we make it, I mean, Waterfall at the end. So it depends.
[14:20] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah, that’s interesting, you know, that you have the PMP thing, but then you, sometimes you fall back to Waterfall. I know how that is. I mean, I’ve written a book on Agile Java development. I’ve spent a lot of time with Agile, but and like, and how do you prioritize, you know, your features, what to build next, for example?
[14:38] Ning Ding: Oh, I think that’s never a problem for me because I have a really clear roadmap in my head. So priority is a easy task. So I can’t explain like how exactly I prioritize them, but I just, as a customer I mean, as a customer in this industry for years, I know what people wants. I know how to serve myself. So that’s why it’s really easy for me to … I can just make a judgment call saying we will go with this feature, then this one next. I don’t know why, just know as a user this is what I want most. This is what I’m on second. So that’s the logic there?
[15:14] Anil Hemrajani: No. And like you said, I mean, because you’ve lived through this yourself, so that’s why it’s easy, even it’s easier like instincts and all that. So let’s switch gears to how you personally work. You know, again, you’re a world traveler. I was really impressed with your bio and all that, but so how, like, what would you say, you know, are your current priorities and challenges?
[15:37] Ning Ding: You mean my personal one?
[15:38] Anil Hemrajani: No, in the company side, I guess just how you run the company as you know?
[15:43] Ning Ding: So challenges, I would say is the fund raising side because nowadays the venture capitals tend to be more cautious upon investment, especially for early stage like us. So it’s a little bit harder. I’ve done that before to raise funds for us now. So we have been reaching out to two different investors. We receive some soft commitments. By the way, haven’t received any deals from lead investors yet. So that’s what we’re working on right now. And another challenge we will be I would say is outreach. So that’s how I call it. It’s outreach to communities. Like whilst the important way we build the communities is to teach to them, contact the community owners and introduce the service then follow up, follow up. And as a follow up until is closed. But we are a small company with only three or four person. So we have limited resource to reach out to them. Like myself, I can only reach out to five communities per day or 10 communities per day at maximum. So we are kind of like have a limitation on the human resource. So I would say that’s my biggest challenge right now, is to receive, to fundraising for the company and also to expand the team.
[16:51] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. So are you, like when you reach out to these customers, are you following some sort of a process and CRM for tools and all that?
[16:58] Ning Ding: Yes. So we are trying to find affordable tools. So for CRM, we use the basic version, HubSpot. It’s free. And for sales automation tool, I just did a research like last week and we adopt a new software called prospect.io. They offer a 50% off for small startups like us.
[17:20] Anil Hemrajani: Oh, okay. Yeah, no, we’re using HubSpot too. A lot of companies now are using the free HubSpot. It’s a great CRM. And what other tools do you guys use on a daily basis, like to, you know, for office automation or collaboration, or just, you know, marketing sales?
[17:36] Ning Ding: So for collaboration we’re using Skype. That’s also the tool we use to communicate with the old associate team and for project management, we use monday.com. And then for a sales automation, we use prospect.io, so what I just mentioned to you and they offer 50% off. And we’re just starting a trial with them since last week.
[17:58] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. Wow. Yeah, Skype, that’s an interesting one because my last company, I mean, we ran on Skype. I still find it to be one of the most stable, you know, video and kind of collaboration tools. I mean, I know Slack is huge, you know, and but, and then, so how are you figuring solutions out right now? Do you have mentors advisors, you know, do you research online? How do you figure things out?
[18:23] Ning Ding: Mostly I will research online by myself. I’m a big fan of do it myself. So I find my answers on Google most times, and if I face any dilemmas or make a decision, I will consul to my mentors. So we have around two or three mentors so far. So I will talk to them, ask for opinions. And also I will ask for my friends as well. A lot of my friends are also entrepreneurs. They also started their own companies in different fields. So I will ask their opinions and then make a call.
[18:54] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. And so do you belong to any kind of networks or groups of entrepreneurs, you know, where you can tap into, or is it just like friends?
[19:03] Ning Ding: I do belong to some of them. I mean there are many small groups in Boston area to help each other. Like one is called Round Table CEO and something like this or some CEO networks. Some of them will host weekly meetings. Like I just attended one this morning. It’s like a one hour long meeting. You can post any questions you want and you have a discussion with the other, I mean, entrepreneurs.
[19:29] Anil Hemrajani: And do you pay for any of this or is it mostly free kind of resources?
[19:32] Ning Ding: Mostly free. Some of them require payments, so I just left.
[19:38] Anil Hemrajani: Okay. And as far as like staying current, like how do you, you know, how do you learn? Like, I mean, do you read blogs, you know, podcasts, attend virtual conferences. How do you stay current with trends?
[19:50] Ning Ding: I would say mostly from like social medias, like LinkedIns or something, or like Facebooks, something like this because I’m an entrepreneur, so I live in a entrepreneur circle. I call it our circle, like you have a lot of other entrepreneur friends, and if you’re sharing information on the social media. So I can just take it from there. So I can check your social media posts to see what’s going on there. And also I follow a lot of successful entrepreneurs. So and also a lot venture capitals. You know, venture capitals are the most active groups who are willing to share the trends. They really like to share the trends on social media. So that’s how I got to my information.
[20:30] Anil Hemrajani: Do you have any favorite ones that you follow that you can name or?
[20:34] Ning Ding: I don’t have a specific favorite one. I mean, it seems all like similar to me.
[20:41] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. No, no. I mean, and that’s interesting to hear. That, yeah, like VCs do stay active and like sharing their, you know, knowledge and all that. What about on the like work-life balance? How do you, you know, because you’re like sort of the sole founder, you’ve got a team around you, but like, how do you find work-life balance, you know, or, and then also the lonely at the top syndrome. How do you get around that? Yeah.
[21:06] Ning Ding: I don’t think you have a way to get around it. You just have to get used to it. Work-life is never a balance. It’s a choice. I didn’t have a work-life balance for a while. I mean, I didn’t travel for two years already. And since pandemic, I haven’t left my home for one year. So is it lonely? Yeah, of course. Is it boring? Mostly, but you just have to get used to it. That’s the price you have to pay to start your company and potentially get to success. And there’s still a high possibility that you won’t and you, there’s no way to bypass that, you have to get used to it. So that’s I mean, it’s a risk. Startups is always a risk and once you become a founder, you must be a risk lover. You must be enjoying this process. Even it’s lonely, I mean, it’s boring, just getting used to it. I would say that’s my answer.
[22:00] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah. No, that’s true. I mean, it’s, it is, you know, it’s the life we choose, right. And also like, you know, I’ve talked to some people recently, they say that there’s no such thing as work-life balance because at the end of the day, I mean, it’s, you know, you’re one person it’s the same brain that does the personal stuff and does the work. So it’s hard to, you know, segment the two. But so just a couple of more questions and like what lessons would you, you know, like advice would you give to other entrepreneurs from lessons learned? I mean, or even to you, like your younger self from a couple of years ago?
[22:34] Ning Ding: Yes, I would say the first one will be be prepared, do more research and control the risks. So when I started the company, we faced a really serious problem about the fraud. Like in our marketplace, so there are some frauds on platform before and they scam users and they use stolen credit cards. So that was a risk and we didn’t expected that in the past. So we lost some money on that, but also some customers. So after that, we did a big research. We investigate around six months, I would say at least to do a lot of research on the anti-fraud six section. We integrate a fraud tool called Sift and we integrate ID verification and a phone verification et cetera.
So we now have, I mean, have the ability to protect ourselves, but we all, I mean, like I said before, we lost a lot of money, a lot of customer because of that. So I would say the first advice will be do our research and just assume any risks, it may occur because if you thinks it may occur, it will occur. So that’s the advice I would give to them. And also another thing is always prepare for the worst because a lot of things in your mind won’t happen. So the reality is really cruel. So it will screw you up. You have to be prepared for the worst case.
[23:56] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah, no, that’s great advice. I mean, having been an entrepreneur myself, yeah, you just really, you know, Murphy’s Law, like what can go wrong will go wrong, right. And so what are your plans for, you know, both the company and personal for the future?
[24:11] Ning Ding: Yeah, I will say for the company now we already have the most I mean, I won’t say the best, but in my mind, the best products in the market in my mind. So we have really wonderful products in market. So my next goal will be to enlarge, to hire more users, to enlarge our user base and to do that we need funding. So that’s why we’re racing offers round. So my recent goal will be to close see run successfully, hopefully within next month. And as then, after that we will expand our team. We will have a specific department called community relationships. So their job will be to reach out to different communities and then pitch to them, onboard them, et cetera.
So what will be my goal for this year at least. From my personal, I will say I really want a vacation. I want … You can see from my resume, I’m a travel guy, right, right. I travel a lot. Well, I studied in four different countries, but I’ve travelled more than 50 countries. So I traveled a lot, but I haven’t been traveling since 2019. So that’s a long gap for me and I haven’t been home for two years already. So I really wish I could have a break.
[25:21] Anil Hemrajani: Wow. That’s a lot of traveling. I mean, I thought I was a world traveler, but listening to that, you know, so I can, yeah, I totally can relate how you’re ready to just get out there and travel, you know. Hopefully yeah, I mean, hopefully we know we get our vaccines soon and the world can slowly, slowly start getting back to normal. This is like the craziest thing in my entire lifetime. I never expected this, you know, but…
[25:43] Ning Ding: Me too.
[25:45] Anil Hemrajani: Well Ning, this is awesome. I mean, great conversation, you know, I really wish you the best of luck. I love what you’re doing, you know, with your company. And just, even on a personal level, you know, kind of think you just got such an impressive world traveler type background. So thank you.
[26:01] Ning Ding: Thank you for that. And also if you … I know you already checked the product but just in case you belong to any sort of community, you can feel free to refer us, maybe reach out to your community administration and talk to them. So hopefully we can be with the community for your, I mean, for your area as well.
[26:17] Anil Hemrajani: Yeah, no, that’s good. And obviously the app, I mean, it’s just available on both the app stores, right?
[26:23] Ning Ding: Yes. Google Play Store and yeah, Google Play Store and Apple Store.
[26:27] Anil Hemrajani: Okay, excellent. Thank you.
[26:30] Ning Ding: Yep. Thank you.
[End of Episode 26:31]