Name: Brian Hoang
Scholarship Year: 2018
Professional Background: CEO and Co-Founder, SURVIVR; CEO and Co-Founder Immosis
Education: University of Texas at Dallas – Bachelor’s Degree, Software Engineering
About Brian Hoang and his company: It’s unlikely you’ve heard of SURVIVR or the company’s CEO and Co-Founder Brian Hoang. The company is little more than a year old and Hoang, a 2018 TBHF Scholar, hasn’t been out of the University of Texas at Dallas much longer than that.
The solution in which his early-growth-stage startup specializes, however, is at the top of many minds right now. SURVIVR provides police and first responder training in a virtual reality environment.
“Our mission at SURVIVR is to elevate today’s standard and quality of law enforcement training so that everyone, both police and civilians, can return home at the end of their day,” Brian said in a recent interview.
Launched as a full-time venture in January 2019, SURVIVR had recently landed its fifth client and was eyeing its first quarter of six-figure revenues when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
“Just knowing that you’re on the forefront of the potential solutions to issues like these – to have the opportunity to make such an impact from this kind of unique position – that’s, that’s a huge privilege to have. We don’t take that for granted.”
Fresh off completing TechStars Austin 2020, an accelerator that accepted only 10 of more than 1,000 applicants, SURVIVR is now in ramp-up mode and currently counts multiple police departments as well as an Air Force Base among its clients. More airbases, law enforcement agencies and Homeland Security prospects are in the pipeline.
The accidental entrepreneur
SURVIVR is technically Brian’s second company.
He started his first company, Immosis, while still at UT-Dallas, but even that is a bit of a leap from his origin story.
Brian, the son of Vietnamese refugees, says they wanted nothing more from him than good grades (He delivered.) and a steady job (He could have had that but chose a different path).
Brian entered UT-Dallas on a full-ride scholarship to study software engineering. He quickly decided to focus on emerging and deep technologies, specifically artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
There were no resources on campus to help Brian learn about what he terms “still nascent” technologies, so he set about trying to “democratize education” on the topics by creating and building a pair of campus organizations.
It was during this process that he met his co-founder, Marwan Kodeih, developed many of the skills that helped propel him toward entrepreneurism and launched his first company.
“We didn’t really intend to start a business,” Brian said. “We just wanted to build VR projects and games together and take them out and see what happens and just, you know, kind of learn and have fun from it.”
The pair experimented with multiple product ideas but didn’t find anything they thought was sustainable, so they pivoted to a services model with virtual and augmented reality at its center.
Immosis booked about $150,000 in contracts and Hoang spent most of 2018 driving around Texas, fulfilling those commitments, going to speaking events and networking.
And then kismet struck.
A month before he was scheduled to attend the TBHF induction dinner and be officially recognized as a scholar, Brian was invited to speak on a radio show. The host was a retired law enforcement officer. The former officer tried on a VR headset and immediately started pitching the technology as a possible tool for training police.
Three months of research and a few pitch competitions later, Brian and Marwan knew they had the business opportunity that hadn’t materialized previously.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this full time.’ We had enough confidence. We liked the impact, the altruism and helping uphold public safety in our communities.”
By January, they were in full-time SURVIVR mode.
What follows are 10 lessons they’ve learned along the way. (click each title to read Brian’s comments)
First entrepreneurial bug
My first startup was starting those student organizations just because I was like, ‘Well, I’m interested to learn these technologies, but I don’t see any organizations here to provide resources to learn about them, which irritates me.’ That’s the first time in my life that kind of a lightbulb went off. I’m like, ‘Hey, well why not just be the reason for that change? Why not just start this thing myself?’
It just turns out that when you compare my experiences there and starting things up and creating a team and leading them towards a vision, overseeing operations … Compare doing all that to just regular work that I was doing in corporate (internships), it’s like, well, I love this 100 times more than that. It just kind of snowballed from there … I just got hooked.
You’ve got to be really good at recruiting others who fulfill essential parts of the business and can help guide you and supplement your weaknesses or inexperience. That is something that I consider myself to be pretty good at – doing that in general.
knowing when to say no
When they were looking at potential startups to embark upon, Brian and his partner considered a number of ventures, including augmented reality phone apps for dance training and for fitness training.
“In retrospect, they were terrible ideas. I’m glad we had the instinct to shut them down as quickly as we did.”
Think Pokemon GO. The user sees the real world through the camera on a phone with a virtual trainer who would pop up and teach dance or fitness.
“I think we were headed in the right direction – that we kind of had a hunch that training is where it’s at, but those weren’t good use case”
The value proposition intuitively made sense, but they found the market was small, the substitutes (primarily YouTube) were good enough and free. The benefit of the app over the substitutes was marginal. “It just wasn’t enough to sustain such a shift in consumer behavior to make it work…It would have been unsustainable to pursue.”
What he sees that entrepreneurs have in common
They all have a mission that wakes them up every morning. They have a mission that gives them so much conviction that this is all they want to pursue. And, they have the tenacity to actually see it through.
Something is inspiring them and not just like a superficial like, ‘Oh, I want to do that someday.’ They have real actionable convictions – the tenacity to see it through to actually make (whatever they are pursuing) happen no matter what obstacles they run into.
just starting? here is what you are facing
Trying to start a company and being a CEO is like one of the loneliest things ever. The stress is just unimaginable … Most challenges are new to me, but I’m responsible for figuring them out anyway and making the right decisions.
It’s not like I can vent to my team or even my partners in some cases because you know, you don’t want to bring everyone down with your worries and negativity. And you can’t go to your friends either because nobody understands.
Despite all that, I still know that I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
I’d rather go through all this stress you know three times over than return to my old life in corporate. I love the mission – that we’re out there helping not only our communities go home at night but also repairing the broken trust between civilians and law enforcement.
That gives me something – a purpose that’s worth living for, worth getting out of bed every morning for and just I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think that’s really important. Otherwise you will get burned out. You will give up.
importance of relationships
I was good at maintaining relationships and keeping up with people who I thought were worth the effort. Some of these advisors we have and the people on the team, it’s not like they came overnight.
I met them and struck up a conversation. I found when there was a lot of chemistry. I’d write an email follow up and just keep sending updates over time and checking in and saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Let’s catch up.’ And eventually these things come to fruition. Those efforts tend to stockpile over time. As long as you’re genuine, you’re showing where you want to go and you’re not like wasting anyone’s time – you’re actually trying to learn, trying to make it happen and you listen to people’s advice … that makes it easier – and for them to be more willing to help you. Just be able to demonstrate some kind of progress before you talk to people.
How to build a network, part 1
Build genuine relationships first.
The motto over at TechStars was #givefirst. The same thing applies here. Try not to just ask when you are in a relationship. It should be about providing value. If you can’t immediately provide value, at least come off as genuine. Show you are listening to their advice and that you take it seriously. If it’s good advice, if it’s applicable, then you take action on it, follow up with them and update them. People really appreciate that.
A lot of people don’t show that kind of seriousness in these interactions. I make it very clear that I am serious about actually making something happen and their time talking to me wasn’t going to be wasted.
how to build a network, part 2
I don’t have an agenda or plan or anything, I just strike up a conversation and learn more about their background and what they’re currently doing and what their goals are. If I think there’s synergy and this chemistry there – if I can tell that they are also engaged in the conversation, then that might be worth following up with. Oftentimes that ends up leading somewhere.
on vr, ar, ai, machine learning
A lot of those things tend to be just buzzwords that people throw out even if they don’t actually use it in practice. You might have something that looks like AI but it’s actually not, but people are going to call it machine learning anyway.
It is finding its place more and more. Machine learning is going to play a big role in augmenting a lot of jobs that humans currently do and it’s going to make some roles more efficient.
However, the natural consequence of that is that it is going to result in job displacement. How you solve for those kinds of issues, that’s a huge problem.
There’s no doubt it will augment the workforce and, in a lot of places, just outright replace.
There are a lot of different use cases, you just want to make sure that it is the appropriate use case. From a policy standpoint, we need to figure out how we’re going to respond or be proactive for when this inevitably displaces millions of jobs.
hardest thing about starting a business
Getting your first sale is always one of the first big hurdles. To get there, you have to overcome a bunch of other hurdles, but everything really leads up to the first sale …
Try to really understand (the potential customer’s) problems and solve them better than other companies are. Bring them joy – or just make their lives easier, make them more money, make things more convenient for them, whatever it is.
Make them happy enough during the pilot. Talk to them and figure out what an appropriate pricing model might be. From there, try and convert the pilot to a paid customer. You can give them a pilot discount. It doesn’t matter. Just get that first customer.
Talk to that first customer. Be customer-centric. If you don’t, you’re going to build the product in the wrong direction. No one’s going to want to buy it or no one’s going to have relationships with you. Everything is customer focused.
That’s how you’re going to end up getting your first sale. If they’re happy, see if they can refer you to your second customer. It just goes from there.
philosophy on business
Be as customer centric as you possibly can. Everything you do should be focused on your customers – what problems they’re running into and what brings them joy. That’s the basis of your business to begin with. So talk to them often. Always be interacting with your customers and learning from them. That’s how you retain customers in the long run as well.
philosophy on life
Be grateful. Don’t take what you have for granted. And if there’s something you want to achieve, it is 100% on you to take the initiative and put the work in to make that happen.
I really hate it when all people do is talk or say, ‘I wish this was this way,’ or ‘I want that.’ Well, go make it happen. Don’t just sit there talking about it. It’s on you.
I do miss those days when I was just kind of like blowing with the wind and was just going to start something because it was fun and I wanted to see it and just say ‘why not?’ Someday I’ll get that freedom back. I’m caught up with SURVIVR these days which is great. Those were simpler days back then.
favorite fun read
How to Win Friends and Influence People
by Dale Carnegie
favorite business book
Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist
by Brad Feld, Jason Mendelson
top of his playlist
biggest guilty/not guilty pleasure
Late night gaming binges. Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem.