Nancy Hua moved to the U.S. from China in 1989. She excelled in high school, got a full ride to MIT, went into finance, and became a star trader. But her mother's illness led her to launch the tech company Apptimize--and shifted her thinking about what's really important in work and life. --As told to Zachary Lipez
I was born in China. My dad left for America when I was 1, and my mom left when I was 2. I lived with other people--family, and my dad's professors--until I was 4.
I have two birthdays. When I left China, my parents got me a passport and my mom changed my birth month to August, because for the Chinese the number eight is lucky--she thought it would be more fortunate. (She changed her own birthday to August 8, 1958. That's a lot of eights.)
My dad went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and became a science professor. My mom was a waitress. She never went to college. But she ended up managing that restaurant and starting a translation business.
We never had money when I was growing up. I had to get free lunch from the school. I got a scholarship to MIT and went into finance. I knew I'd be good at it, and we needed money. I did an internship at Merrill Lynch. I didn't think I was very good. As in "nothing I'm doing matters, and nothing the people around me are doing matters." We had a lot of meetings and downtime, and, especially for an intern, there was nothing that had any stakes. But I met the proprietary trading group and thought: "This is related to what I learned in school."
I became a trader, and moved to Chicago to work for Getco. My mom got cancer, and I moved my trading team to New York City to be closer to her. She was dying. And my dad also had cancer. But he recovered.
I feel a lot of regret that I wasn't entirely present while my parents were sick. I dealt with it by working a lot. You know, like, "I'm depressed because my parents are sick, so I'm going to focus on this thing where I'm in control."
Even though she was dying, my mom was always worried about me and my cat, and about my health, because I wasn't eating that much. When my mother died, I emailed everyone in her address book. Hundreds of people emailed me back, and they were so sad. Since we were in America, and no one else in our family was, my mother always emphasized that I should connect with other people.
I struggled a lot with that, because I was a really weird kid. I was an only child, because of China's one-child policy. Until I was maybe 24, I don't think I related very effectively with normal people. When I was growing up, we moved around Pittsburgh a lot--and I'd never tell any of my friends that I was moving. I didn't think it was a big deal that I wasn't coming back. But I learned from my mom, eventually, how to connect with adults.
After she died, I did some reflecting. I enjoyed trading, but I no longer saw the reason. I could have stayed at it and become a rich dick. It would have been fine. But I wanted something more.
I left, and the company gave me a noncompete, which is pretty common in finance: They pay you, and you just do whatever. But when I don't work, I get depressed, because I feel useless.
I didn't like traveling, but I knew that that was what everyone was supposed to do, so I traveled a lot. But I would stay in each country for only a day or two.
All nerds read Hacker News, and that's how I found out about [Y Combinator co-founder] Paul Graham. He says that startups are supposed to make things that people
want. With trading, you don't think about that, because you don't have customers, so for the first time, I was thinking, "What do other people want?"
I couldn't do a consumer-based thing, because I'm not a normal consumer. I don't like buying stuff--I assume that people selling most stuff are leading you to think it will make you happy in some way. Enterprise software isn't like that. It's more rational: People buy it because they think it will make them more money.
Which is why I wanted to start an enterprise company. And I wanted to start a company that was in a really new field, that was changing rapidly, and that was related to mobile.
That's how we landed on Apptimize. People use our product to make different versions of their website and mobile apps, and then they can test the different versions on their consumers easily. It was the only thing, among a number of other data- and analytics-related ideas, that people actually wanted. We applied to Y Combinator, and we got in. Graham told us, "You guys are going to have no trouble raising money." We ended up raising $21 million.
I don't view us as all that successful yet. As a company, we could still die. (I don't know if this is good to say.) There's this pattern: If we just do this next thing, everything will be great. That's just not true. You meet a goal, and then it's on to the next thing.
After we closed a deal with one of our first customers, Rakuten--which is like the Amazon of the rest of the world--we knew everything was going to be OK. We were like, "Wow--people really want our product, and they will pay six figures for it." That was a huge deal. And I don't think we celebrated at all. I think I undercelebrate. But we were immediately looking to the next contract.
I've been thinking about what success really means, and how I should have loved my mom more and been better at connecting with her. Now, I channel that into my team. When I first started, the company was about expressing myself, or proving what I could do. Now it's more about making sure the team is learning, that they're hitting their personal goals, and that we're all connected and growing.
That's what my mom taught me. She was very loving. Long-term, that's what motivates.
You really can't go that far on your own ambitions.
Her Long Journey to the American Dream
What's the most indulgent business expense you've ever allowed your company? Office bunny food.
Number of vacation days I took last year: 6.5
What was the funniest thing that happened in the first year of your business? My team's telling me they couldn't afford not to work on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
If you were to start another company, what would you do differently? Stick to the cultural fits in our hiring profile.