By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Angels may have wings and be able to fly, but angel investors don’t. Instead, angel investors like Andy Liu breathe life into small startup companies by injecting cash when they need it. Liu is an “angel” to about 90 businesses right now. He gets about a dozen ideas from entrepreneurs and has a meeting with one each week. Liu ends up having about 50 meetings a year. The result? Liu ultimately becomes an “angel” to about eight startups a year. Liu continues angel investing, as well as growing BuddyTV, the company he co-founded in 2005.
Liu is the CEO of BuddyTV, located in lower Queen Anne. The company, with 20 employees, provides users with a free service that’s an online TV guide and more. BuddyTV feeds its consumers information on shows, sporting events, and entertainment news through articles and user forums. Last year, Liu partnered with Vizio, a new generation of smart TVs, and now BuddyTV’s mobile application is bundled in all Vizio smart televisions. BuddyTV’s users can find and control all their must-see TV content from their smartphones or tablets, and can find out how and where to watch what they want, whether it’s on Netflix, Amazon, etc.
Examples of companies Liu has invested in that especially excite him today include a company called Rover, which provides an online listing of dog sitters. Liu doesn’t own a dog, but he likes the Rover team and sees their potential. Another company, Glowforge, which makes 3D printers, is the most successful Kickstarter in history, said Liu. Glowforge’s website includes a video explaining how its 3D printer makes copies using organic materials, from cardboard to chocolate! Remitly is another startup that captivates Liu. The company does remittances, enabling customers to send money internationally to their families with far fewer fees, using desktops, tablets, or mobile devices.
Liu has invested in non-technology related companies in the past — a rice field in Guyana, a restaurant, and medical practices, but he remains focused on technology-driven companies because it’s his niche — his “skill set.” Liu realizes the potential technology has to reach a broader community. After seeing extreme poverty traveling through developing communities around the world, Liu found a way to satisfy his hunger to address and lift people out of poverty. That’s how FutureHope was born.
Liu founded and is the president and director of FutureHope, an organization dedicated to providing training and opportunities through technology. Training in the Regalo De Dios community of El Salvador began in 2005 and has expanded every year, with leadership skills added to the curriculum. Technology and leadership programs are also ongoing in Puerto de la Libertad, El Salvador. Liu decided to start projects in El Salvador because he liked what he saw there. Many people in El Salvador make two dollars a day, but the community didn’t have “a culture of deflated poor.” Despite the poverty, Liu saw active partners on the ground and how people embraced hard work and looked forward to cultivating a better life by taking advantage of training programs.
Liu has a similar approach when choosing the startups he invests in. He examines the people leading the startups — the idea is secondary — to see whether the entrepreneurs have the “grit, integrity, and work ethic” to make it. During previous interviews and presentations, Liu’s message to startups has been consistent over the years. He believes entrepreneurs should spend more of their time building a great company, rather than raising money. Great startups should have sufficient cash to survive downturns because they’ll be stronger when they make it to the other side. “No matter how smart I think I am, it’s impossible to predict the economy,” said Liu. If cash flow becomes dire, CEOs need to raise money and cut costs. “One piece I’ve been more disciplined about is the business model. Even if you can execute well, if you have a bad model, you’ll run yourself off the cliff. I’m more thoughtful about that.” That wasn’t always the case in the past, said Liu.
Geekwire, a technology news website that relies heavily on Seattle for information, just held its fifth annual summit in Seattle. Liu attended again, along with hundreds of other technology leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovative business executives. Liu doesn’t get tired of going — there are always new trends in angel investing and technology that interest him. For one thing, he loves the “speed dating” — the startup pitch competition where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in a few minutes to a panel of “angels” and investors.
Liu’s parents were born in China. They moved to Taiwan, came to the United States to get an education, and later met at the University of Washington. Liu was born and raised in Seattle and learned Mandarin from his parents. He speaks well enough to have a conversation, but “I wouldn’t conduct business,” he laughed.
Liu became an angel investor after selling NetConversions, a company he co-founded in 1999 that developed web technology to track website users’ behavior for businesses. Although Liu made millions from the sale in 2004, he is notoriously frugal. In a 2009 Mixergy interview, Liu said he was “so cheap that sometimes I’m tripping over pennies and tripping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Liu looks for that frugal quality in the entrepreneurs he funds because it shows him a business spirit he admires.
Seattle has some of the best technology and innovators in the country, said Liu. He would love to support more talented Asian Americans willing to take the plunge and start new ventures. Liu thinks this could have a profound impact on the community. Liu is passionate about entrepreneurs achieving their dreams — “it gives me energy.” Liu’s already invested in many Asian American-owned companies and would love to do more.
Andy Liu is an honoree at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Technology and Innovation Awards on Oct. 7.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.