Female Founder Stories: Nancy Hua, Founder of Apptimize (YC S13)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

Apptimize is about creating the best mobile experience for each user and context through targeted A/B testing. Our drop-in SDK is for native Android and iOS apps and our users include top 10 apps from each category in the App and Play stores. Mobile product owners and marketers change layouts, CTA’s, and flows in real time without programming or app store resubmission. With just a few clicks, you can create and deploy a new variant to your real users and start seeing data in minutes.

Q: Tell us about your background prior to starting your startup.
I was an algorithmic trader and led the Fixed Income Quantitative Strategies team at GETCO in Chicago and NYC. This all means nothing to anyone– my mother never remembered my job and introduced me to her Chinese friends as an “MIT graduate” for years after MIT.

All my trading friends are men. Everyone knew me because I was the only woman trader in the office for years. Algorithmic trading isn’t as macho as other types of trading because everyone in high frequency trading is a nerd at heart. You’re a nerd who stares at numbers on a computer all day. I had a dozen monitors constantly blinking charts and all day I wrote python scripts and built models. Our nerdiness superseded other differences, because the main thing that matters for traders is PnL.

Being the only woman is not something I notice much anymore because I’m used to it. Before college, almost all my friends were women, but now most are men. At MIT I captained the women’s fencing team and was always with women, but starting in middle school there were more men than women in my classes. There was no denying that I was different so I accepted it and got comfortable being weird.

Q: Why did you start Apptimize?
Modern apps are on average terrible. Often they’re just miniature websites, a strictly worse experience than web. But mobile is where all the growth is, and mobile data is really good, so apps need to be awesome.

Companies realize transactions are moving to mobile and therefore spend a lot of money and resources maintaining apps, yet they still suck. Why? Many reasons, such as needing to lock everything into a release that needs to be submitted through the store, all the risks involved if something breaks after deployment, the laggy innovation cycle, the constraints in a smaller screen size, intermittent Internet, the fragmentation of devices. Apptimize solves these issues for everyone without needing you to totally rearchitect your app or redo your whole roadmap to revolve around fitting everything into a testing framework.

Q: How did you meet your cofounder?
Jeremy and I met through mutual friends.

Q: What was YC like for you?
We went from being unsure we wanted to apply, to hoping that getting into YC would solve all our problems. Man, did YC not solve all our problems. I look back in fondness at those days when our problems were how we were going to hire our first employee, get our first paying user, Demo Day. The main reason I would ever contemplate going through another startup is because I want a chance to redo and fix all my horrifying mistakes.

I wrote about my experience YC on my personal blog here.

Q: What is the atmosphere like at YC during those 3 months with Demo Day approaching?
I was paranoid we were behind and both dreaded and anticipated Demo Day with a countdown. We were changing our pitch right up to the hour before our demo. It all helps you focus because you ask yourself, “Will this new feature matter for Demo Day? No? Then move on.” Even now to check if something’s both important and urgent we’ll ask “Is this a YC problem?”

Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
I try to create situations where whatever is unique about me is an advantage. If being a woman is unique, then I turn it into an advantage. I think part of why my team is so badass is because I’m a woman and everyone knows me.

Q: Why do you think there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones?
I’m not a historian but I’d guess that once upon a time the fields of art, music, writing, medicine were perceived as male just like most stuff. Now there are a lot of women in those fields. Anecdotally, my art and writing classes had a lot of women, unlike my math classes. The cone of possibility that people will see for themselves is expanding more and more and people will be able to choose based on their goals rather than on conventional boundaries.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
At 15 there was nothing I couldn’t do by myself in a fraction of the time it took anyone else. I did my homework during class and relished the feeling of knowing I would lay waste to exams and problems in record time. I thought this meant I was a genius and dedicated my time outside of school to watching The Matrix and my “writing.” In reality, my abundant free time meant the problems I was working on were so easy that a single 15-year-old could crush them all during the school day while the teacher talked. I wish I could say, “Self, do you realize that real work worth doing can’t be done alone? Humans didn’t go to the moon alone. Work on something hard, so hard you can’t do it yourself.”

Starting a company is a problem hard enough to be too much work for one person, even a genius like 15-year-old Nancy. Before realizing people need other people, before understanding I needed other people, I didn’t do anything worth doing. I never could’ve built Apptimize alone. I need my team. I need my users. I need my investors. Everything I’ve done that’s good I’ve worked on with other people.


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