Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Founder Focus where we shine the spotlight on founders all over the world.
Today we are joined by our guest Brina Lee who founded Haml.
Welcome to the show Brina. Thank you, thanks for having me. So very briefly can you tell us what your startup does?
Yeah, in a very couple words, we are a social communication tool for gamers and for games.
Cool. So how does that fit?
So I assume it's differently from Discord and other tools. Can you tell us a little bit more?
Yeah, so actually I think what we started the company on is actually looking at Discord and just how popular voice communication has come a long way over multiplayer games in general and how people are using it just in games.
And voice communication over the years has just always been like a very raw medium, you know.
Our past and all the founders past is all Instagram. So the way that we thought about it is like, you know, photos, videos, all raw mediums and then you innovate on top of that where you can do like boomerangs and hyperlapse and things like that.
And so when we looked into the gaming space because we're all gamers and it was kind of interest of why we wanted to start the company there.
And then we just realized that it's a huge like innovation platform for us to still innovate on top of that hasn't really gotten there just quite yet.
And so our first product that we launched in April was a Soundwheel.
It's very simple. It's basically you take voice clips from your favorite memes or your favorite creators and now you can use that over voice communication voice chat.
So you mentioned you're a gamer yourself.
What games do you play? Yeah. Lately, I've been playing a lot of Valorant and a little bit of Dota.
Valorant is like the new game, the hot scene, new first person shooter.
But I would say a lot of my time is being spent playing Animal Crossing in between there.
So I love those types of games. You know, yeah, we were just talking about Animal Crossing before we went live.
I haven't played it, but I played a lot of Stardew Valley and it really completes my...
I have this itch of like I want to play on a spreadsheet and I use a spreadsheet to optimize all of my Stardew Valley props.
I have the Animal Crossing handbook that helps me organize all of that and try to know exactly what I want.
So yeah. So what games does Hamill support right now?
Yeah, so we support Valorant, Dota, League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, Counter -Strike, and Grand Theft Auto right now.
So we plan to support more games as we talk to more game studios. Well, how do you decide which games to start working on and to support?
Yeah, we started off with Dota and Counter-Strike because of just where they were in terms of they are held by Valve.
And not only that, the Dota community is very close to understanding voice clips and voice wheel stuff.
Other than that, after we've gone Dota, League of Legends is very close to Dota.
So that's why we opened it up to League of Legends.
Valorant is just because it's very close to Counter-Strike. So we did Valorant.
And then from now on, as we pull in more games, we are taking surveys from our users of like, what games would you want to see supported?
Because now that they can use a sound wheel within all these games, if they just pop into another game, they can use sound wheel there too and all their sounds.
So. Nice. So how long has HelmWheel been around?
You said you launched the sound wheel in April? Yeah, the beginning of April, but we were around since October.
And so we did a fundraise pre-seed round around in November.
And then we just worked on the prototype and then rushed to launch in April.
A different deadline there, but we cut everything to get out in April.
Can you tell me about the thought process and where you went like, hey, we need to trim scope to hit this launch?
Yeah, probably somewhere in March.
Like, was it like, hey, it looks, it sounds like people are going to be locked down for a while.
They're going to be playing a lot of video games.
Yeah. That's kind of the time where I think all of us realize we're staying home.
Fortunately for us, we already had built a remote team. So there was not much jerking or difference for us when quarantine hit.
But I think when I realized like my partner started working from home, I was like, oh, everyone is going to start working from home and like everybody's going to want to play games or like watch TV and like things like that.
And so it was very, it just made sense for us to just cut as much fat as possible and like get out on the market and start as quick as possible.
I mean, people always say launch fast, but you had a very specific motivation to get it out there fast.
Yeah. Yeah. Very specific motivation.
But we always, we are a team that wants to iterate and move fast as fast as possible and also just collect as much data early as possible.
And so it was very much within our just culture anyways to do it.
Cool. So you have two co -founders and two other co-founders and two employees, right?
How did you meet your co-founders and how did you decide to work on this particular problem set?
Yeah. The three of us all met at Instagram like back in the day.
I started Instagram before video was even on the platform.
And then the two after that just kind of quickly came out to Instagram.
And so one of them I met, we were just like desk buddies and we were working on the second tab, which is explore today together.
And then the third one worked on more of the creation flows type of stuff.
And so ever since then, we just had a huge bond.
And even then we had a huge bond over games where because one of them was my desk buddy, I always thought probably for a year and a half, he had this like screensaver on his screen and it was just his game playing back and forth.
So I just thought it was just like relooping, but it was really weird to me.
One day I looked at him, I'm like, why do you always keep looking back at the screen?
Like, isn't it the same thing over and over again? Because it's a screensaver.
And he was like, no, it's Twitch. What was the game?
It was Dota. Oh, okay. Yeah. And so that's when I was like, oh, wow, like he's a true gamer.
Like about a year and a half I've been sitting next to you and I didn't even know that was a real game.
And then the other one, it was funny because even as a team birthday present, we bought him a gamer mouse.
So I think games, even just in general, we've been always been around together.
Nice. And do you play co-op games together?
Yeah. Sometimes we'll play like Valorant, we'll just pull a game together, even with just the team, even all five of us sometimes.
So yeah, it's really fun.
Cause that's, we have the dog food, the product that we're building.
Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And I wish I could have a sound wheel in Factorio sometimes.
Yeah. I mean, a lot of people have sometimes like one of our investors kind of messages was like on Zoom, you guys should do this on Zoom.
I mean, would you support a non-gaming use case?
We've thought about it for sure. But I think we're just, you know, I think the sound wheel was kind of our wedge into kind of the gaming industry and definitely be a wedge into other industries as well.
I think there's a lot of similarities between productivity software and games, collaboration, communication, all those things.
A lot of people may not realize that, but it totally does.
It totally works. Yeah. I heard that people are, there were some people who were having meetings in Red Dead Redemption.
I mean, way back in the day to plan out their attacks. So it's, I think even one of the number one features on our platform and it's just sound, but they requested for team collaboration tools.
So it's super interesting. Yeah. Let's see. Now let's shine the spotlight a bit on your own personal journey and the career transitions that you have.
So you didn't start out studying computer science, right?
Like, can you tell, tell our audience a bit about like your career trajectory and how you started out?
Yeah, no, I didn't. Growing up, I always wanted to do business and part of business that was really interesting to me was marketing, right?
It was always trying, marketing to me, it was always a thing of communication and trying to figure out how to communicate a product to somebody.
So I ended up graduating being in marketing and I was really miserable.
I was like, I cannot do this for the rest of my life.
And lucky for me, you know, I grew up around my dad who's an electrical engineer, who's also passed NASA too.
And he always kind of incepted me with computers and things when I was young.
And so it always kind of stood by me.
I was thinking in college, like maybe I should take a double major and do computer science, but like, it would make me a super senior.
So I really just, I like, you know, as Asian, I was like, I want to graduate on time.
I want to be the one who's like one year behind, you know, it's like a stupid thinking so naive at the time.
And so I graduated. And then a year later, I was like, I can't do this for the rest of my life.
I need to figure out what it is.
I think my passion is still computer science. And what was great is I chose a company, a small startup.
There was two co-founders and me grew the company afterwards.
And he, they wanted a website and just started there literally. So I ended up coding and learning myself for the next like year and a half.
And I was like, no, like my passion is here.
I literally can spend 24 hours and like not sleep over this.
I think this is it. And so my next thing was I went out and to search, how do I get a degree in computer science?
I, you know, in 2008, 2009, like, like one, the recession was like so bad.
No one's going to get a job. So I was crazy for even thinking about switching careers.
And then two, like there was no boot camps.
Like there's no such thing as boot camps. Pre-boot camp era. Yeah. Pre -boot camp era.
So it was just like nuts. I think everyone looked at me like, what are you doing?
You have a job. Like that was very surprising, even when you graduated.
And I just was so passionate about it and I just needed to get it done. So I went to go search.
And the first thing I wanted to do was a four-year credit school, right?
And just get another bachelor's degree, because I think that would be the best degree to get so far.
Unfortunately, a lot of four-year colleges won't let you back in because they want to give preference to the people who don't have a degree, don't have, totally makes sense, right?
So like, why would you give another degree to someone else?
Just like, obviously they don't know what they're doing.
And so I knew that was a problem. So what I ended up having to do is kind of go like some weird route, pay for these classes, undergraduate classes to get the foundation I needed, and then apply to the master's.
Long, long route. Two years later, I finally got the degree.
And then I finally, or four years later, I finally got the degree and then actually started working.
I wouldn't suggest that today to anybody.
But you ended up with a master's. So I did, but like most masters are very theoretical.
So I have to say it like in terms of industry experience, it just wasn't the same.
So I was always a little bit behind. And not only that for to get past the theoretical classes, I still had to do the undergrad that matched it, even though I ended up not taking it.
So I was like double timing the work to even understand what some of those papers said.
But again, I mean, do you feel like it gave you a better foundation in any way?
Maybe. I mean, you asked me about the Google file system.
Okay, fine. I might be able to like somewhat tell you the story about it.
But like, I don't think in terms of industry experience, like doesn't help, right.
And also, it's just like, you know, some lessons learned from that is like, one, don't graduate until you think you've finished learning because they will not let you back in.
Very slim chance of getting back in if you if you do want that.
And yeah, I think don't go before you're out of getting a master's degree unless like you really feel like your job needs that and the job title that you want.
But I think we are more than okay with people who don't have degrees. So if someone is looking to transition careers today, what kind of advice would you have for them?
I think boot camps, you know, I definitely think the fastest way to do it. I don't know about doing it part time.
You know, I think it definitely is better when you can kind of like immerse yourself into it and like really learn it.
Like the back of your hand instead of spilling your time.
That would be probably my advice to go and do that.
So speaking of advice, you were speaking a little bit earlier how playing Animal Crossing would be great for any startup founder looking to learn more about retention.
Can you tell us a bit more about that? Yeah, yeah. I think it's funny because everyone kind of might look at Animal Crossing like this just new phase and things, but it's a new phase that's lasting a really long time.
I mean, it's partially probably because of quarantine, but like it's definitely it's a retention getter.
There's a retention like left and right in the game where you have come back at certain hours to like find certain things that you need to do.
It is also a game, like it's crazy because it's a game that's built for a year long play, right?
But even with that year long play, they also have built in retention for daily purposes.
And then with even those days, they built retention in per hour.
So they've really thought this through. I think it's an amazing game.
And for me as a founder, retention is important, right? I think lessons learned from what we've launched is like user acquisition at the end of the day is like very easy.
You could easily throw money at it. You could just advertise into different spots that you know where your users are at.
But I think to have your app being sticky is a whole nother ballgame.
And it's definitely like after the day one of launch, you really have to start working about that.
And I think retention and stickiness is where you're going to find product market pitch.
Cool. Let's take a little bit deeper into that. Can you tell us a little like how do you learn what is sticky and what isn't in terms of like features or what to launch?
Is it just through experimentation or what? Yeah. I mean, it's different for each company and how you want to go about looking at it.
But the way that we look at it is we read out, we basically look at cohorts of people who register on a day and then how long they stick around for a daily process.
I think there are some companies that may do retention where they include new users every day.
And so that it kind of builds into like a retention metric over time. But we like to do it so that we're not like faking ourselves out in the sense of we just really want to see if our users are sticking around from day one to day 80.
And so we follow cohorts. We basically take the people registered on this day. On that day, have they played a sound within our app and then follow them all the way through and just see how many people will drop off.
And so as we do know that, we know exactly like what day they may fall off and then we run experiments on those days.
That's like one way to do it. Another way we've done it is gamers love like challenges and things.
And so another thing that we've built into our app, it's very community based.
Gaming is like all about community. And so that was one thing that we learned early on.
And we built a status called Hamchamps, right? And Hamchamps, we built them certain features so they could test basically if they want to become a Hamchamp for these certain features we knew.
Can you define Hamchat real quick?
Oh yeah. Okay. So our app is called Hamel. So like it was just kind of funny to just call it Hamchamp.
We have like a whole bunch of names around ham. And this status is called Hamchamps.
And basically you're a Hamel user and you're playing kind of with one wheel.
But I think if you are a sticky user or someone who like really loves the app, you're going to want multiple wheels.
You're going to want probably things like where you can upload your own sounds and only use your sounds.
And so with Hamchamp status, you're able to do all of that. We give you those features.
And what we do is we put a banner within the app on a certain day, because that's the day where we're like trying to see if they'll come back and build retention in.
And I think that's it. I mean, I think that's the full explanation of it.
So that's like one trial that we like figured out how to make our retention numbers go up.
I wouldn't say as much as we apply the lessons from Instagram for like the things that we're choosing to build in the future or like how we decided to build this product.
I think a lot of the things we learned from Instagram are like a lot around product.
Build product right and also listen to your users and figure out what features you need to build for them as well.
So I wouldn't say, I would say like retention and all those metrics, not as much.
I think at the time when we were there, it was just like, it was, I don't know, you can pull some things from it, but like it's hard to deduce exactly what it is, you know, during that time.
Yeah, but I think more of our product skills come into play into this company.
Where does the name Hamel come from?
Yeah, that's a great question. Hamel, it actually started with my conversations with the founders of what we felt like the product was going to be.
It was a, we wanted to use voice actors or people who like wanted to share their voice with gamers, right, and help lend it to them so that they would have a voice.
One of the famous people, voice actors who have, or actors who've gone to voice acting in gaming is Mark Hamill.
Mark Hamill is Luke Skywalker, right?
Now, you know, he then went to gaming and he's like the voice of, or no, he was the voice of Joker, but also like a lot of bad characters and stuff.
So, we looked at Hamel and we just started doing some weird spellings about it, and then we realized that Hamel with a U was a five-letter domain, which is what we wanted, a five-letter domain, and it worked out.
So, we got dot-com for that. Nice.
It's also a plan for ham radio. So, yeah, to send signals. So, it's like, that's exactly what we did.
Oh, that makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. So, let's see. So, what's next for the company?
Like, what's in the future after the sound wheel? Yeah. We are actually in the midst of trying to figure that out.
We are building larger, I think, before we probably want to fundraise.
We'll probably fundraise somewhere at the end of the year or next year.
And so, we're working on towards trying to build that product out and going to raise.
We've always envisioned the sound wheel to be like, it's sort of like a smaller feature in some sense.
Like, the sound wheel could go very well with Discord.
It could go well with a lot of other bigger platforms.
So, I think our vision for what we want to build in the next couple months is more of a platform where we can have a lot of these features sitting on top.
What is that going to look like? I actually don't know. We haven't really figured that one out yet.
We're doing a lot of prototyping, I would say, and we like to always prototype and then feel it.
And if we feel it and we believe it, then we're just like shooting forward.
So, I don't quite have an answer, but we're looking at a bigger product to house all the features that we plan to build out.
So, Hubble is free to use, right? How do you make money or eventually plan to make money?
That's a good question. That goes to question every day. But yeah, we're free to use.
We plan to be free to use for a while until we decide one of two things.
Where it's like, one, if we decide that we want to start collecting data of like, will people pay for certain parts of our app or the utility of our app?
And what was the second one that was popping into my head? Or two, when we have just found product market fit.
I think when found product market fit, it might just be an easier play of like thinking about money versus just thinking about money first and then maybe find product market fit afterwards.
There's two ways.
I wouldn't say each. Like, however people want to do it, there's not a wrong way.
I think in games, it's better to probably figure out if people will pay for it upfront because games have a very short lifespan.
And also paying probably helps out your retention a little bit more in terms of games.
Where we sit kind of in a weird middle ground where it's not, we're not a game studio, but we are a tool that works with games.
Yeah, I mean, I remember back in the day when people used to like pay for ringtones.
Yeah. Right? Like, I can totally imagine people paying for like, or like a creator making special like new sounds and letting other people borrow their sounds or buy them like ringtones or something.
Yeah. One of the things that were an early idea, you know, we've had so many crazy like early experiments and ideas.
One of them was like, oh man, what if we built like this version of Cameo for sound clips, right?
Like, ask and request a certain custom sound and then use it in the game, right?
I mean, it's kind of crazy to have to like build out the entire plugin, but that was like one of the ideas.
But I think there's definitely different ways of thinking about monetization, which is like, what you're talking about, like micropayments, right?
Can we last and sustain that?
We don't know yet. Like, we just want to understand our users first and understand the data that's there.
And, you know, there's other ways to do it where it's like pay for utility, right?
So will they pay for extra features that we built worth multiple wheels?
Like, will they pay more for that? I have no idea.
But those are things we're thinking about. And it helps us when we do experiments like the ham champ status that helps answer that question a little bit.
Hey, people pay for hats in TF2.
I mean, I would probably be as likely to personally, on a personal level, I think I would be as likely to buy a hat in TF2 as like, man, the voice actor who plays McCree, I forgot his name in real life.
But like, there was a time when he was playing with a bunch of people playing actually playing Overwatch.
And in voice chat, he was like, he was doing the it's high noon.
This is like freaked out his teammates.
Yeah, I mean, you know, I would spend a lot of money on crazy things too, you know, I mean, after starting this company, I play a lot of Dota and, you know, and I'm not that great but I will spend a lot of money on skins because it's just so much fun.
And then on top of that, showing them off to your friends as you're playing, and like the different powers and like things that the skin does differently, you know, so yeah, yeah, there's definitely ways to do it.
And so I don't think for us as a company, we're not super concerned yet.
Yeah, I think, I mean, like, at some point, you'll get there.
Yeah, yeah. Is there anything about like user stats that you would like to share, like how many users you currently have, or anything like that?
I think the one thing that I can share that I'm comfortable sharing is, we have, oh, I think I ran the query a few days ago, it's probably so different now.
But like, we have, you know, over 20 million sounds played in that day, we're only out for like, you know, three months.
And I think that kind of shows and I hope this like, helps other understand, like, you know, even though it kind of seems like a feature and like something that small, but all you need is a wedge to start off your company and build from there and get data submission by users.
And so I think that's pretty big, confident.
I think a lot of people are like, what are you building? It's you can tell there's a very like strong use case, you know, I think it also goes to our background where it's like, you know, like, we came up with all these things at Instagram, like who knew, like rewinding a video back and forth, like a boomerang that would like hit, hit, you know, and like really kill retention, like not kill, but like make retention go up really fast, or like hyperlapse or layouts, like, I can tell you, that's kind of like what we've been built to do and what we believe in, as our past tells us, so it's possible.
Let's see, a couple of things before we go to audience questions.
Are there, is there any pop culture art recommendation that you would have for the audience?
It could be books, movies, video games, TV shows, or any medium.
Hmm, I mean, I would probably have said Animal Crossing for this question.
But I think if I had to think of something else, that's just like in the last week or so, that I could think of is the show Upload.
Have you seen that? I haven't. Yeah. Tell me about it. Upload, it's about before, like you can choose before you die to be uploaded to the cloud, cloud of some sort, and then basically they'll re-put you together as a human, and so you could live there, and so your family could still visit you in your afterlife.
It's super interesting. It's so cute the way that they built all these things about the afterlife, and kind of even built how technology would work into this on a very creative, like creative way.
And yeah, I'd recommend anybody who wants to think like more outside the box, that's like one of the ways, I think.
Is it available to stream?
It's free on Amazon Prime, I think. Yeah. It reminds me of one Black Mirror episode.
Yes, I think I know you're talking about, it's like Sandfin or something like that.
Yeah, yeah. Yes, it's definitely like that, but this is like a full season worth of things, and so you could just see all the creativity that goes into this show.
I just love it. And really fleshing out all of the possibilities that stem from one technology.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's funny because growing up with like my dad who worked at NASA, like you know, nothing's impossible to me, so it's just so cool like to really like let your mind dream about things like that.
So tell me about your family's reaction when you decided to start a company.
I think they were super supportive. I think you'd probably should ask me is like when their reaction when I decided to quit my job in 2008 and decided to switch careers.
Yeah, actually, I would love to ask that too. They were probably like, what the hell are you doing?
You know, but like, you know, it's crazy because back then it's like I was getting paid like $20,000 a year coming out of college, and it's just something crazy to me.
All the salaries are for software engineers, and yeah, I think it's just nuts, nuts.
I mean, also at the time, there's a lot of a lot of companies who would interview me, and if they did, they would pigeonhole me into other other things like, oh, maybe you could be like a designer, or maybe you could be like, because you have like the coding plus the marketing, you know.
And so it was really, really difficult.
But yeah, yeah. So the reaction was probably a little bit more like, what are you doing?
When the economy is stable. Do you feel like their reaction, their support of this a second time is predicated on their surprise the first time?
Probably. Yeah, 100%. Yeah, definitely. They were like, yep, that makes sense.
Like, you know, you've made good transition choices before.
You know, we think you got this.
Yeah. Cool. Well, we have just one minute remaining. Anything else you want to share with the audience before we sign off?
No, no, I think that's about it.
All right, and we are done streaming. Cool. Thank you for coming on the show.
Thank you. Bye. Bye.