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Bull Session

Nanxi Liu: Starting a Tech Company in Your Twenties

October 14, 2015
Enplug CEO Nanxi Liu showcases proprietary device for digital signage
Enplug CEO Nanxi Liu showcases proprietary device for digital signage

Nanxi Liu is Co-Founder and CEO of Enplug, a technology company that builds software for displays in stadiums, hotels, malls, banks, restaurants, and offices. Enplug now has offices in five continents and Liu was recently named among the prestigious Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 list. Enplug is now expanding as a platform where other companies can develop and monetize apps with custom business solutions.

How are you rethinking the role of digital signage in society and in our lives?

We want Enplug, and the network Enplug powers to be the fastest way that anyone shares relevant information into the physical world. Right now we all receive information on our personal devices, but when we go into public, there isn't somewhere that people can share information easily. We want to basically completely change how we think about social interaction, and how we can be the fastest and most efficient way for people to share information into the physical world.

The next part of it is that we want to build an ecosystem around Enplug. This means that any kind of content that you see on a display should be relevant to you, and should be curated, should be smart and automated. It should allow businesses to actually build businesses on top of our platform, and we have that. Now companies are building apps on our platform, and they're monetizing apps using Enplug. Being able to fuel new kinds of businesses is exciting.

CEO Nanxi Liu with screens displaying customized Enplug content feeds
Liu with screens displaying customized Enplug feeds
"We want Enplug, and the network Enplug powers to be the fastest way that anyone shares relevant information into the physical world"

In a crowded tech landscape, what does it take for a company to have staying power?

Staying uncomfortable - I emphasize this to our team all the time, that the moment that you get complacent is the moment that someone is going to overtake you in the market. We are also pushing ourselves to look at our competition, and make sure that we're better in every single way, because that's the only way that we can keep our customers. If you don't build a better product then you're relying on sales tactics; but you really want the product to sell itself. I think that's how the best products have been able to succeed. You look at Apple, their product really just sells itself. I mean they don't have sales reps calling up folks, they have the best product. That's our mentality at Enplug. Yes we have a sales team, but we make it really easy for them to sell because our product is the best.

I think it's a balance of knowing when to celebrate and still reminding people that we're still a startup, that we're still scrappy and we can't get too comfortable. For example, at the end of August, we had the best sales month that we've ever had - beating our record month after month for the past year, without adding additional sales reps. There was additional sales growth without having to grow headcount, which is called scaling and efficiency, which we love. One of our sales team mates came up to me and said "This is incredible, we need to celebrate." And in my mind I was like was "No. I expect this to happen every single month." And he said, "But this is really great." And I said, "Yeah, we should celebrate! We should actually acknowledge it." So we all got together and I pointed out some of the teammates that really made that happen, our MVPs.

You currently live in a house with your co-workers. How do you separate work and private life?

I currently work with two of my sorority sisters. One is our web designer, and the other is our Head of HR and Culture. I was part of a sorority since I was a freshman. We called it a sisterhood and we all lived together and it's communal, so I definitely brought some of those ideas into Enplug. Since we live together, it affects how we think about doing activities, how we treat each other. It's not just as friendship or as colleagues; it's as family - which means you hold each other to higher standards. I think I hold my family to the highest standard of anyone. We very much have that culture at Enplug.

I grew up with Chinese parents and they were always like, "You only got an A? What about the A+?" With Enplug, we often have to remind ourselves, "Wow. We've done some great things." Because we're always saying, "It's not good enough. We've gotta do more. You can do more." So there is that pressure; but you know what, I think it's good—because it's the best way to learn. I loved this quote by one of our engineers. He said during his time at Enplug he learned that, "It doesn't get easier. You get better." And I loved that. I think that perfectly describes what happens when you build a company. The market dynamics don't get easier. It doesn't get easier to sell to customers, but you gain the skills and experiences that make you do better.

"The market dynamics don't get easier. It doesn't get easier to sell to customers, but you gain the skills and experiences that make you do better."
Enplug CEO Nanxi Liu with Gabriela Hanna in Culver City HQ
Liu with Enplug web-designer and former sorority sister Gabriela Hanna at Culver City headquarters

How have you expanded to work with different industries?

When Enplug started, our service was mostly used inside of restaurants and cafes. It was showing people tweeting about the food they had, posting Instagram photos of their favorite dessert, sharing positive Yelp reviews. Then hotels started picking it up because they said, "Oh, this is totally relevant! We want people to share photos of themselves in our hotels. But it's also relevant inside of companies, so one of our fastest growing sectors is inside of corporate offices. We have companies ranging from GAP to NBCUniversal that use our software for internal communication. We get really excited when we're used inside of stadiums. We've been used inside of Dodger Stadium and Staples Center. We're used in amphitheaters.

At first it was very organic. One of our goals was to be the software that powers every display. But we also had to be aware that we need to build something that's valuable for all these different industries. The tools that we built were designed to be extraordinarily easy for any IT team to integrate it with their existing systems. Because of that, and because the set of apps that we've built applied to a lot of different industries, the growth happened organically. Now we do very targeted apps that are specific to industries, but in the beginning it was accidental. Someone who owned a hotel would walk into a restaurant and see our software being used and say, "Hey, I want to use that too."

We had somebody who saw us used at the airport and then they said, "We want it inside of our high school." Now we're inside of a high school inside of Alaska. We have a number of universities that use our software, Northwestern, Dartmouth and USC and Freemont College here in LA.

Where do you draw inspiration outside of tech?

I would say there's a couple of different places - one is music. Every single day after work, I find myself playing piano, cello or violin, and it's this meditation that I have. I can't actually sit still and meditate, so I turn to music. Secondly, I do lots of sports with my teammates who are very athletic. My co-founder Alex goes for these runs on weekends where he wears this 25 pound lead vest, while running up hill. There's quite a number of athletes here. Third, would be getting involved in nonprofit work. By getting involved in other organizations, you learn so much about how they operate, how they think about numbers; and I think that always somehow applies to your business because then you can think about things in a new way.

I just got asked to be Chairwoman of the Tiger Scholarship Foundation, and in the process of working with students, thinking about raising funds for a nonprofit and how they operate, I've drawn on some business strategies that we've employed at Enplug. For example, many nonprofits ask for donations once, but I suggested we can ask for recurring donations based on our subscription model here at Enplug. Then similarly, I'm learning so much about the process of getting people to go to a fundraising event, and response rates when you send out newsletters. How many people respond? How many people actually click? That's really fascinating.

CEO Nanxi Liu talking with Enplug team member at Culver City headquarters
Liu and teammate at Enplug headquarters

Can you share a bit about your personal philosophy about possibility?

I literally think that anything that you want to build is possible. It's about getting together the right time and getting people that are smarter than you to work with you. Everything that I've built, it wasn't that I came up with the idea, it was actually that I found experts who have done something similar and we put our heads together and said, "Let's just build it."

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