April 27, 2012

Bryan Pelz — Serial Internet Entrepreneur

Bryan Pelz

“Dog fooding is what everyone should do before they unleash their app to the public, use it, eat your own dog food. It’s the product that you’re creating.”

Bryan Pelz, Founder and CEO, Klamr.to

Last week I visited Bryan Pelz in the hip Saigon office of Klamr.to, his new mobile app startup.

Originally from Santa Cruz, California, Bryan has spent his career launching successful tech startups around the world. Fifteen years ago Bryan co-founded Nomad.fr, which for a time became the number one web-portal in France before being acquired by an Italian tech firm. Next was search technology firm Fetch Technologies in California.

In 2001 Bryan was lured to Vietnam where his passion for gaming led to the co-founding of Vinagame in 2004. Now VNG Corporation is the largest online games provider, web portal and social network operator in Vietnam.  Klamr.to, Bryan’s fourth startup, is based in central Saigon with a staff of thirty Vietnamese and expatriates. Bryan lives in Saigon with his wife and a well-behaved twelve-year-old dog, a Labrador Retriever cross.

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @bryanpelz.  Help me to thank Bryan for a great interview — click here to send a thank you tweet!

Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Harvey. I’m here today with Bryan Pelz. Bryan is a
serial online entrepreneur. He started several companies, one in France,
one in California, and now he has a new company that he started in Vietnam
called Klamr. Hi, Bryan.

Bryan: Hey Chris, how’s it going?


Chris: Good, so can you tell us a little bit about Klamr, your new company?


Bryan: Yeah, Klamr is a mobile, social local app, so basically it is a tool
that you can use to invite your friends and meet up with your friends and
make arrangements. We helped solve the problem of you SMS’ing the same darned
people, same people again and again and again, going to
the same places again and again and again, and what we do is, we leverage
all the information that’s out there that your friends are sharing with you
on platforms like Foursquare, Facebook and Google. We leverage all of that
stuff and we use that to provide you with a tool that provides you with
more meaningful, real world, physical world experiences.


What we do is, for example, you just pick up the app and you say, “OK, I
want to breakfast, lunch, dinner, movie,” and then based on the patterns of
your friends and where they check in or anything that’s really geo tagged
that’s out there, that they’re sharing on Twitter or on Google, we try to
figure out kind of where you hang out, where your friends hang out. We
think that that’s a really good predictor of where you’re actually going to
want to go out. We also try to make sure that our app is super customized
so that we are constantly adapting ourselves to your behavior and what
we’re learning about you online, but it really is about providing a
platform for better, physical world experiences.

Chris: Got it, so to help our listeners understand more clearly, could you
tell maybe, a story about someone using the application and how they can
hook up with their friends?

Bryan: Yeah, yeah, so like for example, I was in San Francisco for GDC,
Game Developers Conference, a couple of months ago, and so I used the app
and basically I just went in and I said, “OK, I want to do a party tonight
with a group of about five or six people that I normally hang out with.”

Chris: So, you specified the people?

Bryan: Yeah, well actually I basically just said I want to do a night on
the town and then actually, because a lot of these people are connected to
me on Foursquare, the app knew that they were actually in town even though
these people are normally scattered around the world, and I picked them
out. It also had the people that I normally hang out with when I’m in San
Francisco, and I picked them out and then I basically said, it asked me
where I wanted to go, and it knows where I check in on different services.
It knows where my friends check in also and based on that, I was able to
kind of very easily have this multiple choice menu of interesting places to
go and hang out with people who happen to be in town right now, for
example, and then I sent them an invite.

Chris: OK.

Bryan: I titled it, sent them a description, sent them an invite, and then
it went out to them, and then they each got an email, and then they could
click on the link or actually they could click on yes, no, maybe, and it
goes to our app. They don’t have to be a member to be able to interact with
that invite. They basically just can show up to that URL, say yes, see the
comments that people are sharing with them regarding that event, and
everyone showed up.

This one guy actually, interestingly, liked it and he liked the fact that
when he would do a comment, that other people would receive an email as
well, an email update saying people have added more comments, so he wanted
to invite the same group to a different thing the next night and so he just
typed all the stuff in, so he kind of hacked our app that way, but it’s fun
to see people using it. We’ve been dog fooding it ourselves for the last
two months now.

Chris: I’m sorry, Bryan. You said dog fooding, which is a Silicon Valley
term. Can you just explain for our listeners?

Bryan: Yeah, dog fooding is what everyone should do before they unleash
their app to the public, use it, eat your own dog food. It’s the product
that you’re creating.

Chris: If you don’t eat your own dog food, how can you expect others to?

Bryan: Exactly. You need to know how it tastes, and so what we do is
everyone in our company has been using it for a number of months now, and
we’re still continuing to dog food it. We will continue until we get
everything right. It’s a pretty big, pretty complicated app. It’s
complicated to us, but our goal is it will be super simple for our users
and super convenient and add a lot of value to their day to day lives.

Chris: So, this is kind of like an invitation, an event organizing
application that knows where my friends like to go…

Bryan: Yep.

Chris: …knows where my friends are…

Bryan: Yep.

Chris: …and then helps me, because it takes advantage of that knowledge,
and then helps me create things that are appealing for everybody.

Bryan: Exactly. It helps you to be a more considerate host and helps you
stay organized and like, I haven’t hung out with these people for awhile,
where there’s all sorts of things that we have on our product road map that
will be real exciting, but our goal is to just nail this problem because
right now, frankly, if you’re on your mobile device, it’s hard to do. The
only way you’re going to do this is the SMS and that limits you. You’re not
really picking new places, you’re not really aware of all the information
your friends are sharing with you. It’s kind of ridiculous to me that
nobody’s done this yet, so we’re going to try to nail this problem and if
you think about it this way, Yelp, which is a great service in the U.S. or
globally now almost, they are like Google in this space. They are all about
information, but they don’t really know that much about me or my friends,
and I think that that’s a better predictor of where we’re going to want to
go out than just all of this stuff like, “I want to go to the best

No, not necessarily, you’re probably going to want to go where your friends
are actually already going, and maybe they’re going to different places
than you’re going. So, it’s definitely a different kind of approach. We’re
kind of more like Facebook in this same kind of space and that’s our
aspiration, at least.

Chris: That sounds really exciting. Can I download this app today?

Bryan: You can, but you can’t use it because it’s on a white list only
basis until we get it to the point where we’re really super happy with it,
and then we’re just going to slowly release it.

Chris: Got it. I did sign up for the Beta.

Bryan: You might be on the list. We might actually share that with you. I
can’t tell you when though.

Chris: If our listeners would like to check it out, or sign up for the
Beta, where do they go?

Bryan: www.klamr.to.

Chris: So that’s K-L-A-M-R.to.

Bryan: Correct.

Chris: Got it. OK, well, that’s really exciting, Bryan.

Bryan: Oh, thank you, thank you very much.

Chris: So my next question is, I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon
Valley. In fact, you’re from California…

Bryan: Right.

Chris: …but you decided to start the company here in Vietnam?

Bryan: Yeah, my wife and I really enjoy living in Vietnam. We’ve been here
for a number of years and it’s great. The quality of life is great, we
enjoy it here. There are some challenges because not a lot of companies, or
actually almost no companies in Vietnam have experience developing products
for the global market, especially online products for the global market.

You go to a place like Silicon Valley, everyone everywhere is doing that,
and there’s a lot of super experienced developers who have done multiple
products and it’s much easier to find people, but we enjoy living here, and
I felt like I really wanted to take on the challenge of creating a company
that can do great products for the global market but from Vietnam.

Chris: Wow.

Bryan: My solution is to have somewhat of a hybrid model where I have a few
employees in the U.S., but the bulk of my staff are here. That’s where we
are right now, and the model is constantly evolving.

Chris: Oh, and I forgot to mention that you’re one of the co-founders of
VinaGame here in Vietnam in 2004 or 5?

Bryan: Yeah, many years ago, yeah. I was an entrepreneur in residence at
IDG Ventures, and we were looking at the online game space. I had the
privilege of helping to start that company and helping to run it for
awhile. I enjoyed it, it was an amazing experience, and quite a wild ride.

Chris: That’s one of the most successful, perhaps the most successful,
Internet company in Vietnam.

Bryan: Yeah, I think it’s probably more like the Tencent, for those who are
aware of China, it’s like the Tencent of Vietnam. It’s number one in
oneline games, number one web portal and number one social network for the
time being. It’s always a competitive, fast changing environment, the
Internet is.

Chris: Sure.

Bryan: But it’s a great company, and I feel like one of the proud parents.

Chris: OK, well great. Well, it’s great to have you here in Vietnam, Bryan,
and hear about all of your exciting ventures.

Bryan: Thank you very much.

Chris: Let’s switch gears a little bit. So, I like to ask all of the
interviewees some of the same questions and one of them is, what was your
first job and what did you learn from it?

Bryan: My first job was in the late 1970s at Greenacres True Value
Hardware Store in Bakersfield, California, and my job for the summer
consisted of, it was a very simple job, it involved two shovels full of
sand, one shovelful of steer manure, and putting that into a cement mixer
during the summer, basically making potting soil. So, I know a lot about

Bryan: It was hard work, it was really hard work and physical work, but I
saved my money and I bought my first computer in 1979, an Apple II, the
first model that came out.

Chris: Now, that was the computer you bought from the money you earned,
creating, using cow manure to create potting soil?

Bryan: Exactly, there you go. So you could leverage almost anything into
something else.

Chris: That’s the lesson.

Bryan: Yes.

Chris: So, it wasn’t the most attractive job, but you used it and that
ignited your passion for computing.

Bryan: Yep, changed my life.

Chris: Wow, great story. Who gave you the best business advice?

Bryan: Best business advice, I would have to say was from a good friend of mine in
Vietnam. She runs a number of companies here, and she was sort of my mentor
when I first came to Vietnam and still is somebody I respect deeply. I
wouldn’t say so much that it was advice, so much as just observing what she
was doing, and I realized that the best things are quiet things. Unless you
really have a business reason to communicate or trumpet something, don’t do
it, be very careful. When people ask me, “Bryan, when’s your app going to
be out,” or, “Bryan, what’s going on,” I really like to keep it low key
until we have something that we’re ready to trot out, and then I hope that
the first thing is that the users really enjoy it and that we deliver value
to them, and then I hope to field telephone calls, I don’t have to make
telephone calls.

Chris: I see, so in other words, the lesson was action is better than talk.

Bryan: Yeah, sure, actions speak louder than words. There are all sorts of
ways of putting it.  I’ve encountered a lot of
people who talk a lot and I would say it’s sort of better to act and do,
demonstrate by your actions first.

Chris: Got it.

Bryan: That goes for anywhere in the world really.

Chris: Sure, I understand that you’ve created a special culture here at
Klamr. Could you describe that culture a little bit and what’s important to
you as a leader?

Bryan: Yeah, well, first of all it’s an international company. It’s
actually a Singapore based company. We have an office in Ho Chi Minh City,
and we have an office in San Francisco, and I split my time between all
three locations. It’s an international company, we all have to work
together despite cultural differences, despite cultural misunderstandings,
we have to work together. I think we try to hire people, since we’re trying
to do a new kind of product and we try to have a strong product oriented
development culture, and as a result, we try to only hire people who are
very smart, very passionate about what they do.

Chris: Passionate?

Bryan: Yes, people who are self-motivated and are willing to self-manage as
much as possible. In other words, passionate adults who really are pretty
mature, and I think we’ve done that. I think that as a result, we have
lower management overhead. When you’re doing a product, you need to do
quick iterations. You need to have people who are very focused and people
who treat each other with respect. These are all different aspects of what
we try to do here, and we try to have a lot of fun.

Chris: Yeah, when I walked into your office this morning, which is where we
are now, I felt like I was stepping into Silicon Valley somewhere.

Bryan: That’s also where I am, we try to make sure the environment is good.
Most people have MacBooks, we have a different kind of feeling here inside
the office. We have two floors in this one building and there’s not a
single florescent light.

Chris: I noticed that. It’s all incandescent.

Bryan: It’s all incandescent, we have some LEDs as well, but we just try to
do things differently. We’ve got some crazy aspects to our office, but I’ll
have to give you a tour later on.

Chris: Sure, great, thank you. What’s one thing you wish every new hire
knew before they joined Klamr?

Bryan: Oh wow, there’s so many things that I wish everybody knew.

Chris: What’s one big one?

Bryan: That’s a difficult question because we have a broad range of people
in the company. We’re trying to look for people who have a passion for
developing great products that nail problems for people and deliver value
to them, and that’s sometimes hard to find because a lot of people just
want to have an interesting job and we certainly provide that, but
ultimately the people who really excel are the people who are really
engaged and use the app, for example, continuously. Every week, I have an
all hands meeting.

Chris: Every week?

Bryan: Every week and I pick the top people based on the stats that I have,
which I do myself. I pick the top people and I bring them up and ask them
questions about how they’re using it, how they’re using the app. The people
who use it the most tend to perform the best, and there’s certainly a
correlation there. I think having just that passion about what we’re doing
and a passion about delivering real value to users is really, really
important, not just about having an interesting job or doing something

Chris: Bryan, I’m hearing the word “passion” a lot.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. I’ll bet that if you talked to my co-founder at VNG, he
would also use that same verb continuously.

Chris: He did.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah.

Chris: OK, what’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a manager?

Bryan: A pivot.

Chris: What do you mean, pivot?

Bryan: So, we were trying to build a company and build a product at the
same time, and when you do that, both are high risk endeavors. We do that
with a mixture of people from different countries, even higher risk when
you do that. People over here developing a product for people over there,
even higher risk, and so we were doing this. We did kind of wander through
the desert for a little while, and we decided that the app that we were in
the process of building was not going to lead the market. It was actually
going to follow a little bit behind where the market was evolving, so we
realized that and all of a sudden, we had put a lot of energy and effort
and thought of doing that and we had to change, and we had to throw away
most everything that we were doing.

Chris: I bet that was painful.

Bryan: Yeah, it was painful, it was painful, but it was definitely the
right decision to do, but the thing I was, of course, concerned about is
when you have a lot of people who just love the goal, love our target, love
what we’re doing, and then you say to them, “You know what, this is just
not going to work anymore, we need to change what we’re going to be doing,”
and then sort of refocus people’s energies on something new, then that’s a

Chris: I bet a lot of your team were really disappointed when they poured
their hearts and energies into creating a product for many, many months,
almost a year.

Bryan: Yep, it was almost, maybe nine months on that one, yeah.

Chris: So, how did you manage that? How did you manage getting people
to…naturally people would be a little bit discouraged, so how did you
keep their excitement up and keep their motivation up?

Bryan: Well, it was really a step by step process just talking about how,
obviously orienting about our update on where the market is now and where
we are, so obviously we see there’s a problem. Secondly, we go and see that
we can do something that’s more interesting, that’ll be more applicable,
that’ll have a much higher chance of success, and something that’s also
really, really super exciting, and then we could leverage our experience,
and to some extent actually leverage some of the existing code that we
have, but it’s necessary, and I think it’s really important for people to
understand that. You have a company; you’ve got to give users what they

Chris: Yes. So, I imagine you communicated clearly to your people and were
transparent about it. I found that that’s extremely important. When people
understand what’s going on, they accept these things.

Bryan: Yeah, I really like people that have a deep sense of honesty and
commitment to transparency, and that’s really, really important for a
company like this because you can’t expect to develop a culture where
people are passionate about your product if you are not also simultaneously
transparent with them, because passion and transparency, you must have
transparency to have authentic passion from people.

Chris: Yeah, and I’ve found transparency builds trust as well, a lot. OK,
last question, Bryan.

Bryan: Yeah, sure.

Chris: Do you have a favorite business book?

Bryan: Do I have a favorite business book? Interesting, I do read a lot. It
tends to be blogs.

Chris: Do you have a favorite blog?

Bryan: You know, it’s hard for me to pick out a favorite one. Let me just
say that I have a sort of category that I’ve been looking at a lot. I do
read a lot of stuff on like, brain function, on how the brain works,
hacking your brain, for example, things like that, but then I guess it’s
very Valley of me, Silicon Valley of me. I’m really interested in behavioral
economics as well. A lot of models that we have used to predict human
behavior in the past simply don’t work to the extent that we thought that
they should work, and now there’s some really smart people who are looking
at… Well, there’s one great book called “Predictably Irrational“.

Chris: “Predictably Irrational?”

Bryan: Yes.

Chris: Human beings are irrational, not rational.

Bryan: Well, I mean we aspire to be as rational as we possibly can, but the
fact is, we operate on wetware. We don’t just have software and hardware,
we’ve got wetware and wetware is messy, and people are inherently messy as
well, but much more lovely than computers are at the same time. So, I think
that we just have to realize that people function well doing certain
things. They don’t function well doing other things, and I love that kind
of stuff. I also love books like, Ray Kurzweil has written a lot of really
interesting things, “The Singularity is Near“, and I think that frames a
lot of things for me, puts a big kind of meta context on everything.

Chris: So if I may, it sounds like, Bryan, you’re really interested in
understanding how we as human beings make decisions…

Bryan: Yes.

Chris: …and how we work inside our heads.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah, because also if you’re trying to create value for
people, you have to understand a lot about them, and I think that you also
have to understand, not only technology, but really the user themselves,
and the fact is the online world is changing everything about…

Chris: It’s changing faster all the time.

Bryan: And the pace of change is increasing, and I think that we have to
take that into consideration whenever we’re building a business, when we’re
looking at an opportunity. I was chatting with somebody a couple of months
ago who created a very big company in the 1980s, went public, but his
timing was off about ten years. He was trying to do something that really
could have been done ten years later, and he and I were chatting and my
observation to him was like, it’s impossible to be ten years off anymore.
You can maybe be three to five years off, but you can’t be ten years off
because the pace of change is so fast now, which is really exciting because
I can mess up. I can even mess up on this startup and still survive, and
this company can still be successful.

Chris: Even if you’re not successful, you’d be learning lessons from that.

Bryan: Oh sure, yeah, but we’ll be successful.

Chris: OK, great. Well, Bryan, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you

Bryan: Thank you. A pleasure chatting with you.

Chris: Thank you for your time.

Bryan: Thank you, Chris.