Justin Fong of Hue AI
Want to know what it is really like to start a company? In our Founder Spotlight series we have candid conversations with real founders about the good, bad and ugly of getting your hands dirty and building a business.
Meet Justin Fong of Hue AI. Hue AI is taking the same Artificial Intelligence that is transforming industries like space exploration, robotics, and medical science into the optical industry. We had the opportunity to speak with their founder, Justin Fong, to learn more about his journey, the science behind color, and why an eyewear monopoly keeps him up at night. Learn more about Hue AI, their team and their incredible products.
What’s your story? How did you get here?
My cofounder and I were working at a consulting firm in Boston and we became good friends. We could have conversations about anything – politics, economics, history, the Red Sox. We remained friends and then one day he said, Justin, I think I can use computers to fix color blindness. Next thing I know we are starting a company, building prototype lenses, testing them on colorblind people and learning that it works. Eventually there was enough interest from the vision care industry that we took the plunge and decided to work on our startup full time.
People see color in many different ways and we focused on that use case first, but it’s a broader fascination. We took a lot of science from industries sensitive to color like the cosmetics industry and the television industry. We then mixed and matched the science with software and became experts in lenses and optics.
Our main product is called Color Boosts. It upgrades the color that you see through lenses and is mainly used in performance eyewear. For example, if you want to be a better fisherman, target shooter or policeman, you may use these lenses. It feels like you are looking at the world through an Instagram filter. It is similar to the evolution of TV screens in your house.
How did you fund the business?
We self-funded, took out our savings and put it to work. We then met with Johnson & Johnson vision care, the ones who make contact lenses, and they were interested in what we do.
At that point we started fundraising. I didn’t do a lot of pitches as someone who heard one of my first pitches invited me to an event the next day. Next thing I know I’m at a Princeton event, I’m not an alumni but here I am. I shared my mangled pitch and the group was very receptive. They were like, I don’t know what to make of this, but it seems like there’s something really cool there.
Then there was this guy, a former McKinsey guy and angel investor who loved optics. He took us under his wing and helped us translate what we do.
We then took our new positioning/messaging and gave the new pitch at a big night over at Princeton. It went very well. We ended up receiving the most funding ever from this organization. We also received the most number of angel investors from the Princeton group.
It was really an achievement. Back when I was a young founder it was so easy to get depressed when you speak with 10, 20, 30 people and they aren’t excited or responsive.
What keeps you up at night?
China keeps me up at night. We have factories there to make these lenses. If for some reason there is a big problem in that sector of the world, then we’d have to start all over. The other thing that keeps me up at night is the biggest player in the sunglass world, Oakley. They are owned by the largest monopoly of eyewear, which is like an evil empire. It’s strange since there are only a few real monopolies left in the world. If they wanted to squash someone, they easily could.
Do you consider yourself a risk taker? If so, how have you learned to embrace risk?
That’s a very good question. I like that. Nobody ever asked me this question. I’d say we, my partner and I, work together very well, because we fall on different sides of the spectrum on that. I’m more of a risk taker. He is much more risk averse.He is a traditionally trained engineer, and the engineer is always saying,”If we don’t build this correctly, the bridge is going to collapse and everybody’s gonna die.” Whereas I’m like, “No, let’s just build the bridge as quickly as possible.”
Did you have to pivot from your initial idea?
Yes. We were in the power industry and know a lot about the costs and regulations for various forms of power. It helped us focus on let’s do this versus that, that was our initial pivot. Later on we did another pivot once we took in a lot of investment – well for us it was a lot of investment. We started out with a licensing business model. We pursued it and learned it was a losing model. Then came COVID and our bank account was pretty low. We had a full staff and sales prospects were moving like molasses thanks to people working remotely due to COVID. We basically had to let our staff go and let our office go. We focused on doing one – two things versus ten different things. My partner and I did every job. One big shift was staying up all night to work with our factories in China and then stay awake to deal with our customers all over the world. Great problem to have, but not sustainable. We then hired a team in the Philippines which helped solve the time problem as they work on American hours. So our pivot was changing our target market from huge companies to medium size eyewear brands.
What falls into the category “ I wish I knew then what I know now”?
Figuring out the fastest path to revenue is really one of the most important things you can do as a founder. If we had used that as our North Star we wouldn’t have wasted so much time and effort trying to build cool products. I wouldn’t waste my time on long term business models – short term is key. What can we do now? That was a big lesson. The other lesson I would share is if you have a great cushy corporate job – really consider not leaving and just letting your startup dream die. Seriously. I think the amount of risk in startups is way more than people realize. There are serious risks to consider in your life, your family, your finances and more. Know your pain threshold.
Do you have any pets?
I have a dog, it’s my first dog. I love the companionship, it soaks up all the negative energy. On our walks I love getting a little sunlight too .
What are your passions and interests outside of work?
I’m a real music fan, especially of electronic dance music, not the poppy stuff. I was a musician as a child and never gave EDM a chance. Recently I opened myself up to it and I was surprised how much I like it.
What’s a common misconception about being a founder?
I think a big one is how much money you’re going to exit the company with. I think there are a few people that become wealthy but those are really small numbers.
What other advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
People will try to use your money or take your money and not give you anything in return for it. For example, I had a slew of consultants, each were charging a few and not necessarily providing value to the business. I went through 10 patent attorneys before I found one who knew the science we were working with. Over time this became a skill I had to develop – knowing what to and not to spend money on.
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