Episode 150

Emma Hong Guo ·  Growing and Navigating Offsyte During the Pandemic

“ Two years before I started the company while I was working at Lyft, I had team events regularly but nobody ever wants to plan which helped me identify the pain points for Offsyte. ”

Emma Guo is the co-founder and CEO of Offsyte (www.offsyte.co), the one-stop-shop for discovering and booking amazing team building events, anything from magic shows to boba making classes, graffiti workshops, and more. Emma received her master’s degree in Technology from Carnegie Mellon University, after graduating from Fudan University in Electrical Engineering. Before starting Offsyte, she worked as a Software Engineer then Engineering Manager at several tech companies in the SF Bay Area, most recently at Lyft where she was managing an engineering team focusing on driver quality. She launched Offsyte in 2020 with a mission of shaping the world’s transition to the future of work, and helping teams all over the world stay connected and engaged.


Social media handles:

LinkedIn: @emmahongguo

Website: offsyte.co

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Podcast Transcript

Emma Hong Guo

Intro: (00:00:00) Asian Hustle Network is proudly partnering with Lexus to host a podcast series for Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month we’ll feature leaders and creators in the community whose contributions inspire us like a startup, founder, Emma Hong Guo. Who’ll discuss startups and entrepreneurship!

Bryan: (00:00:23) Emma so excited to have you on the podcast today. Welcome!

Emma: (00:00:26) Thank you. Likewise, I’m super excited to be here.

Bryan: (00:00:29) Of course, Emma, please tell us about yourself and while we were background story, we want to hear more about that.

Emma: (00:00:36) I’m the co-founder and CEO of Offsyte with a “y” and I’ve been running the company for a little over two years, which is hard to believe before that I was at work as an engineer, then engineering for about a decade in the south bay area. that’s the quick summary before that, I grew up in China and I came to us for grad school.

Bryan: (00:01:04) That’s awesome to hear that you worked in the engineering background for 10 years. That’s good to hear because I think in some ways it does provide a basis for what you’re doing right now. I want to hear more about the structure that because sometimes I realize with my international friends, a lot of them hesitate to become entrepreneurs because of the H1B Visa and a lot of people are hesitant because essentially, you’re going to have to give that up for uncertainty.

For the possibility of building your business as high risk and possibly deportation to a foreign country. I want to hear about your side of the story, of what was the catalyst for you to make that jump.

Emma: (00:01:53)That’s interesting, for me I want to work as an engineer than as a manager. Life was good. Like I was really happy. So before Offsyte, I worked on the list for like five years and Lyft had an amazing culture. I was working with people I enjoy working with, I am even friends with, we hung out and built all these cool product features and my career was growing all that stuff.

I did not have the urge to start my own company for the sake of starting a company or being an entrepreneur. I think what ended up happening was I had an idea of Offsyte about two years before I made the jump. I got to the point where I felt like I had to do this. If I don’t do it, someone else does this and a few years, I see that happening.

I feel just so lame that I did not make that jump and just give up on my own. So that’s what might need to do that jump and it was a scary because I felt like my career was going well. Like why would I just completely choose a different path? And that was already like, you see all the stories of people starting their company when they’re like 19 or like in college. And I’m already like 10 years into being like an engineer and manager. So, it was a little scary.

Bryan: (00:03:13) Yeah, I bet. I mean, similar to you, I worked as a software engineer for about 10 years, to make that job. It’s I feel like it has to do a lot more with how you view yourself and a lot of that has to do with how your peers view you right because you know how Asian parents are, it’s like you’re highly successful. It’s when you make a lot of money. 

Emma: (00:03:38) Yeah, my parents are very supportive, so they are in China and they’re both electrical engineer backgrounds, which is also why I studied electrical engineering in college. When I mentioned hey, I think I’m going to leave my full-time job and start this company. My parents are like, yeah, go do it. You were like young, like, just go try it. We’re here to support you and my parents. I think while I’m the first question I asked was, do you need money can we support you in any way?

Bryan: (00:04:13) Your parents are so supportive. I think I told my parents that I quit to start Asian Hustle Network they did not talk to me for like six months. It was funny, I was home last week and my mom was like, so are you coming back to a corporate job soon?

Bryan: (00:04:43) It’s just the immigrant mentality, right? They’re always afraid of like high risks and again, a lot of them sacrifice a lot for us.

Emma: (00:04:52) I also feel like there’s nothing wrong with staying in a corporate job. There are a lot of Asians staying at the companies in FANG and they’re doing really.

Bryan: (00:05:03)  I have nothing against it and  I think that it’s a lot of people view entrepreneurship as this glamorous thing. Every day we work in your dreams, you travel, you meet cool people and it keeps going up and up and up. But as we know, the curve goes up and down and up and down left and right. It’s two steps forward and five steps back like. Tell us about your experience becoming an entrepreneur and kind of give our listeners like a better point of view on where it’s like, what was your day-to-day like as you’re working your job and what was the transition like? Did you quit your job, in cold Turkey to work on this? What was the thought process like?

Emma: (00:05:47) Maybe I can start by sharing a little bit more about what Offsyte does and then everything will make sense. So, I’ll say is then the platform for corporate teams.

So essentially, it’s the platform where you can go discover and easily book, any kind of team building buns, virtual ending person in the SF bay area. So, anything from a simple, like a magic show or something like a cooking class, where you got a kid that shipped to everybody before the class. And it’s all about team bonding, team, building, morale, all that stuff.

So, the idea came to me about like two years before I started the company. It was because, while I was working at Lyft and even before Lyft, every single company, I worked that had team events regularly, and this is something. Nobody ever wants to plan, but everybody wants to go because the planning process is already painful.

As you do, like you’re an engineer or manager, like you have your day job. You’re like writing code or doing all this stuff. And suddenly you need to like call like five different vendors, figuring out what’s the pricing time. That just sticks. So, I had to do that, just repeating. Over and over and over again.

And I was like, man, how come there? Isn’t like just a centralized, marketplace for this another pain point was you never want to do the same thing twice. Like we did. I remember we did a pottery-making class one time and it was like so much fun, but nobody wanted to do it again. I was looking for new things.

So, then what ended up happening is that you just Google around or you ask other teams like, oh, what did you guys do with a year? Like, they’re like, oh, we did. I was dunno, like woodworking. So, you’re oh, that’s a good idea. But this process you can see used as the super manual. So, I did, so long, so many times I’m like, okay, I have to like, stop.

Marketplace to solve this problem, but I didn’t, I was like, I’m enjoying my life as an engineer manager. Like I’m doing so well. And then I just got reminded of this issue every time we had to do this. So, at some point I just thought, okay, I have to just, I just have to do it. And I know like some people would say.

I would also recommend putting a lot of effort into your startup idea and kind of having a prototype going and everything before you leave your full-time job. But that did not apply to me, I’m the kind of person when I work on something I’m like all in. So, while I was at Lyft, I’m like all in and I didn’t have time to like put too much effort into this idea.

So that’s when I decided, okay, I’m just going to have to make the jump. I have to just do this full time, but all my effort, everything into it. And that was December 2019. So, the idea back then was to launch this marketplace, this platform for the in-person team advancing SFA or so, as you can imagine, three months into that COVID happened.

And I remember I was sitting at home thinking, man, people say, starting a company is hard. I’m trying to start an event platform for inkers and defense during COVID. Like, like that’s as hard as it gets like nobody’s gonna want to do in-person events while COVID is happening. So, yeah, so that was that and then while we quickly pivoted fast forward two years now, like we have so many customers, a lot of the big companies you’ve heard of our customers already. We have crazy reviews and everything and yeah. So, it’s being like a wild journey.

Bryan: (00:09:31) Wow I mean, that’s inspiring to hear it and that sounds pretty painful in-person event during the pandemic out of curiosity, like how did you keep your company afloat and how did you pivot during those times? Because you’re right, right. There is little demand or the government will let you all events around the world during the pandemic. Why did you keep the company afloat during that time?

Emma: (00:09:55) Our burn rate was very low. It was zero because I wasn’t drawing a salary. So, no. So, all joking aside. You know, the burn rate was obviously very low, but also, we were my co-founder and I were working on this idea, but we haven’t launched it yet.

So, in a way, I think it would have been a lot worse. If we have launched in-person events publicly, then COVID happened. So, we were about to launch it, but we haven’t gone public with it yet. What I loved about this whole experience was before COVID happened either. one to like the studios of the vendors is like, yes, we’re going to do this thing.

They’re like, this is awesome. I’m excited about your idea. Glad to be part of your beta vendor group. We were all ready, then when COVID happened. We had to pivot and they had to pivot. So, throughout this process, throughout the past two years, you see how resilient these small business owners are. Some of our vendors have never done virtual events before now.

They love virtual events. They do so well that over the past two years, they doubled their staff. They are more to handle the volume of virtual events. And then two months ago we launched in-person advancing SF bay area against. As you can imagine, all of our beta vendors are so excited that we’re bringing them back in person again. So, it just feels like a wholesome experience to go through this together.

Bryan: (00:11:25) Yeah, congratulations, it’s very awesome to hear about the power of perseverance for our listeners. If you guys don’t know what a burn rate is, a burn rate is essentially your monthly spending for your company.

I think you and I quit our jobs around the same time it started at the same time. So, it’s very relatable to what you went through a similar experience. I feel like at the time it was a lot of uncertainty.

It’s a lot of doubt right and by you’re to ask yourself the question, like, could I do this? Can I do this? And you start thinking about that, I leave with y’all too prematurely. Should I just stick it through the pandemic and was working as a whole? Could you walk us through your experience?

Emma: (00:13:09) I mean the pride that it’s not easy, right? It wasn’t easy at all. Yeah, happy to share. So, one story that comes to mind weighs one. So, we’re a two-sided marketplace to launch the product, you have to at least have supplied. In our case, the vendors will host this event. So, step one west to recruit enough beta vendors to be on the cloud before. I remember this is like the beginning of 2020, I was going to different studios and making phone calls and telling people about this idea.

There’s this one phone call it’s still just like so vivid, imprinted in my head because this vendor, so he has like a small business and we thought he would be like one on a perfectly fair platform. So I remember making the phone call to him and introducing myself and telling him about this idea that we’re going at lunch and he paused for like five seconds.

And then he said, this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard, but not in like a funny way, but like, he was just this is horrible. I’m not interested, like such a bad idea and he went on to tell me that we’re not going to do in-person events. This is a bad idea.

And then he hung up and afterward, So shitty. Sorry. Can I say that? Okay. It’s okay I just felt so bad and I think that whole day, my day was just totally ruined. I’m like, okay, maybe this is like horrible. And I just had a lot of self-doubts. I was thinking, okay, maybe the idea was just actually really bad at timing’s ready and that’s, I think the part of being like a hustler being a startup entrepreneur you just have to push through that. You can have one bad phone call to bring you down. So, the week after, I made more calls, and there were way more people that are excited about it.

Being in our beta group, then that one person was sent back. I think he was the only person who said no. So, yeah. And then, you know, as I mentioned now, like moving forward, like fast forward two years, we’re doing well. So, I look back at that phone call and thinking like, thank God I did not give up because one person told me it was a bad idea.

Bryan: (00:15:41) Thanks for sharing that story right. I think always, sometimes that negative remark is the most memorable one right. And it overtakes all the positivity that people said to you right. I think it’s really important. Entrepreneurship is just sort of quote, unquote, block this out because, at the end of the day, it’s like, they won’t understand the vision better than right. It will understand it’s better than yourself. And it’s going to take a while for people to see that it was people see that they’re going to turn around and be like, that’s a great idea right. So, I’m really happy, really happy you did give up, we so excited to hear your story on this podcast too.

Emma: (00:16:24) Thanks, and you know, it was mentioned earlier, there’s like a lot of up and downs. Like I just want to touch upon that quick and like it’s true. It’s just, that I think I’m personally, I’m still learning how to deal with all the ups and downs. You don’t want it, like when something goes, well, you don’t want to get just all excited when something goes a little bit bad.

You’re like, oh no worst thing ever. Like you want to kind of balance it. I’m, not doing a good job at that one time when something great happens. I’m like jumping out of my chair. So excited when something’s slightly bad habits, I’m like, oh no. So, I’m still learning how to balance my own emotions and I think that’s something we’re all, we’re all learning.

Bryan: (00:17:06)  Yeah, this is where we have a lot of similarities because we started at the same time. I like to celebrate the wins right. Because you should be totally happy about your progress and what you built so far. It’s funny. Cause it’s like in the morning. Oh, great news. It, you to, oh, what the heck happened later?

That’s a dude. Oh, it’s also bad. So, you go through your whole emotional. The full circle every single day. That’s like, this is entrepreneurship.

Emma: (00:17:37) It’s true and I think I’m curious to hear how you’re dealing with this. I found like having a great team and co-founder and other founder friends have been helpful for like going through this. Like when pivoting from in-person to virtual. That was by no means that was easy. Like it was like, oh my God, are we doing the right thing? Should we do this? There was a lot of, you know, hesitation by co-owner and I, we were just like, we have to do this. Let’s give it a shot. So, it was very helpful to have a team go through that together.

And having like other founder friends is like, you can easily share, like just up and down, switch someone else, like totally different industry. I remember a couple of months ago, actually last year we had two, so you probably know this, but to hire somebody full time outside of.

Kind of found you or like a typical stay that you’re already, already registered in. You’ll have to go through a state tax registration, which is a very manual process. Depends on the state. So, I had to do that last year for one of our employees and I thought, man, I’m learning all these things that I don’t want to learn.

My head is always like reading all these regulations and things and jumping on the call with another founder friend. I was just, I briefly mentioned, man, I’m going through this thing this week. It’s taking up so much of my time. She was that’s so funny. I’m doing the same thing for this other state.

So, we do hot blasts, like just talking about how painful it is to go through this. It’s really helpful for me, from mental health.

Bryan: (00:19:23) Definitely. That’s going through the same position with you helps a lot, right? Because you don’t feel you’re alone. And a lot of times you feel out here alone, a lot of times you feel I might just slow, but I think having good people around you and having a great team matters a lot. It is also like for me having this podcast too, right. I talked to over 150 entrepreneurs. In your story, everyone else’s story. I want to say it’s pretty similar. Yeah, and it doesn’t matter what stage you are in your company. Everybody goes through this uncertainty of like, am I doing it right? Am I not doing it right? My biggest deduction from entrepreneurship is that no one knows what they’re doing.

Emma: (00:20:10) I mean, it was learning I’ve maybe except for second-time founders.

Bryan: (00:20:17) Did you guys go through a fundraising round?

Emma: (00:20:27) We did. So, we raised a seed runs around a year ago, and that was interesting because that was, you probably heard this from other podcast guests. So, everything was done on zoom and yeah, it was, we raised a seed round that was, we raised like a very quick oversubscribed run very fast, which was awesome.

Bryan: (00:20:48)  What was the fundraising process like? I think a lot of people are really curious to hear about it, especially as you know, would have been the founders, right? Because statistically, venture capital money goes is very low for minority women founders and I want to hear about your experience, some of the insights and challenges, and tips you have!

Emma: (00:21:08) Where should I start? I think one thing a lot of people have been talking about out there, which is true, is you just do all your preparation beforehand for fundraising and just lining up. It sounds like a cliche but having a solid team helps so last year when we were doing fundraising, it was just me and my co-founder two of us but one person has to run the company.

We had customers, we had bookings, we had all this stuff going on, so he was like, my co-founder. Awesome. He was like, let me take on these, you focus on the pitch stack. And so, we were able to divide and conquer and it was like really, really good. So, I think having a really solid team supporting these fundraising journeys is important in terms of, I think the actual fundraising process, I loved doing them on zoom because it was just squeezing so many meetings because you don’t need to travel anywhere.

Bryan: (00:22:22) Fundraising is such a hard concept and I feel like the Asian culture too. It’s like, we’re not conditioned to go out there and ask for help or body. So, it’s like that fear right and how did you prepare for the fundraising process? I know you’ve mentioned that word earlier. I prepared what is preparation, right? What goes into it? What kind of, if it goes into your deck, and what is the data room look like?

Emma: (00:22:53) We put together like a draft pitch stack and we have. Friends and advisers that are either a half being a founder themselves or VCs have reviewed our deck many times. And we tweaked our deck like 10 times before it was ready to be shared, we also did a lot of practice pitching to each other among the founders. We also practice our pitches with friends and family members.

So, in the end, before we talk to like the first person, we will already. But like, we know our numbers, we know our story. That deck is beautiful. Like it’s ready to go. That was what the process was like and then there’s like there’s a lot of online resources on like how to write the pitch tag, what the slides you should include. So those are all also really helpful.

Bryan: (00:23:51) I feel like there’s a lot of information out there, but they use it the most for sharing your insight as well. Always appreciate it. So, I fully believe in entrepreneurship that the company at the very beginning stages feeds off of you, right. It feeds off of your ambition, feeds off revision.

How do you take care of yourself? Because it’s so easy to think about all the time, right? So, it was a cost that I don’t know about you, but for me, at least there is what was it called? CIT fear. If I don’t work hard enough fail. So how do you take care of your bed to help establish those boundaries? I have to admit, I struggle with that for a bit too. It’s I like, literally like, never turn off my phone, like twenty-four seven. I just, for me if I missed an email, obviously this deal, I probably am going to die.

Emma: (00:24:45) I think it’s a learning process. I’m still learning as well and being like adjusting my routine and everything so that I can be better with my mental health. So, I would say the first year of offsite, I don’t think I have. Like any work-life balance. I wasn’t working out, not just because of work, but because of all the gyms I love to go to work, I’ll become like online classes and yeah, it was not very, not very healthy.

And then I thought, okay, I have to make a change. I can just be working all the time. I think when the founders are working nonstop and don’t have a good work-life balance, don’t care about their mental health. Like guts into everybody at the company and that’s not how that’s not the culture we want to build. Number one, I started working out again, which is so helpful to just clear my mind. Number two is I I’m reasonable. Not reasonably sinks. For a year I started going hiking with my husband over the weekends, just like guiding nature, being like among the trees, you know, and talking about things, not about work and that’s like really helpful.

Last week. I was talking to another founder friend and she gave me a tip, which I haven’t started practicing, but I’m going to, so she goes on a walk at 4:00 PM every day. So, she would take some meetings at 4:00 PM while she’s walking around and just on the phone versus in front of zoom.

When we were all working in the office, we had a walking one-on-one it’s all the time, but now we don’t do it anymore because it’s on zoom, but you can still do walking. Just do not like the zoom. You can walk around your neighborhood. So, I’m going to start practicing that.

Emma: (00:27:22) I think now, like, as we scale the company, it’s even more important now to like set what’s the right culture, and my co-founder and I have been very conscious of trying not to send emails like late at night if I need to send the email, but it doesn’t need to be like going out at night.

I was scheduled to go out in the morning, things like that. So, I think. And I don’t think they are stops. One other thing is we do regular offsite events ourselves for obvious reasons. And that has been like, it’s great for like team morale and mental health also brought us like a lot closer to. The product, because we all get to experience the product as the customer ourselves.

Bryan: (00:28:07) I think that’s powerful, right? I don’t want to hold on, want to call companies I’ve worked at in the past, but so let’s tell you like easier old products, I’m glad that you’re able to incorporate your product into tea culture. I want to quickly talk about that. Well, that’s what has been some of your challenges scaling and hiring the right people, it building that culture. 

Emma: (00:28:36)  I think our, so one of our core values is the bias for action. You see that every day, everyone in it never won. So, what I mean by that is the number one thing we look for is someone’s in a way, a hustler and entrepreneur themselves. To give you an example, so we have a customer support for when people have issues or have questions about events.

They reach out to us and our customer support. A plus we have people reaching back out to us or coming back to use outside later on, and say like, we had a great experience last time. The customer support team was so awesome. So helpful. And so, for us, it’s biased for action. Take action today for whatever Pascoe hub at hens.

Another example is I would just use customer support another example. The volume gets busy and beyond what the support team can handle. So sometimes I would be jumping or my co-founder with. And I remember one time on the part, one of our customers left a review for the event afterward and it was like, oh, I had a great time, blah, blah, blah.

And then that person who rode from the support team was also very helpful or just cracking up. But I think it’s like, these are the kind of models we channel ourselves as founders. Then we also, that’s how we also hire people believing the same thing you make it happen. You take action.

Bryan: (00:30:16) That’s I believe that’s too. I think the, I guess at the early stage, hiring hustlers speaks to a huge difference because you want someone that will go above and beyond to help the company at that stage because sometimes the roles and job descriptions or clarity clearly define it. It shouldn’t be right. You need to want to come in and wear multiple hats because.

Emma: (00:30:43)  I remember when I have diagnosed ways or was it above and beyond or something like that. I can’t remember, but you see it everywhere. You see a lot of good people. Don’t just do what the job description says, but they go beyond whether that’s writing documentation so that new hires have better onboarding experience or writing extra units has to make sure this teacher in the future. The buggy, all that stuff. So, I think you see this everywhere, everything and it’s all-important.

Bryan: (00:31:24) Out of curiosity, what is your philosophy on like the farming process? If the old fit the culture, I may be a startup founder myself. It’s like you realize that it’s always I’ll do the work. It’s my pig. Your kind to have to let them go as soon as possible because it does affect the morale, right I know each founder has a different philosophy regarding that I’m kind of curious, like, what was your philosophy with like the firing process?

Emma: (00:31:54) Firing or having to let someone go is never an easy decision. You’re like you’re making a huge impact on the other person. I think for me, we definitely, or just in general, the number one thing is giving that person plenty of feedback and even training or mentorship and plenty of opportunities to be better. And a lot of times. You know, when you have to let go of someone, there might not be a bad person or anything.

They’re just maybe not the right fit for that particular bro at that stage of the company. So, I think the high level is just really approaching the situation was, was unhealthy and make sure they have all the tools and everything. They need to succeed in this route. And only if they cannot achieve that, then you make the hard decision to let go of someone.

Bryan: (00:32:53) Yeah, that is a great answer, by the way. I believe that everyone is good at something, but they have to find out what that something is, right. Fit well with where you’re at, but they’ll fit well. So where else, right. So, I loved that. Then, if I answer I love the keyboards. That empathy is really so as you’re hearing the podcast, so we have one final question.

What advice would you have for a software engineer trying to get into entrepreneurship or thinking about it? Because I’m sure as I don’t know, I’m sure. Well, let’s see for myself and my peers too, we were at all. It wasn’t usually a thing we thought about right. Hello. Those, all those engineers who are wanted to be at that show. What advice do you have for them?

Emma: (00:33:56) I think I’m just going to repeat myself from earlier, but it’s definitely a different bias for action. Go do it, make it happen? That could mean right. That first line of code for this side project or startup you’ll have, or talk to that first potential customer, pick up the phone call. Whatever it is that the first dab, just goes do it. And I think it’s easy to imagine, like a hundred reasons why maybe you’re an already, or maybe you want to get this thing done and stuff like that, but just go do it.

And I think another thing to mention is like, especially in terms of. Tech startup or software-related things. It’s very easy to have like a product in your head. To build his whole thing for like a year before you talk to another human and then realize, oh, maybe that’s not something people already won.

So, like talking to somebody, a friend who could be a customer. And just say, I have this idea. What do you think? Or right. Like every simple prototype. Not like a full flash to feature. Yeah. So those would be my advice, a bias for action. Make it happen.

Bryan: (00:35:09)  I liked that a lot, sometimes taking the first step is the most difficult. What was he? The bow ball overall Rowley. It makes things a lot easier. And I couldn’t agree more talk to people. Yeah, I did. A lot of people forget that sometimes you may build the best product in the world, but the easiest uses are it’s just a product. Yeah, exactly. Awesome. Well ever, thank you so much. Should be the show today. How can our listeners find out more about you and reach out to you online?

Emma: (00:35:43) Yeah, so I think easiest, the one is probably to find me on LinkedIn. So, LinkedIn or even just a direct email works too. [in the show notes]

Bryan: (00:36:01) Thank you! We’ll leave all that in the show notes and thank you again for being on the podcast.

Emma: (00:36:07) Thank you for having me. This is fun. Thank you.

Outro: [00:36:10] Thank you for tuning into the third episode of the creative visionary series presented by Lexus. As part of Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month, we’ll be celebrating the contributions of other leaders and creators in the community tune in on May 21st at midnight for our next episode, with Venetia, honey, vice-president of Lexus marketing. As we discuss the positive impact Lexus has made on the Asian community.