#16 Phillip Hui-Bon-Hoa
Partner at SLOPE (marketing agency), ex Co-Founder of Abacus Growth (TikTok viral marketing, acq by SLOPE in <2.5 years), ex Managing Partner at Dorm Room Fund (students' VC with $3B+ value created)
Phillip is a Partner at SLOPE, a full-service marketing, and design agency based in Los Angeles run by former founders of Y Combinator and venture-backed startups, with customers such as Forbes and LEGO. Phillip is also an Advisor to Glimpse, startup backed by Y Combinator, Origin Ventures, GSR Ventures, and Bradley Horowitz (celeb VP Product at Google who lead well-known products like Gmail, and angel investor in companies like Slack) that enables online brands to launch distributed showrooms more efficiently.
He was a Co-Founder of Abacus Growth, a premiere ad agency on TikTok focused on helping brands achieve virality by leveraging unique growth hacks with an influencer network that combined 150M followers. Phillip sold Abacus to SLOPE in less than 2.5 years after founding the company.
Previously, Phillip worked in Growth at RemoteHQ, startup providing virtual meeting rooms, backed by Underscore VC and TechU Ventures, and was Managing Partner and Marketing Partner at Dorm Room Fund, a student-run venture capital firm backed by First Round focused on supporting the strongest community of student entrepreneurs across US, with results such as 300+ student-run companies helped, $1B+ raised in follow on capital by portfolio companies and $3B+ value created by Dorm Room Fund companies.
👤 Brief intro: viral media, VC, Founder, exit, search for meaning
🥇 Win: fighting with ego, feet on the ground, going back to school
🚫 Fail and lesson: success bringing wrong mindset, be conscious
🚀 Ideal founder: struggle hard & overcome, passionate expertise
💸 Ideal investor: operational and network value, great people skills
📈 Markets: Creator Economy
Could you give us a brief intro about you and your origins?
I started off trying to make things go viral, writing inflammatory political pieces through a blog with my uneducated political mind at the time. Specifically I targeted ultra right movements and I got viral mainly because I got some hate, my first 30k views were from angry people. After some time I sold that blog while I was in high school, before attending university.
Following that bit of experience in the space, I worked with a friend that was doing a BI tool focused on providing an improved Google Alerts alternative to check the social feeling of products. A large company used it and ended up becoming viral. However, I decided to leave pre Series A and go back to class. There I joined Dorm Room Fund, a $5M fund made by students. I didn’t know anything about it before but started getting exposure to business and learned a lot about important things such as the ins and outs of product-market fit.
Around that time I met a guy that told me about marketing agencies so I started working with some companies and helping them grow via ads/marketing through platforms like Facebook. I wanted to do something like that since school and once I was at uni I committed seriously to doing it. It started as a side hustle but it grew a lot, a mate from school who got in YC started helping me and our clients increased even more. We decided to set certain goals and in case of achieving them, we’d think about dropping everything else and focusing totally on the project. We crushed the goals. We focused more. We grew and scaled up significantly. However at one point my friend and co-founder left due to personal reasons and it was not easy because he was the organized guy and I was not sure I could handle everything without him. But we kept going.
Our focus was leveraging Facebook platform, when you sell so much they dedicate a person to your account and that person went from Facebook to TikTok. So we started a campaign in this new platform and went really good. That is how we started deep diving into it.
At the end of the day, we went to a lot of parties in LA and met a lot of well known TikTokers, creators with tens of millions of followers without any money. I had relationships with the brands so I connected the dots, we built up the team and designed a new marketing approach targeting the TikTok opportunity as a new way to grow.
What would you say has been the biggest win in your life?
I think going back to school and taking a step back before growing more was probably the biggest win.
I was out of my element and had a lot to learn. I was way too cocky, not grounding myself at all and with the ambition of building a unicorn just because of the money.
A big win was to set ego aside and accept failure. Thanks to doing that I came across the Dorm Room Fund and that opened all doors for me. Slope acquisition happened because a connection via Dorm Room Fund. Also having Trevor as co-founder at Abacus happened thanks to Dorm Room Fund.
Related to the above, and your biggest failure?
When I first got very comfortable at Abacus after our first 5 employees and doing decent revenue, I definitely started to over rely too much on my partner, we were very complementary but I started to take a position of “I started this thing and I do not need to work super hard”.
Succeeding and reaching revenue goals and getting everything done month by month, not really knowing how to properly manage it, ended up with money getting into my head. My mentality and my lifestyle was negatively affected and as a result I started to welcome habits that bring failure.
My lesson is to try to be conscious, don’t get comfortable if you are doing very well because it is gonna be easier to get lazy and start doing things that you shouldn’t be doing.
What is your ideal founder profile?
Maybe too generic but I’d say 2 things: struggle and deep expertise.
The person needs to have struggled to some degree or understand what struggle is about. Not necessarily overcome extreme poverty but all founders need to overcame a degree of adversity, deal with it yourself and in a fashion that transcends yourself and the organization you are leading.
Then people who do best are the ones with deep expertise on whatever they are trying to solve. For instance, the founder of Flexport was in the industry and clearly identified the problem whilst having unique insight. Even in B2C, people that seemingly started with less experience like Zuckerberg, still were close to the problem and were passionate about it. Solving problems is a byproduct of irritation that compounds over time, people who have been working on something and encounter the same problem everyday, and who have passion to solve it - I believe this makes for great founders.
Other components continue to build up this good founder profile like growth and being obsessed over the idea in the micro sense but specially in the macro sense as per “ei, I am gonna solve this and I want to IPO”.
What is your ideal investor profile?
Someone who brings value to you, with operational experience, well connected, close to the same sectors of the company where they want to invest and plugged into the spaced you need to be.
Additionally, there is the other side, the subjective one. I believe it should be a people person, a great individual that is able to build a personal relationship with the founder. The founder journey is a solo one and oftentimes a depressing road. If you do not have someone that can help you emphasize and solve problems because they have seen the problems before, it can be tougher.
People skills are also useful to check if the founder is a good leader and can really tackle de problem, not everyone is “the leader”. Maybe you can feed it but you should look for something more natural. Hence if you are an investor and know how to read people, it will be an added positive factor.
What present and future markets are you most interested in?
Creators space is super interesting.
However creators lack more phenomenal tools to help them and distribution is very stacked. A bunch of companies are trying to solve problems of how to help the long tail get money, and that’s something I like.
Everyone can be a creator and a few thousand followers, if they are orchestrated, can provide huge value.
Could you share with us 3 startups you like and why?
Hellosaurus. Client of SLOPE that raised seed from General Catalyst. They have an interactive video platform reimagining entertainment for kids by leveraging creators. They are partnering with top kids creators, having them do the content and helping you interact with them. Timing is right and some of the biggest creators in youtube are kid focused. So partnering with them and empowering them is a good idea.
RapidAPI. API marketplace to make it easy for devs to find any API solution. When they were born APIs were not the most popular thing. Now they are. We were roommates when they were like 5 people and now seeing them with 100+ is pretty amazing.
Dreambound. One close to the Dorm Room Fund ecosystem, it is a Lambda School for blue collar jobs. It trains people and place them in specific jobs like electricians. America is very much about that even though lately it seems like everything was “go to uni and go to a big brand”. There are alternative ways out of the traditional uni system and we should educate more about these different paths that can help you provide to your family and yourself.
Could you share with us 3 investors you like and why?
Garry Tan from Initialized Capital. A really good investor. We share philosophies - search for greedy founders with unique insight that look for a big unsolved problem within a massive market opportunity.
Chauncey Hamilton from XYZ. She is ex COO of Dorm Room Fund and someone that always does what she says is gonna do. I struggle with this because I am too busy, but she is always on point. Lots of respect to her because very few people actually walk the talk the way she does.
What are the 3 books you feel everyone should read and why?
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. Great story about a surgeon getting cancer and how we lived his final days. Unique perspective about having a meaningful life, just talking about it gives me chills. When I really care about someone I recommend that book - it will make you cry, it will make you laugh. Really good book.
“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. I read it when I was younger and I was born in September so I liked it! haha I just like how it explains the mix of IQ + EQ and how to shape it.
“The Road to Character” by David Brooks. Again, around the topic of a meaningful life. The thesis of the book is that there are 2 versions of oneself: The résumé self and the eulogy self. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your CV, the skills that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They're what get talked about at your funeral and they are usually the virtues that exist at the core of your being.
Society increasingly tends to value traits that end up as meaningless instead of commitments to love, family, vocation, Faith, community … I am very obsessed about this and I love authors that explore it.
With Abacus, you leveraged TikTok to offer business a new way to drive growth, eventually being acquired by Slope. Could you give us a brief deep dive on your new approach to marketing and walk us through how the acquisition by Slope happened?
Creators are the new movers and shakers. TikTok is full of them and it is opening advertising for brands. So if you are a first mover you can do well because it is fairly unused.
This new angle is about being very human, a different level of personal touch that humanizes brands a lot, which is interesting and very important to capture. It brings an extra layer of authenticity and trust to your B2C user base because ultimately it is about real people using your product. Also, if you team up with top creators in these platforms and you have a great product, you can get quick viral growth.
That transitions perfectly with Slope. With Abacus we were focused on marketing and advertising and we were working with a big company that shared with us the idea of doing something with TikTok. We didn’t knew anything about it but we did it and it was a big success, extremely good results.
People were still skeptical about it, uncertain about if TikTok was gonna stay around. Yet everything went well and we got acquired by SLOPE with the main goal of scaling up resources to tackle the opportunity.
Big thanks Phillip for sharing your views with us !
Big thanks to you, reader, for your time and interest !
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