Transcript: Finding One's Roots in China

with Huihan Lie

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Art: Welcome everybody to another episode of Ganbei. I'm your host Art Dicker. And today I'm I have the pleasure of being joined by my co-host Pei Yen. Hey, how's it going Pei?

Huihan Lie is our guest, the founder and CEO of My China Roots. And for those of you who are not familiar, My China Roots is an online platform to build one's family tree upload, historical family records and search for one's ancestors in a, with a genealogical database for overseas Chinese.  You can think of a similar business with Ancestry.com. 

Huihan, welcome to the show. 

Huihan.  Yeah, it's great to be here. 

Art: Yeah. Let's jump into it. Like many other founders I know you've built basically with My China Roots, a product to solve your own problem. And I wonder if you can tell us more about the story and how and when you decided to turn what you were doing into an actual business.

Huihan: Sure. Yeah. My China Roots is really an extension of my own, like you said, my own story. So maybe a little bit about that. I was born and raised in Holland and the Netherlands. My family came from Indonesia and seven generations ago with my family. My ancestors came from China, from Southern China, from Fujian.

And I was always really interested in stories growing up. So even though a lot of stories about Indonesia for my dad and my grandfather, his curiosity about China grew and grew. And especially as I got to my teens, I just started wondering, what is this thing called being Chinese? What does that mean? If we don't really have any cultural features that are distinctively Chinese?

I started studying Chinese, started working in consulting.  And on the weekends, I started doing research on my family history and really experiencing what that process did to me. So it's more emotional, psychological impact, and there was no business doing this, helping other people, what I've been spending about four or five years doing, which is tracing their roots to seeing what faces are still out there, where people were actually.

And whether there are still stories that can be told about the, in my case, grandparent’s great-grandfather, but in more cases for American born Chinese great-grandfather or great-grandfather and yeah, that's how the idea came up. So I started with research and then I started thinking I'm spending my weekends, helping others.

I'm also well seeing around me, like the genealogy market at that time in the US was already a multi-billion dollar market. And I originally rather than start off right away building an online platform, I decided to first start with a more consulting approach. So customer research, services, because there were already had quite a few people who wanted me to do research for them.

And I figured I'll just learn. I'll learn about the technology. I learn about the market and learn about the sources. And then when the time is right. I'll start the online platform.

Art You hit on this a bit already, but the, you, I imagine that as you're thinking about building the online experience, more and more in a database, is there a cost factor in there that you have to weigh building that versus the quality of experience and getting people to commit a bit.

To either teasing them with some information and the access where we're, we'll definitely have the information you need. It's right at the available at your fingertips. I imagine you have to go wide and deep at the same time. And that's hard to do as an early stage company. 

Huihan: Yeah. I think the problem you're describing is one that we faced eight years ago, two years ago, today.

And I'm sure we'll be facing like 10 years from now to where it's essentially a bit of a chicken and egg thing that you need data to satisfy people, but you need people to basically give you revenue so that you can buy more data. And it's actually the way I see it. There's this trinity it's people first, customers and data, and you need, obviously you want all of them, but you can't have all of them.

So how do you start taking small steps? It's not as as binary as either. You can start getting your first customers through friends, for instance, and then you have your case study and then you can get the next customer, but then the chicken and egg thing repeats in that you need your first customer who can serve as an ambassador after you've gotten that, then you will move.

When you talk about investment, you need your first angel, but typically angels only come on board when there's already one on board. So how do you get that first one? And I think that's just a recurring challenge that every startup role need to be creative, pragmatic, and I guess persistent enough to just do it.

It's also part of why, what I like, because it's a continuous challenge. 

Pei: When I first heard of your startup, My China Roots, I immediately thought about this recent documentary I saw, The Six, which is about the spellbinding tail of the detective work done by Steve Shrinkers and the whole team tracing the roots of the six Chinese survivors of the Titanic.

It's really figuring out what happened to them afterwards. That's this missing piece of the Titanic lore. And I ended up given that you've done this similar ancestral tracing in history. I was so curious if you have any fascinating, interesting shocking or impactful stories or case studies from your investigative processes, whether it's been, whether from the type of impact that it's had on one of your clients, or just something that you've run into or crazy route that you've had to take on the investigative journey itself.

Huihan: Yeah. Talking about The Six, we were actually part of that research team. So that's one example, usually. Families come to us and they want to learn more about their ancestors right now. It was quite different in you have this monumentally famous story that everybody knows, but there's this little subsection that nobody knows about.

And the key goal was to dig into the presence really. So based on history, who were the six people who survived and then are there still descendants of those survivors. So it's basically going to the past and then into today, which really made it very interesting and very contemporary and the global nature was just really fascinating.

But the truth of the matter is also that basically every story has its own unique elements. Which makes them exciting. And that's why it just keeps on being really inspiring to, to do this type of research. One reason why I love doing what we do is because of the connecting of people and they're raising awareness to bridge-building, especially in these polarized social political times. 

But then there's also in terms of content, I guess in general, historical findings, very often families have these traumas within them. For instance, a great grandfather was a merchant who worked very closely with the Japanese. Whereas his son for the KMT against the Japanese and it really helps people understand why did his grandfather or grandpa act a certain way and why did they never get along?

And another story that really leaped out is a New Zealand woman who was from Trinidad and Tobago. She always had a relationship, a good relationship with her grandfather, even though he never really said anything. So when he passed away, the family found a diary of his and in the diary, they found out that he basically knew he in the first decade of the 20th century in Trinidad, then set up one of the key clan association.

Raising funds for a revolution. And there was a whole life opened up. So basically of the grandfather that the granddaughter had never even known about. And then in the diary, basically the very last sentence of his diary, he mentions her name so that she was also very special to him. So yeah, those types of discoveries then, and helping these people really that's really, it's just never stops.

Pei: That's fascinating. It reminds me, and this is something Steve said as well. This book speaks for the dead, which is one of my favorite from the ender series, that scifi series, but speak for the dead. And that book is someone who, after someone passes away or cannot speak for themselves, someone comes in you in this case and gathers all these details and facts about their lives and tells their whole story, the truth of it.

And I remember reading that book and thinking, and the general reaction to that book is that, man, I wished you could do that while you're still alive and here you guys are providing this in real time, not in a science fiction book, providing these core, complete stories people's truth. So that's really amazing.

Huihan: That’s one of the things that I find so immensely frustrating is that we run into so many families on a daily basis who come to us and say, yeah, my aunt, she was the last one who had all these stories. If only we had started this process two months earlier or whatever a year, and it's just time and time again and, not learning how to learn the stories that were handed down from generations.

And it's just so frustrating. So that makes our goal even clearer. On the one hand, we want to digitize the traces, make them searchable, make them relatable to people, to the grandchildren today, but also. A second goal that we have for the platform that we're building is to give drenches grandparents and grandchildren the tools to actually communicate while the grandparents are still alive.

And I that's so sidetracked. Yeah. That's really. It is, it's absolutely vital. And it's so possible. I say grandparents and grandchildren, because it's an easier for grandparents to talk to their grandchildren about sensitive issues than it is for parents. So that's one, one element. The other element is very often though.

It's sad to see the grandparents and grandchildren. There's a double co-generation gap. So the way of communicating is a bit more challenging because they don't really, they speak different languages, even if it's the same literal language. So having triggers, like pictures is often very helpful for our grandchild to just to show a picture rather than that's a mistake that I think I, that I definitely made.

And I think a lot of people may, when I started digging into my family roots, I would just basically step up to all people in my family and asked them, what was it like during the the sixties in China?  

And that's human and normal and that's, what's on our minds because we want to know, but that's just, so it's just too big and too open of a question. And if you're in the grand parents shoes and your history is very nuanced and there are a lot of multi different layers going on. Yeah. It's just impossible to answer that question.

A lot better for instance, is to just show a picture and just ask very concrete questions. When was this? Hey, what were you doing there? Do you know if the restaurant is still there and then that opens up memories and very, this just also reminds me of a trip that I did a long time ago, guiding people back to the ancestral village in Guangdong, where I was just chatting with the mom. 

So there was actually, it was a grandmother, there was a mother and there was, there were kids, there were three generations of Chinese Americans who came visiting within one family. And the grandmother was very open and emotional and she was telling all these stories. And as the trip went on, her daughter who was sitting next to her in the bus was just looking staring at her mother.

Saying mom, wait, I've asked you the same question so many times. Why have you never told me in any of these toys to me and the mom was just clearly, it was not conscious of her that she was telling these stories now, or that she was withholding those stories in the past, it would just remind, being triggered in a certain way.

That is inducive to conducive, to just letting go and just blurting out all these stories and it, but it needs to be triggered in a way. Subtle way, because if it's too head-on, the, or people tend to just shut down, at least from the younger generation point of view, they just shut down and snuggle. 

Pei: I a hundred percent agree.

And that speaks so much to my experience. And I'm sure to so many of the people listening as well, even beyond this initial market of the segmented market of Asian roots or China roots, but I think anybody of any ethnicity or nationality runs into this exact challenge of how do you bring it up in the right way?

Art: Sure. My grandfather was still alive actually about the turn of the century. A hundred, always talks about his times growing up during the great depression. Find those stories fascinating. But I would, yeah, I would love to hear, I always try to attend to learn a little bit about some of the stories of my ancestors coming over from Germany to the US at the turn of the century and a little earlier on, but yeah, it's hard to keep those stories for sure.

And people moving in and probably something. There's not fun. Parts of the story either to tell and causes people to shut down a bit, or very interesting way on how you characterize that and how it's getting people to open up. You are building a platform. And I think the idea is that certainly when you mentioned at the beginning and you're still doing, I'm sure a lot of consulting.

But that's of course not where if you're looking for a venture capital investment that they want to see a business set, scalable, that is over time. As it grows, it needs less and less labor costs and less than less fixed costs and costs that don't grow at the same rate as the overall revenue growth.

So in that sense, How are you how have you worked with investors? How have you told the story? And I know that your investors, your initial angel investors have been very passionate about what you're doing. What's this problem you're trying to solve and everything you've just described.

But at the same time, I imagine the bigger investors as they start to come in are on their own timeframe and their own metrics to, to use, to judge your business at less. More dispassionately, let's say, is that a tension that you see as you're raising funding out in? And I know you've got recently some new funding.

If you can talk about how you've worked with investors for this kind of a business. 

Huihan: I guess a couple of things, one is the way I see it being metrics driven and growth mindset. Helps any business become more efficient and effective, the stronger the company, the better the exit for a VC.

So my focus is really on building a strong company and then going to the lack of scalability as to the human consulting side of things, that's definitely true. And obviously a consulting business is it's just not scalable, full stop. I do think we're living in a time and especially in the coming years where trust is going to be.

Even more key than it ever was before, whether it's trusts or about the data fake data versus what is true and what isn't, whether it's trust in the context of China US relations, not going through their smoothest period. There's trust is just key. And we noticed that with the data holding institutions were working with, but also trust on the consumer, on the customer side and where I'm getting at is that the human personal element of our business.

And I do feel strongly about keeping a personal element to the work that we do. So that means concretely for our platform, yes, people will still be able to go on our platform and start by the, by themselves. So that's basically non manual at all from our end. But at some point either they hit a brick wall.

The trust issue does play a larger role than more. They get entangled into what they find. And at those points at those pain points, we will continue. Having or ensuring personal interactions with people that we have on the ground that can also be standardized and at least made more scalable. Then just being every single case, it starts from zero again.

So we're working hard now with our team. Researchers and historians on how can we, how can you find that balance where you keep a personal face, you provide a personal face to customers, but you standardize it in a way that doesn't go that doesn't make it turn into a Wikipedia thing. So there's, so unpersonal to, it's just a general Wikipedia page.

So where to find that balance. And that's one of the key areas where we're focusing. 

Art:  Something so personal like this in some ways you don't want to become, so just a pure database, right? You, and every case of course would be different. And it seems like people will be willing to pay for that extra value add of service.

Pei: You mentioned that you're developing this kind of tool or was it just a list of suggestions of helping people generate these conversations with their living older relatives to start to preserve or start to draw out these stories? Is that something that's, looking at it from a lens of the business and scalability. Is that something that is a product that might be scalable online as a separate thing. And in addition to, or works as a marketing funnel for this heavier deeper consultation business that I think you've started in is the core of the business data.

Huihan:

It remains at the core of the business and data can come from data. We upload a data just as much will come from users. And in the first couple of years, the data will be coming more from us. But then of course the user generated data will be increasing in its way to balance. So what we were talking about earlier about this, providing a platform and tools for grandparents and grandchildren to talk to each other, thereby uploading user-generated data.

Yes. That is partly a funnel we want, make it as easy and obviously then free to allow people to share stories and to upload. Data in the form of building family trees in the form of uploading a picture with a family portrait where you can ask your uncle or your grandfather. Oh, so who's the uh, uh, the third one on the left.

He actually looks like me. And then we will, of course then connected with the data that we have. So if you, for instance, then find out who was the third person on the left, but your uncle might know he types in the name. That name will then immediately be cross checked with our database by our system.

That's how it basically starts to the data interaction. Networking starts coming into play. 

Pei: That's really cool. I want to, with my sister, you use this platform and engage with her grandmother. She's the only of that generation remaining for our mother and father. So yes, we just go to the website, right?

That's how we find out we can access that. 

Huihan: Yes. Yeah. You started off going to ww.mychinaroots.com and then depending on whether you want to search for documents first, or one of the builds, like a tree and what I just mentioned, upload photos. And you go to, yeah. Sorry. Their search records or build your family tree in the menu.

Pei: And I wanted to ask a question. About this identity this racial or ethnic identity. And I connect with a little bit. So to my understanding, you identify as Dutch Indonesian or Dutch Chinese, but you, as you said, you were born in the Netherlands and then you've discovered your Indonesian/Chinese heritage.

And I'm curious how you view pros and cons of being, I think an XBC is this term where you look Chinese, but, and maybe can you, while you speak also are treated Chinese and some situations are treated Chinese, but other situations you have this foreigner identity. How could you share how this has either positively or negatively affected you as a founder, especially of a business that is based in.

Huihan: My China roots was again, was an extension of my own experience. So that'd be in the case, my being overseas, Chinese from an outsider point of view and how people react to me, at least they get it in a sense in that it makes sense for them. Yeah. So that's a positive element. Maybe if I would have looked very different and done something that wasn't as personal, maybe then people would have had a harder time believing.

That I will be actually doing this in order to connect people. And of course we're a commercial enterprise and of course we want to grow and have a base, a network of many millions. Yes. The, what it all started was this primal need for me, by me, 

Pei: within me, have such an authentic, personal relatable story like yours, I think immediately helps people put their suspicions and defense walls down and be willing to share something as personal as their family history with you, with your platform.

Because you are you're speaking from the heart.  And I wanted to follow up a question that came to mind is that, are there data storage, privacy concerns that you've had to deal with, whether with customers or with platform people, or have you been asked by other entities who are curious about or might make use of that data?

Have you run into certain challenges or been in uncomfortable situations or how do you deal with the data from where you store it to how you protect it and your policies? 

Huihan: Privacy is a huge issue. I wouldn't say that I've been in very, or that we, as a company I've been in very awkward situations, but privacy is just a key element.

For instance, we don't, as a matter of policy, want to put on information of living. In terms of connecting people, there's going to be all kinds of like double volumes and you need to both agree to be connected. And we're definitely not going to publicize any information that anybody uploads, the default setting is that it's private and it's not to be searchable.

And unless you flick the switch to share it or make it public, then of course that's a different story, but the decision lies with the individual. 

Art: I think following up on that, that, that dialogue just now about where you are, do you have the right background being, having grown up outside of China and yet being from a small country, that's a political in the Netherlands and so forth and it, but of course being ethnically Chinese and having the people can easily see that you're doing this for all the right reasons.

One other thing I'm curious though, is I think. As a business that I wonder if that also gives you even more cover. So for example, if you were an NGO trying to do this, first of all, you'd probably struggle. You'd be in a constant cycle of struggling to apply for more grants and get more resources to do something like this.

You'd also probably be a little bit detached from the market. Of what people really need. But I wonder if that also gives you some cover as well, because you're at the end of the day, you're driven by certainly other reasons, but a core reason is profit, right? You're trying to, you're a for profit business.

And I wonder if that also gives you a little bit of a clear kind of answer. Let's say when people might wonder what your, if you have an affiliation with this group of that, 

Huihan: Yeah. That's true, but you could still have an affiliation with any group if they invest in you and they can have their tentacles inside you, whether you're a commercial and non-commercial so I, I haven't like that angle.

No, I haven't run into. In that way that it's given me cover. If anything, I find myself much more having to explain to not to VCs, obviously, but more to museums and libraries and people whose data we'd like to digitize are our intentions and our motivations are driven with integrity and the starting goal.

Is basically related to connecting people with themselves and with their history and not primarily for profits or once they find out who you are. And once you get to know each other, then it's. 

Art: So wait, on the other day, I posted a job opening for your company for sales, marketing, opening on my reach and moments.

And I was amazed at the outreach and the comments that I got on my feed to want to know more about your company, a couple of potential clients, users who were just struggling. That this solution exists now. And so it's still, it clearly has struck a chord with people, which obviously it's, it struck a chord with you.

And we can tell that it's really this whole idea of this whole business. This whole platform comes through from your heart. I wonder if more people after hearing this podcast, how can they reach out to you and get connected to you and My China Roots? What's the easiest way for people to follow up after listening.

Huihan

Go to www.mychinaroots.com and you can then there's a big red button that says get in touch. So that's obviously an easy way to get in touch. My email is my full name huihanlie@mychinaroots.com. So email me with any questions that you would have. We're in expansion mode.

We've finished our angel round and we're basically looking for people who can be part of the team. So either in a sales and marketing role in a research role or also actually in tech, more on the tech and product development. So let me know if you're interested. A second group of people that we're always interested to get in touch with is institutions or individuals who have collections of family historical data.

And of course the third type of people. If you're interested in doing research on your own family history and connecting with your distant relatives in the past and in the present, email me, or visit our website. 

Art: Okay. Thanks Huihan and Pei. Thanks again for co-hosting this one with me, and it was a lot of fun.

Pei:  This is truly a pleasure. Thank you Art, and especially Huihan, your startup is amazing and already I can think of so many people. That'd be very interested to get in touch and including me personally, to explore. So thank you so much. You have a very great personal, very compelling product, and it's just really fascinating to hear about that today.

Thank you. 

Huihan: Thanks. 

Art: Yeah, thanks. And thanks. We always think our audience as well. Thanks everybody for listening to this episode. And that's a wrap.

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