most significant bits
newsletter of uw computer science & engineering
volume 23, number 1, spring 2013
university of washington
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contents
David Notkin Chair’s message Alumni entrepreneur: Decide.com Awards and honors Two win Dean’s Medals Three CRA Undergrad Awards Alum achievement awards Diamond award winner Ross News Datagrams New dean of engineering Grossman named Bowen Prof. CSE annual luncheon
msb23.1 PDF

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Alumni entrepreneurs have a tip for you:
“Do your consumer research on Decide.com”

Decide.com cofounders
UW alums and Decide.com cofounders Brian Ma, Hsu Han Ooi,
CEO Mike Fridgen, Ian Ma, and Hsu Ken Ooi in their West Mercer
Street headquarters, sitting in front of the team wall.
Photo by Joshua Bessex.

New electronics and appliances are introduced in the marketplace seemingly every day. As technology changes at a rapid pace, the volume of products and outlets can be overwhelming to a consumer. So how do you outsmart retailers and get the lowest price? CSE alumni may have created the solution with Decide. com. The path to launching Decide.com was lined with tenacity and perseverance.

The first business idea that the brothers Ma and Ooi pitched to Professor Oren Etzioni looked like a dud, and he told them so. Undeterred, Brian Ma ('05), Ian Ma ('09), Hsu Ken Ooi ('06), and Hsu Han Ooi ('07) went back to Hsu Han's basement and, outside day jobs and school, built a career guidance and resume service website called EggSprout. Eighteen months of hard work later, the egg was laid but there were no signs of sprouting, so they paid a return visit to Etzioni, eager to brainstorm anew.

“Most people who fail at a startup stay with their day jobs, but these brothers were enthusiastic and ready for the next thing,” Etzioni says. “They proved their mettle. I was impressed with their tenacity, an important quality for entrepreneurship.”

After tossing ideas around, they landed on a service to guide shoppers in choosing the best electronic products and the best deals. Brian had noticed his girlfriend was constantly visiting websites to check prices, a big time sink for most shoppers. As competition between manufacturers, retail stores, and website sellers relentlessly intensif ies, prices constantly fluctuate, often dozens of times a day. Sophisticated consumer profiling and volatile “smart pricing” give retailers huge leverage over shoppers. What to buy? Where to buy? What to pay and when? How to avoid getting ripped off? Shopping is all too often a frustrating, unpleasant chore. The brothers and their mentor seized the challenge.

Being an entrepreneur is a roller coaster, but there is something magical about coming up with an idea in a basement and using computer science to turn it into reality.
— Hsu Ken Ooi

By this juncture in 2008, Etzioni had sold Farecast, his successful air ticket search service, to Microsoft Bing. Brian, long aiming to be an entrepreneur, had quit his project manager job at Zillow with no plan for a next step. Hsu Han soon followed him out Zillow's door, while brother Hsu Ken quit his website analysis/design job at Zaaz — to the double dismay of their parents. The three tried to convince Ian to quit school and help them, but he cheerfully resisted, and joined full-time after earning his degree.

Back to the Basement

Jobless and living off their savings, they went back to Hsu Han's basement for almost two years of up to 20-hour days fueled by pizza and ramen. They cranked out ideas, crunched terabytes of data, and developed algorithms to track product price fluctuations over a year. After finding predictable variations and cycles, they spent almost six months in 2010 analyzing and validating their data and developing the business model and plan for Decide.com. They joined forces as cofounders and set out on the next challenge — raising funding — spurred on by their company cheer “Let's do this!”.

“We were four young guys with very little experience, working on laptops in a basement, and we had to meet with successful entrepreneurs and investors and ask for millions. It was surreal,” Hsu Ken says.

“Initially I was super scared,” Brian admits. “I didn't know how to put ideas together or how to pitch, but Oren taught us how to represent the company and what to say. He understands people and business, and we learned from him.”

Series A funding of $2.5 million from Madrona Venture Group closed on July 1, 2010. In September 2010 they brought on former Farecast and Microsoft Bing executive Mike Fridgen as CEO.

Moving Up and Into the Big Data Market

Decide.com launched its website in June 2011 with pricing information and predictions for consumer electronics. In 2012 they expanded into home appliances, tools, and exercise equipment. They also launched an iPad app and late last year offered memberships for access to the price prediction “when to buy” data. Free services include a simple system of product ratings, from “Love it” to “Don't buy it” based on product specifications and millions of user reviews. The website is cleanly designed, easy to use, and visitor friendly, with tips on everything from buying cameras to what to give mom for Mother's Day and when to get the best price.

The company now has an office in lower Queen Anne and a staff of thirty, including eight CSE graduates and four from other UW departments. The company recently closed $8 million in Series C funding led by Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital and has raised $17 million total to date. And they have a high-powered board of directors including new additions Steve Hall of Vulcan and Dawn LePore, former CEO of Drugstore.com. With about 80 percent accuracy, they now use those 230 terabytes of data to predict future prices for 1.6 million products sold by major retailers across the country.

Decide.com home page

Heady Time, Hands-on Roles

Uniformly high-energy and upbeat, the alumni cofounders are excited about their early success and the smart, talented people drawn to the company. They are cognizant of the challenges of growing Decide.com, and grateful for all the guidance and support that have taken them this far. Each has a hands-on role using his skills to nurture the concept they birthed.

Brian, the most business oriented, is a product manager who focuses on strategy, site use, and deploying staff to solve problems. Hsu Ken fell in love with product design and the deepness of that discipline, becoming skilled in Photoshop, website creation, and how people interface with a site. The two younger brothers are the “hard-core developers” — Hsu Han is a data miner, analyzing millions of price points every day, and Ian is an engineer with a focus on data mining and machine learning.

They've all matured with the company, through the early days of being fast-moving “deciders” to adapting to the greater complexity of a diverse staff and more dispersed responsibilities and decision-making.

“One reason we started the company is so that people can feel good when they buy something with their hard-earned money, and can buy with confidence,” Hsu Ken says. “Being an entrepreneur is a roller coaster, but there is something magical about coming up with an idea and using computer science to turn it into reality. Giving people a useful product sends me over the moon.”

“We want everyone to check Decide.com before they buy anything,” Brian says.

The brothers four are grateful that Oren took a chance on them and has guided and backed them every step of the way.

“He's like a wizard,” Ian says. “He knows exactly what to do and say, and now the company is backed by $17 million.”

And the wizard's take on it all? “They are just great guys, committed, hard-working, and energetic. If anything, they have exceeded my expectations,” Etzioni says.

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