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