Benjamin Chou has a history of 27 years of experience in the computer information industry and has significant experience with executive management positions in both established and start-up companies. He has served as a systems developer, engineering manager, director, V.P. of Engineering, and CEO of several leading hardware and software companies such as Hewlett Packard, Convergent Technologies, WYSE Technology, NuTek Computers, and Kingston Technology.
Mr. Chou is the President of Personable Inc., the company credited with the development and publishing of the leading data automation software. Mr. Chou has been invited as a speaker and panelist to present data automation solutions in AICPA seminars, trade conferences such as the ACFE conference and Banking and AML Conference. Mr. Chou has a BS in Electrical Engineering from National Taiwan University and an MSM from Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Where did the idea for Personable Inc. come from?
Personable Inc has been working with Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and financial professionals, who shared their difficulties in preparing financial data. The voluminous data that the CPAs need to deal with includes bank statements, credit card statements, check images, timesheets, payroll, phone records, accounting system ledger, insurance forms, contracts, etc. Manual data preparation and management are time-consuming, laborious, and prone to human error. In addition, reconciliation of accounts needs a lot of paper shuffling, which would often become frustrating for the accountants as the process used to be slow. Most of the accountants said that data preparation consumed 80% of their time. However, the time spent on actual accounting work was only around 20%, especially while filing tax returns.
To solve these issues, Personable Inc. started working on automation of all the financial data. As a result, we built ScanWriter. It converts any paper document and a digital file, including PDF, into a structured Excel format with 100% accuracy.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day begins early in the morning, around 7 a.m. I often plan my work in advance. Having a to-do list and starting with the most urgent task ensures productivity for me. To prioritize the tasks, I keep my short-term and long-term goals in mind. Tasks driven by goals speed up their accomplishment.
Additionally, I don’t get entangled in ancillary tasks; for example, I receive numerous emails. I usually don’t read my emails at all in the morning. Instead, I simply start with the first thing on my list and follow the arrangement. Also, I try to get rid of unnecessary tasks or less productive jobs. I either put them off or delegate them to other people, depending on the situation.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Bringing ideas to life requires thinking out-of-the-box. I focus my attention closely with fresh eyes once an idea or a problem comes to my mind or someone introduces it. Then, I step back to gain perspective from the industry as getting the view from the users is always helpful and of utmost importance. Next, I imagine some combinations of possible solutions to resolve the problem. Then I do some quick experiments to either come up with possible outcomes or impacts on other aspects of the business. After that, I navigate through the results of the initial actions and adjust the approach accordingly. This strategic approach has always helped me through my career.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The most exciting trend for me has been big data related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. During the early days, due to the limitation of the computer processing power and the storage device, which used to be a maximum of 5 megabytes, everything was slow and inefficient. However, with the advancement in technology, we can accumulate thousands of gigabytes and terabytes of data to develop better AI and data mining technology. As a result, AI today is helping to ease the workload of human resources. Such advanced technology makes us more productive and gives our brains opportunities to accomplish something even greater.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
The most important one is putting myself outside of the environment that I am in when an issue crops up. It allows me to look at the point or problem from a completely different angle. Most of the time, it has revealed the best approach or solution to the problem.
What advice would you give your younger self?
A lot of young professionals are extremely confused these days. They keep questioning as to what they want to do with their career or their lives. My advice always is to do whatever you are doing in the best possible manner. Then whichever direction you pick in the future, you would have gathered some basic or related skills and experience that will always be helpful in the long run.
Steve Jobs said ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’. He even proved it when he used his calligraphy skills and designed it into the Macintosh. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.
Give your best at whatever you are doing. It will help you build your foundation and provide a springboard for your future.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
No two people are the same, and everyone has their perspective. I try to analyze the situation from different angles, and not everyone agrees with me. However, I firmly believe that you are the only person who has to carry the torch. Getting ideas and inputs from your peers is terrific, but you are the one who has to commit to your tasks and problems. The person facing the challenge is the only one who can follow through. Unfortunately, most people cannot grasp this notion and try to pass the buck onto someone else.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
A lot of people ask me if they should work hard or smart or both? I think that if you can do both that’s wonderful. However, if you cannot work hard and work smart simultaneously, go with work smart first. Mind you, hard work is always important, which will make the best out of your situation. But I recommend that at least you should try to work smart first. Then, do it over and over to inculcate the habit of working smart and working hard simultaneously.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
The topmost priority of our business is to be able to help out our customers. Therefore, I always proceed with the thought of getting the customer’s work done and making their life more straightforward with our solutions. We should always bring something valuable to the table, which helps our product differentiate from the competitor. When your customers see the personalized value and benefits that they can’t get elsewhere, it’ll lead to the success of your business. Ensure that your client’s success is built on the product or service you provide, making your business indispensable for them.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
As the Chinese proverb goes that failure is not falling down but refusing to get up, the most challenging thing for me as an entrepreneur is not letting the losses get to my heart. Of course, things going wrong is part and parcel of the business. So to keep me motivated, I try to embrace failures and let them lead the way. Just as enduring pain makes a person stronger, failures provide an opportunity to grow as an entrepreneur.
For instance, when we started with ScanWriter, our identified customer base consisted of CPAs and financial professionals working in the private industry. The one thing that was very challenging to us was that every CPA considers other CPAs as their competitor, as is true for any professional. So when they learn about good technology or solutions, they don’t want to share with others to stay ahead in the game. Instead, they want to keep this solution as a secret sauce for their recipe with lower cost, increased profit margin, and more clientele.
Thus, the company faced the challenge of not being able to make it known to people. Initially, when you start a business, you rely on word of mouth, which becomes an uphill task when professionals don’t want to share. Eventually, we figured that we don’t just need to work with our customers; we also need to find the right people. We need to find the right partners, so they are willing to share and be influencers to spread the word within the industry. In the case of ScanWriter, we realized that the CPAs in private practice are not our best evangelists. The influencers, the firm runners, the leaders, and the front runners in the industry are our best bet. They don’t mind sharing the message. Also, journalists and people from the press industry like to share and spread the message. We also got good partners from trade shows and trade journals to get our solution known in the industry.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Before the internet era, the big press companies controlled the exposure of specific ideas, concepts, and information. Today is a different world with social media, YouTube, TikTok, etc., where anybody can publish their thoughts. One idea which can fructify in the fraud investigation business is to create a database of experienced investigators who can act as consultants and provide training to inexperienced investigators. They can generate training exercises based on real-life experiences and use the expertise of these investigators to turn it into a potential business. They can also take the training sessions online. Experienced investigators can publish their experiences on the internet to help the next generation.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I decided to buy a snack bar when I was starting my own company. Of course, today, that costs more than $100, but that was my best buy to date. It keeps the people in the office motivated, and they know that they’ll never have to work on an empty stomach.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Microsoft Office and CRM to handle my daily tasks and manage my calendar.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Since the pandemic, I did some reading around COVID-19. An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives by Matt Richtel was eye-opening. It explains how the coronavirus attacked the human body, which can defend itself against the virus. I believe it is always good to stay up to date and understand what is going around you. The entire world has been under the grip of this pandemic, and everyone should read this book to know how it happened.
What is your favorite quote?
“The smartest man is dumb: Only when you are dumb, you become an entrepreneur, and you go through the failures. Learning to grow through these failures is what makes you smart. And if you are smart, don’t be selfish.”
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.