Harrison Tang – Founder and President of Spokeo

” All entrepreneurs will tell you that ideas are worth a dime a dozen, and what matters is execution. And to execute well, you will need an A+ team.”

Harrison Tang is the founder and president of Spokeo, which he created in 2006 with a group of four friends from Stanford University. They envisioned a new way to approach social networks by providing an easy user interface to keep track of friends’ activities online. Since then, Spokeo has grown into a leading, people search engine, reconnecting individuals to others all across the United States.

As founder and president, Harrison is responsible for the overall direction and product strategy for the company. He leads the team focusing on building an easy-to-use system that can aggregate billions of records and return results within one second.

Harrison Tang grew up in the Silicon Valley. He attended Stanford University and received his bachelor’s degrees in economics and electrical engineering and his master’s in electrical engineering in 2005.

What are you working on right now?

We’ve set out on a mission to build the ultimate people search engine, and we are still at the beginning stages of that quest. Currently, we are working on integrating business information, court records, and more celebrity data into Spokeo. In the next two months, we will launch a completely revamped version of our famous people pages, a new neighborhood safety application, and a new business search engine.

Where did the idea for Spokeo come from?

The original idea for Spokeo had nothing to do with people search at all. We started Spokeo to build a social network aggregator in hopes of simplifying people’s digital lifestyles. We didn’t do any market research (or rather, we didn’t know how to), so we learned the hard way that the concept of social network aggregation does not have a mainstream appeal. Before we ran out of our parents’ money, we decided to throw the dice and change our business model. We found that many of our users were using Spokeo technology to search for other people’s digital footprints, as opposed to aggregating their own. This discovery prompted us to repackage our social search technology for people search purposes, and this business pivot has allowed us to keep the lights on.

What does your typical day look like?

When we were just a team of six, I had to wear many hats–some of which involved answering customer phone calls and watering the office plants. Now my job is to find people better than me to take over my original responsibilities. As a result, I spend half of my day talking to people–both within and outside the company. I still like the feeling of actually doing stuff though, so I dedicate about the other half of my time to thinking and designing products.

How do you bring ideas to life?

After I think of an idea, I try to draw it on a piece of paper. Afterward, I will bounce the idea around the office to get some feedback. If enough people like the idea, then I will hand that piece of paper to a graphic designer, and he/she will turn those hand-drawings into beautiful mock-ups. The mock-ups will be critiqued by all our designers, and after this peer review, mock-ups will be handed to front-end engineers and back-end engineers. Front-end engineers work on user interface, whereas back-engineers process and prepare the data. Together, they will transform designers’ Photoshop mock-ups into real, usable products.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I am really excited about the mobile revolution that all of us are experiencing right now. For better or for worse, connectivity anywhere/anytime has transformed our lives, blurring the line between work and home lifestyle. This mobile revolution brings people closer than ever, and I believe a more connected world will lead to more exciting innovations. Of course, any revolution entails some breakdowns of the old norms. For example, the increased connectivity will change the old idea of privacy. There is no way for us to
reverse the trend, and we just have to figure out a new solution that will work in the new world.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I started Spokeo back in college, so Spokeo is both the best and the worst job I’ve ever had. Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot from my Spokeo experience, and the most important lesson is the old cliche, “find the right people.” With the right people, a me-too idea can grow into a dominant force. With the wrong people, an ingenious idea can turn into a disaster. All entrepreneurs will tell you that ideas are worth a dime a dozen, and what matters is execution. And to execute well, you will need an A+ team.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

This is a tricky question. If I were to start again, of course I would try to avoid the mistakes I’ve made in the past. That said, without those mistakes, I would not be who I am today. I believe that mistakes are okay, and what matters is how you rectify those mistakes afterward, as well as what you learn from them. As a result, I don’t regret making mistakes, and I don’t regret spending two years building a social network aggregator that few people use. I see these mistakes as a rite of passage. Only by passing these types of hurdles will you emerge stronger than ever.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I recommend that people keep trying things and not be afraid of failure. Most ventures look good at first, but don’t work out in the end. This is because the devil is in the details, and what seems simple to outsiders are things that outsiders don’t understand. The only way to figure out those details is through trial and error, and failure is just a part of the game. In order to overcome these challenges, we simply have to keep our heads down and keep trying.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest problem that every entrepreneur faces is attracting talent. When you are starting a company without any track record or strong backing, no good talent wants to join you. The only people who will believe in you and support you are your friends; after all, peer pressure is your only leverage if you have neither the money nor the track record. Like every first-time entrepreneur without rich connections, I could only convince my former Stanford roommates to join me, and that’s how Spokeo started.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Just like many offline services shifted to online back in the late 90s, many online activities are moving to mobile platforms now. We are still at the beginning stage of the mobile revolution, and there are still many ideas out there that still haven’t been ported to mobile. I think if someone wants to start a company today, the best platform to start will be mobile.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I would like to change the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The wealth gap has been widening since WWII, and this increasing gap will initiate civil unrest if unchecked. The way to close this gap is to resolve the fiscal deficit that we face today, to increase income taxes for the rich, and to coordinate with other governments to close loopholes overseas. It’s a complicated problem, and this is why it probably won’t be solved in the near future.

Tell us a secret.

Spokeo has an in-house, nerf gun armory.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

  1. Gmail is a tool that I use every day, both at work and at home. I love Gmail because it’s fast and stable, and I can access it on different devices.
  2. Youtube is another online service that I use every day. I spend a lot more time on YouTube and other video streaming services than on TV now.
  3. Lastly, Spokeo rounds up my top three favorite online services. I use it and think about how to improve it every breathing moment of my life.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I recommend Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers by Bill Vlasic. I like cars, and this is one of the best books about the auto industry out there.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Within five minutes of writing this, and probably within five minutes of you reading it. When working with such a great team of people, I get to laugh out loud a lot.

Who is your hero?

I don’t really have one single hero, because I think there are a lot of unsung heroes among us and I think it’s impossible to say one heroic act is more impressive than another.


Spokeo on Twitter: @spokeo
Spokeo on Facebook: Facebook.com/spokeopeoplesearch