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North Star Leaders Podcast

Xiao Wang

Season 2 Episode 2 30 Apr 2024

Transcript

Xiao Wang:

By default means that you are not spending the time to do all of the analysis that you may want, and it may not cover every edge case that you may want to cover, but the trade-off here was that actually be able to think about and distill these complicated things and something that we can tackle easily was more important than like covering everything and making sure it is fully thorough before we make a decision.

But over time, as we become more mature or as we get. Larger scale or, or have deeper penetration into certain segments or markets or categories that may flip. There may be a time where like actually covering everything is more important. Whereas right now we're saying, Hey, if you don't fit this, you know we're okay saying no.

And so that's why it's like, it'll be really interesting in a couple more years when we revisit our values and to see like, Hey, which ones still hold and which ones. Should continue to evolve.

And so that's why it's like, it'll be really interesting in a couple more years when we revisit our values and to see like, Hey, which ones still hold and which ones. Should continue to evolve.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose. I'm Lindsay Peterson, brand strategist, author of Forging an Ironclad brand and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it. Today I am really happy to be joined by Xiao Wang. Xiao is Co-founder and CEO of Boundless Immigration. Boundless is a technology company that serves immigrants as they navigate their immigration journey. Xiao, welcome to the show.

Xiao Wang:

Thanks for having me, Lindsay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I'm so glad to have you. My first question for you, Xiao, is what's your favorite thing about what you do?

Xiao Wang:

This is going to sound like a cop out answer, but it's true. Where I am on a Slack channel that gets an automatic feed from all of the MPS results from our customers, and now that we serve tens of thousands per year, it's regularly populated with results. And it's amazing when you just read each of these stories around what the family, what the individual, what the company employee had to go through, and then their reaction to their experience with Boundless, makes a lot of the hard parts easier. I talked to a number of folks around how every job has its highs and lows. I mean, it's good days and it's terrible days, but even on the worst day we can say, "Hey, we've helped reunite 15 families today. We helped someone get the job of their dreams." There's a part of that that makes the grind feel a little better.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh yeah. It's like those granular details of somebody's story that makes it so deeply human and that makes the things that you do day in and day out as a leader feel so gratifying.

Xiao Wang:

Definitely. And it's important to remember that as you get larger scale. This year for 2024, one of our company pillars is around treating every customer like our very first customer. Because if you recall back to when you first started, you would do anything for those early customers and you knew their whole story and they were with you for a long time through this journey, and each one was very special. And then as you scale up and instead of one customer, you have 10 customers and then a hundred and a thousand and 10 thousand and a hundred thousand, it can be easy to forget that each one, while we're helping a lot of them for each of our families and each of our customers, this might be one of their, if not one of their top three most important things in their lives right now. And so how can we honor that and treat every day again as a quest to gain that trust all over again for each of our customers?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, I mean it makes so much sense when it's one, two, three, 10, 15 people, those very specific human stories are so close to you and so immediate, and then when it's hundreds, you have to work harder to have that sense of immediacy and that sense of closeness with each human being with each story. How do you do it? What are the tools to make that, to bring that kind of down to the ground from the thousands or hundreds of thousands to the one or two or three?

Xiao Wang:

We make a very deliberate effort around each company, town hall, each team meeting, each retreat, each investor update. Every time we communicate broadly about their company, it starts with a story. It starts with being able to articulate the pains and the challenges that someone's gone through to navigate through this broken immigration process and the ways that specific members of our team have helped to alleviate. I love the fact that our customers in their reviews, in their testimonials often call out individual people, individual members, and then we have people on our team who've been taken out to dinner by their customers as part of their life because they indeed have helped them overcome an enormous barrier to them living the life that they've wanted to live.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I think you used the word ritual. The beginning of conversations, whether it's an all hands or an investor meeting or a team meeting, to start meetings with a story, to start meetings with something hyper specific to get in that embodied experience of this is the person, this is the family that we're here for.

Xiao Wang:

And I think that it's something we keep trying to do different things. I would say we're very far from nailing, but ultimately it's very important for the longterm success of Boundless to maintain that level of connection and level of empathy and level of care and passion for what we're trying to do.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What have been other useful tools? You mentioned your pillars, tools or artifacts or structures that are helpful since you're building a company that's not just seeking an economic massive value creation, but you're also purpose driven. What are the tools that help you to keep that intersection close?

Xiao Wang:

Yeah, I think it's a pretty common theme I think on guests of your podcast, there's always this tension between how do you do well and how do you do good?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes.

Xiao Wang:

How can you achieve both without losing one or the other? And I would say that we've gone through many different iterations of this and it'll also probably be a common theme that I talked about today is like we haven't gotten it right times when you need to make financial decisions, and then there's time where you need to make mission and impact related to decisions. And it hasn't been always clear when you enter in one world versus when you enter in the other world and when a blend of both makes sense. One area that we really look at this is we try to be transparent with our organization about how we're doing as a company.

When you talk about the financial health of a company, it's usually from very clear numbers, how many sales did you have? What's your revenues? What's your costs? What's your margins? What's your profits? And being able to describe that, and that's great and that's necessary. And it's important to know that if there is no company and there's no successful foundation of an organization, there is no mission that we can achieve. And at the same time, we also then couch all of these financial terms in relation to the number of people that we've helped in relation to the categories that we have contributed to and be able to relate what does a dollar amount mean in terms of lives affected, is one that helps people be able to always think about these two in tandem.

They are both important, and when we think about celebrations or we actually celebrate milestones of customers and not so much milestones of financial, if we do great by customers, high number of customers or reach different nice round numbers that people can cling to and celebrate, it by default means that we've hit the financial metrics that we need to hit.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I hear a couple of things in there. One is give visibility to not merely the numbers which are important and in fact are existentially important, but also give visibility to things that don't lend themselves at maybe as immediately to numbers, the human beings, the people, so kind of the principle of visibility. I also heard from you, you used the word celebrations, so just like the ritual at the beginning of a meeting, starting with a story, but giving attention and heart and time and space to the celebrations of the individual stories that might not make it to your P&L, so it might not readily be visible, and so you give that visibility to it with a lot of deliberateness.

Xiao Wang:

Yeah. Each of these areas, we've gotten over time to learn from is it needs to be intentional or else either people fill the gaps or they feel like they don't understand that connection. The examples that comes up is like we needed to get to software or SaaS level gross margin because that would enable us to be able to invest more into our operations, into the product, into the service, into the team. But for a lot of people, especially ones who are on the CS team or front lines of customers, even though their actions affect gross margins, they don't think of their lives as in terms of margins.

That is a very abstract accounting kind of way of framing a company goal to the board investors, banks require a certain level of margin or a certain piece. It really came down to, well, how quickly can we get someone through, how fast can we move people between one phase to another? How many applications can we ship in a given day to the government? And so it becomes these types of metrics that again sort of roll up into the financial metrics, but that feel more not only tangible to the team, but also worthy of celebrating. It's hard to celebrate, oh, we got five points of gross margin, but it is easier to say, oh, we're averaging one week faster on getting people through the process.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Is there a tension between speed of getting somebody through which helps your financials and the customer experience or those actually self-reinforcing? Does holding one up harm the other or do they actually help the other?

Xiao Wang:

In this case, they're pretty aligned. This doesn't apply to every metric. What we try to look for are ways that's like what helps us, helps you. And in this case, the number one desire by a person is that their application goes through successfully. There's no wiggle room there. Our bar is a hundred percent, it's fully guaranteed. We give you full refunds if it doesn't happen, and we have a 99.97% approval rate to back that up. It's like that needs to be there, but then after that need is met, if you go the next level of sort of Maslow's hierarchy, if you will, is that you want it to be done as quickly as you can because by the time you are ready to immigrate or by the time you're ready to work or so, every day matters between whether it's a day longer, you're separated from your loved one or it's a day longer before you're able to earn income and feed your family. The time actually becomes a critical part of this next phase of your journey and what matters.

And so the faster that we can get you through the process, meaning if you break that down, it's like how clear are an instruction? How good is our technology to help you gather the things you need? How much support can we give you to make sure that you do it the first time? All of those investments in making achieving speed actually also create a better experience for the customer.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes, every day that a person is waiting is another day they're not with their family.

Xiao Wang:

Right. What's interesting is that as I'm an immigrant and I came over and I suffered through the immigration process with my family, and you always kind of take it for granted that like, oh yeah, that's what happens with everyone. But now I'm a US citizen. I help my family through the naturalization process, and there are so many sort of benefits and privileges to get as being a US citizen. You almost forget how challenging it is for the rest of the country.

I currently am not concerned about if I need to wait a year or longer to be able to be with my loved ones or to live where I want to live. And that's not the case for millions of people. It's something that is also worth sort of reminding, especially our team is roughly half immigrants or folks who have been involved in the immigration process, and so they know it intimately. And then to have to haven't always an eye-opening moment when they actually recognize, wow, this is what someone has to go through? And it's important to always keep that appreciation of how challenging and how unthinkable it can be for you to not be able to pursue the life that you want with the people that you want to be with.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Right. Right. It makes me think of in ways big and small, how taxing it is on a person in the middle of this process because there's the big things, there's the, I'm separated from my family, and then there's the things that are more mundane, just what a drain it is on your mental space to be in limbo and what are the ripple effects of that being mentally drained, the opportunities that you're not going after, the relationships that you're not nurturing. It's so all encompassing and so deep.

Xiao Wang:

And then it goes on for a while. The two areas that I get really excited about us helping folks over time is first is around even if you get here, even if you complete the process, there's so much of how do you thrive in a new life in a new country? And you think of all the things they don't teach you in high school even as growing up here, oh, you need to build credit, you need a bank account, you need a card, you need a place to live. And all these aspects are elements where people are just left to their own devices. And so I'm really proud of, for example, for the team, we offer a no credit check basically payment plan option for a lot of the immigration costs as a way to get people access and ability to pay for this part of their journey when no one else will often give them access to financing or to money.

That's an area that we're looking into. The other piece is around how can we help employers realize that it is just as easy to hire an immigrant as it is to hire a non-immigrant? And I'm saying that as a glossing, of course it's not a hundred percent just as easy, but there are so much that we have built out and can do and help people that, and you're going up against these preconceived notions of costs and complexity of risk where I'm constantly surprised when I talk to CEOs of thousand person companies who've never considered sponsoring immigrants because they have no one on their team who knows how to do it. And it feels really hard and it feels like it's really complicated.

And so that's an area that I get really excited about. How can we change that mindset? Not only that, you don't need to go to a lawyer, which is what we've been trying to educate the world in over the last seven years of our journey, but also that you can do this and it gives you access to just such a rich pool of talent that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to reach.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What an unlock for leaders to capture a market they otherwise wouldn't be able to capture in their employee base. And what an unlock for the immigrants themselves who are unfairly and almost arbitrarily left out of, all because of sort of a false belief or false notion that it's not possible or that it's really difficult.

Xiao Wang:

Exactly. I mean, I grew up watching this. We were in, when we first came here, we were in Tempe, Arizona, and there aren't that many job opportunities there, especially 30 years ago, that sponsored immigrants in Tempe, Arizona. And so until we received our green cards and could actually move around, my parents really in this world could move around from coming to the company. They're kind of stuck. And that's not good for American... If you just take a purely a utilitarian project that's not good for American prosperity, that's not good for increasing taxes paid to social services, investment community, all of these things is we want people to be able to flourish, who are here. And so it's a really exciting journey that we're on to try to help change that narrative.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I mean, yeah, so the unlock transcends the company and the person. The unlock is very macro as well. It's for the whole economy of the region or the country. One thing that I've heard you talk about is the different ways that a company can set value. On the one hand, I think you called it the motivational poster type values, but that you prefer to state values that have some edge, that require trade-offs. Can you talk about that more? Talk about the usefulness of values that have edge that require trade-offs?

Xiao Wang:

Definitely. And I would again talk about how values are a living and continuously mutating environment, so what fits their values today? Not in the future, but what my time at Amazon really taught me is it's incredible how powerful values can be when they can be used to drive decisions and when it's something that is integrated into all the aspects of how an organization talks and thinks about a problem. For us, and just talk a little bit about our journey. First, it's very clear the motivational poster values like perseverance and excellence,

Lindsay Pedersen:

Integrity.

Xiao Wang:

Integrity, it doesn't mean anything. There is a level of what I call table stakes. And so I don't think of these as values. They don't differentiate one company from the other, but in our case, if you don't treat others with respect, if you don't act with the integrity, then there's no place for you here. You don't get this opportunity very often to create a company. And so there's pieces that are really important to me. We don't have assholes here, and you can be brilliant, but it doesn't work here. And different aspects of that... Let's just call that, yeah, table stakes.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. It doesn't have to be differentiated, but it does have to be present.

Xiao Wang:

Exactly. Then it's like, well, what makes us different? What makes someone here different? And I think of our values as there's V one and V two values. So V one values were the ones that myself and my co-founders went away and thought about aspirationally what kind of organs we want to build and then brought it down and it's like, okay, these are our values. And they were okay, and they were okay because it was like this is just in our mind. We hadn't actually developed that cadence and faced challenges and faced those trade-offs yet. And then came V two, which is about four years in now, where you could see who are the people who have been really successful about this, what are the decisions that have been really successful about this and what made those successful? And so then that took another process where we talked to the various culture carriers across the organization, really understood what was driving it and how different decisions were made.

And we came up with a new set of six values that do represent who we are. And when we interview people, when we do performance reviews, when we think about why someone is successful here or not, or why a project was more successful or not, or why a decision was more successful or not, you could actually attach it to those values and then that gives you a lot more specificity to ground yourself on how do you learn from that and how do you get better at it?

As an example, one of our values is strive to simplify, which means that our immigration is really complicated, but you can either start with the fully fleshed out, complicated answer, or you can start with the simplest answer. And it is much more important for us to start with the simplest answer and move on. And that was learned from by default means that you are not spending the time to do all of the analysis that you may want to, and it may not cover every edge case that you may want to cover, but the trade off here was to actually be able to think about and distill these complicated things and something that we can tackle easily was more important than covering everything and making sure it is fully thorough before we make a decision.

But over time, as we become more mature or as we get larger scale or have deeper penetration into certain segments or markets of categories, that may flip, there may be a time where actually covering everything is more important. Whereas right now we're saying, Hey, if you don't fit this, we're okay saying no. And so that's why it's like it'll be really interesting in a couple more years when we revisit our values and to see, hey, which ones still hold and which ones should continue to evolve?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Which ones still serve what we're trying to do and which ones are holding us back from what we're trying to do? Those are ever evolving. And then you revisit them because as the market changes and as your maturity changes, those values might need to change as well. I heard you talk once about building a black licorice culture, which I freaking love. What does that mean? Tell my listeners what it means to build a black licorice culture.

Xiao Wang:

Ultimately, I love black licorice.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Me too, coincidentally.-

Xiao Wang:

As a room of people, probably be like two hands that go up.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Xiao Wang:

But the people who love black licorice, love black licorice. Everyone else is like, why does this product still exist? People don't like it. The idea here is that we are not a company that is looking to hire everyone, and there are a lot of great people out there who may not be successful here, but what we really want is the people who are successful here to embody and to reflect what we are trying to do. That means that you're saying no to people who are great on paper or some people can be phenomenally successful after us or not hear about this. And those are people we celebrate and great. But what it does clarify is that we're much, much clearer upfront about what this environment's going to be like. For example, one of our values is adapt and evolve, and it's like this is an industry that changes constantly. And in the beginning, especially during the Trump administration, for example, there'd be a Friday night tweet that changes the rules.

Then we'd have to scramble that by Monday to be able to support these new policies that were just tweeted out. And that was really hard on certain people who were more methodical and wanted things to be done in a certain way. And then for other people they're like, great, let's just roll with it, like a new thing. We realized that for us in this industry, we needed people who embraced a high speed of change, and that speed of change can be terrifying for some folks, it can be exhilarating for others. And so why not bring on people who embrace that and know that like, hey, great, we can change faster than anyone else.

Every time a change happens, it's actually beneficial for us because that's our competitive advantage and that's a whole different mindset. But then with the clear we are that that's the mindset we're looking for, then we can attract the people who want that. And then also for again great people who are like, that is not the place I want to be. Then they can find somewhere else to be at. It's also the benefit you have when you have a smaller company is that I'm not hiring an entire analyst class of a couple hundred people. It's like, I'm looking for three people who do this really well. Let's make sure that they also understand the kind of environment that they're getting into, and it's an environment that they can thrive in.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yes, it's like when you have a lot of money or a lot of employees, it can kind of hide a lot of sin. You don't have to be as upfront or as specific or as visible about the things because there's so much room for forgiveness in the system. When you're a small company and you're hiring three people, it's really a gift to all applicants, the ones who don't make it through, and the ones that do, to be so deliberate and upfront and specific that this is who thrives here and this is who will not thrive here. It's a gift to everybody to have that level of upfrontness and that level of clarity, which helps everybody, it helps the company. But it does take some bravery to put that stake in the ground to say, this is what we're attracting. This is who's going to flourish, and this is who won't flourish in our organization.

Xiao Wang:

It means that some things take some hires take longer, and also that saying no is hard.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Xiao Wang:

This is one of my biggest growth opportunities as a leader too, is around all the things that I need to be able to say no to. Especially, yes, we've been around for a while. Yes, we have traction, but we're so far away from achieving this mission that we want to achieve. When it's that case, what makes this both fun and exasperating is that I have anyone on the team standing in front of a whiteboard for five minutes and they'll fill it up with all the things that we should do, all the people we should try to help, all the categories we should support, all the services that we should offer. There's so much that we can do, and they're all good things.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Xiao Wang:

And so how do we actually focus on the ones that had the biggest impact is a real challenge. And that prioritization process sucks because you're like, wait, but I want A and I want B. But if you try to do them, we've done this before. When we do both A and B, you do neither of them really well. That doesn't make anyone feel good. It feels good in the moment when you're like, great, I don't have to make a decision. We're going to tackle both. We're going to try little experiments and we're going to do a little MVP on A, and a little MVP on B, and let's see what happens. And that feels good in that moment because we don't have to kill any ideas, and then we're just pushing the ball down the road.

It is not good three to six months from now when you're like, "Ah, A has a little bit of things, but it's just like problems and B has a little bit of traction, but has some problems. Now what?" As opposed to actually seeing the hard thing upfront and say, "No, we're not doing B yet. We're not yet doing B, but we're going to do A and we're going to do A right." And then three to six months later, you have a successful A people feel good about the work that they did and now you can be like, okay, now let's take on.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that reframe of this is on the not yet list because then since it's so hard to say no to good but not amazing ideas, it's easy to say no to the bad ideas.

Xiao Wang:

You don't know what that is. So that's the other part.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Imperfect information here.

Xiao Wang:

You don't know what is... You don't have enough time. We could do the analysis, but then it'll take again three months and it's pointless. Strive to simplify. We don't have time to do all the analysis, so I don't know if A is indeed better than B, and that's the hardest part is if it's clear, that's a clear answer. We think A and B could both be good. And so you're actually saying, look, I just want to do one of them well, and they may not be the optimal one. It may end up turning out that B ends up being better, but I won't know that if I. Part of my half-assed both A and B.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Sure.

Xiao Wang:

We had this issue earlier, I called it the cold pizza test. I don't know if you've talked about this. Anyone else or in your...

Lindsay Pedersen:

I don't think so. Tell me about the cold pizza test.

Xiao Wang:

There's a spirit of experimentation. We're like, we're going to live in an era where it's so easy to instrument everything and there's so much data, and so you're like, okay, great. Let's run an experiment and see the analogy goes, let's say you're trying to test a new flavor of pizza, but in the spirit of getting it out fast, you don't cook it, then you test it and no one likes it. Then you don't know if it's because of the toppings that you put on the pizza or because people don't like cold pizza. And we had those issues pretty frequently for a while at balance where we test something and then it was because we were so prioritizing the speed of the test and trying to do a lot of different things and see what sticks and put things on the wall. That ended up being a lot of cold pizza out there. And then you didn't learn anything.

Lindsay Pedersen:

You get a false read, you might learn something that's wrong. You might actually have a false sense of knowing something that actually is maybe far from the truth because you didn't serve up a stimulus that captures an accurate response.

Xiao Wang:

And this happens constantly when there is a limited resource or a bottleneck. In most startups, it's like the engineering team as an example. It's so easy to be like, okay, the engineering team doesn't have any bandwidth. Great, so we are going to just hack something together on the side and run this test because I want to run this test and I can't get the actual support to do it the right way. And I'm not saying that the spirit of experimentation is that or that there are... But what often happens if it's not being thought deliberately and intentionally about this is that, yeah, you run a bunch of stuff and people launch little things here and there and none of them have enough traction to mount to anything. And then you look back and you're like, I still don't know where to put the engineering team. When they do come up.

While it's tempting to say, okay, if I don't have enough of resource, like some bottleneck resource, I'm going to try to tackle a different way. Each of those experiments need to be thought of very deliberately or what specifically are you trying to learn from this, and what is the exact metric that you're looking at to actually have it teach you something or else in our case, you end up with a lot of unhelpful experiments.

Lindsay Pedersen:

What's the specific learning we're after? What's actionable about that learning? What will we do differently or better as a result of that learning? And is that worth it? Is it worth it in order to make it onto that very short list of priorities for a company that doesn't have unlimited resources? It's been sort of a theme of this conversation is using structures like values and cultural norms as a filter, as a decision making filter for what are we going to go big with and what are we going to lean hard into and celebrate. I love that. I love that. Well, Xiao this has been so amazing. I have some rapid fire questions to ask you before we sign off. Are you ready? No. Listeners, he's shaking his head no. Don't overthink it. The more that you're thinking about it, the less that it's working. One word answers if you can. Okay. Favorite meal?

Xiao Wang:

Dinner.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Introvert or extrovert?

Xiao Wang:

Ambivert.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, that's an answer. Favorite non-fancy restaurant?

Xiao Wang:

Chipotle.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Dog person or cat person or neither?

Xiao Wang:

I have a dog.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Dog person. Your last splurge purchase?

Xiao Wang:

An important milestone birthday for my wife.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Such a gallant response. Oh my gosh. Xiao, this has been so wonderful. Where can people find you and learn more about Boundless online?

Xiao Wang:

Well, our website is boundless.com, which the acquisition of is a whole other podcast.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Is another episode. We'll talk part two.

Xiao Wang:

People can find me on LinkedIn. It's my first name. W-A-N-G is my last.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay, great. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much.

Xiao Wang:

Pleasure.


Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.