These Co-Founders Are Using 'Quiet Confidence' to Flip the Script on Cutthroat Startup Culture and Make Their Mark on a $46 Billion Industry
Kevin Lee and Kevin Chanthasiriphan were raised with a set of values that, in many ways, directly conflict with those in the startup space -- but they're using that to their advantage and taking noodle brand Immi to the next level.
When Kevin Lee and Kevin Chanthasiriphan met as product managers at mobile-gaming company Kabam in 2013, they discovered they had quite a bit in common. Not only were Lee and Chanthasiriphan first-generation immigrants whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and Thailand, respectively, but they also shared a love of noodles. In fact, the pair — who go by "KLee" and "KChan" to avoid the confusion sharing a first name can cause — were the only product managers to go get noodles for breakfast together on a regular basis.
Over the course of those mornings, KLee and KChan developed a friendship and learned they both came from food families. KLee's grandparents are produce farmers in Taiwan. KChan's grandmother ran a noodle stall in Thailand, and his father later opened a noodle restaurant in Los Angeles. Suffice it to say, a dedication to food is in the duo's DNA.
So it's perhaps no surprise that KLee and KChan's mutual love for ramen inspired the launch of their own noodle brand: Immi, a healthier take on beloved instant ramen. But the co-founders' belief in their brand goes beyond their personal fondness for noodles. It's also driven by their desire to solve some of the chronic health problems that consuming traditional ramen can cause — issues they've seen arise in their own families.
"As we've gotten older and our families have gotten older, we've seen very high rates of chronic health conditions in both of our families, predominantly diabetes and high blood pressure," KLee says. "And so we started talking about working on a better-for-you Asian American food brand."
The co-founders set their sights on a market that hadn't seen a substantial shake-up in decades. "[Instant ramen] is a $46 billion market," KChan says, "and people eat 4.4 billion servings and cups per year, which is wild. But on top of that, we also knew there were a lot of stale incumbents with a lot of uninspiring innovation — reducing sodium by 25% isn't that exciting after 50 years in business.
"Most importantly, instant ramen has a ton of product love," KChan continues. "It was the first thing KLee and I learned how to cook as kids, because you could just pop it in the microwave. And for many people, it's nostalgic — it's that food you eat when you're in college and broke and missing home."
KLee's and KChan's professional backgrounds gave them a powerful arsenal of experience to draw from as new co-founders. Following his time at Kabam, KLee launched the world's first and largest online product-management community; shortly after, he began investing in early stage consumer-tech companies, then later led food and beverage investing at early stage VC Pear Ventures. KChan continued his career in product management, going on to join healthcare company Amino and later becoming a lead product manager at Facebook.
The co-founders were ready to build their business from the ground up, but they also had to contend with the typical pressures of startup culture: namely, the pervasive competitiveness and brash confidence that so often accompanies success — and can make for a toxic company culture. Fortunately, KLee and KChan have become well-versed in the art of simultaneously holding personal values close and breaking out of their comfort zones.
Balancing personal and professional values for success
"One thing we both grew up with was extreme humility," KChan says. "What that means is putting your head down and doing the work. My mom, for example, was a really tough critic and always challenged me to let the results of my work and actions speak for themselves. For better or worse, report cards and standardized testing were the indisputable standards against which we were measured."
It's an approach that comes with advantages and disadvantages, KChan says. "On the positive side, it really encouraged us to always work hard and really help us cultivate what I call 'quiet confidence.' But at the same time, I'd be remiss to say that this type of behavior doesn't also come with its own set of trade-offs. There's a lot of loneliness and solitude and large amounts of pent-up stress that you ended up dealing with. And one of the things that KLee and I are focused on is finding balance."
As first-generation immigrants, KLee says, he and KChan have had to unlearn some of the "habits" that harm rather than help their business strategy and productivity. "When you grow up in these circumstances where you're just trying to survive in America, a lot of these immigrant core values tend to revolve around thriftiness and trying to save as much money as possible for these rainy days. And you're also taught to avoid debt at all costs.
"We would of course preach the importance of thriftiness," KLee continues. "We manage burn really well and focus intensely on unit economics, but we've had to learn to be willing to spend on talent and marketing dollars — we have to treat it as an investment, where you might not see a direct correlation to return immediately."
KLee brings up the idea of "quiet confidence" again, noting that rather than putting their heads down and building their company silently, he and KChan are doing it out in the open. Community building is a huge part of Immi; the company boasts a private community of 4,000 evangelists that's grown alongside the brand, sharing in all of its wins and losses. This, too, feels at odds with the "self-reliance" tenet of the co-founders' upbringings, but it's an absolute necessity for any successful startup.
"As a startup founder, you have to learn how to ask for help from your friends, from people in your network, almost every single day," KLee says. "I think learning to ask for help has been one of the greatest contributors to our company's success so far."
Harnessing the power of competition and confidence the right way
KLee and KChan launched Immi during the pandemic, and, despite the international supply-chain disruption, they led with an aggressive trial-and-error approach, one that allowed them to try everything from recipes to marketing campaigns to figure out what worked — and what didn't. Naturally, there have been some ups and downs, but it's all part of the process of building a successful startup.
"While running as fast as we can, we've definitely stumbled and fallen many times," KChan says. "I feel like the biggest reeducation that we've had is that when moving around physical products, you're naturally limited by the speed of shipping. Trucks, planes, boats; it's not nearly as instantaneous as pushing a button and seeing your software ship globally."
Through it all, the co-founders have practiced a combination of self-belief and resilience to maintain productivity and a great workplace culture. At Immi, the pair sets 50/50 targets and goals, embracing the idea that there's a 50% chance of success — and a 50% chance of failure — for any given endeavor. It's emblematic of a different kind of ambition and boldness, one that relies more on internal measures than external ones.
"It's not about being overly filled with false confidence or blowing out a lot of hot air," KChan says. "It's about having this foundational self-belief that as you approach problems, which have a 50/50 chance of success or failure, you feel assured that you have the skill set to be successful 50% of the time, and then those 50% of the times that you're going to fail, you have the confidence to pick yourself back up and start that process all over again."
It was an especially helpful mentality in the company's early days, when some doubted if the duo would even be able to pull off a low-carb noodle. In that case, KChan laughs, he estimates he and KLee had a 25% chance of success and 75% chance of failure. But more than 200 formulations later, KChan says the product is "light years ahead" of where they were when they started.
The co-founders' careful approach to competition has also helped ensure they put their friendship first and lift other founders up. "When KChan and I first started Immi together, we promised each other two things," KLee says. "The first was that our friendship would always come first. We'd rather shut down this company than risk damaging our friendship. And the second thing was that we really wanted to build Immi in a way where we would be proud to tell our children and our grandchildren that every single step and every single decision was done in the right way."
KLee cites an example from when Immi brought on a growth consultant to steer its advertising campaign. When one of Immi's ads began to do inordinately well compared to the others, the co-founders looked into it and were dismayed to find that a search for an AAPI-founded competitor was turning up results for Immi — and harshly listing all of the ways in which Immi was better than the other brand. That wasn't the way KLee and KChan wanted to do business.
"They were just trying to make a living themselves," KLee says. "And they'd never done anything like that to us. KChan and I are in the business of lifting the tide for all AAPI entrepreneurs, and we really want to grow the market together. The last thing we would ever want to do is put an AAPI founder down for our own gain or, frankly, put any other founder down for our own gain."
The co-founders pulled the ad and no longer work with that growth consultant.
Seeking inspiration and words of wisdom in the face of burnout
KLee and KChan have continued to grow their company, keeping that ever-important — and nuanced — balance of personal and professional values and priorities in mind. And, like many founders today, they've been up against the burnout effect — an unfortunate phenomenon exacerbated by the pandemic. But many in business wear workplace stress as a badge of honor.
"That's a narrative that KLee and I have to fight very consciously," KChan says. "Because sometimes there's this guilt that sets in when you're not working — not that we don't work hard, but there should be space and time for us to have fun with each other and make this an enjoyable experience, because as much as this is about the outcome, it's also about how we grow and what we learn and experience along the way."
"There's actually a fun quote online," KLee adds. "Someone asks, 'Is it about the journey or the destination?' And it's neither; it's about the people you spend it with, on the way there. So I think that's how KChan and I have always felt."
KLee and KChan continue to center that people-first approach with Immi, believing that it's not only the right thing to do, but also, at the end of the day, the way to take their business to new heights. One of KLee's favorite pieces of advice is fairly simple, but incredibly apt: "Take care of your people, and they'll take care of business."
The co-founders also continue striving for excellence when it comes to doing what hasn't been done before — and draw inspiration from sometimes unlikely sources to make that a reality.
"It's no surprise that one of my biggest sources of inspiration is actually Bruce Lee," KChan says, explaining that when he was growing up, martial arts movies were the primary form of Asian representation in U.S. media. "I think he's done a lot of amazing things as an athlete, but what I admire most about him is some of the philosophical underpinnings in his body of work. If I had to just call on like one thing, it's really his aversion to dogma and his focus on cultivating personal growth, in particular from learning. One of his famous quotes that I always think about is when he says to 'absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.'
"Of course he was talking about his form of martial arts," KChan continues, "but I think it applies to many things in life and, really, as entrepreneurs, we talked to a lot of folks, we asked for help a lot, but in essence, what we're doing is something very uniquely our own. And so the creative endeavor for us is really to curate the advice and wisdom of others, and at the same time to stay true to our own unique experiences, as well as our personalities."
At this point, it goes without saying that Immi is about far more than the co-founders' passion for healthful and delicious noodles. The brand is also a love letter to a culture and set of values that continue to define its place in the startup world — and serve as a reminder to aspiring founders of the success story that's possible with a lot of heart and hard work.
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