Hatchery’s Yao-Hui Huang Has Tough Love for Tech Startups

Yao-Hui Huang is a preacher in the church of tech startups and new-business development. As the founder of the Hatchery, a matchmaker for tech start ups and funding sources, she is a true believer who, after building her own successful technology business, realized that she wanted to help people launch their companies and help New York to carve out a piece of the lucrative technology market. Like all good preachers, she can lift the spirits of her congregants or she can shame them. She calls the verging-on-brutal criticism that she saves for those whose path is not well mapped out “just being honest.”

Huang is a principal in Gigapixel Creative, a New York-based digital advertising agency whose clients include Cingular, Nike, Princeton University, and NYC’s famed City Bakery. She says that even though she focuses on technology with its futuristic aura, the principles of success are the same for tech startups as they are for bakeries. “It comes down to old-school business,” she said. “Make something. Sell it. Make money.”

Huang, who will say only that she is “in her thirties,” is already  on her third career, all of which were in male-dominated fields. After obtaining a PhD in pharmaceutical science, she went to work in the pharmaceutical industry, climbing the corporate ladder. While the money was good, the work didn’t stir her soul. “You didn’t change anything; you didn’t impact anything,” she said. “You did a job.”

After a year of exploring what would feed her more entrepreneurial instincts, teamed with her friend, Joey Kilrain, a veteran of the dot-com boom and bust, to launch Web development shop Gigapixel Creative in 2003. Building Gigapixel had a side effect. As she met with clients, appeared on panels and attended networking events, she noticed that startup wannabes often sought her out and asked her for introductions to one of the variety of funding sources in her bursting Rolodex.

“I would ask very basic business questions,” she recalls. “How will this make money? Have you thought about your competition? Have you thought about the other side of the table, the investors, the customers and what they want?” Huang says that eager but inexperienced founders often look at the problems associated with starting a business from an upside-down perspective. “In this tech startup scene,” said Huang, “there seems to be the attitude that if I build something, people will come. And when they come, we’ll figure out how to make money.”

Five years ago, as a little experiment, Huang hosted a networking event. She invited several of the budding businesspeople that had approached her for advice to present their ideas to the very people they wanted to meet. “I told them, ‘You’re gonna pitch. I have investors. These are the people you want me to introduce you to,’” she said. “They pitched. They got creamed. In front of everybody. But they weren’t upset. They learned.” That gave birth to the Hatchery.

The model is built in Taiwan-born, New Jersey-bred Huang’s image: tough and unflinchingly honest.

“The best thing you can do for someone is to tell him or her the truth,” she said. “This idea is no good and let me tell you why.” She said she knows a great idea when she hears it because her gut tells her. Beyond that, she said, there’s a checklist at the top of which is the startup’s team — their knowledge and experience. “Are you a bunch of shoemakers trying to build a car?” she asks “Or are you a bunch of shoemakers trying to start a shoe company?”

Because its success has not gone unnoticed by business communities near and far, the fourth quarter of 2011 is set to be a lively one for the Hatchery. Huang says that she has been approached by cities across the U.S. and beyond to assist in establishing similar business-funder matchmaking services. Huang is in various stages of developing Hatcheries in South Florida, the Midwest, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and Egypt. She is even about to launch a Hatchery in Jakarta. Most of the work that the company does will be under its newly established 501c3 non-profit umbrella. That will enable Huang and company to continue to offer participation in the Hatchery at no cost.

But because the Hatchery has grown so quickly, Huang can no longer underwrite the enterprise completely. Certain companies will now pay for the Hatchery’s services. “We’ll take one to two handfuls of companies at a time,” she said. “We’ll work with them more closely. And we’re paid dollars or equity or a success fee, or a combination of those three things.”

Huang has also decided to refine the focus of some of her efforts even more. For a new venture, she has assembled a team that includes Tania Yuki, a vp at Visibleworld and founder of wimlink, a women’s networking blog, Tanya Alvarez, owner of BlinkAds, and Angela Leaney, former CMO at Newsweek and currently the Harlem Globetrotters’ evp of brand marketing. Together they will be launching WAM in November, an offshoot of the Hatchery meant to assist women working in the technology field. Huang said that although she has never felt constrained because she is a woman, it’s clear that lots of women find that their gender adds an additional layer of difficulty to the challenge of working in the technology field. “There are still days when I am the only woman in the room,” Huang said. “When I am the only woman on a panel.”

She said that WAM’s only goal is to “help women get hired in executive roles.” And here again, it’s easy to imagine Huang, standing at a pulpit, preaching the tough love gospel of business success. “We are going to help women get what they want,” she said. “Whatever it is you want as a woman, we will get you there. We will help you to break down fears and expand freedoms.”

And because this no-nonsense businesswoman wants to make sure that no one thinks that this will be a new-age-style consciousness-raising group, she adds, “We’ll be doing some New York-style ass kicking.”

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