Sign me up for the Danny Hwang fan club. We cover some fresh terrain for Beyond the Uniform, as we follow Danny’s story of leaving the Army - and just weeks later - traveling to Shanghai, and growing an education startup until - three years later - he and his brother successfully sold their first company. In doing so, they achieved a lifelong goal they committed to at age six, of being able to retire their parents and move them from their home in Atlanta back to Seoul, Korea. Now, Danny is at it again, this time in Vietnam, joined by co-founders who were his classmates at West Point, and friends in the Army. If you are interested in taking a risk in your career, in setting goals and achieving them, in maintaining a great family life in addition to a great work life, in starting companies, or just hearing a story from an inspirational veteran doing great things in the world. This episode is for you.
If you enjoy this episode, two similar episodes that I would recommend are:
BTU #114 - Founding an Inc 500 Company While Traveling Southeast
Asia (Justin Cooke) - where Justin Cooke talks about founding Empire
Flippers all while traveling through Southeast Asia.
2 - BTU #11 -BTU #111: Two sibling Army Vets and Their Two Successful
Startups - the story of Jon and Chris Boggiano, both West Point grads
and Army Veterans who co-founded two different successful startups
Danny Hwang is the Founder & CEO of Point Avenue. Based in Vietnam, Point Avenue is a private education technology company offering K-12 educational services and admissions consulting across Southeast Asia. He started out at West Point, after which he served as an Army Ranger for six years, including two tours in Iraq and over 25 months overseas. After his military service, he co-founded New Pathway Education & Technology Group with his older brother, Sam, in Shanghai, China, which was acquired in 2014 by CVC Capital Partners. He currently serves as the Chairman of Ignite, a professional services company that specializes in human capital development, and CEO of Odyssey, a joint venture company developing AI technology. Danny's hobbies include traveling the world with his wife, Honda, racing in ultra-marathons and Ironman competitions, reading, and spending time with his family.
This episode is sponsored by Point Avenue. Based in Vietnam, Point Avenue is a private education technology company offering K-12 educational services and admissions consulting across Southeast Asia. We are grateful for the financial support of Point Avenue on this episode, which helps us further our mission at Beyond the Uniform and have a bigger impact on the military Veteran community.
BTU #114 - Founding an Inc 500 Company While Traveling Southeast Asia (Justin Cooke) - where Justin cooke talks about founding Empire Flippers all while traveling through southeast Asia.
BTU #11 - BTU #111: Two sibling Army Vets and Their Two Successful Startups - the story of Jon and Chris Boggiano, both West Point grads and Army Veterans who co-founded two different successful startups together.
Info about Danny
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me from Seoul, Korea is Danny Hwang. In the last 30 days, how many countries have you traveled to?
I’ve been in four or five different countries.
How was your transition out of the Army?
I entered West Point in 2002. I had an incredible military career and was part of the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii. After two tours in Iraq, I ultimately made the decision to transition out of the military. Unfortunately. I didn’t have many resources during the transition. I ultimately moved to Shanghai to start an education company with my brother Sam.
Did you always know that you eventually wanted to go into entrepreneurship?
Not really. When I left West Point, I thought I would do an entire career in the Army. But my brother moved to Shanghai and started the education company and he kept asking me to join him. So eventually I made the decision to get out and join him in Shanghai.
That education company is called New Pathways. Can tell us more about that?
In China, there are about 500,000 students every year who study abroad in America. Those students attend international or bilingual schools. A lot of those students are preparing for exams like the SAT or ACT.
Our business is an online platform that also has offline educational centers where students can go to get help studying for exams.
My brother went to MIT and while he was there, he started an online SAT preparation company. After about 6 months, he ran out of money and had to terminate the venture. At that point, he began to focus more on bringing test preparation to the Chinese population.
When I came out to China to join my brother, I really didn’t have a defined role. At first, I was doing a lot of human resource work. I was looking at how we could build a strong culture amongst employees at the company. Eventually, I moved into the COO role.
What was it like going from the Army into an organization that was so different from anything you had done before?
I always try to learn from my experiences. When I reported to West Point that first summer before school, it was like drinking from a fire hose. There were so many things I just had to figure out. I had to be resilient and adaptable. I continued to carry those skills throughout the rest of my career in the Army and beyond.
When I started at New Pathways, I didn’t have a background in entrepreneurship or education but it was my drive to learn and be resilient that allowed me to achieve success. I was able to bring a lot of skills that I had learned in the military to my experience at New Pathways.
When you’re building teams, you want to bring people in with very different skill sets. My brother and I brought different skill sets to our experience at New Pathways and I think that allowed the company to be better overall.
Are there any resources you would recommend to someone that is interested in getting into entrepreneurship?
I think it’s a mix of reading books and using resources beforehand but eventually you just need to jump in and start learning by doing.
MBAs can be a great way to get formal training but I didn’t have that opportunity. For me, it was more about jumping in and learning on the fly.
One book I would recommend is Shoe Dog - it’s a book about the story of Nike.
What did the next couple years at New Pathways look like for you?
In terms of my personal development, it was a lot of just figuring things out. I had to figure out how to create a marketing strategy and refine our business plan. YouTube was a great resource for me as I was creating our business plan. Some of my friends that were working in entrepreneurship also proved to be tremendously helpful.
In 2014, the business was acquired. How large was the organization at that time?
We had three offices in Shanghai, two offices in Beijing, and a satellite office in Boston. We had 125 full-time employees. My brother started the company in 2009, I joined in early 2012 and then we sold the company in 2014. We ended up selling the company to a private equity firm.
After that, did you jump right into your next venture?
I think it’s important to take time to reflect on the past after something like that. My brother and I had time to take a deep breath and think about what we wanted to do next.
We eventually started NPX Capital which is a venture capital company that we’re operating out of Hong Kong and Seoul.
For me, my family has always been the most important thing. We retired our parents to South Korea and all did a family vacation together. My brother and I attribute much of our success to the values we learned from our parents growing up.
Can you talk about the value of setting goals in your life?
My family immigrated to Atlanta, GA in 1990. Even at a young age, my brother and I would talk about our goals. We wanted to make it out of Georgia, build our own success, and let our parents retire. We were able to accomplish all of those things. It took us until 2014 to do all of it but we eventually did it.
Your goals should also evolve over time. For me after 2014, I had a growing desire to get married and start a family. I met my wife in Shanghai and we eventually got married in 2017. I wanted to talk about my personal goals as well because I think it’s important that you create some sort of balance in your life. So it’s important for me to have both professional and personal goals.
It boils down to values. People are going to value different things and that’s fine. You just want to make sure you are setting goals that will align you with your own goals and values.
How do you balance all of this?
I’m currently the founder and CEO of Point Avenue. It’s an education technology company that works to instill character and values in young students in Vietnam. We have both online and offline components. My co-founders are other West Point graduates.
We have NPX Capital as our investment arm as we continue to grow and scale the company.
One way I balance my professional and personal life is by designating every Monday as ‘wife day’. On those days, my wife and I make spending time with each other a priority.
How did you pick Hanoi as the location where you wanted to start Point Avenue?
Hanoi is an incredible place to be. There's very accelerated growth and increasing GDP here. There are also large populations of school age children. Vietnamese families typically place a high value on education.
In 1973, the United States left Vietnam and then in 1975, the country was unified. Since then, there has been a strong relationship between the United States and Vietnam with high levels of trade happening between the two countries.
Do you think you were able to apply any lessons you learned when you were with New Pathways to Point Avenue?
Experience is your best friend. When you’re building a company for the first time, there are so many things you don’t know.
I try to stay optimistic. I wake up every morning and am intentional about being positive. I think it’s important to have that mindset.
Successfully exiting New Pathways gave me the confidence to start Point Avenue. The process becomes easier and more familiar. At New Pathways, I wasn’t in the CEO role but I was able to learn an incredible amount from my brother. I’ve been able to apply many of those lessons to my experience as CEO at Point Avenue.
My co-founders are West Point graduates. A couple of them got their MBAs after getting out and then eventually made their way to Point Avenue. When I was at New Pathways, I asked them to join us but it just wasn’t good timing. But by the time I started Point Avenue, I had a more proven track record and they were willing to take the leap of faith and come join me.
When we first started the company, we thought about how we would measure success. We decided that our measure of success would be building the company with the same group we had started with.
When you were at West Point, did you have a goal of eventually starting a business with your classmates?
Not really because when I was at West Point, I thought I was going to make a career out of the Army. I wanted to do 30 or 40 years. It wasn’t until my brother presented me the idea of coming to China that I started to think beyond the Army.
As I was transitioning out, I decided that I would go to China and build the company with my brother. My goal was to eventually bring some of my classmates out to come join me.
I like to build companies with people I trust the most. That’s why brining my classmates into Point Avenue was so appealing to me.
Do you have any advice about starting a company outside the United States?
Don’t be afraid of rejection or failure. I think that can hold you back. I’ve had a lot of failures and setbacks in my life. At West Point, I was rejected from the crew team. I also ran for class president and ending up losing. After those failures, I felt that I had no choice but to get up and keep moving forward.
In the Army, I was constantly moving around and I realized that I could make a home anywhere. It wasn’t so much about the geographic location but more about the people I surrounded myself with. I think you can create a community anywhere around the world. So, you can start a company anywhere, just make sure it’s somewhere you can create a support system around you.
At the end of the day, life is short so you have to seize the opportunities that are put in front of you.
Ten years ago, I never would have predicted that I would be where I am today. These opportunities never would have been made available to me if I wasn’t willing to say ‘yes’.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
I think it’s important to not forget where you come from. My family moved to America for better opportunities. My parents owned a small business in Georgia for many years. My parents live in Korea now and my family has remained extremely close throughout the years.
No matter how much success you build, remember where you came from and be willing to give back. I think that’s natural for veterans because giving back is a lot of why we joined in the first place. But as you transition out, think about ways you can give back to the community around you.