Mithril Founder Jeffrey Huang
From Hip Hop Icon to Tech Entrepreneur
At the age of 20, Jeffrey Huang was the oldest member of L.A. Boyz, a hugely popular trio that took Taiwan by storm with their American-style hip hop, rap, and dancing. Now in his mid-40s, Huang has become a serial crossover business entrepreneur. From performing on stage to founding businesses behind the scenes, how has Huang adjusted?
From Hip Hop Icon to Tech EntrepreneurBy Sidney Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 646 )
On Friday March 9, 2018, former L.A. Boyz teen pop sensation, “Machi Big Brother” Jeffrey Huang, appeared at a blockchain forum for the first time as an entrepreneur to speak about his blockchain startup Mithril.
Riding Blockchain Momentum with New Crossover Ventures
“The most unfair thing to me is that every day we help Google and Facebook create content and just give it to them free, making them a lot of money. Blockchain is about decentralization, so I want to decentralize the revenue from individual content and share it with everyone,” says Huang.
The name Mithril comes from a strong, light metal used to make weapons described in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Today, the company that has taken this name uses blockchain technology based on the public blockchain social media platform Ethereum to engage in “social mining,” building interaction among users instead of weapons.
In other words, users can use the social media app Lit developed by the Mithril team to see one another’s instant messages, status updates, and make new friends. The more interaction takes place, the more Mithril virtual currency is accumulated. It can then be exchanged for Bitcoin or Ether currency.
Unlike (Huang’s previous live streaming platform) 17 Media, the development team behind Mithril comes largely from blockchain and virtual currency backgrounds. The venture’s entire operational plan is detailed in a 30-page white paper. Last November while working on the white paper, Huang commemorated the entrepreneurial experience with a Facebook post. Under a photo captioned “Writing a white paper to change social media,” Huang wrote, “I have never done homework my entire life until today. F*cking white paper.”
Not only taking on the likes of social media giants Google and Facebook with Mithril, Huang’s ventures have branched out from an Internet company to a talent agency, restaurants, clubs, fashion brands, eSports, live streaming, and now virtual currency. Not only is 17 Media, founded three years ago, currently Taiwan’s segment leader, it ranks second in Japan and is planning to take on the U.S. market. (Read: 17 Media Wants to Dominate Your Screen)
Asked to verify if 17 Media really plans to become listed in the United States, Huang did not provide an answer.
On the surface, Huang, who achieved popularity before the age of 20, has always been on the winning side. Still, in his mind, he has always been the “underdog” of the team .
Huang grew up in Southern California after emigrating with his family from Taiwan at the age of two. Together with his younger brother Stanley and cousin Steven Lin, he formed the hip-hop group L.A. Boyz as an 18- year-old under the guidance of singer Irene Yeh, embarking on a career in entertainment.
Fusing elements of American-style hip-hop, rap, and street dancing, the L.A. Boyz were trailblazers on the Taiwanese pop music scene. Yet sandwiched between the charismatic personality and good looks of brother Stanley and the buff physique of cousin Steven, Jeffrey was often mocked as “the ugliest member of L.A. Boyz,” relegated to taking a back seat to his younger relatives.
After L.A. Boyz broke up in 1997, Steven Lin returned to the U.S. to work, subsequently becoming an orthopaedic surgeon. Stanley Huang, always a gifted singer and performer, remained in the music business, garnering a Golden Melody Award in 2005 for Best Male Vocalist. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Huang, who never went past high school, found himself isolated and alone.
Jeffrey Huang admits that, as a young boy growing up in the U.S., he developed a chip on his shoulder in response to people’s ignorance about the island on which he was born. Likening himself to the Lord of the Rings character Gimli, a tough dwarf warrior, he describes himself as having a dwarf complex.
“The angrier we get, the nastier we become, which makes us want to prove ourselves on a daily basis to show everyone who we are,” he says.
Prepared to Pay Dues to Come Up with a ‘Killer App’
Huang got plenty of hands-on experience as a youngster delivering newspapers by bicycle in the U.S. Sometimes when it was cold out he “contracted” the work out to little brother Stanley. At 20 dollars per month, he made less than a dollar per day - even less when he sent five dollars his little brother’s way for filling in - making it a losing enterprise on a purely economic level.
Always thinking like a businessman, on family trips to nearby Disneyland, Huang would ask his father questions like, “How much would it cost to build an amusement park like this?”
“You learn a lot from failure, and you naturally come to know what to do when you succeed. But when you fall down, you really find out where the problem is,” says Huang.
At one point he tried his hand at being a media host, but as a native speaker of English and Taiwanese, he found himself responding less effectively in Mandarin. He also ran a series of businesses, including a club, a restaurant and a limited-edition shoe store. The shoe store lost money, the restaurant was mildly profitable, and, under pressure from reports that the club owed suppliers money, he sold off his shares and got out of that business.
Numerous ups and downs forged Huang’s entrepreneurial acumen for countering every move that comes his way.
Weathering Storms to Become a ‘Problem Solver’
In a candid moment, Huang says that when asked what he does, or how he spends his days, he likes to say, “I am a problem solver.”
Huang has endured his fair share of turbulence since founding 17 Media. When 17 Media held its Series A round of funding in 2015, Prometheus Capital chairman and Dalian Wanda Group director Wang Sicong was among the investors. However, Wanda founder Wang Jianlin’s trusted aide called Huang out during a meeting just prior to the Series B round, sharply proclaiming that 17 Media’s hundreds of competitors were all superior to it, that 17 was “the worst” of them all.
Huang’s 17 Media also had to deal with getting banned from both the Apple App Store and Google Play in 2015 for prohibited content, and a torrent of subsequent negative media fallout.
“We almost had to change our name, and we considered starting over. But I thought, 17 may be able to change its name, but I can’t change my face; it’s still Jeff Huang’s live streaming platform.” Adjusting his mindset, Huang decided to try to face the situation head- on to see if he could turn things around.
During the 17 ban, Huang flew to San Francisco to meet with representatives at Apple introduced by an acquaintance to appeal for reinstatement. After waiting for 45 days for the ban to be lifted, Huang finally learned that it would have been much faster to apply using a different account, even as soon as the next day.
Not just externally, the entrepreneurial team’s internal communication is an art in itself. Huang experienced differences of opinion among team members back in his days in the restaurant business, and founding partner Chen Tai-yuan departed 17 Media over fundamentally incompatible philosophies. This led Huang to put additional effort into communicating with the team, routinely spending at least an hour or two per day to get on top of the situation.
Tanaka Akio, who served as 17 Media’s chief operating officer in Taiwan in 2016, observes that at the outset he was amazed at the depth of Huang’s involvement and how much attention he paid to product details, the way a product manager would. This led him to many late-night discussions with engineers and Tanaka until one or two in the morning.
Looking back on his time in the restaurant business, Huang says, “I’ve learned so much now, like how to communicate with shareholders, how to collaborate, how to cooperate with partners, and how important who your co-founder is.”
Confronting the turbulence endured along the entrepreneurial road, Huang says that he used to get personally involved in every detail, feeling compelled to confront any issue that did not sit right with him. But having mellowed with age, he has nothing left to prove.
Huang admits that he could be more knowledgeable and receptive. At one point he proclaimed that no one had more Taiwanese friends than he did. Now, “I think, when you’re older you should be a little more humble. And by that I mean I would say that I only have two or three times the number of friends as the next highest person,” he says with a chuckle, only partly kidding.
Thinking about the future, Huang smiles and says how fortunate he has been to have realized so many dreams. “Still, I’ve dreamed for a long time about buying an NBA basketball team. I don’t even know why, since I don’t even play basketball,” he says.
At the end of the interview, we take out a copy of a dance tutorial on VHS that came out to accompany the release of L.A. Boyz’s first album, Shiam (Get Out). Holding the tape in his hands, Huang chuckles and says that his mother probably has a copy in her archives, though it is likely unplayable today. As he speaks, he picks up his mobile phone and takes a picture. Lost in a moment of silent reflection, he has nothing more to say about those days gone by.