I almost became a teacher, not a startup founder.
By Tony Huang
While in college, I taught 4th grade at the public school I grew up attending, the Martin Luther King Elementary School in Cambridge, MA. I found incredible fulfillment in teaching kids from underserved families. It was even more impactful because I was one of the first kids that made it from MLK Elementary to Harvard College. I knew that I wanted the same social impact in my career, so I planned on becoming a teacher after graduating. However, a serendipitous opportunity came up to help plan a social entrepreneurship conference on campus. I got to meet successful entrepreneurs whose businesses were wildly successful while also genuinely creating positive impact. As it turns out, having a sustainable business model is the biggest amplifier for impact. So my plans of becoming a teacher were sidelined, and I decided to use business as a conduit for social impact. After graduating from Harvard, I joined a civic technology company, Axon, that pioneered the idea of putting body cameras on police officers.
At Axon, I found like-minded individuals who were just as passionate about social impact as I was. They were talented engineers, designers, and business people who all shared the belief that technology can make society more fair and equitable. And it did. The products we developed are now adopted by almost every major US city. If you’ve seen a police officer wearing a body camera or seen body camera footage on Youtube, Facebook, or the nightly news, then you’ve seen our team’s work. Through technology, we were able to help underserved communities and keep the police accountable for their actions. Our work enabled minority Americans to feel fundamentally safer in their own homes.
I met my amazing co-founders, Prasad and Tyler, at Axon. Prasad was the very first software hire at Axon and architected the system that would make Axon into the $4B software company it is today. Prior to Axon, Prasad had co-founded a company that sold to Google. Our other co-founder, Tyler, was the very second software hire at Axon. He came from Lockheed Martin, Skunkworks and Raytheon, and he still can’t tell you what he worked on there. (He could tell you, but then he’d have to kill you.) Both Prasad and Tyler were engineering directors and I was a product lead. We had been in the trenches together for almost a decade shipping new products and scaling the company. We developed a deep respect for one another as colleagues and as friends. Most importantly, all three of us were mission-driven and cared about the social impact of our work. We stayed at Axon (for 26 years collectively) because we wanted to see body camera technology be widely adopted by cities across the country. By mid 2017, we felt like that mission was near its completion, and we were all ready for a new challenge. We knew that whatever we worked on next, it had to be equally as impactful as police body cameras.
As we explored different ideas, we were particularly interested in using technology to serve lower income and minority communities here in the US. We met a local investor, Andy Liu, who was just starting his own venture fund. He expressed an interest in working with us on tackling the short-term lending space. We knew it wasn’t a sexy industry and it’s actually a bit taboo, but those are often the spaces that have the most impact for everyday people. As we started to investigate this space, it absolutely stunned us at how big the problem was. As it turns out, three in four Americans today live paycheck-to-paycheck. Half of Americans cannot cover an emergency expense if it’s more than $400. Yet, banks rake in $25B each year in overdraft fees from lower income Americans. There are also more payday loan stores in this country than either McDonalds or Starbucks. We talked to hundreds of customers who told us appalling stories about crippling payday loans & bank overdraft fees. Despite a booming economy, the average American today is financially ill.
Our extensive research showed us that fair and affordable loans are often the first step toward financial health. The people we met with told us clearly that their situations would be better if we could just make short-term loans more affordable and transparent. If we can start there, then we can improve their long-term financial health. That ultimately leads to less stressed, happier, and more productive families & communities. It was a mission absolutely worth fighting for. If we are successful, it will be even more impactful than the police body camera technologies that we’d spent the past decade building. We would be able to help millions of Americans, including families similar to the ones I worked with while I was a teacher. So, we started Possible Finance with the mission of improving the financial health of everyday Americans. We have found our mission for the next decade of our lives.