Founder Story: Dr. Tsai (CEO)

Dr. Tsai shared her startup journey from finding a topic to crowdfunding success when being a CEO, wife, and mother at the same time.

Thanks to the 332 backers mainly from Taiwan, Muro Box, the world’s first app-controlled music box, has raised over 2 million NTDs (about $68,333USD) in its first crowdfunding.

(The First Crowdfunding Success Record of Muro Box on, a crowdfunding platform based in Taiwan.)

As the co-founder and CEO of Muro Box, I would like to record our startup journey before the first crowdfunding success.

In this story, you will find the following highlights:
1. How we come up with the idea of Muro Box
2. How we build up our team
3. How we find the earlier supporters
4. My real CEO life when working with the CTO (my husband)

Why Startup: To Prove My Abilities

I have a brilliant husband who got a decent firmware engineer job in Silicon Valley after received his doctoral degree. He often urged me to complete my dissertation earlier and to catch up with him by developing self-learning skills and persistence. I think it is unfair to compare how much time we have spent in getting our doctoral degrees because we came from two different fields of study: English Education and Electrical Engineering. Nevertheless, thanks to his harsh comments, I was determined to complete my dissertation as soon as possible to stop paying the extra expensive tuition as an international student in the US. Doing a startup together will be a fair contest to beat him because we both jumped into a new field of study as beginners.

(We took this picture in the main library of Ohio State University, where I used to work as a graduate associate.)

In fact, it was my husband’s idea to do a startup at the beginning. At that time, he tired of his work in a big company in Silicon Valley, so he hoped to design an innovative IoT product with his expertise in software engineering and self-learning skills developed during his doctoral study. (If you are interested in his maker story, welcome to read his 3-year product development journey of Muro Box)

I naively believe that if I worked with my husband for our startup company, he would respect my expertise in humanities because he only specialized in coding. I have been an English teacher and an academic English writing consultant in the past, and I could do a better job than him in terms of marketing and sales because he used to work with the computer rather than people. However, after starting our startup together, I realized that its challenge is greater than writing my Ph.D. dissertation.

Writing Dissertation and Looking for a Good Startup Topic

At the beginning of our startup journey, I stayed home to write my dissertation. When I had some free time, I searched for any possible topics that could use his IoT technology skills. Dr. Feng believed that my wild imagination would be helpful at that time because I did not have any engineering training to limit my thinking. From smart home devices to smart toys, I have made a long list of possible topics for him. However, most of the ideas were put aside because they involved some technology beyond my husband’s or his friends’ knowledge. Those topics would be too hard for a first-time startup company to invent.

For an example, there were many smart toy topics in my list, in fact, I have thought of three ways to utilize NFC technology in designing the interactive and educational games. One of them was a mock cooking game set, and my husband even drew a 3D illustration of this toy set for a startup pitch competition hosted by a Taiwanese institute in the Silicon Valley in 2015.

Although Dr. Feng learned how to draw a 3D model on his own to help me present my cooking game set, we sill failed in all (two) startup competitions in 2015.

At that time, we don’t know how to develop our business model, and our creativity and passion could not convince the investors. Silicon Valley investors ranked the teams mainly based on the potential for making a lot of money. Another problem was that our team members did not work full-time for our startup. Although I was responsible for the educational content for the smart toy, I was also a housewife and student writing my dissertation at the same time. Our industrial designer was also a housewife writing her MA thesis. Even our NFC antenna engineer also treated it as a side project to kill his free time. We are dreaming without understanding the challenges from the reality. Although we have worked for a few months on this topic, without receiving any reward from the startup competitions, they gradually lost interest in our weekly meetings. This was my first time to feel that:

I do not lack the connections to find experts, but in order to convince experts to join my startup and spend full-time on it, I had to show them a solid business model or at least receiving an award to increase my team’s confidence to fight for a startup

Moved back to Taiwan for Its Rich Resources in Hardware Manufacturing

At that time, we did not give up our smart toy idea. Dr. Feng believed that Taiwan has various supply chains and hardware manufacturers, and the cost of hiring employees will be lower than in the US, so we decided to move back home to continue our startup dream. It was a hard decision to give up our familiar life in California, and we sold our first home in San Jose, CA. Although it was just a one-bedroom apartment, my husband paved the floor on his own and I decorated every corner with our memories in the US (2006-2016). Until now, we still miss our little back yard where wild birds flying around the flowers, and the small garage where my husband ran endless experiments for different smart toy games.

Our families were extremely concerned about our big decision, and they thought that we would regret soon for giving up the stable career and life in California. My mother-in-law even wrote a very long email daily to persuade us to stop dreaming for running our own startup company in Taiwan. As a daughter-in-law and the co-founder of our startup to support my husband, I decided to reply her email saying that please gave us two years to prove that our decision is right, otherwise my husband would blame me for a life time. Since we have set up a reasonable stop point, our family finally accepted our decision. At that time, I don’t know whether our startup will be successful or not, but I had to give myself confidence in making such a big decision. I told myself:

I can choose the one I love, but what’s more important is to love the one I’ve chosen. Since I already decided to marry Dr. Feng, and I also decide to do a startup with him, I should stick to the plan so that we could have unforgettable memories together when facing the ups and downs to carry out our startup dream.

Meet a Mentor and Learn the Key to Success in a Wood Tourism Factory in Taiwan

In the first few months in Taiwan, we still focused on finding a factory to help us make the smart toy prototype. We were rejected countless times. Managers in wood factories told us that our toy idea would cost a fortune on expansive safety tests and toxicity tests. At the end, we ran into a wood factory owner, Mr. Jiang. He founded his wood tourism factory with his wife, a kindergarten teacher at that time. Since our background were similar, we hope to know how to find a successful business model from them.

Mr. Jiang shared their experiences in their early startup stages and the design of their wooden toys, with the emphasize on the value of stories behind. Mr. Jiang also told us that we also have a lot of valuable stories to share. During this meeting, we mentioned that Dr. Feng and I came from very different families, how we met each other as exchange students in Austria, and how we started dating in the US as international students from Taiwan. I did not understand why our stories are valuable at that time.

Until now, when we examined the viewing rate of our Facebook posts about Muro Box, the most shared posts are all long stories. This result echoes Mr. Jiang’s view about the importance of telling stories.

What makes a music box worth listening again and again is the story associated with it.
What made us finally gave up the smart toy topic is that I could not work full-time before completing my dissertation. To find a successful business model, I had to spend more time in designing the smart toys. Dr. Feng decided to find a new topic with higher technology barrier. The advantage of choosing a topic with higher technology threshold is that there will be fewer competitors. He could focus on its engineering work first when waiting for me to complete my dissertation. We don’t need to worry that someone also invents a similar product before we finally prove its business value and market size.

Innovating the Music Box as Our New Topic

When we started to search for a better startup topic again, Mr. Jiang also gave us a direction. He suggested me to use my previous teaching experiences to design new exhibitions in their wood tourism factory for school teachers and parents. I still remembered the day when I searched for all kinds of fun exhibits related to wood products, I found that Wooderful Life has a special exhibit of music boxes in 2016. Their beautiful music boxes reminded me that I also have bought a small music box in Austria, where Dr. Feng and I met each other as exchange students from Taiwan. I went to our storage room to search for this music box. Finally, I found it in a box in the corner with a stack of boxes above it.

(We did not expect that this tiny music box bought in Austria 10 years ago could give us a brilliant idea to invent the world’s first app-controlled music box.)

When I started to wind up the music box and listening to its music, Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik. I realized that it was forgotten because it can only repeat a 15 second segment of the famous classic music, so we feel bored easily and kept it in a box in our storage room. However, this music box is still meaningful because it was bought in Austria where Dr. Feng and I met each other. Then, I told my husband, “If this music box can play the complete songs representing our memories, we would have played it more often.”

I did not expect that my comment could inspire Dr. Feng to redesign the cylinder of a music box. Dr. Feng decided to modify the music box to have flexible pins on its cylinder so that it could play any programmed music according the user’s interest. The first song we hoped our Muro Box could play is the song we have practiced singing many times in our California home before our wedding ceremony in Taiwan.

This song was the first song Dr. Feng has learned for playing guitar. We chose this song for our wedding because its lyric describes a simple but happy married life we like. Its original singer, Leehom Wang, is also Dr. Feng’s favorite singer because Dr. Feng often mentioned that he looked like this handsome singer, Leehom Wang, when he was a high school student.

In fact, we underestimated the difficulty of renovating the music box cylinder when we decided to invest our time on developing Muro Box as our first product of a startup company. (If you are not familiar with the mechanical structure of a music box movement, or curious about how much effort has been invested in making Muro Box a viable product, welcome to read Dr. Feng’s maker story of his 3-year long product development journey.) For now, I will focus on my own learning journey as the CEO and co-founder of Muro Box.

Working with My Husband as Co-founder

Although I was the queen in my own classroom in the past as a high school teacher, now I became the free employee, a secretary of Dr. Feng in our startup. Although my title is the co-founder and CEO, the truth is that I must deal with various chores not related to engineering so that Dr. Feng could concentrate on his research and coding experiments. I had to remind him who to contact and what is the next meeting, because he usually forgot them all.

In short, everything related to the use of words is my duty. Short business emails, pitch slides, Facebook posts and comprehensive proposals for applying some governmental grants from startup companies, all of them are my work. Our SOP procedure is that I wrote the drafts and Dr. Feng reviewed them word by word to refine the final drafts.

I worked with Dr. Feng every day and we always left our office at midnight to catch the last subway. When walking on the empty street, we often started to examine each other’s progress of the day. Most of time, we found things to improve and gave each other honest comments. He often gave me harsh comments and asked me to lift my standard when planning my time and actions. He thinks that doing everything well is my duty because I’m the co-founder of this company, not just an employee following the orders without taking any responsibility of making wrong decisions. Although I was pregnant (with an 8-month old boy in my womb) at that time, he still did not lower his expectation for a tiring mother/wife. I often cried due to the huge pressure from him, the expectation of becoming a good role model for our employees, I really hoped that he could comment on the things I have done well sometimes instead of only telling me the mistakes I have made.

(The pregnant women lying on the sofa was me. At that time, our designer was taking some photos of the early prototype of Muro Box.)

Since we have who worked days and nights together for our startup company. It is very important for us to learn how to remember the strengths of each other, not just focusing on the weakness.
In fact, when doing a startup together as a couple, our life is never romantic. Only when our team achieved a milestone, I can finally ask for a special meal to celebrate with our team members. I could not ask for any fancy food to relax on the normal days (including the Valentine’s Day and my birthday).

(Our team was awarded by a judge in the Demo Day in Innosqure, a government-funded startup accelerator in Taiwan, after our first crowdfunding success in Taiwan.)

Dr. Feng is the boss controlling how we can use the money. He often said that our life needs to be very simple to reduce any unnecessary expense. We need to save enough money for paying our employees, the material fee, and service fees from various factories in order to bring Muro Box into life.

I remembered that for the first time he finally complimented on my writing was the following Chinese Facebook post. It has been shared by 21 fans without paying any advertisement in Facebook.

I guess this blog post was shared many times because it depicts the real problems faced by the founders on searching for good partners, and the readers are in the circle of startup business, so they are curious about how we found the right experts to join the team. I always observed each team member’s strengths and talents carefully, and tried my best to offer them the right position. We hope them work for the sense of achievement. When Muro Box finally gain more attention from the public, their professional skills in music composing, graphic/media design, and mechanical engineering could also be recognized from a successful crowdfunding project.

The First Award Has United Our Team’s Hearts

Our first successful experience in applying for the governmental funding was awarded by the Subsides and Incentives for Taipei Industry. Dr. Feng has once decided to give up applying for it because the preparation process was time-consuming and we may not be awarded when nobody believed the value of innovating a music box. He suggested me to spend my time on other things to help him make a breakthrough in the hardware design sooner. However, I insisted in applying for it because I knew that we needed an award to cheer up our team so that they could continue fighting for Muro Box.

(This award will grant up to 1 million NTDs as the top award, and we were fortunate enough to receive 90,000 NTDs at that time. However, this award also required us to reach the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in order to receive the full grant: Muro Box must be funded for more than 1 million NTDs in our first crowdfunding.)

Thanks to this very first grant, our team finally regained their confidence in Muro Box after witnessing Dr. Feng’s endless failed experiments.

Building Our Facebook Community Before the First Crowdfunding Success

Our Facebook fan page was in its infancy back in 2017. We were running DIY music box classes to find music box lovers and collect their feedback for designing Muro Box. Running those classes was fun and meaningful for us because we could make friends with the real music box lovers. Although we have spent a lot of time and money in those classes, most people in those classes were not the target audience of Muro Box. They cared more about the appearance of a music box rather than the music it can play.

(This banner shows the goal of our Facebook Fan Page in 2017 was to connect wonderful memories with music boxes.)

In 2016-2017, our team was located in a small co-working space in Taipei city. At that time, we don’t know where we should start our first crowdfunding campaign, in Taiwan or in the US. At that time, most people suggested us to launch our first crowdfunding in the US instead in Taiwan because they think that there are more music box lovers in the US than in Taiwan.

To their surprise, we decided to launch the first crowdfunding campaign in Taiwan because we found that Taiwanese people really support our innovation, especially knowing that we are collaborated with a 40-year music box factory in Taiwan. This interesting finding was supported by our most read blog post written about the history of this 40-year music box factory, which has been shared for 754 times now:

(The image in this blog post shows a production line in a 40 years old music box factory. We were discussing the traditional music box movement with their general manager, Mr. Huang.)

In the early stage, before Muro Box is mature enough for live demonstration, the goal of our Facebook Fan Page are as follows: 1) introduce the founders as a couple loving music boxes, 2) find music box lovers (i.e., the potential customers of Muro Box) through our fun classes. We always have a short introduction of Muro Box at the end of those fun classes to collect their feedback from survey or conversations. Only when we grow our music box community gradually in those offline events, we can present Dr. Feng’s Muro Box prototypes. We gradually to build trust between the founders and our potential backers of the coming crowdfunding campaign in Taiwan.

(2016: test plucking three notes with electricity, 2017: the Muro Box cylinder design is in a good shape, 2018: research how to design its box for better sound quality, 2019: the final prototype for mass production)

In the later stage, I discontinued running the DIY music box classes and started to run a series of music composing classes for beginners. From observing these classes, I learned what kind of functions should be included in our app to help beginners compose their own music for Muro Box more easily.

(I was the teacher’s assistant to deliver handouts and water cups for our adult students, and I also took pictures of the classroom activities to discuss with the teacher to improve our teaching process/content.)

From those classes, I also found that professional musicians would prefer to compose directly from their keyboards or their own computers and then simply export the midi files to play on Muro Box. My observation in those classes help our UI designer to improve his app interface design. We hope that Muro Box users can enjoy composing their own music by some simple clicks, and the professional composers can upload their midi files from their professional tools.

Muro Box: the Attention Grabber in Demo Day

On the Demo Day of Innosquare in the early November of 2017, this day was the key turning point for our team because our Muro Box prototype can finally play live music in front of the crowd!

(Dr. Feng was standing next to our booth to invite visitors to interact with the Muro Box prototype in the Demo Day.)

(I was in charge of present a 6-minute pitch for Muro Box on the stage.)

(Our team won the award after my pitch and our live demo to prove that Muro Box is now become the new interest of the investors and the public.)

During the Demo Day, we met an agent trying to introduce their metal processing service to us. Thanks to his introduction, we found the key person, Mr. Wang, who helped us turn a working prototype into a product for mass production. To thank Mr. Wang’s support since 2017 till now, we have made a video to record why he was so interested in Muro Box, and how he helped Dr. Feng refined the metal pieces in the cylinder of Muro Box.

Muro Box and My Son Were Born in 2018!

The following video of Muro Box is playing my favorite song, Letter for My Baby. This song was composed by our music composer based on my Chinese diary (a Facebook post in our fan page) to record my wishes for my baby as a first-time mother.

We use this video to share the joy of having our first product and first child in our startup journey!

My story here records the real life of a startup company founded by a couple whose expertise is different but attempted to support each other. Thanks to the support of our team members, I can present the development journey of Muro Box, the world’s first app-controlled music box, from a CEO/Co-Founder’s view.

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