Founder in Focus: Chuhan Wang - Founder and CEO of Surfboard

I had the opportunity to interview Surfboard founder (Fund IV) Chuhan Wang before her appearance on Panic with Friends to share her founder story. 

Chuhan spent the last decade working in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, as a Venture Capitalist, and growing a company from Series B to initial public offering (IPO). Having worked closely with many founders from both the board side and the company operations side, Chuhan realized three things:

  • No one likes board meetings – they’re time consuming and useless.

  • Nearly all first-time founders have zero board experience. It’s a by-product of founding a company; and isn’t what they signed up for.

  • There’s tremendous variance. A few boards are highly functional, but most boards are ineffective. Boards that do a good job either have someone with a lot of experience to guide the process, or have pieced together several existing tools and built a workflow around them.

Of all the successful companies Chuhan’s worked with, an engaged board and helpful investors are the common themes. She realized if it’s something no one likes, but it’s important, and only a few people do it well, then she’d have the opportunity to productize the experience and build the interface for founders and their boards to work effectively together. “Building a company is hard,” Chuhan says. “Managing a board and investors shouldn’t be.” This is more true now than ever as founders are increasingly coming from more diverse backgrounds and need to learn to cultivate relationships with their board. These insights led her to found Surfboard. She wants to empower all founders to communicate confidently and efficiently with their board, regardless of their comfort and experience levels.

Founding Surfboard led Chuhan to Social Leverage as a seed investor. She found them through her college friend Scott Law. Scott runs Meridian Street Capital, which focuses on early-stage healthcare investments. When she mentioned she was looking to raise seed capital, Scott immediately recommended Social Leverage. To her delight, she found out later Scott was a Limited Partner as well. 

Chuhan says working with Gary, Howard, Matt, Tom, and the rest of the team as Social Leverage has been a great experience. She says Gary’s experience as a founder who’s ‘been there and done that’ provides practical advice on product strategy and go-to-market. She’s enjoyed having Gary on the board. “There’s a common misconception among early stage founders that taking on board members means giving up control of their company and putting their CEO job at risk,” says Chuhan. “The stories of Uber and WeWork certainly played a role in shaping these impressions.” But she says it’s most helpful to get a board as early as you can. The more years founders have running the board, keeping records and engaging in corporate governance, the more trusted their company becomes – which can be huge for the M&A or IPO opportunities down the road. Founders gain so much more from the expertise, time, and network of their board and investors, and this should outweigh any other concerns they may have.

Some of the best advice Chuhan’s received as a founder was to ask for help when you need it. She says being a founder can be incredibly lonely. It may seem like you’re fighting alone and no one can help you, but you should remember there are people, like your board members and investors, who have faith in you. Rather than providing them one-sided updates, engage them by asking for help. You’ll build stronger relationships from these interactions. 

On the flip side, “Ship fast and iterate” is popular entrepreneurial advice Chuhan doesn’t agree with. She says it over emphasizes speed and downplays the importance of being thoughtful when developing a product. Users are busy, skeptical about your product, and don’t have the time to learn things. Shipping too fast can introduce friction and noise into the user experience before you get any signal on whether or not a new feature is working – you end up switching gears and moving on to the next thing. Being thoughtful about what you’re building and shipping can minimize this friction and save you money in the long run. 

Founders all need motivation and on that front, Chuhan says she loves the movie “About Time”. It makes her rethink the concept of second chances and what we should do to really live our lives to the fullest. She looks at everything she does, every conversation she has, every decision she makes, and asks herself if this is what she’d really want to do if she never got a second chance? It’s about being conscious throughout daily life. When you’re more aware of what you’re committing to, you become more motivated to do it well. 

When it comes to books that have inspired Chuhan, her favorite is “The Three-Body Problem” trilogy. She’s a big fiction reader in her limited spare time. And “The Three-Body Problem” is a reminder that startup life is not everything. There are bigger unanswered questions out there. The books are a way to smooth out the everyday ups and downs while making challenges appear more manageable. 

When I asked Chuhan how being an entrepreneur has turned her into a better person, she says, “Since I started Surfboard, I’ve become more aware of my health, as I want to make sure I have a strong body to work hard and make Surfboard successful. I used to never be able to find time to work out, and now I purposely carve out time 2 or 3 times a week to do it. I’ve lost 20 pounds since I started working out more regularly, and despite working longer hours, I’m feeling the healthiest since maybe college days.”

Finally, when it comes to defining success, Chuhan says when she was on the investing side, she defined it as buying optionality to the upside and keeping a diverse portfolio to hedge risk. This required her to go broad and make educated guesses quickly. But as an entrepreneur, her success is tied to her ability to find the riskiest assumption in the business and remove that risk. Rather than stay on top of every major trend and news headline, her focus has shifted to diving deep into problems and solving them.