Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Transcript of INFI CEO Lucas Liu's appearance on the Miller IP Law podcast:
As a startup, you focus more on your product and your bootstrapping strategy which is very important because you are launching a startup.
If you spend too much time on your presentation, your idea, how to validate this idea, you are just wasting your time I think. As a startup, your time is very valuable and you just focus on the small stuff.
Hey everyone! This is Devin Miller here with another episode of the Inventive Journey, I am your host Devin Miller, the serial entrepreneur that has grown several startups into seven and eight-figure businesses as well as founder and CEO of Miller IP Law, where we focus on helping startups and small businesses with their patents and trademarks.
And if you ever need help with your patented trademark, feel free to go to strategymeeting.com and grab some time with us to chat.
Now Today, and I will give the apology ahead of time, we have Lucas Liu on and Lucas actually recorded an episode before this, somehow with the zoom and all that it got corrupted. So he is coming back on, and we are redoing the episode. I am sure it will even be better than the first time.
But, just as an introduction. So, Lucas and I have already had one great conversation, I am excited for a second one. To give you a bit more of an introduction to Lucas, so he was born and raised in China and came over to Ohio I think when he was a high school student.
And so in my connection to Ohio, this is a quick connection, so I went to Ohio or Cleveland Ohio for school and I did law school in MBA School out in Cleveland Ohio. So, at least we both have a common Ohio connection there.
But then after high school, he pursued his bachelor’s degree, and then grad school. There he had his kind of his first entrepreneurial business; he was part of a restaurant and then as he is graduating he kind of combined his software and hospitality background to launch his current business.
And I will talk a little bit more about what that is today and how he founded it and how that has gone and what or where the company is at.
Welcome back to the podcast, for the first time everybody else is meeting you but welcome on podcast Lucas.
Hey, what’s up Devin?
So, I gave kind of a short introduction and overview but you were born and raised in China, went to Ohio, kind of give us a little bit of your journey.
Yeah sure. So, I came here during high school, went to Ohio which was a great school called Grand River Academy, a small town in the Ashtabula county and it was my first time in another country than China.
Then went to Illinois to study. At the University of Illinois I studied for four years and then ended up in Chicago to continue studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology aka IIT. Studying for another six years to pursue my Ph.D.
It was quite a long time studying, yeah rather lucky, I got some friends, started exploring the entrepreneur route, the first time was a restaurant and now it is doing restaurant technology because I am always a technology person.
So, I always want to combine my restaurant skills together with technology skills, which is why I am doing this.
So you went to grad school and first of all what did you major in, what did you get your Ph.D. in?
Grad school, I graduated as a computer engineer. I am an engineering major, focusing on computer networks, computer network security.
Yeah. I do a lot of coding, a lot of research, it’s what I like to do.
First entrepreneurial venture
Ok makes perfect sense. So you touched on it lightly, so you went off, you were doing grad school, studying computer engineering. How did you get into the restaurant business? How did you start to get connected or get and go in that direction?
Yeah. So, when I was doing the master’s degree because during that time there was a boom of Asian students studying in the United States and they are missing their hometown food, so that is how we got into the restaurant business.
A lot of students trying to find authentic Chinese food and in the Chicago Chinatown before, now is much better before, even though they serve pretty good food it was more like Americanized.
It is not very acidic so that is why we started more like authentic Chinese food for the Chinese students so that is how we started that opportunity.
Now, is that…. because I agree, first of all, I lived in Taiwan for a couple of years and the food over there, at least the Chinese food and I have visited China a couple of times, Chinese food in Taiwan and China is much different than the Americanized version.
I like the China version, and the real stuff much better and there is a difference, so you can definitely miss the food or you miss the food from home.
But that is much different to say, now I am going to start a restaurant to service that need so. Was it your idea and hey I wanted to start a restaurant or was it a friend or a partner? How did you kind of say there is not this authentic Chinese food, we are going to start doing that as a restaurant.
Oh yeah, so the people missing the authenticity of their food, it was the driver for creating a business opportunity. But, I was not the person to start a restaurant because a restaurant is a high-risk business, it was the, I got some friends, college friends, so they want to start it and I was just part of the ownership restaurant focusing more on the technology.
I actually focused more on how to optimize operations with technology, how to do digital marketing, and how to do more operational things. Instead of for example, how you cook the food, how you maintain the quality of the food, or how you operate.
Okay, that makes sense. Then you graduated and so that was I think when you were entering graduate school. Is that right as you were studying you are also doing the business part-time?
Yeah. The restaurant was a part-time business.
Identifying a business opportunity
Then you graduate and you are coming out of graduate school, and you have the software background and the hospitality business. So how did you make the jump? What made you decide to go into more of the software side of things?
What you guys are doing now as opposed to continuing with the restaurant? Or are you still running the restaurant? And what you guys are doing now with the self-ordering kiosk? How did that work out, how did you make that transition to where you are at now?
Yeah because, while I was running the restaurant business one of the major pain points was how to deal with labor, especially for immigrant-owned restaurants, the ideal labor for immigrant restaurants was, of course, the second generation of immigrants basically.
Why? Because they can the language, they can speak both and because we were in Chinatown, the second generation comes to speak fluent Mandarin and English very well.
So, second-generation Americans are pretty much the best, you are your best staff, especially in front of the house but for the second generation of immigrants, they do not really want to work in restaurants anymore.
They want to do other things other than working in the restaurant, so they do not want to work in the restaurant, so it is leverage, it is not just a high cost, it is like a resource, a very scarce resource. Therefore we need more technology to help those restaurants sustain these rapid changes.
That is how we got into building the kiosk, which serves as the point of sale, for quick-service restaurants. A lot of restaurants are doing it right now, like McDonald’s, Shake Shack, they all use kiosks and now we are trying to push the kiosk, and we started by working with ethnic restaurants as well.
We market the kiosk to immigrant-owned restaurants where the technology was really left behind in the market, we helped them with their technology transformation while also breaking into the mainstream market as well.
We are trying to get into serving more like instead of Chinese restaurants, we are trying to serve restaurants such as a burger place, hot dogs, etc. And they want to use kiosks, so there are a lot of those in Chicago, and that is how we got into the business basically, yeah.
Driving company growth
To get into the business, make the transition, say hey there is an opportunity here for kiosks, especially for businesses that are, I will say mom and pops or smaller businesses or ones that are not necessarily a national chain.
McDonald’s has their own kiosk system or Wendy’s or some of those but all the other businesses are a little bit left behind or haven’t adopted a technology quite as quickly. Leading to the idea of starting to build the businesses, get the kiosk.
Has it been successful? Has it been pivoting? Have there been struggles? What have been the highs and lows since you started a little over a year ago?
There are up and downs of course and the most unexpected thing are of course COVID. So that really makes a struggle because even though in COVID, restaurants are still open, they really want to have a very high standard of security, so they will keep a safe distance from their customer and their staff.
So, maybe they want to use more kiosks but at the same time, COVID really kills a lot of restaurants. Restaurants are getting poorer, so we will have the money to make the investment during this special time.
It is really a tough time for us to be honest yeah. Even though people realize they need a kiosk, they need more technology to overcome uncertainties like for example COVID, you never know what can happen tomorrow but technology can really help you.
But at this time like January 2021, a lot of restaurants do not have the money to purchase the kiosk, so it is actually a very tough time for us. So, the ideal customer for us is a restaurant, small to mid-sized chains with lots of locations including, mom and pop type sizes.
You only have one, you can use our kiosk, if you have less than 20 locations, you can use our kiosks, it is not a kiosk for a national franchise, and it is more for local businesses. Also, it is a great solution for restaurant owners who own multiple restaurants under different brand names.
Say I own a burger shop here and a hot dog shop over there, I own another like coffee shop somewhere else but they are under the same owner. If you really want to improve all your quick-service restaurant locations, this is a great solution for you. Yeah.
No, it makes perfect sense. Now it’s kind of building on that and I get it. Restaurants have certainly been pounded, especially in-person dining, depending on where you are located, whether it is outside or whether it is inside or whether it is not at all and depends on the states and so certainly.
I can see how they introduce that a bit of that struggle or that issue of trying to get people to adopt it when they are just trying to keep the business open in the first place. And who would have anticipated that was what would happen to restaurants?
Now if you look out and say okay a little bit of the old cliché term, it is what it is, I am what I am the type of a thing and that is where the businesses are at today.
Kind of looking at how you are going to pivot or how you are going to move forward in the next six months to a year, kind of where do you see things heading or what is kind of the plan going forward.
We do see some restaurants, they are still doing really well, here in the pandemic they have the strong operational ability, strong execution ability to get through. So, we are trying to find out where those restaurants are and connect with them, and provide our technology solution for them.
However, in the meantime, we are going to do more R&D to improve the product. We are going to prepare, we are going to get through it.
Soon I hope, yeah, there is a vaccine, we are going to prepare for it, we are going to work on our logistics, so that we can serve customers wherever they are, we can ship it to you, make sure it is very easy to install, make sure it is easy to use.
We’re making sure the system is stable wherever you are, regardless of how good or bad your internet connectivity is, making sure it is still good to use.
Learning from your own mistakes
Oh, that makes sense. You are saying hey if right now as we are waiting for the restaurant business to pick back up, we will focus on the customers. We’ll still do sales but then we will put a lot of our time and effort into product development, making sure that as things open back up, pick back up and as a vaccine and COVID is hopefully going away you will be even stronger coming out of it.
Certainly sounds like a great plan. Well, as we wrap up, the wrap towards the end of the podcast, I always ask two questions, so maybe we will jump to those now.
So, the first question I am asking is along your journey what was the worst business decision you ever made, and what did you learn from it?
The worst business decision I made was actually before the kiosk. We were doing something else which was even more high-tech than kiosks, so we had a patent and we were trying to do a business around that patent, which was a great pattern.
However the worst business decision was, we did not figure out where the market is for that patent but we started doing business around that patent. We were doing it backward, we did not find the market but you have the technology then you look at your technology, say hey can I use my technology which is not good.
It would be better if you have a business opportunity, create a unique solution to solve that problem, and if that is unique enough you can apply for a patent. That is how it works.
Basically, it is not a bad thing to have a patent but it is not a good big business decision. We invested a lot of time, spending a lot of time around that patent to try to make sure it can generate some money but eventually we could not. That is one of the worst decisions I made but that is great but anyway,
That is also a great experience.
You always learn from failure. So it is very important.
Yeah and I agree with you because I get people every so often in my office say I have a great idea, I just want to get a patent on it and then I will go license it or I will go out in the marketplace. And then everybody will be beating down my doors because they have the world's best patent.
I think to your point in the lesson learned, a patent can play a good role into a business but you have to make sure the business case is there, where the market is, are people are willing to pay for it, and how you are going to position yourself? That way you can leverage it or take advantage of it rather than relying on that as a business plan.
So, I think that would certainly make sense and you are not alone by any means on learning that. Now I will jump to the second question I always ask which is, you are talking to a startup or a small business, someone that is just getting into a startup or small business, what would be the one piece of advice you would give them?
I think the best advice I can offer because I do not want to say something weird because I am not like Elon Musk, so I can say something like really broad, I would say as a startup you need to focus more on your product, your bootstrapping strategy.
This is very important because, you are doing a startup if you spend too much time on your presentation, your idea, how to validate this idea, it is not you are just wasting your time I think.
As a startup, your time is very valuable and you just focus on a small step which is do a minimum viable product, MVP and keep validating it with your bootstrapping strategy. So, find some customers, tell them to refer people, forget about doing advertisements on social media, forget about all of it, just look for your friends, family, and friends, test your product, get some feedback.
If they really like it, if they really solve their problem they will refer it. So, you look for that word of mouth, if you ever get that then you are in very good shape and you will get whatever you want.
Your funding, your people, your team, everything but running a startup, start off with a meeting, with a viable product, and then do a bootstrapping which is very important.
I think that is great advice and certainly some things people should take to heart and learn from.
As we wrap up if people want to find out more about your product or they want to be a customer, they are a small business, they want to invest in your company, they want to be an employee, they want to be your next best friend, any or all of the above; what is the best way to reach out to you, connect up with you or find out more?
Just visit our website, our website infi.us. “i-n-f-i-dot-u-s”. There is a number, call the number, you can definitely reach me, contact us via email.
You can always find me because we are a small company, you just look for Lucas, and you will find me, for sure yeah.
Well, that was Infi or infi.us, go check them out, check out their kiosks if you, for any all the reasons above, if you want to use their kiosk. If you are a business owner or restaurant owner, if you want to be an investor, if you want to partner up with them or anything else I definitely encourage you to reach out to Lucas and check out more about what they are doing.
Well, thank you again, Lucas, it is been fun to have you on now for all of the listeners. If you have your own journey to tell and you would like to tell it, feel free to apply to be a guest on the podcast by going to inventiveguest.com.
If you are a listener make sure to click, subscribe to get notifications as all the episodes come out and to make sure to leave us an awesome review so that everybody can find out about the podcast.
And last but not least if you ever need help with patents and trademarks feel free to reach out to us at Miller IP Law. Just go to strategymeeting.com we are always here to help. Thank you again Lucas and wish you the next leg of your journey even better than the last.
Okay. Thank you so much.