Ryan took a hobby project that he bootstrapped with a paycheck and managed to get into YCombinator.
From there, he raised a $10M Series A from a top-tier Silicon Valley firm, Emergence Capital.
Excellent execution thus far.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start from the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born and raised? What kind of background?
Ryan Chan: I was born in Kentucky. My family moved there for my father’s job. But then, we quickly relocated to California. I grew up and was raised in a small suburb in Los Angeles called Oak Park. Not many people know where that is, but it’s about 20 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.
I’ve always been fascinated with building things and I think that’s one of the reasons why I got into entrepreneurship. I went from elementary school to middle school, to high school in that small suburb. I went to college at Berkeley up in the Bay Area.
I pursued a chemical engineering degree and my first job out of college was working in a manufacturing plant, driven by my fascination for building things. That was where the first inspiration for Upkeep came.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do when you came out of college? What year was that? What time frame are we talking here?
Ryan Chan: I graduated college in 2013. My very first job was working in a manufacturing plant that was spun out of DuPont Chemicals. We manufactured membranes for reverse osmosis for a little bit of brackish water. So, these big cylinders can be pushed in dirty water and they suck out very clean water that you can use for even things like drinking.
Sramana Mitra: Interesting. So I actually know quite a bit about reverse osmosis because we invested in a company out of the East Bay in San Leandro called Energy Recovery Incorporated. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this company.
Ryan Chan: I actually haven’t. But yes, we were manufacturing reverse osmosis membranes.
Sramana Mitra: Where was this based out of?
Ryan Chan: My first job was in Santa Barbara. So I took the leap from Berkeley to Santa Barbara. My title there was Process Engineer. A Process Engineer thinks about how to improve manufacturing lines. How do we make it go faster? How do we reduce downtime? How do we speed up efficiencies and productivity of our entire team?
That’s where I got my first start into building things and also thinking about how we can improve the lives and processes of our company.
Sramana Mitra: What happens after that? Bridge us into the story of founding Upkeep.
Ryan Chan: It might help to give a little bit of context into what UpKeep is. We build software for maintenance teams. The most common use case that I always give is imagine you’re in a manufacturing plant and a piece of equipment breaks down.
You basically use UpKeep to snap a picture, create a work order, and shoot it over to the facility manager who can prioritize and send out a technician to go fix it. It’s this group collaboration task management tool geared towards facility and maintenance managers.
So you can probably see where this ties into my very first job. I was thinking about improving our process and improving efficiency around the plant.
One of the big things for us was thinking about how we can reduce downtime for our equipment. If we’re able to reduce our downtime for equipment, that basically meant that we could produce more goods and generate more revenue for the company. So what we said was, “We’re going to purchase a very expensive piece of software that will help us manage all of our preventative maintenance and streamline our operations.” We did that.
We paid a lot of money. Everything was desktop-based. If you imagine a manufacturing facility, no one is sitting at a desktop. What happened is our techs are out in the field with that same exact use case. They get a work order. They’d write all the notes down on a piece of paper and pencil.
Now that we have this new software, they had to come back to the office at the very end of their day and retype all of their notes back in. Instead of making their days, lives, and jobs easier, this software actually made it way more cumbersome.
So I said, “I want to find something that’s extremely easy for technicians out in the field to use.” That’s where they are spending 90% of their day. I want to do it with this mobile-first approach so that, again, it makes their day, lives, and jobs easier. While I was working as a process engineer, I couldn’t find anything that was mobile-first that our company could really use.
So I taught myself how to code. Out in Santa Barbara, I took a community college class on weeknights and weekends. This iOS programming class is the very first programming class that I had ever taken. It was from 6 PM to 10PM, three times a week. That was my very first introduction to programming.
I said, “I want to use Upkeep as my first project.” I never thought it was going to be a big thing. I never thought I would turn this side project into a full time career; let alone a company that it is today. I just started building.