Mix humility, intuition, and charisma and you get Duke Chung, the DMV’s homegrown entrepreneur who has sold a million dollar company to Microsoft at the age of 35.
By Jenny Chen
Although he didn’t know he was going to be an entrepreneur when he was a boy, Duke Chung always knew he wanted to solve problems. At 12 years old, he attended the Takoma Park middle school magnet art program. There was no bus directly to his house in Potomac so every afternoon he would take the bus to the Potomac Library where he would wander the mystery book section.
“I always wanted to read the detective books…the mysteriousness of it drew me, but I also liked that there was always a solution,” he said.
Sherlock Holmes, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown…Duke never checked any of the books out, he said. He would simply place them back in the shelf, and picked up where he left off the next day.
Nearly 10 years later, Liang “Ron” Weng met Duke Chung when Weng was a sophomore at Cornell University; Duke was a junior and that problem solving spirit was still there.
“He was unlike any guy I had ever met,” Weng said. “He knew he was going to be an entrepreneur from the very beginning. While everyone else was going to frat parties, Duke would walk around in suits and a cigar.”
Weng saw Duke’s inveterate leadership skills. His infectious energy and natural abilities as an evangelizer is, after all, what pushed Weng to drop out of college his junior year to join the company that he had helped Duke create, which at the time was called Cyracle.
Duke remembers receiving angry phone calls from Weng’s father demanding to know why Weng was dropping out of school. “He would say, stop hanging out with my son!” recalled Duke. But Duke had convinced Weng that what they were doing was worthwhile and had potential so that when Weng thinks back on it, he said “The decision for me was easy.”
The concept was simple, but revolutionary at the time: while at Cornell, Duke identified an inefficiency in the way customer service was rendered. The majority of customer service at the time was conducted through email. Duke and his team envisioned a self-service knowledge base that would allow customers to help themselves, submit troubleshooting tickets and view content and informational videos much like the ones that are now ubiquitous on banking sites, website builders and more.
Duke said they originally got the idea when, as college students and avid IKEA furniture customers, he and his friends suggested that perhaps the instructions would be easier to follow if they were in video format online.
“None of us had actually done customer service…[but] we had grown up in the internet era and from a consumer standpoint we knew this is what we would do,” Duke said.
From there, the company took off to create customer service products for Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Twitter. What kept the company growing, said Weng, was Duke’s uncanny ability to see what was going to happen before it even happened.Weng said that when Duke identified social as the next big trend in internet commerce, it was what really pushed the company forward as an industry leader. And today, when asked what the next trend is, Duke answered without hesitation: mobile.
Ching-Ho Fung, a veteran entrepreneur and investor, said Duke’s intuition is not by accident. “He keeps learning,” Fung said. “He’ll stay up until 2 a.m. trying to understand something before making a decision.”
Fung met the young Duke Chung in the summer of 2001, when Duke traveled to Maryland, where he had grown up, to present at the Monte Jade Science and Technology Association Conference. The Monte Jade Science Technology Association is an organization established in Silicon Valley in 1989 with the mission to connect science and technology professionals across the world. Fung, fresh out of his deal a few years prior with Blackboard, an enterprise technology company, was at the conference to introduce the presenters and immediately saw the same energy and maturity in Duke that Weng had noticed at Cornell. Both Duke and Fung talked briefly about their mutual friend Chih Hsiang Li, who was also an entrepreneur and founder of AEPCO, Inc.
A couple of months later, Duke found himself in Maryland again and asked Fung if they could meet. Fung agreed.
“It was a really snowy winter,” Fung recalled later. “And I was halfway there when I remembered that I had left my space heater on.” Fung called Duke and told him that they might not be able to meet that day. Duke said that he would be at the bookstore where they were planning to meet for a couple more hours and to feel free to try again.
“That was Duke,” Fung told me. “He makes it very hard to say no.”
So Fung turned back, drove home, turned off his space heater, and drove back out to Maryland. This time he made it. And it would turn out to be a very fruitful meeting because months later, Fung would write Cyracle its first investment check, and would later join the company full time as an adviser and co-founder.
The Ties that Bind
Today, in 2014, Cyracle is no longer Cyracle – it is Microsoft Parature. Half of the original founding team has left to do other things. Like every company it has gone through many organizational changes. Unlike every company, it has proven itself to be the leader in its industry: cloud-based social and customer engagement solutions through multiple channels.
But if there’s one constant in the last 13 years, it is Duke Chung himself. Duke decided to stay on after the Microsoft acquisition to ease the transition and reassure employees that Parature would remain, by and large, the same. That’s just the type of person Duke is – he may be billed as an entrepreneur, but what that really means is that he’s a people person. His charisma is what convinced his friends not to take six figure salaries after graduating and join him in his start up instead. And years after college, he still smokes cigars.
“We talk a lot about business over a cigar,” Duke told me. “It’s very social. You don’t smoke a cigar alone the way you do with a cigarette. And there’s a time aspect to it as well. You allot a certain amount of time to a subject, a cigar, and when the cigar is done, it’s a nice wrap up…like having a meal together.”
Relationships are incredibly important to Duke. When he talks about his mentor, Fung, he recounts in admiration how Fung rewarded all his staff with stock options once he sold his first company to Blackboard. “They distributed the stock options depending on how long they had been at the company,” Duke said. “So an administrative secretary ended up with the most money.”
Those staff members would go on to work for other companies, some of which became Parature clients or were able to connect Parature with important people. Duke saw first hand the way business karma worked.
Bill Patterson is the Senior Director, Customer Self Service Solutions at Microsoft, worked closely with Parature during the Microsoft acquisition and will be heading Microsoft Parature in a couple of months. He noted that Duke had an innate curiosity to him. It’s a curiosity that Fung said would manifest itself through questions – lots of questions. But Patterson said that these questions are all in service of building a stronger relationship with the person Duke was talking to.
“Duke’s tactic for asking lots of questions is getting to know you better and figure out ways he can augment your relationship,” Patterson said.
Duke’s social nature is not news to his father, Riley Chung, an earthquake engineer. There’s a story that the senior Chung is very fond of telling and it goes something like this: Sometime during Duke’s junior year, Duke’s father received a phone call at 3 a.m. in the morning. Chung was up late working on his own business and was at first worried to hear that it was Duke. But Duke was just calling from a conference in Las Vegas to say hello. He told his father that he had won some money at the tables.
“Save some for me!” Chung joked to his son. Duke told his father that he was the only one of their group who made any major winnings and so he had split the money up five ways. The money was already gone.
The Consummate Entrepreneur
In third grade, Duke Chung saw his father playing basketball and wanted to start a team of his own. He asked his classmates and friends to join and when he had enough people he asked his dad to coach them. Duke also organized and collected money to get his parents to buy jerseys for the team.
In high school, Duke worked as an editor for the high school newspaper and was in charge of finalizing all the layout before it went to production.
Duke considers himself more of an entrepreneur than a CEO, which makes sense because talking to him, you don’t see the C-suite swagger you see so often in companies across the country. He will always ask you about yourself before he talks about himself, even when it is his own interview. In a 2010 profile with Biz Journal, Duke wrote that his pet peeve is “People who are really arrogant. There’s a lot of successful people who become arrogant. There’s a lot of unsuccessful people who are arrogant. But the net-net is it’s just uncomfortable interacting with people who think that way.”
Duke’s humility, intuition, and charisma has won him many fans. Ching-Ho Fung, although 22 years his senior, is one of them. Fung thinks that Duke will be solving problems for years to come.
“I pick businesses not because of the business but because of the people behind them,” he said. “And I think Duke’s going to go very far.”
He has already come far. Few can boast that they have made a million dollar deal with Microsoft at the age of 35. And while he’s staying put at Parature for right now, as Duke himself said, entrepreneurship is in his DNA and he’s getting antsy. His father confides that Duke is already thinking about how he would “do it the second time around.”
Photos Courtesy of Microsoft Parature