Success and the Fine Line Between Audacity and Stupidity

A visionary entrepreneur sees mobile phone photos through a new lens—and lends perspective on her success.

No one expected to snap great photos with mobile phones when they first came out, but today, consumers take the quality of their selfies and vacation photos very seriously. The demand for images of ever-better quality is keeping Li Han Chan, CEO and co-founder of DynaOptics, very busy.

The vast majority of today’s cell phones use digital zoom, resulting in a degraded image quality relative to traditional cameras with optical lenses. Chan, a Stanford University graduate and former Singapore national tennis champion, is applying her seemingly endless energy to bringing to market a true optical zoom system housed entirely within today’s slim mobile phones. The company, founded in 2012, has pulled off this sleight of hand by rethinking the design of conventional zoom lenses in a way that preserves the performance of traditional zoom lenses.

“Our products generate beautiful works of art,” says Chan, who enjoys seeing the photos users share on Instagram. “It’s wonderful to be able to participate in the intersection of art and technology.”

Chan divides her time between residences in Oakland, Calif., near her company’s San Francisco headquarters, and Tanah Merah, Singapore, on the East Coast. “There is a really vibrant international community in Singapore,” says Chan. “I am proud to be living amongst it.”

Chan spoke with Associations Now Brand Connection recently about how manufacturing in Singapore has helped her to pursue her passion to improve mobile phone photography.

How did your experience as an athlete influence the way you have run DynaOptics?

Li Han: One of the earliest lessons I learned as a national athlete was tenacity — pushing through even after it really hurt. Resilience plays a big part in a startup’s success, and yet it was important for me to know when to stop pushing. As I’ve grown as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned to close doors when it’s time to close them.

For example, our goal early on in the company was always to pursue slim optical zoom in the mobile phone. After some point, it became clear that in the manufacturing aspect there wasn’t a willingness to adopt some pieces of enabling technology. That meant that it was time for us to focus on a different way to market. It meant taking many more baby steps to our objective.

There’s wisdom in knowing when to keep on going. I’ve learned to listen very closely to what my gut says, to what trusted advisers and team members say, to what the market reality is, and then to choose focused actions powerfully given these inputs and a start-up’s limited resources.

As a member of the private investing group Sierra Angels, you clearly know your way around the traditional fundraising scene for startups. Yet DynaOptics opted to raise money for its mobile-phone lenses on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. What was the thinking behind your decision to try a newer type of fundraising?

Li Han: We did raise angel dollars early on in the life of the company. What we were trying to do on Kickstarter was to bring a product with our technology directly into the hands of the customer and prove that people were willing to pay for it. It was also way of generating publicity. Kickstarter is an excellent way to get out in the market with a bit of a splash in a format people can get behind.

DynaOptics is bringing to market an optical zoom system for mobile phones without a traditional bulky footprint. What is the creative process like when you are trying to slim down technology that has traditionally taken up a lot of space?

**Li Han: **When you’re working with pretty hard core technology as we are, it’s easy to get attached to one way of accomplishing something. If you’ve decided to use software to accomplish one particular outcome, for instance, it’s easy to always focus on creating better software.

At the end of the day it’s important to stay true to the user experience. People want to take really awesome photographs. They really don’t care why they are able to do so.

When technologists approach a problem it is easy to forget the problem we are trying to solve. We have found over time that it is important to think about how you are trying to be creative.

The way we see the world now is that we get to create really special optics. We need to get creative in all ways, from optics to creating software to bring about what the users want.

For every entrepreneur, there are false starts and experiments that don’t work out. What “wrong turns” have you taken in developing your mobile-phone lenses and how did you learn from them.

Li Han: When you launch a company, you start out with a bunch of assumptions that you look to test in the market. They could be around the way the technology works or around the pain point you are trying to solve. They could be about the way businesses like to buy. I think in each of these, the point is to go out there and prove the hypothesis right or wrong.

An example would be around manufacturing. We thought going in that if we could figure out how to design the lens, we could hire someone else to manufacture it.

Turns out we were mistaken there. We were designing something very complicated and very small. Even established optical manufacturing companies were unsure about how to manufacture it.

To address that, we recently launched a piece of manufacturing software that was designed to bridge this gap. It’s called Uvo: latin for “to help”.

We now have manufacturing in three countries: Singapore, Taiwan and China. We’re developing new partnerships in Singapore. I think we’ll be able to enable many more manufacturers in Singapore to make lenses like ours because we are teaching people how to do it.

You have noted there is a fine line between audacity and stupidity. What advice would you give to other innovators about how to identify where that line is in their work?

Li Han: The line is different for everybody, even in the same situation. It’s a very personal line. There is no right or wrong.

I think there are only two things you can do to help yourself find this line. One is to really get to know yourself, and the second is to truly stop and listen to what you’re trying to tell yourself, to thoroughly listen to where you are and how you feel about where you are and where things are going. Those two guideposts will help you make the right decision.

I’m both an introverted and extroverted thinker at the same time. My extroverted thinker side needs to speak with people. I speak with my mentors, my loved ones, my close friends. Usually, in speaking with them, I hear something about what I’ve said. My friends will typically point something out to me, like “Wow your eyes really lit up when you said that.” That’s useful.

What do you to reconnect with your inner self when you are not working?

I’m an active sports-person when I get the time. I think the sports I do absolutely help me focus. One of my activities is climbing. I go climbing in the local climbing gym near my home in Singapore. Over the new year holiday, friends and I went skiing in Japan. Now and then, I go for a run or walk around MacRitchie Reservoir. It’s always restorative to be in nature, and there’s nothing like a cute little monkey to remind you not to take yourself so seriously.

Singapore has many scenic places to photograph. Where is your favorite place to put your lenses to the test?

I don’t photograph in Singapore as much as I did in college, where I worked in the dark room, but to me our country’s most unique photographic subjects tend be architectural. There are so many scenic buildings here. One of my favorite photographers, Darren Soh, has done a beautiful series on our blog of Singapore’s iconic buildings.

Do you have a favorite place to go in Singapore?

Singapore has changed a lot since I grew up here. Some parts stayed the same. There are a lot of parts that are different.

I often seek out the older parts of Singapore that feel more like my past. When I was really young, we lived at Dairy Farm Estate. It’s called dairy farm but there’s no farm there, just lots of condos. I used to ride my bicycle all around the estates. I had a little blue BMX bicycle and I remember very clearly setting a little BMX race course for myself. I thought I was the coolest chick out there. After I graduated from school I went back to that old estate and looked at all of those little hills I once thought were so massive. Being able to go back in time in my physical environment puts my present and future choices in the context of my past, and I find it very useful to be reminded of that perspective.

This profile of Li Han Chan, CEO of DynaOptics, is part of Singapore: Passion Personified. It is the third in a series of eight profiles of individuals who embody the country’s entrepreneurial drive and “passion made possible” spirit, which shares stories to inspire the business leaders of today and tomorrow.

(Handout photo)