As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Taiwanese American Heritage Week, TaiwaneseAmerican.org is pleased to present a series of interviews highlighting some accomplished community members who have pursued interesting paths in their professional careers or personal projects. We’ve selected these individuals particularly because their stories include how a Taiwanese American community organization has shaped their experience or life path.
In this first profile, we feature Jonathan Chen, co-founder of new start-up Fiscal Note. I first met Jonathan as a college student attendee of the Taiwanese American Citizens League (TACL) Leadership Conference, now known as Global Leadership Organization. I was his small group leader, guiding him through a curriculum designed by community leader Teddy Liaw. During a few breaks between our sessions together, I was struck by some of his ideas and visions that he was hoping to pursue in the entrepreneurial start-up world. My memories of our conversations were vivid as we chatted about ways he could refine his mission and vision. Fast forward two years, he and a couple high-school buddies co-founded FiscalNote, a start-up company on a mission to use open data and artificial intelligence to foster a transparent legal system… and apparently, to predict the future. Their appropriately-named main products, Prophecy and Sonar, are software analytics platforms that forecasts trends and outcomes that can help clients make strategic decisions. How successful might they become? Well, CNN names them one of “10 emerging companies whose products have the potential to transform industries, help the planet’s less fortunate or become a handy part of our lives.” They have been written up in other notable publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and TechCrunch. Oh, did I mention that they’ve raised about $20 million in investment capital?
Let’s meet Jonathan Chen…
Jonathan: Thank you Ho Chie. It’s wonderful to get a chance to tell my story to TaiwaneseAmerican.org. Like many Taiwanese Americans, my parents were both born and raised in Taiwan and moved to the United States in their early 20s. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland. I spent my entire academic career in the state of Maryland. I graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in computer science and had the great honor of delivering the student commencement speech at my graduation ceremony. It was at University of Maryland where I truly discovered my Taiwanese identity after joining the school’s Taiwanese American Student Association (TASA). Most of my friends today have been involved or are still involved with TASA. In addition to my involvement in TASA, I was also heavily involved in many entrepreneurial activities on campus. I was always building cool apps at hackathons and trying to turn those apps into real world ventures. I joined an entrepreneurial living and learning program my junior year. That same year I happened to start a company called FiscalNote in my dorm room with a couple of my friends. Since then we have grown to 50+ employees and we are now headquartered at Metro Center in the heart of Washington DC. Because of the amazing growth at FiscalNote, my co-founders and I have been named Top 40 under 40 entrepreneurs in Washington DC.
H: That’s amazing! How about outside of work? How do you spend your time?
J: Outside of work, however, my hobbies are very diverse. I have a strong passion for music. I have been playing violin and drums for 10+ years and I am currently teaching myself piano. I also have a deep love for martial arts especially jiu jitsu and wrestling. I occasionally wrestle around with my college roommates and my brother. I also like to snowboard and I am an amatuer card trick magician. If you ever get the chance to witness one of my card tricks, you will seriously question the laws of physics.
H: Haha! Next time I see you, I will bring a pack of cards and be prepared to be even more amazed! Anyways, congrats on all the success with FiscalNote! What exactly is it and how do you hope it will make an impact?
J: FiscalNote is a platform that aggregates government data consisting of legislation, regulations and case law. We apply advanced analytics over all this data in order to map out valuable relationships, hidden trends, and forecast future outcomes. For example, with legislative data, we are able to predict the passage of a bill with 95% accuracy. Our goal is to add more transparency to the government and the data that they provide. Before FiscalNote, it was extremely challenging for organizations to track and analyze government data. But because of our platform, organizations ranging from nonprofits to large corporations have the ability to easily understand the impact that the government has on their industries, and as a result, these organizations can make better decisions.
J: Yes, and we have raised just under $20 million in capital. Some of our notable investors include Mark Cuban, Jerry Yang, Winklevoss Capital, and RenRen. FiscalNote has been featured in the Washington Post, Silicon Valley Business Journal, Washington Business Journal, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. FiscalNote also has been named CNN’s Top Ten Startups of 2014 and Inc. Magazine’s Coolest College Startups of 2014.
H: Let’s go back in time a little bit. What was the inspiration for all this?
J: My co-founder Tim Hwang has always been heavily involved with government and policy. While working in the government, Tim was irritated with the process of tracking and analyzing pieces of legislation. Born out of frustration was Tim’s concept of creating a platform that would make this process simpler and more manageable. He shared this idea with me and we decided to tackle the problem together. We entered an entrepreneurship competition at the University of Maryland, College Park with just the idea embedded in a few Powerpoint slides. To our surprise, we placed 2nd. The judges loved our idea and encouraged us to pursue it. Shortly after the competition we brought on our 3rd co-founder, Gerald Yao. Together the three of us created FiscalNote.
H: It’s been some time since we first met at the TACL Leadership Conference now known as GLO. How did this experience influence your path, if at all?
J: I credit a good amount of my success in leadership to you Ho Chie. Even though we had only met briefly at the TACL Leadership Conference at Columbia two years ago, I still remember how encouraging you were and the lessons you taught on leadership. I still utilize some of those techniques in my company today. For example, the brainstorming lesson you taught us has proven its usefulness many times over at FiscalNote. Giving everyone the chance to speak their ideas and then going back and systematically eliminating the bad ideas one by one based off of a majority vote has been a technique I have used frequently at FiscalNote. Also, I am glad to have had the chance to get connected with amazing individuals such as you Ho Chie, Teddy Liaw and many other great leaders in the Taiwanese American community.
H: Wow. That is so kind of you to say. I was always super-impressed by your ideas and vision even back then. Tell me, have you been involved in the Taiwanese American community in other ways?
J: In college, I was heavily involved in the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association (ITASA). I was the ITASA Representative for the University of Maryland, College Park chapter my senior year. Additionally, after college I got involved in the Taiwanese American Professionals DC chapter (TAP-DC). Although I do not hold an e-board position, I frequently attend the events to try to connect with other individuals who are also interested in Taiwanese culture. I gave a presentation on start-ups at the ITASA & TAP-DC 2015 Professional Development Day earlier this year. My goal was to inform students what life at a start-up was like. I will also be hosting a workshop at the 2016 ITASA East Coast Conference at the University of Maryland, College Park next year. So if you are interested in hearing more about start-ups and FiscalNote’s founding story, I encourage you to come!
H: If you could offer a piece of advice for students or young professionals, perhaps with an interest in the start-up tech industries, what would you tell them?
J: I believe that the best piece of advice that I can give those entering the start-up world is to make sure you find great people to work with, whether they be co-founders or employees. Ideas are a dime of dozen, but the team that you build is priceless and often times hard to replicate. Find people who you trust and respect. Find people who are willing to live and put up with you for the next 10 years. In a start-up, you are practically married to your co-founders. Everyone must push each other, believe in each other, and hold each other accountable. With a great team, anything is possible.
H: Great advice, indeed. So what’s next for FiscalNote?
J: By the end of the year, FiscalNote plans to grow to around 80+ employees, nearly doubling the size of what it is today. Although our headquarters is located in Washington DC, we have a small office in New York and plan on growing that office to around 10+ people by the end of this year. Additionally, FiscalNote is aiming to expand internationally as well, targeting Asia and Europe. There is a vast amount of open data out there and so many organizations that can benefit from our technology. Our goal is to reach all those organizations on a global scale in order to help them extract the true value of open data so they can make better decisions.
H: I can’t wait to see how we might use this to predict passage of bills that affect the US-Taiwan relationship. Amazing stuff you’re doing Jonathan. Good luck to you and the rest of the team! Thanks so much for your time today!
J: Thanks, Ho Chie!
Press and coverage on FiscalNote:
NBC News [Video]: http://www.nbcnews.com/video/meet-the-press/56301150
DC’s 40 under 40: https://www.bisnow.com/washington-dc/news/tech/40-under-40-part-v-42715
Washington Post: http://wapo.st/1bSs1TL
Washington Business Journal: http://m.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/techflash/2015/03/fiscalnotes-early-path-stress-swiped-food-and-the.html