23 MINS

EPISODE 17 | JAMES HONG

January 23, 2018
This week, Cory speaks to entrepreneur and investor James Hong, who is best known for having founded fun viral project turned multi-million dollar dating property HotorNot. He’s also an active angel investor and has invested in more than 80 startups. In this weeks episode, James talks experiencing virality back when it was rare, the importance of understanding peoples motives when designing products, the drastic differences in scaling today vs 2000’s, what it was like turning down multi-million dollar offers to then selling his company for more than he’d ever imagined and fast forward to today where James talks about trying to juggle being a founder and parenting.

You can only come up with out of the box solutions if you’re actually willing mentally to be out of the box and different.


James Hong (@JHong) is an entrepreneur turned investor. James and several co-founders started Hot or Not in 1999, a website that let users rate user-submitted pictures. “Today, you see pictures of people all over the place, on Instagram, on social networks and so on. It’s not as big a deal today,” says James. In the early 2000’s it was a very big deal. After a single week, the site reached an average of nearly 2 million page views a day. Within a year, the site was a top-25 advertising domain according to NetNielsen Rating’s. “It’s a very human thing to want to look at people and also to show yourself off.”

Instead of focusing on what’s worked in the past when building a product or starting a company, James works to increase his understanding of the people who will become the company’s customers. “When you want to study a product, fundamentally what you’re doing is you’re trying to study users and try to understand users. To understand them, I think you have to understand people; users are people.”

Entrepreneur Cory Levy (After School, Internapalooza) spoke with James Hong on OFF RCRD about Hot or Not, his transition from entrepreneur to investor, and what other young entrepreneurs should focus on when starting a business. “If they want to come up with good products, they should think about psychology and try to understand people, try understand users, what they like, what they don’t like and why,” says James, who has gone on to invest in over 80 companies after selling Hot or Not.

For James, successfully investing in startups goes far beyond a good idea or even a well-written business plan. “I would have done better if I just ignored reading the business plans and just bet entirely on whether I liked the people.” While he’s been asked repeatedly when he’s going to start a new company, James is more focused on his family. “The only thing I should really value is my time, because you can always make money but you can’t make more time, we have finite amount of heartbeats.”

Asked about what he’s learned from the successful entrepreneurs he’s worked alongside, James said that they are all somewhat similar. “They are ultra-smart, but they are able to think of things at a meta level. They like things that are slightly odd or different. They don’t mind being slightly odd or different. Every successful person that I know is like that. They are slightly quirky.”

Here at OFF RCRD, we celebrate the slightly quicky. Stay up to date and listen to every quirky episode on OFFRCRD.com. New episodes are published each Tuesday. Connect with us on Twitter @OFFRCRD.


In the interview, James Hong and Cory Levy talk about:

  • How Hot or Not got started and how the team had to creatively solve difficult problems at the start
  • Why James believes that all entrepreneurs need to understand people at a deep level
  • The sale of Hot or Not
  • James’ advice for people who aren’t sure what they should do
  • What James looks for in founders he’s going to invest in
  • And a lot more!

Show Notes
  • 1:13

    James Hong discusses creating a viral website in a time when no one really knew what that was

  • 3:20

    “I think it’s always good to study psychology and try to understand people if you want to build a good product”

  • 4:30

    The first year of Hot or Not

  • 6:05

    Why James and co-founders of Hot or Not decided to sell in late 2007

  • 10:00

    After graduating with $50,000 in debt, James and his friends decided to start a company instead of taking a corporate job. Listen to why they made that decision at:

  • 13:21

    Cory asks, “What would be your advice to young people trying to figure out what they want to do?”

  • 15:18

    James discusses what all successful founders he’s met with have in common

  • 16:37

    James discusses his framework for making difficult decisions

  • 17:43

    Why James isn’t starting another company in the near future

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