Maybe It Was in the Cards

Inc. (USA) - - TECH - Pho­to­graph by Michael Ge­orge

Yuchun Lee, the son of a Tai­wanese ship cap­tain, earned con­cur­rent bach­e­lor's and mas­ter's de­grees (in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter science) at MIT and founded his sec­ond com­pany while on the school's no­to­ri­ous black­jack team. After that com­pany—Unica—sold for half a bil­lion dol­lars, he co-founded the Need­ham, Mas­sachusetts-based on­line train­ing com­pany Al­lego, us­ing skills he picked up at school and casi­nos. -AS TOLD TO ZACHARY LIPEZ


I was on an MIT black­jack team for six years. The ca­ma­raderie on that team is pretty phe­nom­e­nal. The money you make is phe­nom­e­nal as well. You can win or lose thou­sands of dol­lars in five min­utes. So I’ve learned to have a very healthy re­la­tion­ship with risk. I was run­ning Unica while I was do­ing black­jack. I’d work all week, fly Fri­day evening to Ve­gas, play all week­end, come home on a red­eye, and go back to work. Unica’s ap­pli­ca­tions helped com­pa­nies au­to­mate their mar­ket­ing. We pretty much ex­hausted all the wrong an­swers one could run into—that set of scars re­ally helped me later. We went public in 2005. IBM bought us in 2010.


One of the big­gest chal­lenges in the world is that ev­ery­body tries to do a good job at work, but they’re go­ing through some an­ti­quated train­ing process that’s just not equip­ping peo­ple to be good at what they do. The bet­ter way to learn is to look at how the brain works. Hu­man be­ings don’t do well sit­ting in a class­room, get­ting crammed with 20 hours of in­for­ma­tion. They learn if you give them bite-size chunks of knowl­edge and re­peat them over time, or if you em­bed the skills they need to learn in a game and they com­pete against one an­other.


We started Al­lego in 2013. My co-founder, Mark Mag­nacca, was a trainer for fi­nance peo­ple. He was us­ing iPads and iPhones to record peo­ple pitch­ing and then email­ing the files to their man­agers and ask­ing for feed­back. But when you email five or 10 three-minute videos, you can crash servers. Mark asked me to con­sult on that prob­lem. I said, “Are you sure you don’t want to build a soft­ware com­pany? That would solve this once and for all.” He said, “I don’t know any­thing about soft­ware.” And I told him, “Well, I do.”

WIN­NING HAND Yuchun Lee, a Tai­wanese im­mi­grant, founded his first com­pany when he was just 16. His third com­pany, Al­lego, has landed on the Inc. 500.

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