Startups

A startup accelerator and intuition brought this Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree from the Northeast to Milwaukee

Fiveable COO Tán Ho's early life and career were stuck in "survival mode." A chance encounter on Reddit led him to cofounding a nationally recognized venture — but he's still bullish on the Rust Belt city's startup community.

Fiveable cofounder and COO Tán Ho.

(Courtesy photo)

From the outside looking in, Tán Ho’s rise from casual freelancer to tech cofounder happened seemingly overnight. But life before Fiveable, where he serves as COO, was mostly one stuck on “survival mode.”

As a first-generation Asian American, Ho and his brother were raised by a single mother in upstate New York. Between the struggle of his mother juggling jobs and providing for the home, learning English and just trying to fit in, Ho said he found it difficult to find a sense of community.

That was until he found Fiveable. After “feeling a bit lost” following college, Ho stumbled upon a Reddit thread that would ultimately change his career’s trajectory. The post was an open invite from Amanda DoAmaral to join the team at her new startup, Fiveable, a social learning platform geared toward supporting students preparing for AP exams. There was just one catch: To come on board, you had to join a small team that both lived and worked together under a single roof.

Something about that commitment spoke to him. With nothing to lose, Ho packed his bags.

“Back then, I had something to prove,” he told Technical.ly. “At the time, there was no money. We were investing in this [idea]. But when I reflect on it, all the other jobs I had didn’t do it for me. I wanted to know what other impact I could have on the world outside of profit. There was something there — I could feel it.”

Ho’s intuition would prove him right.

Fiveable cofounders Amanda DoAmaral and Tán Ho. (Courtesy photo)

Today, DoAmaral and Ho are cofounders at the edtech company, which aims to “democratize education,” through content resources and a budding online community. The peer-to-peer platform provides livestreamed study sessions, on-demand video lectures, study guides and academic support.

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“The social impact was important to me,” Ho said of the company. “Students with families who don’t have resources may not know what’s out there. I was one of those students, and I don’t want that to keep happening. I want to help people break the mold.”

When Ho first came aboard, he was tasked with building out the startup’s bare bones website. Despite seeing success with his SEO implementation and marketing efforts which helped the company gain thousands of users, the startup continued to hit speed bumps.

Heading west

In March 2019, when the company was down to its last dollars, the startup was accepted into gener8tor Madison’s 12-week accelerator. With just a few weeks before the program started, Ho once again packed up his belongings and joined DoAmaral on the 14-hour trek to the Dairy State. After successfully completing the program, and lured by the state’s low cost of living, the team made its home in Milwaukee.

“When we came to Milwaukee, we had a whole network and they supported us throughout the whole experience,” Ho explained of the move, and of those he met through the accelerator. “It really was about the community.”

Over the next year, Fiveable slowly began gaining traction and attracting attention from investors, including $615,000 from Cream City Ventures in early 2020. Nearly a year later, tennis champion Serena Williams would invest in the company through her fund, Serena Ventures.

Fiveable leadership team. (Courtesy photo)

Though the company initially launched with the intention to serve AP students, the platform has since undergone several expansions to include college admissions preparation, and is now exploring new areas in financial literacy and mental health. With social interactions — and social movements — increasingly moving online during the pandemic, Ho said it was a natural extension for the company.

“Once we saw how well the AP space was doing, we thought ‘We can do this,” Ho said. “What students need these days is so universal. For Amanda and I, it was ‘How do we build success with inequities and gaps in mind? How do we build hope in young people?’ When people are accessing tools that can help grow your perspective, they catch on.”

Investors are catching on, too. To date Fiveable has served more than 8 million students and received more than $14.2 million in total funding — including a $10 million Series A led by Union Square Ventures this fall.

New Rust Belt roots

Earlier this month, Ho was recognized for his work when Forbes named him on its 30 Under 30 list, an acknowledgement that he said took him by surprise. Ho credits his success at Fiveable to his friendship with DoAmaral and their shared sense of persistence and determination.

“We’re not traditional founders,” Ho said. “We both come from backgrounds with no family money. And traditionally, people of color don’t get funding. That was our reality. But we just had to do it. Ultimately, we’re trying to dismantle [systems] and rebuild it back in a way that is meaningful for students.”

Milwaukee’s startup ecosystem overall has a reputation of being fragmented, but slowly strengthening its collaborative practices and building new tables with more seats when the old aren’t so welcoming to newcomers. Ho said the success of Fiveable’s online community mirrors the potential of Milwaukee’s startup community, if only more people were open to the possibility.

“Learning through communities is a best bet,” he said. “The way we ended up in Milwaukee was through survival, but what kept us here is that feeling of belonging. It’s about prioritizing relationships over transactions, and making your community better. There are no barriers to building community.”

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