ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lavu Inc. is one of the fastest-paced startups ever to emerge in the Duke City, and it all began because of an earthquake in Taiwan and a girlfriend in New Mexico.
That’s what Lavu co-founder and CEO Andy Lim told 500 attendees at the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce’s 98th annual meeting and luncheon on Thursday, where Lim was the guest speaker.
Taiwanese-born Lim, who spoke little English when he arrived 15 years ago, is now fluent in four languages and has an MBA from the University of New Mexico.
Chamber President Terri Cole introduced him as one of the “hottest” up-and-coming entrepreneurs in New Mexico today, and pointed to him as an inspiration for other aspiring entrepreneurs in Albuquerque to pursue their business dreams and contribute to economic development and job creation in the city.
Lim then told his rags-to-riches story in an interview format with Cole.
Lim explained how he and a business partner, Corey Fiala, have built Lavu from scratch over the past five years. The company provides point-of-sale software for restaurants to conduct their business online.
Today it sells its software in 85 countries on six continents and employs 40 people at a 10,000-square-foot office Downtown. The company received a $15 million venture investment in June to further expand operations on a global scale. That investment has been billed as the state’s largest such first-time venture funding deal for a startup company in New Mexico.
And it all began when Lim got scared by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 1999 in his native Taiwan.
The earthquake sent Lim packing in search of safer shores. He chose New Mexico through a romantic flash of passion.
“I had just graduated computer science in Taiwan, and I knew a girl in Albuquerque,” Lim said.
But with barely a word of English in his vocabulary, the transition was difficult.
“It was terrible when I first arrived,” he said. “It was very hard to converse.”
Lim’s determination and drive to succeed propelled him forward. The 24-year-old immigrant studied English at Central New Mexico Community College. He enrolled in business school at the University of New Mexico, and provided computer tech support services to earn his way through college.
The tech-support job solidified his grasp of English, Lim said. That’s because he dealt with people who were “old” and who didn’t have the technology skills to navigate computers on their own, so he spent all day explaining things in English. In the process, he turned a rudimentary grasp of the language into near-native command.
Lim launched his first business, Lim Web Design, in 2006.
He formed Lavu in 2010 with Fiala after the partners observed the challenges faced by a local restaurant owner who wanted to incorporate online point-of-service software into his business. Together, Lim and Fiala created their own software to allow restaurants to seamlessly conduct their business on mobile devices like tablets and smart phones.
With Lavu’s system, restaurants can now integrate all front- and back-end operations into a single platform that processes everything in real-time. Table servers, for example, can take orders directly on iPads or smartphones, allowing cooks to instantly read them on screens in the kitchen. The meals are automatically logged and processed for payment at a tablet-based cash register. And managers can remotely track inventory and manage deliveries.
Lavu’s software immediately gained traction in the restaurant industry.
“In our first week, we had 500 inquiries,” Lim said. “People wanted it, and we didn’t even have a product yet.”
The impetus for starting the company was to make sure he could provide for his family. (His wife is not the original girlfriend. “Things didn’t work out,” he said.)
Like the software, the company’s name reflects Lim’s flare for creativity. It was inspired by his toddler son.
“My son kept coming up to say ‘Lav yu, daddy,’ and we love what we’re doing,” Lim said.
Until receiving the venture investment in June, the company had grown organically, without any financing.
Lim said that reflects the market pull of a great idea that helps businesses resolve real-world problems.
“Having a product with traction is the key,” Lim said. “If the product is right and it works well, the other pieces come together.”
Lavu is committed to staying in Albuquerque, where Lim said he wants to inspire more aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams without leaving the state.
“We need to get rid of the notion that we can’t build a big technology company in Albuquerque,” Lim said. “It’s not true that you need to go elsewhere. It can happen anywhere in the world now with globalization and the Internet.”
Lim said the city and its public and private partners have done a great job in building Albuquerque’s new Innovation District Downtown – something he hopes to contribute to as Lavu continues to grow.
“There’s real support now for technology startups here,” Lim said. “We’re seeing a lot of movement. But we can do more, because we have a lot of great thinkers here, and we need more doers.”