Oak Park native Ryan Chan isn’t one to play it safe. The 26-year-old spent four years at UC Berkeley getting a degree in chemical engineering, and a year after graduating decided to completely change his career path and get into tech, even though he had no idea how to code.
Now, three years later, Chan is the CEO of UpKeep, a tech company that recently secured $10 million in funding, an accomplishment that landed him in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list.
“I think people have this idea that you have to quit your job and have all these resources before you can start something on your own. I didn’t have that luxury. I was working a full-time job,” Chan said. “There’s so much you can do without raising a ton of money. If you have a passion that you deeply want to pursue, I think anyone and everyone can do it. (UpKeep) is the result of hard work that all of us have put in over the last two or three years.”
UpKeep is a mobile application designed to help technicians create and track work orders for equipment repairs. It’s used by the likes of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Yamaha.
Chan developed the idea when he was working at a manufacturing facility after he graduated from college in 2013. Equipment kept breaking, and the process for ordering repairs was lengthy and slow-moving. Technicians in the field would take notes on paper, then put them into a computer when they got back to their office. Papers would get lost, and there was no centralized method for tracking orders.
“I said, ‘Okay, I want to build a mobile-first product for technicians out in the field to be able to communicate from wherever they are with a mobile device,” Chan said. “But I had no idea how to program. I taught myself on nights and weekends, then I quit my job, moved to Los Angeles and got a job as an iOS developer to basically get paid to learn how to code.”
Chan was living with his then-girlfriend, Shelley Shi, 26, when he decided to make the change. The two are engaged now, set to be married in June. Shi said that when Chan first brought up his plan to learn to code she had reservations.
“He had to convince me a bit because I didn’t know what it was like being an entrepreneur and what the whole startup life was like,” Shi said. “I was hesitant in the beginning, but as he demonstrated that he could succeed in this crazy risky field I’ve felt more and more confident, and now I’m super proud that he’s gotten where he is today.”
Shi, a med student at UCLA, said they moved to L.A. from Goleta in 2014 after she was accepted to the school’s medical program. Chan’s mother had just moved to a home in Encino and offered to let the couple stay in her garage.
While Shi went to school, Chan worked as an iOS developer, spending nights and weekends building UpKeep. When he released the platform it grew slowly, a few more downloads each day, until it was being used by thousands of technicians across the country. Eventually a friend convinced him to quit his job and turn UpKeep into a company, so he did.
For the Android version of the app, he hired a coder in India, who responded to an ad Chan had placed online. They also developed a subscription-based version of UpKeep with added features to start generating revenue, and the company grew from there.
Eventually UpKeep was accepted into Y Combinator, a Mountain View-based company that develops startups in exchange for a percentage of that company’s equity. Chan spent four months, from January to April 2017, living with Shi’s parents in the Bay Area to take part in the Y combinator program while Shi lived in his mother’s garage and went to school.
“During those four months we wanted to find something in Central California to do, so we did day trips to different places—Fresno, Bakersfield, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. We just explored them,” Shi said. “Ever since we started dating, we like to explore new things together. That’s what we really like about our weekends, finding new places to go.”
Shi said they have a wide range of hobbies. The evidence is in the trunk of Chan’s car—it’s packed with roller blades, tennis rackets, rock-climbing gear, archery equipment and a bike rack.
“Ryan’s really not afraid to take risks to do something he’s passionate about, especially in terms of his career,” Shi said. “I’m very stable and I help ground him, I think, because he’s very head in the clouds. But he’s also pushing me to think bigger and take more risks.”
That willingness is what put Chan where he is today—working out of an office in Westwood and overseeing a team of 17 employees. He said that when he first had the idea he didn’t know how far it would take him.
“It was just an opportunity to learn something cool. I knew that my old company had this problem, and I thought I would build something that solves a real problem,” Chan said. “I never thought about, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a multimillion-dollar company.’ It was all about this really fun journey for me.”