The Ducky Difference: How Hongbo Tian is Changing the AI Landscape

By Bryant Barr


With a deep background in computer science and a knack for turning complex problems into simple solutions, Hongbo Tian is on a mission to make AI accessible and useful for everyone. His journey from a tech enthusiast to a founder is inspiring and filled with challenges, breakthroughs, and much learning. At Ducky, he’s not just building smart tools but also fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration. Read below to get to know Hongbo, his story, and what drives him to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with AI.

In May, we announced our Pre-Seed investment in Ducky, excited by their vision for how AI will enhance human abilities rather than replace our work. Recently, we asked Hongbo a few questions about leadership, AI, and Ducky.

What’s your most proud moment as a founder? 

Hongbo: There have been numerous moments of pride—launching products, securing key customers, receiving positive customer feedback, and releasing new features. However, upon reflection, my proudest moment is tied to our team. Building a team that shares our vision, embodies our values, and contributes to our mission at Ducky has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

Seeing individuals collaborate and innovate within our company and knowing I played a part in bringing together this group of talented, passionate people fills me with immense pride. It’s a reminder that our greatest asset is and always will be our people. In the end, technology evolves, and features can be replicated, but a committed and harmonious team is the backbone of any successful venture.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in building Ducky?

Hongbo: Building Ducky has taught me the importance of managing my own emotions. The entrepreneurship journey is a roller coaster, filled with high-highs and low-lows, moments of elation followed by moments of doubt and fear. The highs are exhilarating: landing a key client, securing funding, or seeing a product you’ve poured your heart into finally come to life. The lows are draining and daunting: going for weeks without landing a client, an unhappy customer, or navigating an impossible technical risk.

It’s crucial to be honest with myself and accept these emotional swings as part of the journey. Celebrating the victories, no matter how small, is important as they provide the motivation and energy to keep pushing forward. But it’s equally important to acknowledge the lows, to allow the feeling of disappointment or frustration to wash over me, but then to step back, take a deep breath, and look at the situation objectively.

Managing emotions also means maintaining a sense of balance and perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs and lose sight of the bigger picture. I’ve learned to regularly step back and remind myself of our mission, our progress, and the impact we’re making. This helps to put the highs and lows into perspective and keeps me grounded.

What keeps you up at night?

Hongbo: Balancing the need for rapid innovation with the well-being of our team is a challenge that often keeps me up at night. In the Wild West era of machine learning, the pressure to constantly innovate and stay ahead is intense. Yet, I firmly believe that our greatest asset isn’t our technology but our team.

The challenge lies in creating an environment that encourages speed and high-quality work while still providing everyone with the necessary space to rest and recharge. This delicate and somewhat paradoxical balance requires constant attention and adjustment. We strive to set ambitious yet realistic goals, maintain intellectual rigor without striving for unattainable perfection, challenge each other critically without unkindness, and promote open collaboration while respecting the need for deep, focused work.

Success and sustainability can coexist in a company. It’s a complex puzzle to solve, but I’m optimistic about our ability to find the right balance and build a culture that truly values innovation and well-being.

What was your motivation for starting Ducky?

Hongbo: I’ve been an AI optimist since reading Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence. Where many others saw the existential risk associated with AI (which I don’t deny), I find myself drawn to the limitless potential such technology could have on the human condition.

Although we are far from an intelligence explosion, there is no doubt that machine learning has made unfathomable progress over the last decade. In my view, the technology at our disposal today is already extraordinary and ripe for application. One obvious area that’s particularly primed for this is customer service. With the advancements in machine learning, we can revolutionize this sector, making interactions more efficient, personalized, and satisfying for customers.

I believe we can transform an industry, improve people’s experiences, and demonstrate the positive impact that AI can have on our everyday lives.

Why Ducky?

Hongbo: The unfortunate reality is that customer service is a thankless job. Stellar customer service can go unnoticed, but it’s often publicly criticized when things go wrong. Support agents bear a heavy burden, constantly facing the worst aspects of human emotions, from frustration to outright anger. I have immense respect for these individuals who, despite the challenges, strive to help customers every day.

Yet, customer service is a critical touchpoint between a company and its customers. It’s an opportunity to build trust, resolve issues, and demonstrate a company’s commitment to its users; every support case is an opportunity to convert an unsatisfied customer into a loyal supporter.

From user interviews, we’ve learned that customer service can be fraught with inefficiencies, repetition, and high turnover rates. For instance, agents often spend up to 80% of their time handling repetitive queries that could be automated. The high-stress nature of the job can also lead to a turnover rate that’s twice the average for all occupations.

Our goal with Ducky is to reimagine customer service. We want to turn it from a potential point of frustration into a source of satisfaction for both customers and agents by using technology to enhance human effort rather than replace it. This vision drives our work every day. We believe that by empowering customer service agents with AI, we can create a future where customer service is efficient, more empathetic, and more personalized.

What’s the most important trait you look for when hiring someone to the Ducky team?

Hongbo: When hiring for the Ducky team, the most important trait we seek is a desire for challenge. This trait can manifest in many ways. For instance, we value individuals who have shown a hunger to pursue difficult tasks, personally or professionally. We’re drawn to ambitious people, dissatisfied with the status quo, and motivated to positively impact the world. Other times, those with a chip on their shoulder, those driven by the desire to prove naysayers wrong, bring the most energy to our team. The journey of a startup is filled with uncertainty and discomfort, but those who are passionately motivated often retain their resolve even in the toughest times.

The ability to push boundaries not only helps individuals grow but also propels the company forward. They often become the driving force behind innovation in a startup environment. In my experience, the blend of resilience and ambition makes an individual exceptional and a great fit for our team.

What are the top 3 apps used on your phone today?

Hongbo: Like many of us, I’m a big fan of the author Cal Newport. His book on Digital Minimalism resonated with me and has become a crucial practice. Hence, my phone is practically on factory defaults except for a few apps that provide significant “return on investment.”

  1. Timery: It is a time-tracking app that helps me understand how I spend my time. I frequently adjust the “time budget” weekly (e.g., not spending enough time with the customer or too much time in meetings).
  2. Google Authenticator: just good security hygiene to enable 2FA where possible.
  3. Lichess: An open-source chess app that’s a refreshing break from the day-to-day challenges of entrepreneurship; a perfect information game with clearly defined success criteria and simple rules of engagement.

Learn more about Ducky at and connect with Hongbo on LinkedIn.