Month: July 2011 (page 2 of 4)

Week 5: Meet Jason Shen

On Tuesday, July 12, I attended StartupRoots and met Manish Shah from Rapleaf (next blog post–stay tuned!), who referred me to Steve Newcomb’s essay on team building, which led me to googling “cult creation,” which led me to a blog entry by Jason Shen, who turned out to be a San Francisco start-up guy, whose blog inspired me so much that I emailed him, from which he was nice enough to answer some questions, which are below.

If you got through that long story and run-on sentence, here’s what he had to say about start-ups, life, and #winning. Thanks again Jason!

1. Can you tell us your abridged life story? What led you to Stanford, nonprofits, and start-ups?

Oh man – how much editing to do? I was born in China, moved to a suburb of Boston at age 3 with my mom to join my father, who was getting a doctorate degree in education at Boston University.

Mom was a gymnast in China and I ended up in the sport at age 6. Loved gymnastics – great outlet as I was a highly excitable kid. Didn’t really start to excel until around age 10. Started competing in nation-wide competitions at age 11 – think I placed 70 something out of 90 competitors at my first Jr Nationals. In sophomore year of high school, I changed gyms and started training with a hard core Armenian coach – made the Jr National team that first year.

I always liked school – especially reading. My parents had high expectations for my grades but I rarely got straight As – usually had some B+’s due to sloppy work. Read 7 Habits of Highly Effective people when I was 13, which sparked a life long obsession with personal development and making myself a better human being. Went to a big, well run public school and took a number of honors and AP classes. Found that I had a knack for standardized testing and did really well in the SATs and various SAT IIs.

Got recruited by a number of schools my senior year, but there was only one school that had a good athletic and academic program: Stanford. I applied through a special earlier-than-early application and after getting accepted in October plus a partial scholarship, my college decision was settled.

2. You maintain a pretty kickass blog—can you tell us how it got started and what it’s like keeping up an awesome blog despite your busy schedule? What advice do you have for writing a successful blog?

I’ve tried to keep a various versions of a blog since 2006 but the current version of the site began when I was working at isocket in summer of 2010. My coworker Ryan Hupfer convinced me to write – his experiences writing a blog with his girlfriend-turned-wife showed him that even if only a few people read your blog, the people you would touch and get in contact with would make it worth it.

I started to write about what I was learning at my startup. My big break was writing “How to Land a Killer Job at a Tech Startup” with my friend Derek. The post landed on Hacker News and sent ~3k unique visitors to my site in one day. I think at the time my traffic was around 5-10 uniques a day.

Like a drug dealer I was hooked.

My blog has turned into an incredibly valuable asset for me – as a channel for distributing ideas, a way to “build my personal brand”, and as a learning mechanism (writing makes you think + you get to interview smart people).

Writing now is more something I’m compelled to do. It’s the act of creating something – I get uncomfortable if I’m not putting out a post at least once a week. When I was working at isocket, I’d write on the train ride to and from work, or on weekends. If you see the value, you’ll make time.

My biggest piece of advice is to not quit. So many people start blogs with good intentions and can’t stay with it. Start small, don’t quit and you’ll figure everything else out along the way.

3. Most experienced entrepreneurs say that 1) persistence is key, 2) the idea is nothing without execution, and 3) people are the startup’s best assets. Since you have a unique perspective on that since you’re currently in the middle of getting a start-up off the ground, what would you say about that?

These things sound like truisms but make a lot of sense when you think about what starting a startup involves. Pretty much every viable idea has been tried by someone somewhere at some point. A big part of succeeding is figuring out how your version of this idea will work when others have failed (execution). When you start out, it’s just you and whoever else you’re working with, maybe some money, maybe a prototype and some code. But really, having the right people shapes the outcome more than anything else early on is so key (people). And finally, you are unlikely to get everything right the first time around so you have to be willing to run into walls again and again until you get something going (persistence).

4. You’ve written about recovering from setbacks—what other stories can you tell us about the sorts of rejection that new entrepreneurs will face and the best ways to deal with them?

One good story that I think shows the power of persistence is that Pandora went two years without paying people. So many entrepreneurs and employees would have given up right there but somehow as a company they survived and have now IPOed. More here:

5. You’ve won a NCAA championship in men’s gymnastics, graduated from Stanford University, cofounded a nonprofit, worked in sales & marketing at isocket, are a certified professional in the Art of Kicking Ass, and are now in the midst of a tech start-up. Is there anything you can’t or don’t do, and more importantly, where’s the guide on #winning in life? What’s your version of “7 Habits for Highly Effective People”?

Haha. Thanks for the kind words. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and failed at many things. I keep a failure resume that I should update since I’ve f-ed up many things since last time I edited it. A short list:

– failed to get a girlfriend in high school

– failed to make the jr national team my senior year of high school

– failed an advanced organic chem class at Stanford

– failed to “hit” my routine at Day 2 of NCAA championships in 2008

– failed to get into Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program

– failed to get the Stanford Daily to profitability in my year as COO

In general I perform poorly on things that require super high level of organization / attention to detail, need me to do a lot of math, require a really great deal of patience without short term payoffs. And if I’m really honest, I’d say that I don’t think I’m great at first dates.

I have more to learn before I write any sort of overall life advice book but I’d love to someday in the future. In 2007, at the bequest of my father I wrote something called A Guide to Life for Asian American Teens. I think it’s held up pretty well and isn’t that age or race specific despite the title. You can check it out here:


Naughty or Nice?

Breaking rules
Entrepreneurs are, by definition, rule breakers. They have little respect for the status quo, the conventional, and what the general public considers ‘right’ – as a result, they have pushed the human race forward across the millennia: Aristotle, Da Vinci, Ford, Jobs… the torch being passed from one era to another. In the Techstars book ‘Do More Faster’, a quality of “naughtiness” is attributed to the entrepreneur. On a macroscopic scale, entrepreneurs break the conventional and usher in the new; on a microscopic scale, they tend to ignore rules and bend laws, hence “naughtiness”. This is not to say that entrepreneurs are criminals, but an entrepreneur is certainly no goody two-shoes. It only makes sense; it’s impossible to have too much respect for authority and rules when the essence of entrepreneurship resolves around abolishing the ‘tried and true’ and creating something boldly fresh, oftentimes in defiance of everyone around you.

We’ve all heard of them
Some of the biggest names in entrepreneurship today demonstrate this quality of naughtiness. Marker Zuckerberg is infamous for having created Facemash by hacking into Harvard’s computer network, facing security breach charges and near expulsion in the process. Inspired by the Facesmash incident, Zuckerberg went on to create a new social website called Thefacebook, and the rest is history. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and adventurer extraordinaire, was arrested not once but TWICE by the age of 21, once for running illegal advertisements for a teenage helpline and again for tax/customs evasion while selling music records. Today, the Virgin Group consists of more than 400 companies around the world and is a multi-billion dollar holding company.

Story from True University
A story closer to home comes from a speaker I spoke to at True University, whose name I will keep anonymous here. I asked him about how to engage customers to conduct market research, to which he replied with a story about a class he taught where the assignment was to conduct customer surveys. One team of students complained to him about not having email listserves on which to blast out surveys. His reply: “You’re all smart students. Figure it out.” Later that day, he received a call from the head of the school’s IT department. “Sir, several of your students hacked into the schoolwide mailing lists and sent out over 16,000 unauthorized emails.” What did he do? Well, when he saw that same group of students the next day, he greeted them with a round of high-fives.

Naughty AND Nice
Few entrepreneurs are bad people, and the best ones aren’t. But no entrepreneur follows the rules to a T, or else he/she would not be an entrepreneur in the first place. And at the end of the day, who says you can’t be both naughty and nice?

Biz Dev For Dummies Pt. II

I’m still digging into the biz dev here at Kiip, testing out different tactics and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Here’s an update of what I’ve found to be helpful:

Be Persistent

Unlike that awkward phase in dating when you try to act cool and hold off from texting the other person back for as long as possible, you have to remember that this is business. Following up shows the other person that you’re taking the time and effort and are serious about them. I’ve been trying to followup as much as possible with developers that I’ve reached out to, especially ones that have “gone cold.” Never once has a developer complained about this or been bothered by it. On the contrary, they typically thank me for reminding them about getting back and checking in.

While being persistent is important, it’s very crucial to not step over the very fine line to the point where you are being annoying. I’ve found that the easiest way to followup is to simply say something to the effect of  “Hey, I haven’t heard from you guys in a while! Just want to check in and see how things are going and if there’s any questions I can answer for you.” On that note, making yourself available and preempting any request for help is also important.

Be Human

I mentioned this briefly in my last post, but if you’re doing Biz Dev at a startup, you should take advantage of the fact that you have that super-cool, entrepreneurial image. Be humorous, outgoing, and most importantly let the passion you have about your company shine through.

Be Honest

You should absolutely highlight the features of your product or service, but in no case should you ever resort to lying. You run the risk of getting yourself into legal trouble, but almost just as detrimental (if not more so) you can destroy your reputation by promising the moon and delivering shit. This is where Tony Hsieh and Zappos excel.. They give their customers industry-standard expectations and totally blow them out of the water.

Practice Makes Perfect

No one starts off closing deals with just one five minute phone call like it ain’t no thang. Like anything else, learning how to foster a business relationship comes with hard work, effort, and time. I’ve certainly gotten the hang of gauging a potential partner and communicating via email. Phone calls are another story, though, and that’s for the next update! Luckily I’ve got the rest of the BD team here to help out on that front. We’ll see how it goes.

Producing Returns

True Ventures puts a phenomenal amount of support into the True Entrepreneur Corps program, and I have been trying to figure out how to describe the relationship between the VC firm/program and the TEC interns. For me, it seems a lot like a VC investment.

Before we joined the program, each of the interns went through a pitch period, where we submitted an application and interviewed to get placed. True came back to us with a “term sheet” of sorts: a placement for the summer and an invitation to the program.

Just as a good VC investor continues to be active and help as the startup develops, True is putting time into selecting texts, bringing in speakers, making startup placements, and otherwise placing an infrastructure around the entrepreneur development experience.

By investing in budding entrepreneurs, True is really carrying out its mission of investing early and helping foster growth. As the True team often says, the terms are quite founder friendly. There is no assurance that the TEC interns will become entrepreneurs, let alone successful ones worthy of a True term sheet at some point in the future. However, the beauty of seed stage (or pre-seed stage, in this case) investment is that every investment doesn’t need to succeed; True just needs a few to succeed spectacularly.

As TEC interns, we are all now a part of the True family, which has already provided significant benefit to our personal development as entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. Relationships are key in entrepreneurship, and thus this accelerated introduction to the startup ecosystem will be invaluable as we progress.

Hopefully, some day down the line, some of us TEC interns will be doing interesting and exciting things and have the opportunity to provide some return to True’s investment, even if it’s as simple as connecting with future TEC interns and building up the strong sense of community that exists at True. Until then, it’s important for us to get as much out of this opportunity as possible in these last two weeks.

Survey week – and a list of cool tools!

Yes, it is finally that time – it is survey week, and that means all of you wonderful visitors get to participate in a survey for being such loyal readers of the TEC blog!

Over the years, I have been an avid participant in focus groups, survey panels, feedback forums, and much, much more – and in doing so, I have learned immeasurable amounts about the average consumer. I decided that this week, rather than take the survey, I would give the survey. You are an extremely intelligent person – and you’re looking at the TEC blog, which presumably means that you’re interested in entrepreneurship.

I have a couple of surveys for you to choose from – but it would be awesome if you would answer both (if you think you’re up for the challenge).

Survey #1: “The Entrepreneur’s Book List”
Have a book that you’ve read that blew you away as an entrepreneur? Share it with us – we’d love to know what you’re reading!

We have read a number of books this summer, but likely missed quite a few that would be extremely valuable, and as readers of this blog, it is extremely likely that you know which books we should be reading!

Click here to recommend a book >>

Survey #2: “Awesome Web Tools”
Yes, you may shamelessly self-promote – or you can promote tools that you actually use every day (tools that someone else created).

Each of us has our own set of tools that we love to use, many of which are free (okay, because I’m cheap, all of mine are free – but maybe yours aren’t), but we rarely share our findings with others. Take this opportunity to share the tool you feel is the best, so we can all become a little bit more efficient in doing things on the internet.

Click here to recommend a web tool >>

So, now that you’re done with the surveys, head on over here to get your prize. Yes, that’s right – it’s an awesome bookmarklet. Use your arrow keys to control the ship, and press the spacebar to fire. Yes, you can now blow up the survey(s) you just took (or choose your favorite website and have at it).

Part of what I have been doing at Loggly is posting articles on our Twitter feed – and some of them have had some extremely cool tools/scripts, so I figured that I would use this blog post to show a few of them off:

21 Awesome JavaScript/Ajax Effects Every Web Developer Should Know:

Need a break? World’s biggest Pacman game:

Wiimote control on a webpage? Awesomeness with wii.js:

Like to learn? You’ll love this:

Despise Flash? Convert to HTML5 with Swiffy:

I hope you enjoy the links above – as well as the surveys. Thank you for participating – I’ll be posting the results next week!

Beyond the Consumer Valley

Having spent 6 weeks in the Bay Area, I now have much better orientation than the vague sense of the environment than I had coming into this summer.  There are a lot of engaging people, and some reasonably simple ways to meet a wide swathe of them.  In addition, it is possible to get exposed to new ideas and consumer products very easily and quickly.

A wide range of news from consumer-oriented startups is readily accessible and receives a great deal of evaluation and commentary online through reliable blogs and tech websites.  I definitely feel like I am much more looped in now to new ideas than I was even a few months ago.

However, there is a whole part of the start up world, arguably a more valuable and successful part, that still remains nebulous.  The part I am referring to is the world of enterprise start-ups: B-to-B and B-to-B-to-C solutions.  There are many opportunities in enterprise, but the scope of those problems and solutions is not clear because there is much less dialogue in that area.

Of course, the fact that enterprise solutions get less press makes a lot of sense; they are not as flashy and exciting to the average tech reader, and thus it is not in the interest of the TechCrunches and Mashables of the world to give it top billing.  Even most bloggers and thought leaders do not seem to spend as much time on enterprise solutions v. “poptech”.

Making enterprise technology accessible to the layperson would be challenging, but that is an area that many entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs-to-be would be very interested in; pushing tech media in that direction would be a good step forward for both technological innovation and entrepreneurship as a whole.

Comment if you have any recommendations for good enterprise tech media sources!

Virality for Zombies

I briefly discussed virality in my previous post, but I thought this deserved a bit more detail. Most of what you need to know can be found in David Skok’s virality blog post, but it’s quite complex for someone brand new to the concept.

Virality is best explained through example. Say there’s a zombie virus outbreak and the President of the United States asked you to predict how fast the zombie virus will spread. There are four main variables you would need to measure:

  1. How many zombies are there currently? (current zombies)
  2. How many people does each zombie attack and infect on average? (avg. people attacked per zombie)
  3. For every person a zombie attacks and infects, what is the % chance the person will survive and turn into a zombie? (infection rate)
  4. How long does it take for a person to turn into a zombie? (zombie transformation time)

The first thing to calculate is your k-factor, which is just #2 * #3. If your k-factor is under 1, then there isn’t a huge worry – the zombies aren’t likely to organically spread everywhere. If it’s above 1, well… panic time. You’ll see why in a moment by looking at the formula.

To predict the number of zombies at some time, you just need a magic formula that pulls everything together and allows you to calculate the number of zombies at time t. Let z(t) represent the number of zombies at time t, where t is measured in days.

z(t) = z(0) * (K ^( t/r + 1) – 1) / K – 1.

z(0) = current zombies

K = (avg people attacked per zombie) * (infection rate)

r = zombie transformation time

Simply plug in a number of days into z(t) to predict how many zombies you’d have on a given day.

If you wanted to reduce the rate that the zombies spread, you would need to figure out ways to reduce your k-factor and increase the zombie transformation time. Perhaps you could develop a drug that would relieve zombie symptoms and delay zombie transformation time. Or, perhaps you could quarantine the zombies to limit the avg number of people each zombie can reach.

Congrats! You now have recommendations for the president that could save the world.

More importantly, you’ve also just learned how virality works for internet applications. Except, instead of trying to reduce the rate that zombies spread, you are the villain that tries to increase the rate that the zombies (your customers) spread.

The mathematical model is exactly the same, with some slight name changes:

c(t) = c(0) * (K ^( t/r + 1) – 1) / K – 1.

c = number of customers

K = avg number of invites sent per customer * avg. acceptance rate per invite

r = time it takes for an invitee to turn into a customer and send her invites

The variables you have control over when trying to increase the virality of your app are K and r. The first goal is to get K as high as possible, ideally over 1. The K formula defined above isn’t very granular, so it may be more useful for you to break the K formula down into multiple steps based on your sign up flow and invite loop. One complication is having multiple invite flows (e.g. users can invite via FB, email, and Twitter). In this case, I’ve found that you can simply calculate the k-factor of each invite flow and add them all together to get your total K.

The second goal is to lower r. You do this by making your sign-up and invite flow as easy and seamless as possible. For instance, you could reduce the number of steps, take out unnecessary fields, or experiment with stronger calls to action.

It’s difficult to have an app that is truly viral, so it may be that your app is not inherently viral and will never reach 1. In that case, your best option is to maximize your K and combine your partial virality with other marketing channels (SEO, SEM, etc.). By increasing your K, you are also increasing the value you get out of your other marketing channels because (as Skok mentions) you increase the overall number of customers gained per lead you acquire from each channel.

Enjoy exploring the world of virality. You’ll know who to save first when a zombie apocalypse arrives ;).

Motivation Boosters

There’s nothing I love more than watching a good interview. Programs like Inside the Actor’s Studio, Charlie Rose, and Fresh Air on NPR are some of the most fascinating shows on the air to me. There’s something really awesome about hearing successful people talk about a time when they weren’t such big celebrities and hadn’t yet achieved their success.

I often look to these interviews as inspiration for my own work. It’s a tremendously motivating to see that those people now worthy enough to be in that interviewee’s chair were once just as lost and clueless as I am today. When they tell the stories of their own hard work and randomly fortuitous events that got them to where they are, it makes my future path to triumph suddenly seem much more surmountable.

Working on a startup can bring some serious lows in motivation (also many highs), but it’s very important to stay enthusiastic and optimistic about your company in order to succeed. So I would recommend watching some startup-related interviews. Mixergy has a terrific collection of talks and tips from the people that know what they’re talking about. Jessica Livingston’s “Founders at Work” (which is part of the TEC reading curriculum) is also a really fascinating collection of interviews in text form. But my favorite series thus far has been Kevin Rose’s Foundation. Kevin’s informal interview style exposes some really interesting stories, including some from within the True Ventures family: Tony Conrad and Brian Wong. Also be sure to check out the Foundation interview with one of my favorite people in the industry: Chris Sacca.

Understanding Design

Though I only have 2.5 years of programming experience and have never undertaking an intense large-scale engineering project, programming has always made sense to me as a concept – you identify a problem, put it into a pseudo-code format that’s accessible, and then solve it using your language of choice, often (for beginners like me) with the help of tutorials, existing pieces of code, and other props.  This is not to say that I consider myself a programmer (though the Road to Rails may be a future blog post describing this summer’s adventures into the Ruby on Rails environment), but I can understand where engineers are coming from in terms of their mindset and the capabilities of their tools.

Design, however, is an area where I have no experience at all.  Working in product management this summer, one important part of my work is interacting with the design team at Fitbit to turn wireframes and functional concepts into a beautiful, usable UX.  Thus, as I work with Kerem, our Senior UI Designer, to prepare some of our new sharing initiatives, I have also been talking with Christine, Senior PM, and Mark, our Art Director  about how they approach design, and reading a simple yet useful book, Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”.  Here are some of the highlights of this learning process, all focused on usability:

  1. Have clear business priorities – without a sense of the end goal/metrics, it’s tough to create an interface aimed to support those priorities
  2. Do not try to use fancy language and visuals if simple ones suffice
  3. Have a clear hierarchy and flow of information – users should always know where they are
  4. Conduct usability tests regularly – this can be simple as asking those around you what they think a page you are designing is intended to do

Those are the key points that I’ve gotten so far, but a lot of the world of design, especially where it leaves the high-end usability thinking and begins to merge with art, still goes over my head.  Still, if I have learned one thing this summer, it’s that small steps forward are better than no steps at all!

The Customer Is Always Right.. Right?

Or Skepticism About The Lean Startup Method

Last Friday, I had the great pleasure of visiting SchematicLabs to do some beta testing on their Soundtracking app (thanks for the invite, Vishal!). I was able to play around with the app, and afterwards the entire testing group met up so that we could throw some ideas out there and see what stuck. A pretty common theme revolved around the idea of creating a playlist that would be generated out of songs that were trending. When asked if we would be okay if these songs only played for thirty seconds each, I gave a very firm “no” as an answer. I figured that when you are discovering a new song, you need to listen to it in its entirety to get a better sense of it.

And then  Fast Forward–The Hype Machine’s latest way to discover new music–was launched yesterday. Fast Forward takes all of Hype Machine’s most popular songs at the moment, creates a playlist, and plays about 15 seconds of each song before “fast forwarding” on to the next one. It’s. Awesome. Granted, there are still a few features that I would like have  added here and there, but the main point is that I was wrong. I thought I would never like something like this, but now that I have the product in my hand, I can see myself using it each and every morning.

This (finally) leads me to the point of this blog post. In TEC, we recently read Do More Faster–lessons learned from some of the TechStars companies. A very common theme of the book revolved around this Lean Startup methodology in which you market test and iterate like crazy until you find the perfect product-market fit. The benefit of doing so is that you save a lot of time and effort by not creating something that’s going to fall flat on its face when it hits the market. But what if customers don’t really know what they want when you ask them in your market testing? This is something that the eHarmony CTO, Joseph Essas, highlighted during a guest lecture at NYU last year. The company had done extensive surveying, asking users what were the most important things that they would like to see on another person’s profile. eHarmony  compiled the data and implemented the changes. The feedback from users was overwhelmingly negative, and eHarmony reversed the changes they had made.

This is why I admire entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey so much–they have a vision and they stick with it. When Twitter was first released, everyone thought that it would be useless: “Why use Twitter when I can just post updates to Facebook?” and when people actually started using it: “Why am I restricted to 140 characters?” And it was the same with Square: “Why would anyone be stupid enough to swipe their credit card in this plastic thing on top of some random person’s phone?” and yet it’s quickly on its way to becoming one of the leaders in the mobile payments sphere. And it’s the same with Apple. There are hundreds of products that the company could easily manufacture, and yet it keeps its product line small enough to the point where it could sit comfortably on a boardroom for Steve’s exhaustive inspections.

Making efficient use of my time makes sense to me, as does listening to customers and finding a good product-market fit. But in my humble opinion, it seems as if a company would never truly be able to reach its full potential if it constantly follows the whims of its customers. After all, customers are incredibly fickle, and where they spend their time (and money) probably does not have a direct correlation with how much you implement their feedback. I’m sure I’m rustling quite a bit of feathers here (especially amongst many of the techies over at NYU!) so any discussion is very much welcome.

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