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: http://it-jobs.fins.com/Articles/SB129683674636383261/Pandora-Paid-No-Salaries-for-Two-Years-Considered-Gambling-to-Survive
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: http://www.jasonshen.com/resources/