Author: Steve Liu

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Well, I can’t believe TEC is officially over. I’m still hanging out in the Bay Area for 2 more weeks working at B-Stock Solutions, but I can’t help but feel it won’t be the same as we had our last Thursday session and our farewell dinner this past week. By the time this post makes it out to the blog, many of my fellow interns will probably be gone already. It’s clichéd, but I’m not sure if mere words can capture what I’ve learned and experienced this summer. Like anything else though, I guess you have to try.

We learned a ton about building successful startups, from the different elements of a business model to improving through iteration, to forming a sustainable culture. We also learned about the fund raising process and valuation from some of the best in the business. While there was a lot of reading throughout the summer, the books were all extremely well written and insightful. We also had some incredible speakers from the ranks of the True partners and portfolio founders. I feel like I have a network out here now that I can turn to for help and advice. It was definitely invaluable knowledge that will one day help all of us if and when we decide to start our own businesses.

While I will no longer be going to the True offices on official business, I’m still working at B-Stock Solutions for the next two weeks. I’ve gotten a chance to explore all aspects of working at a startup working on finance, analytics, operations, and marketing projects. I’ve started to understand the details and nuances of auctions and liquidations and it’s a complex and fascinating world. I’m glad True had us pitch a new product or changes to our companies at our final meeting. It was intimidating to critique a business that I think is fairly successful, but it really made me think critically about B-Stock Solutions and question everything instead of just accepting it. I’m sure my experience was a little different from my fellow interns because B-Stock has such an experienced team with strong ties to eBay, but it was valuable in that it showed me the pros and cons of gaining corporate experience first. Let’s hope these last two weeks are as good as the first six.

Outside of work and TEC it’s been a good time too. This group is honestly one of the most interesting and talented cast of characters I have ever met. I joined the game a little late, but I felt right at home when I first me them. We have conversations about entrepreneurship and technology that simply don’t happen with my peers really often. We had some great adventures in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Marin, and Santa Cruz. I really hope we all keep in touch and reunite a few years down the line. Maybe some of us will have successful companies by then.

It was a great ride, but like unlimited data plans, the 90s, and the Lord of the Rings movies, all good things must eventually come to an end. Fortunately, as this post title indicates, I believe this is just the beginning of our journey. To my readers, this may the end of the line for me on this blog, but you can follow my post-TEC life on my blog or Twitter. I met some incredibly talented and motivated people at TEC this summer, and I’m sure we’ll all go on to accomplish great things in life. Now it’s time for you to go out to the places you will be from.

Cooking up a Good Startup

Wow that went quickly. If my calculations are correct, this will be my penultimate blog post for TEC, so I thought I would have a little fun with this one (not that I don’t usually try to make my blog posts fun).

One of the recurring activities I’ve mentioned in my blog posts this summer is my attempts to take up cooking. As the summer progressed, I gradually got more into it and tried fancier dishes moving from simple pasta and tomato sauce to stir fries, homemade Chinese food, and…more elaborate pastas. I’ve really started enjoying the whole process, not just consuming the end result, which got me thinking about how my culinary experiments relate to my professional experience with TEC this summer.

In many ways, learning to cook is like starting your own business. You start off by observing what’s going on around you and saying to yourself, “Hey, I think I can do that,” or “I bet I can do that better.” You begin gathering the resources you need to make your idea a reality. For cooking, it’s going to the store to find the right ingredients. For startups, it’s learning about your industry, finding the necessary skills, and obtaining funding. In a way, VCs are like a supermarket for entrepreneurs because they can offer numerous resources like funding, advice, and networking. It’s usually wise to shop around for the best deal, but unfortunately, there are no reward card specials.

Once the pieces are in place, it’s time to start executing. At first, it’s hard to know if what you’re doing is right. Is this chicken fully cooked? Does my website draw in new customers? You can read books or seek out advice from others, but ultimately it’s about trial and error. There’s no right or wrong way to do things, it’s all about finding your niche and style. Things may not work out perfectly the first time, but you can learn from your mistakes. You can’t be afraid to fail. You just have to get your product out there and iterate. If you stick with it and adapt, you will slowly get better and build your culinary repertoire and revenue streams.

Picking up cooking or starting your own business is easier than ever. With globalization and improvements in technology, costs are lower than ever. You can get cheap utensils and ingredients if you go with generic brands. You can also get cheap computing power and software using cloud computing services. You can’t always do everything on your own, so sometimes it makes sense to outsource tasks. For example you might buy a sauce from the store or hire a developer for a project. You’re never alone either. Millions of recipes can be found online for free while sites like Odesk are good places to find cheap outsourced help. You should be careful though, as Tony Hsieh advised, not to outsource or cut corners on your core competency. This could be the quality of beef in your stir fry or Zappos’ warehouses.

There is a sizable psychological barrier to entry into both cooking and entrepreneurship. If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating because you don’t know where to start. It’s tempting to take the safe route and eat out or work at a stable job. Once you dive in though, it can be very rewarding. Even though your dishes may not be restaurant grade and you may be taking a pay-cut at your startup, there’s something innately rewarding about creating something with your own hands and being able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Plus you can have more fun goofing around in your kitchen or your startup office.

I’m sure it takes a certain type of personality to enjoy cooking or entrepreneurship. However, for that select group of people, it’s very exciting and a lot of fun when done right. Fortunately, I think I fall into both categories.

Come back next week for my final post! In the meantime, here’s some photos of dishes I’ve made this summer. Comments welcome!

Culinary Experiments

Livin’ on a Prayer

It’s hard to believe, but “we’re halfway there.” Granted, the rest of my colleagues only have 2 weeks left, but even with a later start it’s obvious the end will be here before you know it. At BC, we like to celebrate these halfway points with overdone references to Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. Don’t be surprised if there’s some Sweet Caroline before TEC is all over.

This week, I’m going to try something different with this post. Even though the TEC theme was business models and monetization, I really think this past week as a whole was about changing things up as you will see later in this post. I’d like to take everyone back “once upon a time, not so long ago” to fall 2009 when I was a sophomore at BC. I had to take a class called “Business and Professional Speaking” and one of our assignments was to create a new product idea and pitch it in front of the class. I came up with Shwoop (not to be confused with sneaky auction site Swoopo), a mobile social network. Although I was intentionally ambiguous about the details, the main idea was to use location features on smartphones to create real-time social networks and and enable communication between connections via SMS without revealing their actual number. Like a typical college student, I threw together my presentation the night before and memorized the speech the morning of so I didn’t take it too seriously at the time. In fact, it all seemed kind of crazy and unrealistic since this was before Foursqure or even Twitter really took off. You can see the original presentation below:

Fast forward to the present day. TEC has had us working on a research project on the post-PC world. One of our jobs was to find early stage start-ups that are positioned to take advantage of the latest trends in the technology industry. I stumbled across a company called MyTalk, a location based mobile social network. Its app pulls up the profiles based on their proximity to the user. It then lets the user browse these profiles and contact them if both parties consent.

Hmm, sound familiar? I didn’t believe it. Someone had actually created a real company based on my crazy last minute throw away class project idea. Now I’m sure MyTalk came up with the idea on their own, and I doubt that I had the knowledge and resources at the time to execute Shwoop even if I had taken it seriously, but this little incident did teach me a very important lesson. It gave me a serious nudge in the direction of starting my own business. It proved to me that I could come up with viable ideas. Those slightly far-fetched “what ifs” should not be discounted because they could become realities one day. You just have to “give it a shot,” and “we’ll make it I swear.”

On a less philosophical level, there were a lot of tangible changes this week too. I’ve started taking the bus to work now that I no longer have a car to borrow. Sure, it takes a little more time and it’s a lot less flexible, but its given me a chance to do some reading or listen to Tech News Today during the commute. After this week, I can finally say I’ve met every current employee at B-Stock Solutions after our remote Director of Professional Services flew in from Newton, MA (BC’s neighborhood) of all places. TEC also got a change of scenery this week as we met in Palo Alto on Friday instead of the usual Thursday Pier 38 sessions. We read the very colorful Business Model Generation instead of a traditional business book or article. For anyone currently running a business or considering one, this is a must have manual.

This weekend, we walked down to the lovely Stanford campus after TEC and explored around Palo Alto. On Saturday, a bunch of us in the Bay Area went hiking in the very windy Marin County just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. All in all, it was nice to switch things up a little.

…But it’s never lupus!

Hello readers! TEC (and by extension the summer) is really flying by. As usual, plenty to talk about, but there will be opportunities to digress and throw in bad jokes as we go.

Diagnostic medical drama fans won’t need to run a biopsy to recognize the title of this post is a tribute to House, MD. Well earlier this week, I channeled a little bit of Dr. Gregory House myself. For those who don’t know, I’m living in Belmont, CA so the commute wouldn’t be too far from B-Stock Solutions. What Google Maps didn’t tell me before I came here was that I’m near the top of a giant hill and right in the middle of deer country (I regularly see deer pass by my window). Well, I decided to go for a run up this giant hill one day and I must’ve strained a muscle or something because the next few days my leg tightened up so bad I felt like House with his gimpy leg. Fortunately, with a lot of stretching, I think I’ve recovered without the aid of a cane or vicodin.

Since I brought up my favorite fake American TV doctor, I might as well continue with the random reference of the week. This week at B-Stock, I continued to unravel the puzzle of calculating customer value.  It got a little frustrating at times because as I alluded to last week, things in the real world never seem to work out as nicely as in textbooks. If House has taught me anything though, it’s that you have to keep attacking difficult problems and bounce ideas off of other people. You never know when the answer will hit you.

The theme this week for TEC was company culture. This is one area where you probably don’t want to be like House. In real life, I don’t think berating and manipulating your employees is the best way to go. A good example of good corporate culture is the customer service and passion oriented climate at Zappos. I had my own Zappos story this week when I got an @reply from Zappos‘ customer service Twitter for mentioning I was reading CEO Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness. Talk about WOW. In addition, we heard from Greg Avis of Summit Partners, Jeff Veen of Typekit, and Chris Golda of Backtype. Greg was particularly interesting for me because coming from Boston, I knew Summit was held in high regards. It was just amazing to hear about the company’s history and unique investment strategy from one of the founding partners. Sometimes you have to take a step back to realize how incredible some of the TEC opportunities are.

When I wasn’t injuring myself this week, I started getting fancier with my cooking by trying my hand at some chicken alfredo and stir fry. I also made sure I enjoyed the last of the World Cup as I’m looking at a dead zone for sports I follow until the US Open and football season at the end of August/beginning of September. What will I do in the meantime? Find out what I decide on a one hour special on ESPN next week. Or you could just check back here.

I [heart] Pivot Tables

Hi everyone, two weeks of TEC under my belt and lots to talk about. I’ll jump right in with an update about work at B-Stock Solutions and the nerdy moment I had in the title of this post.

I’m definitely settling into life at the B-Stock offices. For one, I’m actually not the new guy anymore! This past week, we added two additional employees, so I’m no longer the sole target of hazing in the office (just kidding)! The main project I’ve been working on this past week is attempting to figure out the lifetime value of a B-Stock buyer. This meant sorting through thousands of lines of user data and whipping out all sorts of stats knowledge that I semi-remember. My really nerdy moment came when I was using a pivot table in Excel to sort the data by various categories and dimensions to help me with my calculations. Midway through rearranging my tables, I suddenly began to appreciate how useful Excel and pivot tables actually were. It would have taken hours to scroll through thousands of data points to find the right ones, but thanks to Excel, the right ones would pop up with just a few clicks of the mouse. It reminded me of one of the speakers at Structure last week who said that Microsoft Excel was one of the most undervalued pieces of software out there. At the time, I thought he was crazy because Excel is anything but cheap. However once you think about the productivity boost the program provides, I couldn’t agree with him more. In my excitement, I tweeted “I ♥ pivot tables #excel

TEC this week focused on term sheets. As a finance major, I was pretty excited about this because it was closely related to what I am studying. However, I quickly learned two things. First of all, term sheets are more of a legal document than a financial document. Even though I understood some of the vocabulary and concepts, there was a lot more that I didn’t understand and the wording of some of the sections were just very strange. Second, there’s a huge difference between school and the real world. In school, you do homework problems with nice textbook numbers that fit together nicely, but it’s much less straightforward in the real world. Of course, most finance classes brush over venture capital and it’s very different animal, but it still made me realize that there are a lot of things I will only be able to learn in the real world. It was great to listen to Phil Black share his encyclopedic and explain the tricks of the trade. It definitely made me realize that not all term sheets are created equal.

Outside of work, it’s been a pretty fun week too. Monday, True took us to the Giants-Dodgers game. Although I’m a sports fan, I never really got into baseball, so this was my first Major League Baseball game. I had a great time chatting, enjoying the greasy ballpark food, and following the game. It would’ve been nice to see the Giants win, but it was still a good time (I followed my rule which is to root for the home team when no other interests are at stake). Aside from that, I got to visit the new Taskrabbit office in San Francisco. Last summer, I interned with them when they were RUNmyERRAND in Boston. I can’t believe it’s a full year already. Lastly, I had a great 4th of July with some fellow TECers.

PS- One of the perks of TEC is we get to try out new stuff before the general public. Check out my about.me profile at about.me/steven (Yes take that all you other Stevens out there!)

Second Week at B-Stock Solutions

As promised, here’s a second post to catch up on everything that’s gone on. I’ll start by going into a little more detail about my placement, B-Stock Solutions.

B-Stock helps large Fortune 1000 manufacturers and retailers liquidate their excess inventories through a private, branded online marketplace. Normally when someone like Walmart wants to get rid of stuff they don’t want to sell in their stores anymore, they go to a traditional liquidator who charges a fixed price and Walmart usually take a steep loss. B-Stock however sets up a buyer auction so the price can be bid up and sellers can get more of their money back. The incentive for buyers is that they know whose stuff they’re bidding for because each brand has their own website.

Why should companies care about liquidation? The thesis behind the business is that liquidation is an easy way to increase profits that most companies don’t take advantage of or don’t have the resources to do so. All you accountants out there know that excess inventory is written off as a loss. However you’ll also remember that your Cost of Goods Sold are basically locked in once you’ve produced or acquired your inventory. Therefore, any increase you get on your liquidation value will go almost completely to increase your profits. If you were to focus instead on increasing profits through sales, you’ll incur additional variable costs which means its much harder to get the same profit increase by just focusing on revenue. Pretty cool concept, it just makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. For those of you who like these sort of accounting exercises, check out this post on the B-Stock blog.

During my first week at the office, I’ve jumped right into the day-to-day. The two main projects I’ve worked on so far are making sure potential buyers have the right paperwork and doing some research about the world’s 250 largest retailers. The founders of B-Stock originally ran a similar product at eBay before spinning it off on their own so a lot of the business plan has already been fleshed out. Since I’m new to the game though, I’m still trying to learn all the ropes of the company and the business. To that end, everyone has been pretty helpful about getting me oriented. The office is really spacious and pretty cool. Aside from work, there’s been some casual chatter about the state of the tech industry and the World Cup. I even got my tail handed to me in a friendly game of ping-pong. I look forward to getting more and more involved with B-Stock and leaving my mark on the company before I leave (in a good way, of course).

Cloudy with a chance of SaaS

Hello everyone, I’ve finally made it out to the Left Coast, so no more “London Blogging” for me. I’ve only moved in and started working for a few days, so I’m still making some adjustments. For one, my circadian clock is still in off the coast of Newfoundland somewhere, and it’s made me a morning person for one of the rare times in my life.

There’s been so much going on this week that I may end up doing an extra post instead of one overwhelming wall of text. I thought I’d start talking about this past week’s GigaOm Structure 2010 cloud computing conference. I got up before the crack of dawn to catch the Caltrain into San Francisco. It was an unusually cold morning so the warm and cozy train ride was greatly appreciated. I finally got to meet the TEC group in person and right side up. They seem like a really cool bunch and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them the rest of the summer. We got kind of lost heading to the conference and ended up cutting through a sketchy looking warehouse complex (though not as sketchy as some of the officiating in the World Cup).

I had a very elementary understanding of cloud computing going in; all I knew was instead of running software and storing data on your own machine, you’re running it off of someone else’s server. So when the first panel of the day started talking about databases and NoSQL, this poor finance major was as lost as England after being eliminated 4-1 from the World Cup by Germany. Fortunately the topics got a little less technical as the day went on and we TECers helped each other out by explaining what we understood and (mostly) commiserating. My favorite panel involved representatives from Facebook, Paypal, Zynga and Engine Yard. I understood what their companies did and it made their discussion about scaling easier to follow. Throughout the day, I took down some terms and acronyms I’ll Google when I get home to translate some things into plain English. Overall, I was able to pick up some general trends and themes during the day but more than anything it seems there are more questions than answers right now.

It was a long day to be sure, but nothing compared to the epic 3 day, 11 hour, tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahmut. As you can tell by my jokes, I’ve been watching the World Cup and Wimbledon during my free time, in addition to connecting with some old friends in the Bay Area and learning to cook for myself (read: boiling pasta). In fact, I’ll probably make a theme for my jokes every week (quality not guaranteed). Check in later this week for a post about how things have been going at work. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter, my personal blog, or if you’re a wealthy and influential banker, venture capitalist, or business owner, Linkedin.

P.S. Couldn’t resist posting this.

London Blogging

Hi everyone, my name is Steven Liu and I will be a senior studying finance at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management this fall. For the past year, I have been studying abroad at the London School of Economics, so please excuse me if I say “chips” when I mean “fries!” I’m really excited to join TEC and B-Stock Solutions this summer.

I found out about TEC from one of last year’s TECers, Alex Mielke. I like how the program takes a holistic approach and reinforces our work experiences with speakers and discussions. I’ve had experience working for startups before; last summer I worked part time for TaskRabbit (formerly RUNmyERRAND) in Cambridge, MA. It was a fun opportunity to learn about the startup lifestyle and get some hands on experience. This summer, I’m ready to go full time.

I first got interested in entrepreneurship in high school when I led my business club’s entry into Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) social enterprise competition. I was attracted to entrepreneurship because I am at my best when I am completely focused, in control, and personally invested in what I’m doing. The experience really pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged my own perceptions of what I was capable of. However, I was tempted by the Dark side of investment banking when I got to college and it wasn’t until I visited San Francisco and Silicon Valley last year as part of BC’s TechTrek course that I rediscovered the joys of entrepreneurship.

I got a fantastic opportunity to meet some really cool entrepreneurs in London, both student and professional, through LSE’s Entrepreneurs Society. I helped put on EPIC, an Apprentice-style business skills competition featuring students from all over the world. I would like to start my own company one day, but as I have already learned this summer entrepreneurial success cannot be forced. The best ideas happen serendipitously and I am confident I will recognize the right situation when I see it. I just have to trust the Force.

Some fun facts about me: I was born in Shanghai, China, and I live in Allentown, PA (yes, the one from the Billy Joel song). In my free time, I like TV, sports, music, and traveling. As you can probably tell from some of the references I’ve been dropping in this post, I’m also a Star Wars fan.

I’m actually still in London as I write this, finishing up the last of my final exams, though I can’t wait to head out to the Bay Area next week and get down to business. I look forward to meeting everyone in person (and right-side up!) Until then, as they say here, cheers!

Red Leader out.