Category: 2011 (page 1 of 8)

Where are they now? Vishal, Vicki, Ron, and Jenny (TEC 2011)

TEC 2013 is well underway, meaning a new class of bright (and bright-eyed) interns has descended on the Bay Area. In this series of posts, we’ve been checking in with TEC alumni to see how they made the most of their TEC experiences and what they’ve done since (read the TEC 2012 post here).
 


vishalVishal Maini
Yale ’13, Economics

What have you been up to post-TEC?

After being part of TEC the summer after my sophomore year, I still had a lot of growing to do personally. I had only two more years to focus on the intellectual pursuits that would inevitably slip into the background when school came to an end. History, philosophy, fiction, logic — I wanted to immerse myself deeply in subjects like these, engraining them into habit so they wouldn’t disappear from my life in the future.

Then, as a second-semester senior, I started looking forward. Because of TEC, I knew startups were in my future. I wanted to join a team working to build an enabling technology — something that would help people fulfill their full potential by helping them be more productive, educated, capable, and happy. I found what I was looking for with Upstart, a funding platform that enables young people to pursue their dreams by matching them with backers to invest in their future. I recently joined their team to work on strategic initiatives ranging from internal recruiting to business development. In just two short months, I’ll be moving to San Francisco to start full-time! I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have been so stubbornly persistent in making post-graduation decisions that aligned with my personal and philosophical values, had it not been for TEC showing me that big dreams don’t have to melt away when you become an ‘adult’ and join the ‘real world’.

How did you decide to do TEC?

Everybody and their grandmother is either a DJ or working on a startup, these days. Usually both. If I’m going to be one of those people, I want to do it right! TEC seemed to be the best way to learn the fundamentals of startups and venture capital from the people who know it best, while getting hands-on experience with a company in the early stages. I had the chance to work with the SoundTracking team just a few months after their product launch, and I learned incredibly valuable lessons about product development, understanding users, business models, and, of course, venture capital.

Beyond that, TEC is a commitment mechanism. By choosing to spend your summer as a TECling (haha! I love how this term has survived!), you choose to take some risks and pursue a path that isn’t always what people expect of you. Making that choice once makes it easier to do it again in the future.

Protips for future TEClings

Do what you love.
No, I’m serious. Actually do it. Don’t just think about doing it and then not do it. Don’t do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life. Please… just… do it.

 


vickiVicki Peng
University of Chicago ’13, Political Science

What have you been up to post-TEC?

After doing TEC the summer after my sophomore year, my passion for startups and technology was cemented. TEC made me realize I really enjoyed working with entrepreneurs, and thinking about innovation, and tech industry trends so I worked with Index Ventures last summer on the growth investing team. While I really enjoy venture capital and being on the investing side of things, I realized I missed being on the ground, hustlin’ at a startup and that the opportunity to be working at a fast-growing tech startup right now is truly unparalleled (after all, how lucky are we to be in our 20s in this type of tech environment that the world hasn’t seen since the last tech boom in 1999). So, after graduation, I will be joining Dropbox in a business capacity. I am extremely excited to be working at an super fast-growing company with awesome people that are tackling big problems, and revolutionizing the way we share information. There’s no better place to be than on a rocketship and I am stoked to be back in the Bay.

How did you decide to do TEC?

I serendipitously stumbled into the world of entrepreneurship and startups at the beginning of my sophomore year. After I became involved in the fledging University of Chicago entrepreneurship community, I was eager to be in Silicon Valley, the tech epicenter of the U.S., so I literally Googled “startups + SF + internship” and lo behold, TEC was one of the first results. I decided to do TEC because of the opportunity to both gain firsthand experience in a fast-growing startup (in my case, the startup I worked with, bloomspot, hired 30+ employees over the time I was there and moved to new offices…you can’t be more in the center of action than that!), and learn about the Bay Area startup ecosystem and venture capital from entrepreneurs and thought-leaders as a part of the TEC speaker series. And I am extremely glad I did it; TEC is an unparalleled experience, and it was an unforgettable summer.

Protips for future TEClings

  • Just do it! – You will never have another summer like this (until TEC convinces you to permanently move to the Bay Area :), and you should make the most of it. True is pretty good about exposing you to top-notch entrepreneurs, but if there’s a company you really like, or an entrepreneur you really want to meet, then go for it and email them (most people in the tech world are super friendly and always down to get coffee)! Always wanted to learn how to code, but never got around to learning? There’s no better time then now (and somebody in TEC might even be able to teach you). Always really wanted to start a company? Then there’s no better place to be and your fellow TEClings would love to bounce ideas with you. Always wanted to sky-dive? Well, SF has the most gorgeous views. You get my point…TEC is the perfect springboard to take-off into the startup world.
  • Hangout with your other TEClings A LOT – One of the best parts of TEC are your fellow TEClings. I don’t know how True does it, but they seem to always put together the most perfect TEC groups every year where everyone just gels perfectly. And from what I hear, the TEC groups get closer to each other every year. All the TEClings have done super awesome things and have really interesting perspectives. Set up a GroupMe and chat away, get lunch + dinners with each other (most of the True portfolio companies offices in SF are pretty close to each other in SOMA), and go explore SF together. These are some of the coolest people you will meet, and even two years later, we still keep in touch. And who knows, maybe one day one of your fellow TEClings will end up being your co-founder. :)

 


ron
Ron Radu
Boston College ’13

What’ve you been up to post-TEC?

I graduated from Boston College, and moved out to the Bay Area almost immediately after. I got a sweet gig as a product manager at Palomino Labs, a boutique software product consulting firm. TEC was directly responsible for my current position–a few of the guys from the True portfolio company I worked at started Palomino, and recruited me upon my graduation. It’s only been 6 months since I’ve been out here, but I’ve experienced and learned more in that time than I ever thought possible.

How did you decide to do TEC?

BC students are well-represented among TEC alumni, so I was aware of the program. I heard about all the engaging speakers, fun trips, and True’s genuine dedication to helping TEClings out during the summer and beyond. This all seemed like too good to pass up, and I’m still glad I got to be a part of it.

Protips for future TEClings

Two things. First, always go for a startup over a big company if you have a choice. You’ll hear this advice a lot during TEC, but personal experience really sold me on this. People I’ve seen in smaller companies, who have more responsibility and who aren’t just another cog in the wheel, are simply happier, more satisfied, and develop their skills a lot faster. People say they like the security of larger companies, but the opportunities you’ll find in startups are unparalleled and are worth any risk you take by joining them.

Second, a lot of people out here really like to talk the talk but falter when it comes to walking the walk. Need to learn how to code? Want to build something? Stop talking about it and just do it. Stop reading TechCrunch articles about who’s got how much funding. Forget about overhyped companies that won’t exist a year from now. The only thing that matters is what you actually accomplish. Focus on your company, on your work, on your product.

 


jenny
Jenny Li
University of Michigan ’13, Business Administration

What’ve you been up to post-TEC?

I’ve tried different things post-TEC, continuing with startups but also exploring investment banking and now consulting. Coming out of TEC made me realize how much there was out there, and I wanted to experience everything. As a business major, I was fascinated with the opposite end of the spectrum for start-ups, of being a part of mergers and acquisitions, buyouts, and going public. After a stint in investment banking, I decided to learn about and how to solve the problems company face in strategy, operations, and organizational problems through consulting. After graduation (in just a short month), I will be joining Bain & Company in their Chicago office. At every career decision point, I’ve been conflicted between the start-up experience and other options, making it a tough call, but the TEC experience has been invaluable in giving the learning experience you will never see in a classroom and broadening horizons.

How did you decide to do TEC?

During my sophomore year, I was involved in the start-up sphere and worked with startups at school, but I wanted to fully experience Silicon Valley. Like many others, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation, but was really interested in start-ups. I wasn’t sure what to expect from TEC, but it ended up being beyond my expectations, as one of the best experiences ever.

Protips for future TEClings

  • The best part of TEC is the people you meet: everyone at True, your fellow interns, and the people you work with at your start-up. There is so much to learn from everyone, and it’s important to stay in touch because you may never have the exposure to this many awesome people again. Besides the networking factor, these people may become your close friends!
  • Write constantly.
  • This is the time to learn and explore. Do things you’ve never done before. Go exploring, at the Presidio or Alcatraz. Reach out to people.
  • San Francisco is not as warm as you think it is. Definitely pants and jacket weather.
  • Live with your fellow interns! Eight weeks sound long but it’ll be over before you know it, and you can take better advantage of your time by spending more of it with your interns.
  • Hang around SF after–there’s so much to explore so don’t cut your time in SF short. SF is one of the best cities in the world!

Learning from Others

This summer at Fitbit and True Ventures, I built up the toolkit needed to engage productively with the world of entrepreneurship. I had two fantastic opportunities to do that in my conversations with Steven Lurie, Head of Zynga India, and Tom Eisenmann, an HBS professor who focuses his work on building the entrepreneurial community at HBS.

Each conversation was quite different. My chat with Mr. Lurie focused on the entrepreneurial experience in general and different ways to approach tech, while my talk with Professor Eisenmann was entirely focused on changing an institutional culture to have a stronger entrepreneurial ethos.

Mr. Lurie pushed for greater focus on education within the entrepreneurial community, arguing that skillsets required for being a successful entrepreneur require an element of systematic mentorship. In that vein, he felt that early experiences in tech provide the greatest value when in a formal environment, such as a product management program at a larger firm such as Google, Facebook, or Zynga. For me, this was quite interesting, having experienced a huge amount of growth and mentorship at Fitbit without a formalized system, but I could understand how elements of the “big tech” experience cannot be experienced or replicated within a smaller startup. For me, part of the beauty of the Silicon Valley environment is that there are so many paths to choose from, and Mr. Lurie offered a strong case for one such path.

Talking to Professor Eisenmann was a much more academic exercise in a number of ways. First, Professor Eisenmann focuses on the theory of building entrepreneurs and startups. Second, he implements his ideas in an academic context, HBS. His research focuses on hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship – the idea of the “lean startup” which has been promoted by Eric Ries, Steve Blank, and others. His course, Launching Tech Ventures, mirrors coursework available at Stanford and other colleges with a stronger entrepreneurial culture and serves to provide an outlet for entrepreneurship at HBS.

I learned a lot from how Professor Eisenmann was working through and iterating a product of his own: the startup ecosystem at Harvard and HBS in particular, an environment that he is hard at work curating. Through the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and HBS’s Entrepreneurial Management Unit, he works to link different parts of the university, an effort that is facilitated by the creation of the new I-lab, a collaborative space for entrepreneurial activity.

Both Mr. Lurie and Professor Eisenmann offered a range of insights about how the entrepreneurial and tech environment is growing academically and geographically. I appreciate that they found the time to share their insights.

With that, I conclude my last post as a Tecling. It was a blast, and I cannot overvalue the memories, experiences, and relationships that I got along the way – what a ride!

Learn how to design, build, and market a web app

I’m a strong believer that with enough effort, anyone is capable of learning the skills necessary to start a company. Whether you’re rich or poor, whether you go to Harvard or a middle school in Zimbabwe, whether you’re 22 or 44, I believe you are capable of learning what it takes to successfully start your own business.

In this post, I’m going to spill out as many resources as I can related to design, development, and distribution/analytics (i.e. the three D’s), all of which are critical to startups. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of these fields, so take my advice with a grain of salt.  My main goal is to help you get off the ground and offer you the tools to start learning on your own.  Most of the content will only be applicable to web and possibly mobile products.

For those of you non-techy folks, this might be especially useful so that you can stop worrying about getting a technical co-founder and start building things yourself. Even if you want a technical co-founder, it will likely be easier once you’ve demonstrated some technical ability or some competence in these three areas that a techy person would rather have someone else deal with.

Feel free to suggest other resources. If you don’t find what you’re looking for here – Google is your best friend.

Design

Start with a problem that you’re passionate about solving and brainstorm product concepts that could potentially solve this problem.

A great way to brainstorm and solidify your idea is to start wireframing your application using a tool like Balsamiq or Pencil. Wireframing takes no time to learn and lets you quickly mock up what you envision your concept to be. This allows you to quickly get feedback on your concept from friends and potential users and seamlessly collaborate with someone on the initial design. The wireframe is a great way to get started in talking to customers, via customer development.

The “low-fi” nature of the wireframe also lets you focus on the functionality and flow of the app without getting distracted by aesthetics like color and typography.

If Balsamiq ends up not working for you or you’d like to try something else – here are 50 other tools, resources, and Photoshop web templates: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/02/05/50-free-ui-and-web-design-wireframing-kits-resources-and-source-files/

Once you’ve gotten feedback from potential users and you’re happy with your wireframe, you’ll want to refine your design using a tool such as Photoshop.  This is where you start designing how exactly the app will look like. You have two options:

1. Take a stab at learning design on your own. Get inspiration from products/sites you admire. See what you can do in Photoshop with some trial and error. You may want to start by tweaking Photoshop web templates (see above).

Take a look at these resources if you’re interesting in learning:

Design inspiration:

2. Get someone else to do it. If you’re serious about building your web app, but have no interest in learning design on your own, find someone to help you! Ideally you have friends/colleagues that are capable of helping you with design. If not, you can always outsource and buy a design off a site like 99designs.com to get you started.

Front-end Development

As a studious college student, I’ve always been used to depending on books as my main source to learn new subjects. As I’ve grown as a web developer, I’ve realized that coding is best learned by doing. I’ve found that I learn and master concepts much more quickly when I’m experimenting and failing on the keyboard rather than being nose deep in a book. As scary and difficult as it might sound, if you really want to learn, put that programming book down and start coding now.

The good news with front-end development, is that there isn’t much to it (at least to start). Front-end development deals mainly with the look of an app rather than the complicated functionality. To start building a web app, all you need is to open a text editor (even notepad would do, but go and google around to find a better one), slap some HTML code on it, rename the file extension to be .html, and you have a web page!

For your web app, start with HTML, the basic structure of your web app. You can think of HTML as sort of the skeleton–it is extremely important in dictating how your web app is organized, but it has less to do with your outward appearance. You will later use CSS (cascading stylesheets) to deal with the actual styling of your app.

Walk through an HTML tutorial like this one to get a very basic understanding of how the language works: http://www.w3schools.com/html/default.asp. You don’t need to go through every chapter; only the first several pages are really necessary. I recommend having a text editor open and trying out the exercises yourself.

The beauty of HTML is that there is little to memorize or understand, as there are only a handful of tags you need to know. Read through the tags to have an idea of each tag’s functions: http://www.w3schools.com/html5/html5_reference.asp.

After you’ve gained a very basic understanding of HTML, get to know CSS in a similar way: http://www.w3schools.com/css/css_intro.asp. Again, keep a text editor open to follow along and try everything. Play around with HTML tags and CSS properties to see what they all do in the browser.

There are a lot more things to know about in CSS, but when you start coding in it, you’ll want to spend most of your time googling for specific answers/tutorials rather than trying to memorize everything. For instance, want to learn how to make rounded corners? Google “how to make rounded corners css.” Many times, it’s that simple.

For supplemental help and extra confidence, you can pick up a book like this one as a reference. However, you can move on without it (like I did).

Now that you’ve gotten a basic understanding of HTML/CSS, you can move on to start building a whole web page. Walk through this tutorial to understand some of the latest features of HTML5/CSS3 and most importantly, learn about the process and thinking behind structuring a web page.

At this point, you should have at least a reasonable amount of confidence in how HTML and CSS work, and how you might be able to put up a simple web page. It’s natural to feel pretty shaky, but I would continue to dive deeper in the code. If you have a PSD/design that you’d like to finally turn into a web site, I think you’re ready to start taking it on. There are plenty of PSD to HTML tutorials out there, but this is just one of many decent ones: http://designinstruct.com/web-design/code-a-vibrant-professional-web-design-with-html5css3/

To make your web app actually functional, you’ll need a more complex scripting language – Javascript. Since you’re probably new to programming if you’re reading this, it’s probably best to stick to the simpler UI stuff in JS by taking advantage of awesome frameworks that do the dirty work for you. The most popular of which is http://jquery.com/. There is a massive variety of things that you can do with JS and jQuery, so going with a specific tutorial may not cover all your needs. jQuery has some of the best written documentation I’ve seen, so simply searching around the documentation for things you’re trying to do will get the job done for most of your javascript UI needs. It is difficult to take a deep dive and master javascript without strong fundamentals, which I discuss in the next section.

More front-end resources:

Back-end Development

Back-end development (ruby, python, java, objective-c, etc.) is necessary if you want to store data and make your application truly powerful. A lot of the functionality you had in mind for your application will probably be in the back-end side of things. It takes a lot more time and commitment to pick up as a beginner programmer compared to front-end. I definitely recommend learning the front-end before the back if you don’t plan on being a hardcore developer and/or if you’re brand new to coding.

With that said, there are awesome resources out there to help you on your quest. To learn the basic fundamentals of programming, I suggest a beginner’s course. For a thorough understanding, I think it’s an invaluable investment to take free online CS introductory courses such as Stanford’s CS106A and B: http://see.stanford.edu/see/courses.aspx. These courses will teach you the basics that will give you enough knowledge to comfortably tackle most programming languages and books. I believe a course like this or your own university core CS coursework is a worthwhile investment if you’re serious about learning how to code.

If you’d prefer a quicker, less thorough route, there are other great courses such as: http://learnpythonthehardway.org/. I have not taken this course, but I’ve heard rave reviews about how it’s a great starting point.

After you’ve gain a solid grounding in programming, it’s time to pick a language and potential framework. That’s a tough cookie as there are tons of viable options, each with their own pros and cons.

For mobile apps, it’s easy. If you want to make iPhone apps, objective-C. If you want to make Android apps, Java. Stanford offers a great free course on iPhone development: http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/iphone-application-development/id384233225#ls=1. You can probably find similar courses and tutorials (albeit not as thorough) for Android out there with a little Googling.

For web apps, it’s complicated to pick a language. Ruby and Python are increasingly becoming the most popular for new web apps. PHP, Java, and others are still pretty popular for web apps. Each language has special frameworks with many helper functions, the most popular of which are Ruby on Rails (although I recommend checking out the simpler Sinatra framework to start out with), and django (Python). Do your research and figure out what most interests you and suits your needs. A few languages have fun tutorials to check out as a way to introduce you to them such as tryruby.org and railsforzombies.org.

Other resources:

  • Check out http://www.udemy.com/ for worthwhile programming courses (including Learn Python the Hard Way, discussed above)
  • http://stackoverflow.com/ for all your programming questions
  • reddit.com/r/learnprogramming for a friendly community to get help
  • If you’re on Windows, it is highly recommended that you move to a Unix platform like Ubuntu: http://blog.sudobits.com/2011/04/23/how-to-install-ubuntu-11-04-from-usb-or-cd/. You can dual boot your computer to load Ubuntu when you want to code, and windows for everything else (if you still want to use it). I can tell you from personal experience (and from many others’ experience), coding in Ruby in Windows is a pain in the ass. Other languages may have similar issues. Along with being a great programming environment, everything in Ubuntu is pretty much free, it’s more secure, and it’s fairly simple to install and use. If you’re on Mac, you’re probably fine, but Ubuntu and other Linux distros are options worth exploring :).

Distribution/Analytics

Unless you’re incredibly lucky, you’re going to need figure out creative ways to drive traffic and get users to your web app. You should learn the basics of web analytics to understand what metrics you need to improve in order to meet your goals.

A great starting point is Dave McClure’s AARRR metrics: http://500hats.typepad.com/500blogs/2007/06/internet-market.html.

To get your hands really dirty in learning sales funnels and marketing channels, you’ll need to read David Skok’s blog: http://www.forentrepreneurs.com/.

A great way to drive traffic to your site for free is by getting high ranks in Google searches through SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Some sites may even depend on most of their traffic from SEO. Learn the basics: http://www.seomoz.org/beginners-guide-to-seo. Check out the other articles on SEOMoz to get a deeper expertise.

A big buzz word surrounding startups is “viral.” A common misconception is that you can turn any app into a viral app or depend on it as your main source of traffic. YouTube and Zynga are perfect examples of driving ridiculous amounts of traffic through virality, but they are the exception, not the rule. Don’t expect your app to go viral. However, you still have a decent chance of getting significant traffic through virality optimizations. Gain a basic understanding through one of my old blog posts: http://www.trueventurestec.com/2011/07/14/virality-for-zombies/ and get in depth lessons through David Skok’s posts. After you understand how virality works, the key to optimizing it is to give the user a compelling reason to share something in the simplest way possible.

Other resources:

Misc startup stuff

I know this was a massive post, but hopefully you’ve found any useful tidbits in here. Please feel free to email me for any help or just to chat (lgvital (at) stanford (dot) edu).

The 3 Ds, Ass & Ass & Ass, Life Is Too Short Rule

Jeff Clavier
Last week, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Jeff Clavier, founder and managing partner of SoftTech VC (some of their representative exits include Mint and Tapulous). Before diving in, I want to give a shoutout to Lionel Vital for being totally awesome and setting this meeting up! So Jeff ran us through his background and told us the story of how SoftTech VC was founded, then opened the floor to questions. In the ensuing discussions, Jeff summarized three rules that he has found to be governing pillars for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike. The 3 Ds, the 3 Asses, and the Life Is Too Short Rule.

The 3 Ds: Design, Development, Distribution
The 3 Ds rule has to do with the core business processes of web 2.0 entrepreneurship. Design, development, and distribution (the 3 Ds) are the three elements that Jeff believes make up the foundation of web 2.0 startups and thus the core of the perfect web 2.0 startup team. Design refers to product design, development to software development, and distribution to, well, distribution of the product into consumer hands. Jeff also says that three is a good size for the founding team: one is too lonely, two is okay, but three allows for great specialization. However, these three elements do not necessarily have to be divided into three founders; sometimes, one founder possesses all three. The important thing is to make sure that a web 2.0 startup team has strong competencies in each of the areas.

The 3 Asses: Smart-Ass Team, Kick-Ass Product, Big-Ass Market
The 3 Asses rule is Jeff’s summary of how he evaluates startups. The ideal investment is a company with a smart-ass team, kick-ass product, and big-ass market. In addition, the ‘smart-ass team’ part is by far the most important. However, the evaluation process is never as simple as sitting in on a pitch and checking off 3 boxes. Jeff admits that it’s oftentimes more art than science, and that the best way to think of it is through a scale analogy: every positive factor weighs in on the scale until a tipping point is reached and investing begins to feel right. Something along the lines of ‘do this for long enough and you’ll know it when you see it’. The 3 Asses rule helps highlight specific factors that weigh in more than others, and once again, the smart-ass team is the number one most important factor by far.

The ‘Life is too short’ Rule
This one blows me away with its omnipresence. So many entrepreneurs and VCs I’ve chatted with this past summer have brought up this rule in one form or another. The rule is pretty literal: when considering an action, remember that life is short. With this in mind, decide on what you want to do. A common extension of this rule is ‘Life is too short to work with assholes’; for Jeff, it is “Life is too short to invest in assholes.” He stressed the importance of this rule and that despite its nebulous nature, it comes into play quite often. Many times, the question of “do I want to spend 5 years of my life working with these guys” trumps the question of whether the investment will make financial returns. Jeff emphasized that despite the possibility of asshole teams generating incredible returns for investors, he has never regretted turning down a deal on the basis of the ‘life is too short’ rule.

Fin
The chat with Jeff Clavier was an awesome close to an unforgettable summer. I will be missing California/startup/TEC life. Thank you True for an incredible 3 months!

A Change in Direction

TEC has come to a close, and I’m now in my first week of classes at Yale. In the three short months since the program began, it’s incredible how much has changed, and how much those changes are a direct result of my experiences with True and Schematic Labs in San Francisco this summer.

Just like anybody else starting their junior year in college, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do when I finish school (and even before that), but even as I ask myself that question, I have a feeling that I already know the answer.

Before this summer, I hadn’t really done much of anything related to entrepreneurship. This semester, I’m working on starting an Idea Institute as a branch of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, I spent the weeks after the TEC program in the final stages of launching a microfinance nonprofit in Arizona (my hometown), and right now I’m working on building an application that will help people focus and be more productive through the application of feedback loops. My major is Economics, but somehow my schedule includes a class on Law and Technology, Introduction to Computer Science, and a seminar on the legal aspects of VC and startups.

In short, I feel like all my energies are focused on innovation and technology, and it’s no coincidence that this is all coming after my summer with True in San Francisco. The lifestyle, the energy, and the pure excitement of startups and venture capital couldn’t have been revealed in a better way. I met people I never would’ve imagined I would get a chance to meet; I learned more than I ever could have expected; and I experienced some of the best summer months I could hope for. Not to mention that everyone I met at True, and the other TEC interns, are some incredible people that I know I’ll stay in touch with, and see again soon.

Thanks for an amazing summer, True, and I hope to be back soon.

TEC 2011

tl;dr

Conquering the Inbox

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Alex Moore, the founder and CEO of Baydin. Baydin, which means “foretelling the future through magic” in Burmese, is the company that brought Boomerang for Gmail and the Email Game into the lives of all of us who struggle every day to fight back the incessant flow of email into our inboxes. Alex’s motivation for starting the company was motivated by a predicament that many students and professionals face: every day, he would go into his office and sit down at his desk ready for a day of work, only to find himself still dealing with emails even two or three hours after arriving. The deluge is constant, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed or lose track of important emails. The products that his company has created are designed to make the process of dealing with emails as painless, efficient, and fun as possible.

Alex never thought much about entrepreneurship until his fifth year at MIT, when he was pursuing his Master’s degree. One weekend that year, the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity hosted an event in a mansion that was more or less an entrepreneurship boot camp. Most of the 40 or so people there had never even thought about starting a company; the culture at MIT then was very focused on getting a job with a big company. But at the end of the camp, which essentially consisted of “make up an idea and think about how to execute it”, the people leading the camp told all those present that all they needed to start a company were these very same ideas that they came up with that weekend. And now, 8 of the 40 that were present are still entrepreneurs in some capacity. Alex is one of them.

Most had never even thought about starting a company – but at the end of the camp (which consisted of ‘make up an idea, think about how to execute it’) they said, look, you don’t need much to start a company, just these ideas. Now, 8 of the 40 that were there are still in entrepreneurship

At the time of his first real exposure to the idea of starting his own company, Alex still didn’t think too much of it – he had a job lined up, and was already set to start his career. After graduating, he started work at Analog Devices, and was rising fast. By year three, though, he was starting to notice a real problem. Every day he would get in to work, and 2.5 hours later, he would find himself still in Outlook dealing with emails. Between product releases, troubleshooting, and general work-related communication, it became overwhelming, and he was worried that as he stayed in the company and rose higher, 2.5 hours might not be where it stopped.

A great idea for a business comes from having a great problem to solve, and this was definitely a problem. At the time, Alex had no kids and no mortgage – as he puts it, his only liabilities were his two pet rats, and he could scrounge food out of a dumpster for them. There opportunity was there; it was time. In 2009, Alex left his job and started Baydin.

When I asked Alex about how optimistic he was from the outset, about building a successful product and raising funding, he told me that he wasn’t too worried – with a great product, a solid market, and hard work, he felt that things would be alright. But early on, he learned that life sometimes isn’t as meritocratic as it should be. Baydin’s first product, Unsearch, provided users with automatic access to relevant emails and documents when replying to an email, without any explicit searching. It was a great idea with a lot of potential for success, but he soon found that access to high-level privileges by IT departments was hard to gain by three guys in a garage. Those kinds of relationships were a prerequisite to the product’s success, and they didn’t have them. Xerox came out with a similar product a year later, and Xerox’s pre-existing relationships immediately created more interest among CIOs and IT professionals than Baydin had been able to generate.

But, as Alex says, sometimes startups will survive like cockroaches, and his company kept going. His team changed, though it stayed small, and they moved on to the next wave of email-related products: Boomerang for Gmail and the Email Game. Today, these are the company’s main products – and they are amazing.

Boomerang for Gmail is a service seamlessly integrated into Gmail that allows users to “boomerang” outgoing or incoming messages into their inbox at a specified time. This is incredibly useful in a variety of contexts. For example, when scheduling a meeting or asking somebody for feedback, sometimes they will never get back to you, and it can be difficult to remember to follow up. Boomerang has an option to boomerang the message only if the email is never replied to, or whether or not there is a reply. This also comes in handy when there are emails you want to deal with at a certain point, but not right now – instead of letting them build up as unread emails in your inbox, they come back to your inbox at precisely the time you specify. Boomerang also has other useful features, such as the ability to send mail later and specify what should happen when a message is boomeranged.

Boomerang Gmail

It is customizable, extremely user-friendly, and has become such an intrinsic part of so many people’s systems of dealing with email (including my own) that when Baydin exited the beta and started charging for the service, people were ready to pay the $5/month without hesitation.

The Email Game is another successful product that is both functional and fun. The name explains it all: it turns your inbox into a game, rewarding you points for responding quickly and detracting points for when you skip a message or take too long, forcing you to be extremely efficient in getting to Inbox Zero. Of course, Boomerang is also integrated into the game, so you can go back to messages later if you don’t want to deal with them at the time.

Clearly the path to launching a company, raising funding, and making successful products was not without challenges. Alex, like many other successful entrepreneurs, took on the risks of leaving a stable job, starting a company, and evolving when first product didn’t work out. When Boomerang for Gmail launched, the service required access to Gmail account information, and even though they took every possible security measure, Alex said that he still had nightmares every night that a day would come when they got hacked. But they were very, very careful, and set up a system such with the highest level of security (integrating Google’s standard secure API and no passwords stored anywhere), and their dedication and precautions paid off: that day never came.

I would encourage readers to try Baydin’s products; I personally feel that they really change the way people handle email, and can help you become much more organized and effective if used consistently. And also, take inspiration from Alex when creating your own products: create something that solves a problem you have, and a problem that other people probably have too, and you could end up changing the way people do things every day of their lives, just like Baydin has.

That’s A Wrap, Folks!

In my first blog post I noted that my main objective for my time at Kiip and TEC was to learn as much as I possibly could. Mission accomplished. More than accomplished. I feel like I learned more this summer than in a whole year at school. So what exactly am I taking away? There were a lot of little bits of wisdom I picked up here and there, but I think the following are the most universal. Simple, and no-brainers, perhaps, but super important in my humble opinion.

Pick up the phone

I wrote a few blog posts about my experience working in Business Development at Kiip and what I had learned along the way. I spent a lot of time doing outreach to developers via email, but it wasn’t until the end that I finally manned up and got on the phone and talked to people. Was it nerve-racking? Sure, especially given that the first call was to a thirteen year-old super-genius developer =P. I’m naturally a pretty shy person, but I realized that although phone calls can be intimidating, they are so much more efficient–and personal–than endless email threads. Lesson learned.

Set measurable goals for yourself

When I started working Biz Dev at Kiip, I kind of just attacked it without any real, set game plan. I think that doing it this way helped me to learn a lot by having the freedom to explore a number of different approaches, but keeping track of my progress wasn’t as productive or useful as it could have been. Were I to have set goals (e.g., sign X amount of developers over X weeks) I could have looked at my accomplishments at the end of the set time period and said “Awesome! Maybe I set the bar too low?” or “Well, hmm. Either the goals were too lofty, or I’m not doing something right. How can I change and improve this? Who knows this stuff and how might they be able to help out?” Which brings me to my next point:

Ask for help whether you need it or you don’t

I worked with some really incredible and talented people during my time at Kiip, and while I learned a lot by asking questions, I almost wish that I had bugged them even more. I can’t speak for the rest of the TECsters, but it was great to work with a small company that had such a diverse skill set. If you ever find yourself in such a situation, take advantage of it. I was able to get the lowdown on analytics, operating softwares, languages, operations and a ton more this summer, simply by asking. Feed your curiosity. You might not understand exactly what the other person is saying (admittedly, operations still kind of baffles me.. our ops guru Mitchell is just on another level than I am and I’m slowly learning to accept that) but you’ll at least be able to get your feet wet in the subject matter and be more capable to understand opportunities or constraints when they arise in the company.

Play dumb and learn

This was something that Brian mentioned during his visit to NYU and again reiterated during a TEC curriculum day. It’s so simple it’s genius. If you’re always trying to act like you know everything, you’re never going to learn anything new. By asking lots of question and sounding like a n00b, you’re bound to pick up something you didn’t know when you’re talking to an expert on the matter at hand. Plus, people love to talk–especially about themselves. Win-win situation all around.

The answer to every unasked question is always no

It was incredible having Shervin Pishevar drop by True and share his experiences in life and the tech industry. He has a fascinating story that was built on a lot of guts and gut instinct. Even though the lesson might be obvious, he let us know by example that every opportunity not taken in life could close an endless amount of doors, and that there’s really nothing to fear out of failure if things turn out for the worse.

The best for last

I certainly learned a ton over the past few weeks, but by far the best part of the experience was getting to meet and work with some really incredible people–both at Kiip and at True Ventures. It was through them that I was able to learn and grow as an entrepreneur and all-around human being, and I definitely won’t be forgetting them anytime soon =)

The BrightRoll Hug, or Learning to Love Code Reviews

Coding at BrightRoll has been intense, and unlike anything I’ve ever done before.  I knew it would be hard and that I would learn a lot this summer.  What I wasn’t expecting was how much of a difference it would make to be a part of a team.

When you’re the only one working on a project, you don’t have to worry about trying to understand other people’s code, and you don’t have to worry about making sure other people can understand yours.  You also (theoretically) know how every part of the system works, since you’ve been working on it since the beginning.

But when you come up on an existing codebase and have to work together with the other engineers to make changes, that is a whole different story.  Now you have to spend time upfront getting to know a little bit about how everything works, though it’s going to be a long time before you understand everything.  Then, you have to get to know the specific team’s style of coding (BrightRoll: NO EXTRA WHITESPACE).  After a while, you can start writing, but you have to coordinate your work, so that no one steps on anyone else’s toes.

Also, you have to have periodic code reviews, so that every time someone makes a change, everyone knows what it was and why it had to happen.   Code reviews can come in many shapes and sizes, but in the end, it just means that at least one person reviews your code thoroughly before you check it in and push it out where real users can see it.

If this sounds like a lot of process, that’s because it is.  It takes a significant amount of time and energy to accomplish a level of harmony, and it’s not hard to screw it up.  But this is what makes large-scale projects possible.   It’s like have a team of artists working on one painting, or having many writers make on novel.  Things like that require organizing time.

They also require trust.

At BrightRoll, there are two types of code reviews.  There are individual reviews, where one experienced person sits down and checks things over, and group reviews, where the whole team goes into a room and projects the new code for all to see.

Both kinds freaked me out.

I was just not comfortable with showing my code to other people.  I was learning Ruby on Rails as I went along, so everything I had written came with a lot of help from Google, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it worked (Rails is full of magic), or whether I did it the right way.   I imagined that a code review would be like getting stabbed repeatedly with tiny swords.

So I stuck to individual code reviews for a couple weeks, from the least intimidating person I could find.

During those weeks, I went out to lunch every day with the team.  New people joined, and so there were many welcoming lunches with rounds of introductions.  My desk was moved to be near the center of engineering, where I heard and took part in daily discussions of the newest technology.  I quickly found out that everyone around me was a teddy bear inside, and started enjoying and looking forward to my time at work.  I started asking my neighbors for help interpreting code.  I started asking everyone how to become a real software engineer, and what their opinions were on the gaming industry, and what their thoughts were on entrepreneurship.

BrightRoll’s atmosphere forced me to become comfortable and happy – I couldn’t have stayed shy and nervous, even if I’d wanted to.  I’ll never forget that.

After a few rounds of fixes, Adolfo, my non-intimidating reviewer, declared that I was past making embarrassing programming mistakes and needed a group code review.  And I wasn’t freaked out anymore.  I looked forward to projecting my code up front.  And I was sincerely happy when people pointed out things that were wrong with it, because I knew that they were trying to build me up, not tear me down.

After tons of mistakes had been pointed out, someone in the group said, “So this is your first time using Rails?”

“Yeah,” I said, “And Ruby and JQuery and MySQL too.”

“Nice.”

The journey from “CS major” to “Software Engineer”

Spending the summer at BrightRoll has been a big step for me in terms of becoming a useful engineer.  I’ve learned a lot at school, and I’ve done coding projects on my own, but there’s no substitute for working with real engineers in the real world.  When I came to BrightRoll, I knew that I would have a lot to learn, and I was right.

So, in addition to learning specific things from the Brightroll engineers, I’ve spent this summer going around to various engineers and asking them the following question: “How does someone become a real software engineer?”

And, even though we are in Silicon Valley, the most common answer wasn’t “Start a company.”  It was “Get a job.”

There’s only so much you can learn from Google, and working at a company is an excellent way to get foundational experience.  This is best done at a company where the technology is new or growing or changing, so that you will have the opportunity to participate in design discussions and architecture decisions.

But “Get a job” is not the most useful advice for an undergraduate who wants to build engineering credentials while still at school.  So, that brings me to the second most common piece of advice: “Write code.”  Pick up side projects.  Code a web game, or mess around with the Twitter API, or make a mobile app.  Actually, code a web game AND mess around with Twitter AND make a mobile app.  The more coding, the better.

Your first attempt may be a hackish blob of code, half of which you don’t understand because you copied from the internet.  But the next one will be better, and the next one after than might not be embarrassing.  After a while, you will start using the things you’re being taught in school, like keeping code DRY, using design patterns, refactoring, and avoiding magic numbers, because they’re actually HELPING you.

Yeah, it’s not the most surprising advice.  But it’s not like there are any shortcuts here.

To make up for it, here are two actual, specific recommendations to consider while you’re doing all this coding:

  • Use version control, even if you’re the only one working on the project.  I recommend Git.  I also recommend cheatsheets:
Git cheatsheet
  • Get basic proficiency at the command line, even if you can get around using it.  This includes basic use of vi or vim.  Again, cheatsheet.

Also, read The Pragmatic Programmer http://pragprog.com/book/tpp/the-pragmatic-programmer.

A Formative Experience

The final day of TEC was last week and I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about how much has changed since the first day of the program. I’ve met more people, learned more things, and had more fun than I would have had spending my summer any other way. Everyone at True Ventures, specifically Shea and Christiaan, have put an incredible amount of time and effort into making this summer a great experience for all of us interns. Their benevolence and willingness to help us grow and develop at every turn surprised me every day.

I give thanks to everyone at True, but also to everyone at Tello—I fit very well into the culture of the company, and feel very fortunate to have been paired up with such a fun, smart, and hardworking group of people.

The program was, as I say in the title of this post, a formative experience. It has solidified my interests and given me a great wealth of knowledge and experience that I will draw upon months and years down the road. So if you’re a future applicant reading this and are deciding whether or not to apply, let me say this: if you are even remotely interested in technology and entrepreneurship, then you need to be in this program.

Peace out, San Francisco. Don’t worry, this won’t be the last time you hear from me.

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