Category: 2013 (page 1 of 4)

The Best Summer of my Life

It all began when a friend who had done TEC before recommended it highly. From the beginning, it seemed like a dream come true. I had always wanted to work on the product team at Fitbit and seeing that they were one of the True companies got me really excited. Getting a chance to work at Fitbit, I learnt lessons about startups that I hadn’t in the middle of the startup bubble at Stanford. I realized the value of heads-down-hard-work, the importance of hiring highly experienced people and the power of a vision that excites everyone in the company. The amazing people at Fitbit not only pushed me to be more active, they also motivated me to become a better designer. I’m incredibly thankful for my experience with the company and, as the other fellows will testify, insanely optimistic about their future.

In some ways my experience inside Fitbit was reflective of my overall experience with True as well. Going to school at Stanford and having worked at a few startups before, I thought I had a good idea of what great entrepreneurs are like. However, it wasn’t until my summer at True that I saw the truth. Pathbreaking successes are not built by overconfident college students who make iPhone apps; they are built by people who are brilliant at what they do and have a passion that keeps them up at night. All the True founders I met through TEC fit this description: brilliance and passion. Unlike many of the other VC funds I’ve gotten to know closely over the years, I’m convinced that True is committed to making the world a meaningfully better place.

My TEC experience would be nowhere as amazing without the other fellows. I can never forget living with half of them in the Hacker House, going on amazing excursions to Santa Cruz, Alcatraz, Berkeley and Tahoe, spending countless evenings at the True office, exploring the culinary paradise that is SF and helping each other find our passions. My conversations with the fellows ranged from startup gossip to This American Life to life stories to running and all of them are memories I will fondly hold onto forever. In the few months since the program, I have met up several times with some of the fellows and been reminded of the special bond we share because of TEC.

I’m thankful to TEC for the amazing learning opportunity with Fitbit, for the wonderful interactions with the True family and for the lifelong friendships with the other Fellows.

Three Lessons from the True Family

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As part of the True Entrepreneurs Corp program over the summer, I was privileged to learn from some wonderful people. Here are my top 3 takeaways.

Andy Grignon — “Don’t pre-fail”

I see this cycle in my own life a lot: I get passionate about an idea -> I think about how complicated it is -> I doubt my ability to execute-> I abandon the idea -> I feel lousy about myself. This is the pre-fail bias; an inclination to distrust yourself in a given task. This bias becomes a barrier when we let our cynical thoughts get too influential, or when we listen too much to other people’s pushbacks. The way we overcome it is by believing in our gut feeling, and shutting up the negativity chorus in our minds. “To say it is impossible because it is difficult is again not in consonance with the spirit of the age. Things undreamed of are daily being seen, the impossible is ever becoming possible.” (Gandhi)

Steve Cho — “Discover your superpower and hone it”

Everyone has a superpower, but they don’t necessarily realize it. Or worse, they envy the superpowers of others and try to shape their strengths in the mold of others. Any successful team requires members possessing different superpowers. At Tech@NYU, we gain tremendously from the diversity of our leaders; we have a few founders,a few world travelers, a Dalai Lama fellow, a whale show host,hustlers, programming wizards (or whatever you call it), and more. As a leader, my superpower is observation. I look at the different talents each person possessed and try to direct it towards a goal.

Andrew Trader — “Choose products that resonate emotionally”

AT, co-founder of Zynga, looks for three things in a new venture: market size, historical lack of disruption in an industry, and emotional resonance.This last criteria is a not a universal standard – most people would rather make rational decisions about their life and work. But I agree with AT. I love products that have an emotional impact on me. I love Flickr (despite its clunkiness) because I find amazing pictures that move me, I love Aviate because it gets rid of clutter on my phone and gives me peace of mind. I love Venmo because it makes paying people fun (who knew?). As these products delight and stir emotions in us, a natural relationship is formed between the product and us. Any idea worth building should have emotional resonance as a core element.

A Tiny Wearable Device that could Revolutionize our Education System

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future of technology in education, I often get asked for technologies that I think are revolutionizing our education system. To most people’s surprise, my favorite answer is Google. Now, we don’t think of Google being an educational product, but in my opinion, it is making a bigger difference to education than anything else is.

THE GOOGLE SEARCH MINDSET

Imagine someone who lived in a rural area only a couple of decades ago. It is not unconceivable that they could go their entire life without knowing answers to a certain question that they might have had, even if the answer was already known to someone else in the world. To me, this is still a mindblowing fact. The advent of Google meant that anyone with access to a computer could find an answer to pretty much any question they had, even though they’d have to remember to look it up the next time they were at their computer. Today, when we’re out in the world and have a random question pop in our heads, it takes about a minute to pull out one’s smartphone and find the answer.

So what does this have to do with education? Well, it is an unfortunate truth that most of the school systems around the world still strongly emphasize the teaching and learning of factual information. We live in a world where the businesses don’t need people who know all the answers, but people who know how to find them. It is quite remarkable that the education system is still set up under the assumption that there is a fixed, non-negotiable, finite set of information that every child needs to know by the book in a predetermined order. We still suggest that the teacher and textbook is the authority and children who disagree with anything they say should be penalized for doing so. With the proliferation of Google, the world has seen a rapid reduction in the value of “knowledge” (defined as the  acquaintance with facts). Not so long ago, people highly respected the librarian who always knew what book to look in and where to find the book in the library. Today, with the Google search mindset, we can have access to the all world’s books in a matter of minutes.

TAKING IT TO THE LIMITS

However, even though the amount of time it takes to look up a fact today is probably under a minute (and reducing still with Google’s Knowledge Graph), it is non-trivial. This means that when one is in the context of a real life conversation, “knowledge” still has strong value because retrieving from memory is clearly distinguishable from looking something up. Google’s next breakthrough in this direction is supposedly Google Glass, which could in theory be displaying some information that the wearer could pretend to have known from memory. However, it seems like the Google Glass screen is out of one’s direct line of sight so looking at it is not exactly the most discreet thing, even if one doesn’t have to use the touch or voice controls.

One of my beliefs that many people I know disagree with is that I can totally see a world where we all have a chip in our brain. With a reliable way for the brain to input information to this computer, and to receive information back, we would be able to bridge the gap between “knowing” and searching. With that, we would finally deliver on the promise of the Memex, a hypothetical computer system conceived in 1945 named after “Memory Extender”. The opposition I’ve heard to this vision touches on two themes: people who are afraid that it will make us less human, and people who question the ethical implications of invasive technologies.

To me, this system does not make us less human; in fact, I believe it makes us more human. It is the natural conclusion of the transformation that Google has brought about to our lives. In the same way that technology eliminated a lot of the “low-level” tasks from our day to day work, like the washing machine and the graphing calculator, I see this trend eliminating the need to memorize factual information. In such a world, we would value many more of the higher-order bits: deep understanding, creativity, instinct, social skills, judgement and mental agility. Consequently, this will force our education system to finally give up its preoccupation with facts and focus on better preparing kids for the world they are about to inherit.

The ethical question is more puzzling: it seems that even if the technology was developed for something of this sort, it might not come to life because invasive devices are bound to raise ethical concerns. I am told that the pacemaker is considered very much an exception than a harbinger of times to come, because it is necessary for survival, while a device that enhances human ability may not have the same reception. This is something I had always had at the back of my mind, even though I still believed that someday we would get over this concern and just like in the case of plastic surgery, invasive devices will eventually become mainstream.

A TINY DEVICE BLOWS MY MIND

The last time I was completely blown away was when I met the inventor of a tiny device called Audeo three months ago. Admittedly, I am usually very critical of new products that I see, and my mind is a hard one to blow. However, given the context of things that I was thinking about, it is easy to imagine that my mind was blown when my assumption that devices that we could communicate with discreetly had to be invasive was shattered by this little device.

Audeo is a sensor that a user wears on their neck that can pick up on the electrical impulses being sent from the brain to the vocal cords. The interesting thing is, when you intend to say something, the signal is sent to the vocal cords irrespective of whether or not one actually ends up saying it. The technology was invented at the University of Illinois in 2004, with the original intention of helping people with speech and motor disabilities to be able to talk: if someone just thought of what they wanted to say, the device could then say it for them, without having to push any buttons. The inventors were then able to use the device to allow disabled people to control a wheelchair without any motion whatsoever. However, the device’s application to everyone else started becoming clear with the demonstration of a voiceless phone call: the wearer simply thinks of what they would like to say and the device is able to vocalize it. To me, this device is even more exciting than that, because coupled with a discreet way for the device to feed information back to you (something as simple as an earpiece) and a fast enough Internet connection, it breaks the threshold between remembering something and looking it up.

But why am I obsessed with a technology that was invented nearly 10 years ago? Surely I have heard about all the amazing things humans have come up with in the time since? Indeed I have, and that is why I believe this technology is finally ready for mass adoption. The consumer electronics industry has been shaken from the ground in the last 7-8 years. The combination of open-source, crowdfunding and, most importantly, the iPhone has dramatically reduced component prices by rapidly commoditizing many new technologies. As a result, we have seen a renaissance of consumer hardware with companies like Fitbit and Jawbone leading the pack (full disclosure: I was an Intern at Fitbit during the Summer of 2013). Back in 2004, it was simply impossible to squeeze in sensor technology, wireless communications and a long-lasting battery into a box that was small enough to be elegant when worn around one’s neck. Today, remarkably, we can do what was impossible less than a decade ago.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR FUTURE

I’m still amazed everytime I consider how young the Internet is. Merely a couple of decades ago, someone who predicted that by 2013 we will have products like Wikipedia, Twitter and Google Maps, would have been called crazy by most everyone. Today, these products are not only real, they’re free and have also fundamentally transformed entire industries including retail, media and marketing. The biggest lesson I have learnt from this idea is that it is impossible to predict confidently where the world will be only a couple of decades in the future.

And yet, our school systems think they can. It is revealing to consider that the children entering schools next year will retire in 2075. Indeed, a large proportion of them will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. Even today, 70% of college graduates get jobs as knowledge workers, where there job requires them to figure things out for themselves rather than repeatedly doing what they are trained to do. Yet we are still using a school system that has been largely unchanged since the late 19th century, when <5% of people were employed in knowledge work. Instead of skating to where the puck is going to be or is, we are sadly skating to where the puck used to be. We need to discard our obsession with learning facts and teach the things that are going to be valuable skills for the next generation’s lifetime: creativity, interpersonal skills and the ability to learn anything. If devices like the Audeo are a sign of things to come, we need to make some fundamental changes, and fast.

Farewell to my Unforgettable Summer

Through TEC 2013, I learned from incredible founders and investors, made great friends, and marketed for Madefire.  It was a fantastic, unforgettable summer of work, education, and fun!

TEC at Tahoe

The True Ventures folks are truly talented and incredibly kind. And, I loved getting to know the other TEC fellows. The weekly meetings with the True Ventures principals and guest speakers were an enriching exchange of ideas and information. Additionally, I had the good fortune to travel to Palo Alto for the informative and enjoyable True University, visit True’s Palo Alto office, take a road trip to Santa Cruz for a memorable beach day, and relax and reflect during our retreat in Tahoe – a weekend of bonding, boating, karaoke, and talks about the future. Throughout the summer, we TEC fellows drank coffee from Blue Bottle (a company in which True has invested and whose growth is noticeable across the US, including being served in a trendy new boutique in my hometown of Highland Park, TX), munched on lots of delicious Indian and Mexican burritos from fave spots in SF and around the Peninsula, and focused on fitness a bit with Fitbit (also a True portfolio company). I had a summer of real personal growth not only from all that I learned in True’s weekly seminars, but also from the day-to-day interaction with my TEC friends – about myriad topics including how to start my own website through Go Daddy, intriguing facts about neuromarketing, proper running technique, photography tips, color choice in good design, practicing good nutrition, strategies for politely contacting strangers, programs and apps galore for health, networking, and fun, and proven ways to maximize moments of productivity and inspiration.

True U with TEC

I was fortunate to have been offered a position as a marketing intern at Madefire, a media and technology company that has an award-winning mobile app for motion books, during their 2013 summer of successful expansion. Based in Berkeley in a neighborhood of creative animation ventures, Madefire is a company with a winsome startup story: bringing original and classic stories to life through motion and sound and from legendary comic book creators. Working every day with such creative, talented, caring people was a real treat for me. And, Madefire gave me the extraordinary experience of joining them at Comic-Con in San Diego to help work the Madefire booth there. What an adventure during which I gained helpful skills at a fast pace!

When I walked through the door at both True and Madefire, I had a built-in network of mentors and new friends. I benefitted immensely from the benevolence of my mentors, the generosity of the companies’ founders and principals, and the time spent with all the great guys at True Ventures and Madefire.

Thank you True Ventures, Madefire, and TEC Fellows for making my summer the best ever! I look forward to staying in touch with all of you.

TEC + True

Tech Renaissance

At our first TEC Thursday, the founders of True Ventures made the analogy that being in the Bay Area today is to technology and startups what being in Florence was to art and culture during the Renaissance period. This is the time and the Bay Area is the place for the most brilliant entrepreneurial minds to develop ideas, products, and services that will revolutionize the landscape for life in the future.

Indeed, this summer, I have been extraordinarily impressed by the concentration and collection of talented people in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area who are starting and supporting incredible ventures that are changing our lives for the better.

The following are a few of my observations about venture capital and startups that I learned through TEC this summer, including items from the many fantastic speakers who generously shared their time and knowledge with us in TEC at True Ventures:

Venture Capital:

(1) Not all funds are created equal. Some have new capital to invest; others still exist, but are locked into old limited partnerships formed a decade or so ago and have no new or little capital to invest in new projects.

(2) Not all portfolio companies need the same help from investors. Each startup or emerging company has its own special needs, including depending upon its development stage, the financial and human resources that it may need. As a result, angel investors, new VCs, and traditional VCs may fund a startup anywhere from the tens or hundreds of thousands to multi-millions, depending on the startup and its development stage.

(3) Capital constraints can be a good thing, because they may help create better efficiencies, which will be beneficial over the long run.

(4) Kickstarter, a large funding platform for creative projects, has shaken up arts and media and likely is “additive” rather than competitive to VC funding.

(5) Success is frequently about timing. VCs do their best to anticipate industries facing a massive opportunity for disruption. While it may be very likely that disruption will occur, WHEN it will occur is much more difficult to determine.

Startups:

(1) The success of an enterprise is all about the people. Clearly a startup needs talented people with diverse skills that are complimentary; however, perhaps most of all, it needs them working together as a team. The fact that many startups fail due to internal problems (e.g., the cofounders don’t get along) was mentioned by almost every startup/VC speaker I heard or met this summer. Having a group of highly motivated but pleasant employees who are fully supportive of the company’s goals, in addition to being skilled in their specialty, is critical. As growth occurs, hiring more great people involves knowing and appreciating individual strengths and weaknesses and bringing each person on board at the right time.

(2) A startup’s culture (and the compatibility of its key people) is critical to its long-term success. Establishing habits, traditions, and standards (e.g., for productive work, friendly teamwork, easy and effective internal communication, and widespread workplace satisfaction) early in the startup’s life tends to increase the likelihood that those standards continue to be met as the startup expands.

(3) Focus leads to better execution, whether in a core product or service or just in daily tasks. Saying you will “get this thing right like your life depends on it” and then executing “like crazy” ensures the highest probability of success. Best to make focused decisions big enough to increase users 10-fold or more rather than by a multiple of 2 or 3. Be agile and aware of external forces and factors, but not necessarily yielding to them.

(4) This decade will involve discovering what mobile can do (e.g., provide communities, communication, data). A good mobile app developer seeks to provide its user with simplicity and to reduce information density, so that the app serves a single function very well, while avoiding getting cluttered with packed features. It’s an imprecise balancing act. More is NOT better, if more is just clutter.

(5) Each startup needs to evaluate market size and become expert in its product or service on as granular level as possible (e.g., who would buy what, when, why, and how).

Advice to us from the experts:

(1) Read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

(2) Learn by experience, not just by osmosis. Take the opportunity to learn by doing while young, when you are not expected to be an expert.

(3) Be aware that you should always be telling a story. If it’s one that feels right and that you are excited about, then you will be motivated to execute it.

The End of the Beginning

Wow, what a summer. Christiaan really wasn’t joking when he said that the internship would just fly by. Yet when I reflect back on the past 9 weeks, I realize how much I’ve learned. Here’s a quick summation of my top three findings:

1. People, people, people.

By far the biggest realization that I’ve come to is that the world revolves around people and relationships. You can have the next big Facebook idea but if you don’t have the team to back it up, then I believe that the idea won’t really matter.

I think that the people aspect is so important that I feel people who are coming out of college looking for jobs are doing it wrong. Often times, classmates will put all the focus on the job perks, the size of the company, and their exact job role. Though these factors are important, I think that having an understanding of the people you will be working with on a daily basis should be the primary consideration. By asking myself questions like “Who will be my supervisor and how will I be able to learn under him” or “Who will I be eating lunch with everyday” will allow me to gain a further grasp of the quality of talent at a company.

As a matter of fact, that is what made this summer particularly special. Though the work and the True talks have been interesting, the community of interns, the mentors over at True, and my coworkers at Sifteo are what made this summer one level above the rest. I leave SF having made lifelong friends and relationships that I know I will maintain for years to come,

 

2. So what?

Well, I’m writing this blog post, so what? I’ve learned the importance of always asking myself so what whenever I’m working toward a project. Over the past few weeks at Sifteo, I have been doing a bunch of research projects on completely random industries, created Facebook advertising campaigns, and done a bunch of data analysis. I started out by just doing whatever fancy analysis I could do and sharing it with my supervisors. Though they were impressed, they asked me to think one step higher—now that you did this analysis, so what? As I grew into the role, I started creating a proposal/recommendation section on the top of every research project where I offered my clear opinion and how it would impact the company. On a broader scale, I can begin applying this questions to the big decisions that I make in my life. For instance, I work hard to get good grades but so what? How important is my GPA compared to the actual learning I could get from working on a project for that extra one hour I spent studying? I think great companies and individuals continually ask themselves so what? Because if you don’t have a reason for spending your time on something, you probably should be doing something else.

3. Data is going to be HUGE.

On a more tangible note, I have come to the opinion that data and its role in making decisions is going to become an even bigger phenomenon. With technology, it has become easier and easier to collect, analyze, and manipulate data on a micro level. For example, during my last week of work, I created a bunch of different Facebook ads that proposed different ideas. By measuring clickthrough and conversion rates, we are able to collect a ballpark estimate of how exciting an idea is to the general public after just a few hours and few hundred bucks of work. That’s pretty awesome. I think this applies to many sectors and at varying degrees. For example, I think the retail analytics startup is entering the industry at just the right phase by offering in depth customer behavior information (using computer vision and surveillance footage) so that companies can make data informed decisions. And this isn’t just made for the Wal-Marts of this world, but it can be achieved at a cost affordable by much smaller chains. I had the opportunity to chat with Om Mallik the other day and he said the same—study data and how it drives decisions because that is going to become huge.

 

And here’s a quick list of tips for future TEC classes:

  • Meet great entrepreneurs but don’t force yourself to network for the sake of networking.
  • Spend time one-on-one with each and every TEC member
  • Do crazy things even if they don’t seem rationale (like walking to the Bay Bridge at 3am with a group of other TEC interns)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people for things
  • Try to always eat dinner with someone else
  • Live with other interns and near True (trust me, this is huge)
  • Explore all of the interesting spots in SF
  • Do Mission Mondays
  • Plan weekend excursions in advance (i.e. bike across the Golden Gate, go to Berkeley, etc.)
  • Meet as many True Founders and execs at True University
  • Go to events but again don’t force yourself for the sake of it
  • Ride a scooter to work if you can (it’s pretty awesome)
  • Go visit Ghiradelli Square and enter the store to get free chocolate. Rinse and repeat.
  • Really just try to spend as much time as you can with the other interns because, at the end of the day, that is what makes TEC special. Even if you have friends from college in SF, either call them to hang out with the other interns or hang out with them when you’re in college. This is the only time you’ll be able to spend with the other 12 TEC interns.

I whole-heartedly believe that True’s TEC program is one of the best, if not the best, summer experiences for aspiring entrepreneurs. I feel so privileged to have been a part of it this year and I know that many of us interns are going to go on to do great things in the future.1097244_10153060093915361_1448819293_o

Comic-Con with Madefire

San Diego Comic-Con, “the largest convention of its kind in the world,” according to David M. Ewalt, from Forbes Magazine, spans genres, with comic, movie, television, pop culture, and Sci-Fi industries of past and present joining together in one city and generally under one roof.

Attending Comic-Con several weeks ago with Madefire to help staff the Madefire Booth and demo the app and motion books to Comic-Con International Participants and potential new fans, I learned a lot about hands-on sales and marketing, including the following advice!

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Meeting a scary Spider Queen from a costume makeup booth a few rows over

 

(1) Greet visitors with a question/ice breaker.

Discovering the best way to introduce Madefire to a complete stranger took some trial and error and mimicking the success of others. Asking a question, as specific as “Have you heard of Madefire?” to as commonplace as “How are you?,” vastly increased the likelihood of sparking a conversation. A conversation is a great means of discovering what aspect of Madefire might appeal to the convention participant and serves as an opportunity to share these features of Madefire with them, among others.

My favorite question to offer (along with a smile and a free Madefire logo button in hand!): “Would you like a Madefire pin?” To which, the follow up became: “Great! And have you heard of Madefire?” Then, the conversation began!

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(2) Look for the “flash of inspiration.”

Knowing fast facts about Madefire, its app, its motion books, its online presence, its founders and history, and its plan for the future, was essential to establishing rapport.

Sometimes, from this information, the participant revealed a flash of inspiration. Some were creators who wanted to learn about the Madefire Motion Book Tool; others were “bronies” (term for male fans of MY LITTLE PONY), who were eager to check out an early preview of the upcoming release; and still others were technologists intrigued by the idea of digital motion books, who were impressed by Madefire’s stunning Retina display and excited to examine how Madefire uses the accelerometer or gyroscope on iOS.

When this flash occurred, I was right there with them, eager to show them the features or titles that appealed to them, or to let them tap through themselves. It was like the sales and marketing happened naturally and organically! It was always a beautiful moment!

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(3) Know what you love and love what you do.

Sometimes, however, a person’s interests were harder to discern.

Fortunately, because I know what I love about Madefire, it was easy to take a quick moment to share my feelings! I showed Ben Wolstenholme’s intricately created, gorgeous panorama drawing from his MONO series; one of my current favorite new releases SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE GREEK INTERPRETER, by Bill Sienkiewicz and Liam Sharp; and a special episode that I was excited to see released soon, whether it was Dave Gibbons’ newest TREATMENT, IDW’s STAR TREK, IDW’s MY LITTLE PONY, or a title that reminds me of “Sex and the City” in the best way possible, Des Taylor and ITV’s KATIE ROGERS.

During this kind of demo, too, I occasionally heard or saw that flash of inspiration occur. Maybe it was to the panorama feature, the artwork, or the content.

This flash of inspiration helped to direct our conversation. If someone “flashed” to the panorama or “pano,” I’d point out the impressive print copy of the pano, and we’d talk about the possibilities of the participant producing a pano himself or herself using the Madefire Motion Book Tool. If participants reacted to the artwork, I’d try to introduce them to the artist, several of whom were hanging out behind our booth, or show other motion book series I found comparably beautiful (which is most of them!). If participants expressed interest in a new popular series releasing soon, we’d speak of our mutual appreciation and anticipation for its release.

However sparked, the flash of inspiration led to rewarding conversations, time and again. Seeing people’s positive reactions and conversing with them about shared interests was both fun and fulfilling for me–truly a show highlight!

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(4) Enthusiasm and energy are a crucial part of the equation!

Make sure to budget for food, rest, and sleep. They are important (even though the Con never sleeps!).

I had a blast with Madefire, meeting deviantART, exploring the Con, checking out the TV show Psych’s midnight musical premiere, taking in the cosplay sights, and talking about all things Madefire, motion books, and digital with hundreds of cool new people I met from around the world.

I had a fantastic experience. I will definitely remember my first Comic-Con and the many lessons that I learned there!

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Cracking up with Batman

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Surround Yourself with Folks Smarter than You

One of the best lessons I learned this summer was: surround yourself with people smarter than you.

I’ve been fortunate to have a fast-paced, high-knowledge environment forced upon me this summer that allowed me to be in constant contact with driven fellow peers, experienced serial entrepreneurs and veteran venture capitalists.

Through the TEC program, I had the fortune of meeting & bonding with 12 incredibly diverse and talented TEC Fellows. Five of these fellows (Angad, Dennis, Mike, Shahid & Yash K) became my roommates for 2 months in a hostel dubbed the “Hackerhome”, where more bonding ensued. Whether it be waiting in line for the morning shower, enjoying a late dinner at Cafe Chaat, trash talking each other during an 11 PM game of pickup basketball, or walking back home at 2 AM from the True Ventures office, I’ve shared a boatload of laughs and learned a multitude of unique insights, perspectives, & skills from each of my roommates. Furthermore, my roommates have set a new benchmark of life goals & expectations of output for me.

Similarly, I met experienced founders via Thursday speakers at the True office, at True University, and through serendipity – people I randomly met on the street or in the office.  At True University, Jon Callaghan kicked off the event with his opening remarks by stating, “If you have a question, or a problem, or an issue that you need help with, I guarantee you, the answer is in this room.” This statement absolutely held true – over two days, I met ~300 members of the True family, engaged in deep conversations about user acquisition and team-building, and had some constructive conversations regarding challenges at our respective startups. Furthermore, after talking to many founders, I realized that recruiting was a common pain-point for startups. This sparked me to take a shot at learning recruiting – a role I’m now working on at my internship at Madison Reed!

A quotation by Tim Ferriss lingers in my head:

“you are the average of the five people you associate with most”  

If this statement holds true at all, then I’ve been in great company this summer. My takeaway from these past months is that relationships are everything. If you’re ever feeling inadequate among a crew of folks (like I did this summer), that’s a sign you’re in good company. Cheers!

The Marginal Returns of Advice

Law Of Dimishing ReturnsIf you’ve ever taken an Economics class you may recognize the meaning behind the blue curve above. The curve represents the Law of Diminishing Returns and it suggests there is a point (the middle phase in the graph above) when adding one more employee to a company will result in a smaller increase in productivity than the previous employee (marginal return of labor). It even suggests that there is a point further down the line where adding another employee will actually result in lower total productivity (think of the phrase too many chefs in the kitchen). If you still don’t fully understand the concept, then check out a more in-depth explanation here.

I want to make the argument that this applies to advice as well. Over the course of the past year and a half, I have probably attended around 100 startup events/talks/lectures. Most of these talks have focused on what it takes for an entrepreneur to succeed. I feel like I have reached a point of diminishing marginal returns (or even negative marginal returns) where each “general entrepreneurship” event or lecture seems to be less and less helpful. I can’t help but feel like I’ve wasted time at an event when I hear about how you should fail fast and fail often or about how being an entrepreneur is an emotional roller coaster. That being said, I do think there are ways to make sure that you stay on the left hand side of the curve. If you’re feeling that way about any sort of advice, here are my…. wait for it… 3 pieces of advice:

1. Attend events that teach you a specific skill. Rather than going to that event on building a lean startup that you’ve learned about already, consider going to a design talk that teaches you the impact of color on customer behavior. By building your portfolio of skills, you’ll be able to learn more and make the most of your time.

2. If possible, ask questions to create a more personalized, insightful conversation. This one usually only works when you’re attending events with smaller groups (which is why True Ventures Thursdays are so awesome). But I think it’s incredibly important to ask questions when you can. This is great for you because you can mold these questions around concepts that you are still eager to learn about and that the speaker may be in an expert in. It’s also great for the speaker because they feel like they’re helping out more.

3. Don’t go to events (or read business books) for the sake of it. This one’s a tough one, especially if you’re just starting to dive into the world of entrepreneurship. You may feel an overwhelming urge to attend that event starting in an hour because you’ll miss out on learning and don’t want to regret not going. The next time you feel that way, take a minute, think about what the event really has to offer, and then, if you really believe you’ll learn, make a decision to go or not to go. Just don’t do it for the sake of being able to say that you attended and “learned.”

So, here’s to staying on the left hand side of the curve and continuing to learn as much as we can.

Rocket Scientist + Founder + Student

Last week, I had a chance to speak with Brendan Tseung, a co-founder and the CTO of Stanford-born startup, Phos. Although I lived only a quarter-mile away from Brendan last year (Both of us were coincidently living on the east side of Stanford’s campus), I hadn’t stumbled upon Phos and its inspiring CTO. But with a packed 30-min Skype session, Brendan and I quickly made up for lost time.

We started with a run-down of Phos and the motivations behind it. I was expecting to hear a somewhat long story or long train-of-thought that led Brendan and the other founders of Phos to their idea of improving the classroom experience, but instead, Brendan described an oh-so-familiar experience to me…

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Brendan (left) w/ his fellow founders.

Brendan, a first-year graduate student last year, had been sitting in lecture, confused, as the professor spouted numbers and words relating to Aero/Astro engineering. Afterwards, Brendan approached a few of his friends and asked if they could help clear up some of the confusion from the lecture. The only issue was that his friends were just as confused as he was. This may have just been a result of the difficult course content, but Brendan and his friends consistently felt a deficiency in their classroom experience. As Brendan described, “Even when I was confused, I didn’t raise my hand”, and evidently, no one else did either. Whether because they didn’t want to interrupt the professor’s flow or because they didn’t want to seem stupid in front of classmates, students weren’t communicating with the professor, leading to an extremely one-sided educational experience.

And thus, Phos was born. The web application uses mobile devices as platforms to facilitate better student -> teacher communication. Students use that app to indicate whether or not they are confused, and, both students and the teacher can see the level of confusion in the classroom. Some courses at Stanford already use a similar system involving the overpriced and commonly misplaced iClickers. Phos offers a cheaper and minimally invasive alternative. The system has been tested around California at multiple UC’s and is now being piloted in several Stanford classrooms. (http://www.phoslearning.com/)

I asked Brendan, the only developer on Phos’s three-man team, how he found the time to code Phos along with working on graduate-level research and coursework. He didn’t seem to find his multiple commitments an issue, which we discussed may be in part because Phos addresses a personal need he faces consistently during the school year.

Brendan is currently working as an engineer at SpaceX which is freaking awesome. Even with Phos, schoolwork, and currently SpaceX, he (only 23 y/o) still finds time to run, hang out with friends, and play a little League of Legends on the side.

I hope to find a project that I can integrate into my student career much like Brendan has with Phos. I’ll definitely be keeping in touch with him in hope of learning more about becoming a boss at life.

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