Monthly Archives: July 2012

Wrapping things up

In spite of my usual blogging long-windedness, I’d like very much to encapsulate my experience in this program with one succinct lesson I’ve learned. I chose to participate in this program to find out whether whether the tech startup lifestyle, which SOUNDED good in theory, was actually something I would enjoy living. My concern with it, as with many of the other professions that I considered, was whether I could actually, day in and day out (and for much longer days than in most professions), sit down and do work. I always (well, except for freshman year) got my work done in school, but I also tried my best to optimize some sort of minimum effort for maximum reward equation. That sort of attitude is something that just doesn’t work with startups at all.

But I had high hopes that the combination of exciting work environment, and exciting, meaningful work would motivate me. I knew that whenever I was excited about something, I was a hard worker. I just didn’t know whether a startup could actually create that excitement like I thought it could.

In the spirit of succinctness, yes. It could. And much more so than I expected. I have been able to put in 7 day weeks of 14 hour days without finding myself checking out or watching the clock. I ended up having to force myself to go to sleep at 4 AM many, many nights.  Awesome.

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The Reach Out Assignment

Full disclosure- I cheated a little bit on this assignment. Not only had I already met the person I chose to reach out to, I actually lived three doors down from him my freshman year. But in spite of that, I felt like Cody met the requirements in a “spirit of the law, if not the letter” kind of way.  Cody was a diver, so even though I lived literally fifty feet away from him, I practically never saw him. I’m pretty sure I hung out with him one night, in a group setting. I definitely had never had a one on one conversation with him. And after freshman year, I honestly don’t think I had seen him once. Not even walking across campus from a distance. So I think it counts.

But the main reason that I was willing to bend the rules a bit was because there was no one that he was literally the most relevant person in the world for me to talk to. As a recent graduate who is about to leave a situation with free food and lodging, my number one goal is to get a job. And finally, after several years of deliberation, I have decided that the right job for me, at least for now, is as an iOS dev at a startup.

Cody graduated from the same university, in the same class as me. Although he was a comp sci major, he had only taken one class where he learned and used Objective C. Cody wanted to work as a mobile dev at a startup, and just like me, Cody went to beach week (the week before graduation) without having accomplished that. But Cody had one thing (other than a comp sci education) that I didn’t- an app that was, for a time, the #1 free app in the App Store. He wrote I’d Cap That while bored during Spring break, and then immediately following beach week, he flew out to Palo Alto to meet with a company that offered to buy his app, and hire him as an iOS engineer.

I’m not really sure what I expected to get from the conversation. I knew that his blueprint wasn’t really one I could follow, or at least not one I could reasonably plan to follow. Based on his example, all I have to do is release an app that hits #1 on the App Store and I can get a job. Easy. But while the conversation wasn’t particularly enlightening, in the way that meeting some eminent visionary in the startup world might have been, it was surprisingly relieving. He was able convince me of a few important facts that helped put my mind at ease. There is definitely a market for iOS developers, I can become hire-able as a full-time iOS dev with out a ton of experience, and the best way to improve my chances of becoming a dev is to put apps in the app store. So even if the path ahead of me isn’t exactly clear, I know the right direction to head.

That Gut Feeling

After spending 8 weeks out here, I’ve come to really appreciate following your gut feeling. I come from a city in southeast Pennsylvania where most people follow traditional paths to become doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc… Not many follow the life of an entrepreneur and very rarely is it pushed on people.  However, I always had this gut feeling that I should just go ahead and try it. At the mere mention of pursing the start up life style, my parents freaked. Of course, who can blame them? They want what’s SAFE for me (becoming a Doctor). This, however, doesn’t always match with what’s RIGHT for me. Against my parent’s and my greater judgment, I chose the start up lifestyle. Honestly, I truly believe it was the right choice. With this experience, I’ve come to truly trust my gut instinct.

I’ve come to realize how much an environment really shapes your judgment.  When I was at home, leaving to work on my start up seemed so scary.  I had zero clue of where it might go, or how I’ll end up. Now that I’ve spent time here though, all those worries have disappeared. Its not so much that the mystery of my start up future has changed, but rather how I view that mystery. Traditional jobs offer security, they offer an ease of mind. Start up are a completely different monster. After talking to so many entrepreneurs, though, I’ve come to embrace this mystery.  I’ve realized worst case scenarios are really unlikely. Even if things go really bad, in the end it’s a learning experience. An experience you can use to better the next outcome.  With that in mind, I look forward to the mystery because in the end it only betters my experiences.

Working on a Night Train

I’ve have spent countless hours at our Dogpatch home. It’s safe to call it a home, considering I’ve spent about 70% of my time there , and the rest is split up between my rental home and a few other places. I’ve spent anywhere from 8 hours to 30 hours at Dogpatch.

One thing that always amazes me is how much your environment can really expand/suppress your mental state of mind. I would spend countless hours trying to solve a problem at my usual DPL desk, and just struggle to find a solution. Then I’d take a break and more often then not, I’d reach an epiphany while doing something menial like going on my run.

After several mid-run epiphanies, I’ve decided to alternate my work place. So far it’s been great! My usual routine has been to go from: the basement, to upstairs, to a conference room, to a different conference room, to finally my rental home.

At first, I was a little wary. I’d find myself shifting too much, and not getting anything done as I try to warm up in my new space. After a couple strategies, though, I’ve found a good pace of change, and my boosted productivity is proof!

Whether it truly is the environment, or maybe the break that have to be taken for the relocation, I find that this routine really helps my thinking. 

Getting Harder,Better, Faster, Stronger

We’re very close to launching Tivly bug-free! Along the way though one question always kept bothering me. Is it better to build fast? Or is it better to build strong? Of course plenty some people can do both, but most of us find ourselves making trade-off between speed and efficiency. This time around I think I mainly leaned toward speed, and we built a very functional product in only 25 days. As awesome as this is , I find myself doubting if pushing for so much speed was the right decision. We are basically at that finish line. Since we built with so much speed, though, I find my last couple days here fixing numerous bugs.

These bugs also seem to just multiply exponentially.  I fix one, and seven more arise as the “fix” causes more issues.  I wonder if going at a more steady pace might have alleviated some of the bugs we have now.

Then again I hesitate to think that , because one of our strong points as a start up is the ability to make decisions so fast, and thus get to a product faster than a large company.

In the end, I realize this is a somewhat transient problem. As an entrepreneur acquires more building skill, it not only improves his proficiency at coding, but also their foreshadowing abilities. I guess I’ll just have to keep on building.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit, Part Two.

Marketing yourself plays a huge role in freelance design, that’s how you’re supposed to get clients, especially when you’re starting up. It’s interesting to see how the lessons and attitudes I’ve learned from DukeDEC can play into my design gig. Here are a few highlights:

1. If you can’t do it, learn how to.

I’ve always stuck by this rule. I love teaching myself how to learn new things, especially if I have a goal in mind. That was great for art and coding, there are plenty of tutorials online, but I didn’t have this mindset with business models nor with anything related to legal documents. I was handling my first client, it was a small financial advisory service called Davos Financial Group and they wanted brochures made for the real estate that they were trying to sell. This was a REAL client. Not that my other clients weren’t real, but they were clients in a university world where our design agency was the best option, and for a very good reason. Davos Financial Group was a client from the real world and I wanted to do things right. So what would a real graphic designer do?

They have invoices, proposals, terms of conditions…something like that. Okay. So I hired the best and cheapest lawyer I could find: myself. I created a proposal and drafted a terms of conditions sheet from as many samples I could find online and I adjusted them to match my own concerns: How was I going to get paid? What if they tell me to make something with an impossible deadline? What assures them that I won’t ditch the project in the middle of it? I decided to follow my intuition and figured out the most logical and reasonable set of working terms.

2. Take advantage of opportunities that appear out of nowhere. Anything can be an opportunity!

When I saw that one of my high school classmates was starting a facebook page and blog for fairy tales he was writing, I had an idea. It was perfect! I’ve always wanted to do illustrations! It’d be a great exercise for my digital painting skills and perfect marketing for the both of us. I quickly shot him a facebook message after I read his first chapter, feeling extremely inspired.

3. Use your time wisely!

Blogs blogs blogs! Read them all! Look at them all! Get inspired and create your own! There are way too many awesome articles, too many amazing webcomics, too many great artists, designers, storytellers to count. The major question is not where to find great content, but deciding what kind of content you need to tackle, read and learn from.

 

Hackers and Interns

For my reach out assignment I chose Harjeet Taggar, one of the 11 partners at Y Combinator.

Harj became a partner at YC when he was just 25. At 22 he went through YC for his company Auctomatic and sold it for $5 million. I had watched an interview with him on TechCrunch and was impressed at what he accomplished at his age. He also seemed approachable and easy going.

I asked Alex Andon if he could introduce me to a Y Combinator partner. Jellyfish Art did the previous batch of Y Combinator and still has office hours with the YC partners. He had office hours scheduled for July 20th with Harj. Before the office hours Alex briefed me on his new venture ideas and answered my questions. The video call consisted of Alex pitching Harj on his ideas. Afterwards Alex and I analyzed Harj’s reaction and shared more ideas. I didn’t talk directly with Harj myself. However, I benefitted tremendously from the experience.  I hadn’t thought to ask Alex for details on his other business ideas. I also hadn’t thought I could get face time with a YC partner, though I have YC connection through Alex. I was inspired my Harj’s methodological questioning. I aspire to similarly analyze ideas without making brash assumptions or seeming too negative. I’m learning to be a collaborator rather than just a critic.

This past weekend I attended iOSDevCamp at eBay HQ in San Jose.  I had a great time contributing to the open source mobile web framework  iUI, meeting new people and seeing the demos. I was impressed by the turnout for women and people under 20. The hackathon had a welcoming atmosphere that I hope to see at hackathons I attend in the future.

My parents flew in on Tuesday and are exploring the area. On their first day we had Italian food at Café Delucchi near my apartment in North Beach.  We have tickets tonight for Beach Blanket Babylon. BBB is an elaborate drag show and one of the major tourist attractions in SF.

Alex is hiring me part-time for the school year to work on Jellyfish Art and his early stage ventures.  I look forward to earning extra spending money, deepening my experience with e-commerce web development and continuing to work with Alex.

This summer I grew as a person and a developer. I became more curious about how things worked and open to new experiences.  Learning to program changed my life.  I have access to more opportunities and social networks. I can immediately pursue my startup ideas. At the beginning of this year I began a lifelong journey that will include numerous challenges and rewards. This fall I’m taking a classes on iOS development and web application development. I plan on returning to Silicon Valley when I graduate. Whatever I do, I know it will be an adventure.

Entrepreneurship and the Value of University Education

Preface: This is written from my own personal perspective, a very limited one in that I only graduated 2 months ago. These opinions will certainly change, but I wanted to capture them in the moment of “recent graduate.” Feel free to comment on your views of entrepreneurship and how university education fits in.

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As I waited for the Sunday 10:00PM Caltrain back home to Mountain View, I experienced an odd deja vu back to days at Duke. Less than 3 months ago, on a similar Sunday evening, I would have been mired in a corner in Perkins (Duke’s library) working on anything from my philosophy thesis to statistics homework. First, I remembered how miserable Sunday evenings were. Perkins LibraryThen, I thought to myself “was it worth it? Has Duke prepared me for my new life in Silicon Valley?”

It’s hard to say. Would I have been able to run a business after my senior year of high school? Absolutely not. But were my 4 years at Duke more valuable than the alternative of dropping out and using those funds towards a self-guided adventure? In this highly hypothetical scenario where I can’t really prove anything — yes, my years at Duke were more valuable (I think).

The term “dropout” takes completely different meaning in Silicon Valley. It is viewed as a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame — a clear gesture towards the traditional ivory towers. The general argument is that university education fails to provide any tangible skills for a working life. This is hard to argue against; certainly my degree in philosophy is abstract in nature. But this argument misses out on the intangibles of university education. Like how I was forced to repeatedly break down arguments, reduce them to their sources, and build them back in the image I constructed. Or how I was forced to use 5 words to express the same sentiment as most do in 10.

So it is almost as if the value in university education is that it forces you to develop skills in fields you otherwise would avoid. If I had pursued other opportunities instead of college, I certainly would have gone down the path of least resistance and continued working on what I was best at. But certainly this aspect of developing new skills is a feature of the workplace as well.

Some argue that college exposes you to experiences you otherwise never would have enjoyed (or not enjoyed). Well, real-life does that too — so I don’t think that justifies the expense.

Clearly I’m conflicted in this argument. It is hard to find something truly unique about university life that could not be provided by life in the workplace. It is just that the majority of your peers go to college, so it makes sense to go to college. It is the perfect insurance plan — a statement of quality. I am forever branded as “Duke” so you have a general idea of my capabilities. But what if these “brands” could be achieved in other ways…ways that don’t require an investment of 4 years and thousands of dollars.

I believe the “expectation” of progressing from high school  to college is an unfair one. It’s not that higher education in the U.S is “broken”, it’s just forced. But until not attending college is an accepted life-choice, this perpetual cycle can’t really be broken. Peter Thiel attempted to break it with the Thiel Fellowship, but we’ll see how successful the program is.

So in conclusion, I feel I must apologize. This post is more an internal polemic than a substantive argument. Would I trade my 4 years at Duke? Absolutely not. But are their suitable alternatives to college that make the question even somewhat plausible? No — so maybe that is the root of the problem. That the current alternatives to university education simply aren’t valuable enough. But times change.

A Chat with a Young Twitter-recruited Entrepreneur

I had the chance to talk to Ashutosh Singhal, co-founder of Hotspots.io, a startup recently acquired by Twitter which aimed to filter exactly what people were saying about certain events on Twitter. Having entered the startup world at a young age, Ashu serves as an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs like myself to pursue our passions.

Ashu set himself up well to succeed in Silicon Valley. Having doubled majored in Computer Science and Math at MIT (graduating a semester early in mid 2011), Ashu reflects that he came with more than appropriate skills for the tasks that were required of him to launch Hotspot. In January 2011, Ashu worked with a couple of his fraternity brothers at a YCombinator startup, Moki.TV. Although that company ceased activity by that Summer, the team pivoted to launch Hotspot.io.

According to the website, Hotspots.io was founded with the vision of helping companies and individuals maximize their social media ROI through actionable and accessible analytics. They began to receive attention for their coverage and analytics of the SOPA fiasco — detailing what the Twitter public had to say about the issues. In mid-February, they launched a dashboard looking at the Superbowl. Pretty quickly by March, Twitter expressed interest, and they were acquired.

Currently, Ashu works to track analytics regarding ads on Twitter. In Twitter’s talent acquisition of Hotspot’s team, the social media giant brought in great skill sets to their table.

I asked Ashu for some tips he thought might be valuable for aspiring entrepreneurs. He reiterated a common point: to build and test things fast. You can never be too sure about an idea until it gets some feedback and you can collect some quantifiable metrics. His other piece of advice was to build a product that fits your particular skill set, or that of the team you are working with, rather than an interest you have. Ashu mentioned that he doesn’t think he’d be as savvy in a product-oriented, heavily design-based company, but feels comfortable crunching hard numbers.

One thing that resonated with me was his mention of how you can learn the technical requirements of working at a startup, but not the business side. That, you have to acquire through hacking the hell out of your own endeavors — whether in Silicon Valley or wherever you think you can best propel your company.

A retrospective

For me, one of the biggest takeaways this summer is of the strength of the Duke community in Silicon Valley, and I wanted to take this last post as an opportunity to thank the many people who have taken time out of their busy lives to speak with and counsel me and Jacob.**

First off, finding a home at Dogpatch would not have been possible without the generosity of Ryan Spoon, nor would it have been possible without the time put in by Shea Di Donna, David Heaney, Matt Koidin, and Howie Rhee to develop a curriculum and find funding. I’m sure I’m missing many others who made this program possible in the background. The depth and breadth of the speakers first made it hard to believe that this program is just in its first year and second demonstrates that Duke is well-represented 2500 miles away from home.

While here, we received valuable counsel from Jason Langheier, CEO of Zipongo; Steven Pal, BabyCenter’s web development intern (make no mistake – he was intern in name only) in the early 90s; Yoni Riemer at E La Carte; and Natasha Pecor of Freestyle Capital; and of course Matt, David, Shea, and Ryan as well as the many people they connected us to. Despite their other commitments, these people welcomed us with their arms wide open and provided diligent counsel; their generosity was frankly shocking to me.

And of course, thank you to all of the speakers who volunteered their time and shared their wisdom and experiences and lessons learned.

Last but not least, I want to thank my colleagues – and indeed, friends – in both the DSVIP and DEC program. Special thanks go to Kevin Fishner, who I vividly remember offering to brainstorm with me when all I could come up with for a particular slide deck was to have a picture of a cute baby on the cover; Veronica Ray, who helped keep me sane and provided valuable expertise when my AdWords and landing page campaigns didn’t go quite as I’d envisioned; Brian Antigua, who reminded me that I was getting fat while he was doing Insanity; and Cole Vertikoff, who is on the quest to help me be a better friend.

Much of the strength of Duke University lies in its alumni: people who dream and who work (and who succeed because they dreamed and worked). They create the opportunities for future generations of Dukies to test their mettle.

**While I have attempted to be exhaustive with this list, recollection is often an imperfect guide, so please email me at xiaoyang.zhuang@duke.edu if I’ve inadvertently left your name out.