Category Archives: Xiaoyang Zhuang

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.

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Who I’d want to meet

I’d love to meet Michelle Obama.

There, I said it. The chances of that are pretty small, but I don’t think any entrepreneur in Silicon Valley is here because their expected is ROI is high, so I’m learning from the best.

Why?

Michelle Obama has made health and fitness a priority in her agenda with her Let’s Move campaign. Kids (including me, er…) see her on the Disney Channel winning at basketball, and she recently announced an initiative to improve the quality of school lunches, adding whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while reducing sodium and fats. And that wasn’t easy, either: Her efforts to reduce starchy foods like potatoes drew the ire of the National Potato Council, whose spokesman Mark Szymanski noted: “It seems the department [of Agriculture] still considers the potato a second-class vegetable.”

A second-class vegetable, indeed, Mark.

Mind-reading

This past week marked the (unassuming) launch our dummy site, where we take your grocery and restaurant receipts, assign a HealthScore to your purchases, and tell you why. We built this to test an assumption about various data entry methods (in the nutrition space, one of the big unresolved consumer pains is the need for the user to act as a data entry monkey and tell the system exactly what foods she’s consumed). We pretended to be some different people on reddit (I have many more personas that any of you would have ever imagined) and drive traffic to the site.

We ended up getting a 12-13% signup rate, with (based on cursory analysis) higher conversion on the weight loss subreddit than on the nutrition subreddit, but some things still continue to puzzle me:

1) We’re losing over half of our visitors at the signup page. There are literally two things there: a field to enter your email address, and a field to create a password. It seems really frictionless to me…

2) The conversion from signing up to actually sending in receipts has so far been pretty low, although that is potentially attributable to people’s proclivity for throwing away restaurant and grocery receipts and then forgetting about this thing once they’re at a restaurant or a grocery store. We did get a lovely Burger King receipt on Friday night, where both the soda and the fries were supersized. I’m not sure what the person was expecting us to say…

I’d love to read the minds of these people. Who of my non-existent readers is a palm-reader?

The Lunatic and His Guacamole

I’ll probably never forget the day I met Larry Chiang, creator of the notorious http://www.duck9.com/ass and author of the never-published What They Don’t Teach You at Stanford Business School. Having donned his VC costume, he carved up a niche in the Dogpatch entrance / kitchen for him and his portable electric stove. As I walked into the door, he screamed into my ear, “Yo! Want some freedom toast?” I ignored him much in the same way I ignore the guys in Vegas who dish out R-rated material on the street. Ten minutes later, he screams, “Breakfast is ready!”

Well, it wasn’t ready. The next 40 minutes of waiting involved listening to Larry proselytizing something (what was it? who knows…), mocking me because I was an economics major who was completely unacquainted with Gua Gua Guacamole (might have to recommend that the Duke economics department add that to the core curriculum…), and hearing sketchy stories about bribing the waitstaff to get into a party.

I didn’t pay a dime. But that was the most expensive toast I’ve ever had – freedom or otherwise.

Not to mention the fact that it was pretty undercooked…

And I thought Larry was crazy. But as I kept thinking about him (how can you forget a guy like that?), I believed him – and I believed his party crasher-to-VIP stuff. A good entrepreneur is always one who’s crashing the party of what already exists, and the successful ones become stars of the show. On a less glamorous level, finding people who are way too busy to talk to you and are too successful to acquaint themselves with the small-time-entrepreneur-common-folk and sitting them down and getting them to share their knowledge is what good entrepreneurs do on the reg.

Resurfaced

Sometimes, it can be fun to pull for the underdog, which is why a sole Windows computer (mine) lies amidst the sea of MacBook Pros in Dogpatch Labs. (For all those concerned, Rails development on Windows is not a joke  – I didn’t even need a Linux partition.) And yesterday, Microsoft’s new Surface tablet gave some hope that Internet Explorer will not go the way of Netscape.

Microsoft’s latest product launch demonstrated that it was willing to be flexible with its strategy and adapt with the times: Spontaneous meeting, spontaneous location, demo by Steve Ballmer, wholly designed in-house, aiming to be the raise the bar for hardware makers building off of the Windows 8 for their tablets.

Only time will tell whether Microsoft’s latest showing will create the tech euphoria that its friend in Cupertino, but the Microsoft story shows how quickly the tech industry moves – the PC was once the standard for home computing, Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple. And for startup entrepreneurs, perhaps one of the greatest challenges is thinking out far enough to protect the products we’re building today from obsolescence.

Are you passionate about pregnant women?

When I was five, I didn’t dream of building a webapp for pregnant women (firefighting seemed significantly more glamorous). I didn’t even dream of that a year ago as I sat in my cubicle diligently pulling up FactSet charts. But here I am with Jacob, MVP in tow, finding friend-of-friends who might be willing to user-test our product.

Since we sent out emails in the wee hours of Monday morning, we have had exactly one person actually use the product (an OB who is pregnant – how fortuitous!). I sent a gushing email thanking her profusely for testing our product; her first response?

Hi-

When I try to “add to my plate” its not letting me. I am not sure if I’m doing something wrong.

Er…what? She couldn’t get past our first page…that we’ve tested about half a billion times. Scary times.

Interestingly, history repeats itself. Jacob and I started a peer tutoring program in high school. Our first ever “tutoree” was not doing so hot in a civics and economics class, and three of us essentially clustered around her and made ourselves available approximately 24/7.

In doing that, we figured out things to do and things not to do and what was effective and what was not and who was good at what and who was bad at what and what could be automated (nothing) and what could not (everything), which was helpful as we grew to >200 people per week.

Now, we have live chat, quick email response times, and database guarantee that will hopefully put us close to the user and help us learn what works.

By next week, we’ll know whether we’re doing the right thing or not. Feedback is quick in the Valley.