10 1 / 2011
Wednesday January 12th at 1PM Eastern Time, I’ll be doing a live chat with Inc. Magazine readers and viewers. Anyone is welcome to join — just tune in at http://www.inc.com/live for the event.
A few topics I’ll probably be covering:
- How and why Andy and I started inDinero
- The current product roadmap and what we have planned for 2011
- The many challenges we’ve faced since founding the company
If you have any specific questions you’d like me to answer, feel free to just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you there!
29 9 / 2010
I thought it’d be interesting to document how my role as founder/CEO changes over the time, and that it’d be a great way to educate future inDinero team members how I contribute to the team. Back when we were just getting started, my job was simple: design features in photoshop, program them in ruby on rails. Show them to customers, gather feedback, rinse and repeat. But since raising money, I’ve been doing more “business-y” tasks to take inDinero to the next level. I’m sure my role will change over time, so I’ll do this again when I feel that my role as CEO has drastically morphed once again.
10AM - Scan inbox for important messages, archive anything that isn’t directly relevant to work. Schedule calls with potential hires, references for potential hires, and customers.
11AM - photographer from New York Times comes to visit us at the office. Takes a bunch of photos over the next hour. Noon - Eat Lunch, chat with customers over olark chat. Nice influx of requests today because of the mentions we got in American Express’ Open Forum and Mashable.com over the weekend.
1PM - Call references for several potential engineering hires.
2PM - Talk to potential engineering recruit by phone, sell him on the idea of joining inDinero.
230PM - Chat with reporter from Reuters. Interview was scheduled only 18 hours ago! 315PM - Talk to lawyer about everything from employee compensation to other more confidential things :)
4PM - Another reference call for a potential engineering hire. Yes, we do a lot of reference checking!
430PM - Getting my new assistant up to speed on how to help me with my inbox, scheduling meetings to make my life easier, etc…
5PM - Review designer portfolios, work on improving candidate-flow for potential lead product designers.
630PM - break for dinner with the team.
715PM - talk to engineering recruit who we’re about to extend a fulltime offer to. Answer his questions on why inDinero is the best startup in Silicon Valley, convince him to join us.
9PM - focus on only product, design new functionality based on the customer feedback I got earlier in the morning from people I chatted with through the inDinero website.
1AM - shower, read a book (this week, it’s “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller”)
2AM - off to sleep, rinse and repeat process the next morning.
09 9 / 2010
An email I received yesterday.
I would like to arrange a meeting with you in person to discuss them with you and if you are interested, become a partner. Meaning, you can build a functional prototype for my websites. And from there, present them to venture capital companies.Classic.
06 9 / 2010
When you or your company receive press, something too good to be true happens: you feel a sudden inflow of success and accomplishment, people compliment you for the writeup you received, and everything feels great. Problem is, you start to get lazy. You settle into this comfortable feeling of accomplishment, when in reality, not a single thing has changed before and after the press you received.A few days ago, TechCrunch broke the news that inDinero raised $1M from angel investors. I thought it’d be cool to share, but it never struck me as a big deal. Raising money is possibly the most boring part of working on a startup, so if anything, I wanted to be done with it. What happened next was interesting: dozens of my friends and acquaintances sent me congratulatory emails and facebook wall posts, and the moment felt like I was being congratulated for giving birth or doing something actually monumental. Raising money, in my opinion, is the least monumental thing that can happen to ones company. But it sure is press-worthy! While friends give me pats on the back, Paul Graham from Y Combinator tells me “Now you just have to not screw it up!” It’s like what a good asian parent would say; just because you got As in school doesn’t mean you’ll actually succeed in life. I sense that a lot of first-time entrepreneurs get too much pre-mature press (because it’s so easy to get), only to have it prevent them from doing what’s best for their newfound businesses. To prevent having this problem myself, I’ve conditioned myself to get more antsy after getting any congratulatory letter. I translate “congratulations” into “don’t f*ck it up”, and it puts me in this ideal place in mind where I feel good about having accomplished a very limited milestone, but understand that it doesn’t actually mean anything as far the big picture is concerned. I highly recommend other first-time entrepreneurs do the same. Press is great, but in reality, nothing has changed since your writeup. Now back to building product.
11 8 / 2010
I’m in the final weeks of Y Combinator, and the summer has been an incredible learning experience. Through the process, I’ve learned how to be a better coder, better designer, better marketer, better deal-maker, and an all around better person. But the one thing that made the biggest difference was just having more self-confidence in what I think is right instead of just listening to the advice of grown ups. As Paul Bucheit said at Angel Conf, a good founder may hear lots of conflicting advice and ultimately say to oneself “no, I actually think I’m right.”And this summer, I can honestly say that I’ve finally acquired that ability to say “no, I actually think I’m right”. Without self confidence… 1 - inDinero would be competing head-on with QuickBooks, trying to replace it as the premiere accounting system. Ends up that nobody likes accounting software, and I’d go insane working on a product that I didn’t love. Multiple successful founders urged us to go in this direction while we were still building out our product, because they couldn’t understand why someone would want to use a dumbed-down finance product. And it’s pretty difficult to speculate what customers will and won’t like before you build the product, so we decided to take the lean startup approach and release the first crappy product that we were able to build. Can you imagine inDinero being an accounting solution? 2 - inDinero would be focussing on marketing and user acquisition before finding happy, passionate customers. In hindsight, that would have been a huge mistake, but it was hard to tell at first if the bigger problem was marketing, or if it was product. Only after you find happy and passionate *paying* customers do you realize how bad your product was before. When starting the company, people would often tell us how great our product team was, but how none of us had a background in sales/marketing, and that we should focus on that. But since I think 100X more about my business than any potential investor does, I can quickly tell that businesses that think they have a marketing problem actually have a product problem. And our friends at FreshBooks.com reassured me that they just focussed on making the product great long before thinking about user acquisition, and it’s served them well. And I respect that, because FreshBooks is one of few companies in our space who “gets it”. 3 - inDinero would be raising money at a significantly lower valuation than what is actually market-rate for the company. Grown-ups typically advise young entrepreneurs to settle on what will clearly be a fair deal, and my personal opinion is that fund-raising should be the first test to train your deal-making abilities. Settling at a “fair” valuation doesn’t make any sense, especially for a founder who’s trying to hone their negotiation skills. I spent a decent amount of time studying negotiation from books like Bargaining for Advantage, and it made me realize that honing these skills during the busiest weeks of the Y Combinator program won’t be smart in the short term, but will ultimately be crucial if my goal in life is to be a world-class CEO. Therefore, I’ve ignored pretty much all advice on settling for a “lower than market-rate” valuation. The consequence: slightly less demand from investors, but a drastically higher price and significantly better outcome for the company. If you’re a first-time entrepreneur, be mindful that you’ll have world-class entrepreneurs telling you what seems to be good advice. They’ll assert with confidence why their advice is the best advice, but in the end, you need to decide what the actual right thing to do is. Listen to your instincts and never be afraid to tell yourself “no, I actually think I’m right.”
07 7 / 2010
Since going fulltime on my startup inDinero.com, things have been crazy to say the least. Many of you probably noticed that we just launched on TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, WebWorkerDaily, and various other blogs on Friday July 2nd. And since launch, business has been even more exciting! I haven’t talked much about inDinero in the past because I didn’t think I had much valuable information to share with others. But I learned a lot from the launching experience, and it made me better understand lean startup principles: how to build a startup with very little money, and with very little time to experiment with ideas. Room for failure is super low because there’s only so much time you have before running out of cash. Here are some things we did and why they worked for us: 1) We built vaporware, and lots of it. I recently wrote that advertising a feature before actually building it should be highly encouraged while building a startup. For example, on inDinero, we would supposedly allow people to integrate data from web applications such as Freshbooks and Shoeboxed. (screenshots below) - but if they wanted to use the functionality, we would instead send them to a page that told them the feature was coming soon.inDinero’s Vision for August”.
11 6 / 2010
This post was originally written on the official inDinero blog, where we talk about our product, business finances, and entrepreneurship.
inDinero is a relatively new company - we’ve been a corporation for a little over a year, we’ve been fulltime for only a few weeks, yet we’ve put a lot of thought into what we stand for as a company. Since deciding to work on the startup as our fulltime jobs, a lot of people have suggested we shoot for early acquisitions, suggest that we build out the ultimate Quickbooks replacement, without putting much thought into what we wanted to do with the company. I actually found it pretty shocking that friends and classmates would suggest flipping the company as quickly as possible for a few million dollars, and they would find it shocking that a quick flip wasn’t something that interested us. It’s because Andy and I have put a lot of thought into why we’re doing inDinero and what we stand for. We know precisely why we’re building our company, and every decision we make is aligned with the key motivator for why we’re working on inDinero: because we want to have fun. Sounds pretty cheesy, but if you think about it, what keeps you going during times good and bad? The common answer is “the prospect of finding success”. Or unfiltered, “the prospect of becoming a millionaire.” The problem with that type of thinking is that during gloomy times, you might consider a quick pivot into a completely different business idea. Or some friends I know would just leave entrepreneurship and go into a banking job that’s guaranteed to make them rich. But among everyone working here at inDinero (all four of us), we’re purely in it for the fun and joy of building a great product. And as long as all of our big “strategical decisions” are aligned with the purpose of optimizing for fun, we know we can’t fail. People frequently ask me why I’d want to go into the accounting space. Quick answer is that we’re not - we’ll always stop short of doing formal accounting, simply because I don’t think it’s fun. And we won’t build comprehensive tax-management features either, because I don’t think it’s fun. If the company doesn’t make as much money as a result, it’s ok, because we’re fulfilling our core purpose as a company: and that’s to have fun.
I probably feel more insane about my company than most entrepreneurs - in fact, I know that I’m 99% more fanatical about inDinero for reasons I’m having trouble describing. I had the stark realization that as long as I continue to build inDinero, I know that everyone in the company is going to have fun, which by obvious logic means that we’ll obviously be a successful company. And the true beauty behind that statement is that we’ve already achieved great success by merely having fun. So in order to be successful, we just need to stay in business. Continue what we’ve been doing for the past three weeks, but manage to continue this trajectory for the next 60 or 70 years of our lives. This statement holds true for everyone in the company right now. Having massive amounts of fun while building a company also needs to be rationalized. What comprises fun? 1) People, 2) Product, 3) Vision. Having fun while building product is relatively easy - just don’t build features that you find useless, and don’t build complex accounting features just because people want them. Frequently, there are simpler ways to solve the same problem. I’ll describe “vision” further in a future blog post, but I don’t think that’s immediately important for having fun in an early-stage startup. Which leaves “people” as the most important factor to consider. Among my entrepreneurial classmates at Berkeley and friends in the YCombinator program, I’ve found that a lot of them have trouble recruiting talent. Finding technical expertise is often considered the most difficult part, with less consideration being placed on culture fit. With inDinero, we quickly brought on two early members - Chris and Borden. The main reason for bringing on more coders so early in the life of the company was primarily because we didn’t know how long it’d be before we could find other incredible computer scientists who we would consider family. Consider this thought: you met the woman of your dreams, and she wants to get married soon. If you don’t propose now, she’s definitely going to leave you. Even if you’re not entirely ready to get married, it makes obvious sense that you should marry her. Andy and I made a similar decision for bringing on Chris and Borden - simply put, we wanted them to be family, and if we didn’t do it now, we probably never would.
inDinero is actually like a family. We cook and clean for each other, treat each other like playful siblings, work as hard as you’d expect from a group of asian immigrants, and it works out incredibly well. The interesting thing is that many software companies have cultures equally as unique. I’ve seen other early startups with cultures that resembles that of a fraternity, class project team, united nations delegation, or for the unfortunate business-people-only teams, a fortune-500 company. All startups pride themselves on having a “hip” culture, but the interpersonal dynamics are vastly different from startup to startup. Some people say that your culture is solidified from the first people you hire, but from personal observation, it’s usually based on the relationship between the original cofounders. For example, my co-founder Andy is practically family to me, and therefore, our company has been shaped around the idea of being a very cohesive family. While I run the risk of one day contradicting myself, I think it’s important to give some tangible examples of what this means going forward: Anyone we involve in the company will feel like family. This includes employees, and even investors and board members. If I wouldn’t adopt them into my family (and if the rest of my family doesn’t want to adopt them), it’s a no go. And this is consistent with our company’s purpose of existence, because we’ll continue to have massive amounts of fun as long as there’s nobody here to crash the party. Based on these thoughts, we’ve been able to narrow our hiring process down to a single question: do we trust them enough to adopt them into our family? Is it too early for a technically three-week-old startup to be thinking about these kinds of things? Perhaps, but it didn’t take us long to come to the conclusion that we were in this for the fun. And it won’t take others to realize that they’re in it for the money, the excitement, escape, or challenge. As your company grows, continue to be mindful of the original reasons for why you decided to go into business. That way, you’ll somehow find certain success.
18 5 / 2010
Today marked my graduation from college - the end of my career at UC Berkeley, and the official start of my professional life. I’ve been waiting for this day for as long as I could remember, and I’m honestly astonished that I managed to graduate. I’ve tried to drop out of college three times. But every time, someone managed to convince me back. And I’m happy that they did.My first attempt to drop out began after freshman year. Three summers ago, I met a few other young entrepreneurs in a hot tub at a programmer’s party called “Super Happy Dev House”, and we all discussed the idea of dropping out of college so that we could start our startups. How to break this news to our parents and why dropping out makes sense to do. Being the ignorant kids that we were, no alternative argument existed. By the end of the evening, we had convinced ourselves that it was the optimal path to success. And in this hot tub three summers ago, I befriended another young founder and computer science major named Brian. We kept in touch by email, and I ultimately found out that only Brian and I remained in college. The other young upstarts kept to their word and dropped out. In the three years since that night in the hot tub, I’ve received the education I dreamed for, and unique lifetime experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise have in the real world. Among them being a great education in computer science, and most importantly, meeting my cofounder and best friend Andy Su. While I realize that I may just be justifying the decisions I made, I would do college all over again just to meet Andy. Andy and I have been incubating side projects for almost two years now. We launched internshipIN together in November ‘08, did most of our computer science class projects with each other, recently launched a Java IDE called Breve, and started inDinero before summer break last year. It was through UC Berkeley that we got the Lightspeed Ventures Summer Grant. It was through UC Berkeley that we won the Venture Lab competition and got free money + office space on campus. It was also through UC Berkeley and the CSUA on campus that we got hooked into the YCombinator community, and recruited two more great hackers to join inDinero. It’s just weird to think that none of this would have happened had I dropped out three years ago. I owe thanks to my friends for supporting me, my advisors for keeping me in college, UC Berkeley for hooking me up with an incredible team of co-founders, and my parents for supporting me through the past four years. This is just the start of an incredible journey.
18 5 / 2010
06 5 / 2010
If there’s one thing I learned in this web 2.0 world, it’s “fail fast”. If there’s one thing I learned from my asian parents, it’s “failure is not an option”. I hated my parents for this growing up, but I’ve come to appreciate it.When you go into something knowing that there’s no option to fail, you hustle in ways that the less paranoid never would. The impact of this is incredible, and I think that a good way to increase your chances of succeeding is to find ways to make it so that failure is as far from an option as possible. This means burning all of your ships: leaving school, quitting your job, and telling everyone you know that you’re working on a startup. Since taking grant and investment money from numerous people, I’ve felt a personal pressure to push forward that I hadn’t before. I’m obliged not to fail, and my productivity is noticeably stronger now. A few things that I don’t approve of: 1) People who do “consulting on the side”. These almost always fail, because the entrepreneur isn’t in a sink-or-swim mentality. They justify it by citing how much money they make through such little work, and that’s all true. But no matter what, at the end of the day, the entrepreneur is giving him or herself the permission to screw up the company and go back to the financial security that freelance consulting provides. I say they burn their ships and focus on what they actually care about. 2) Doing school while building a company. It doesn’t work at all. I tried it back in middle school, I tried it in high school, and I tried it as a junior and senior at Berkeley. Even if you say that you don’t care about your grades, it doesn’t matter, because you’re inevitably going to lose productivity and give yourself more permission to fail. As Paul Graham says in one of his essays that student entrepreneurs can always go back to school and discount their failure as a side project that didn’t go anywhere. And that’s why it makes me cringe when I hear my classmates applying to grad school or jobs so that they have a “backup option”. Which brings me to the worst offender: 3) Keeping your job, making business a “side-thing”. This implies that you won’t quit the security of your job until there’s traction or investment funding, yet you’re not going to find either unless you’re working day and night on your startup. It’s a catch-22, and something has to give. I remember meeting people last year who said they were working on a startup, yet keeping their jobs in the meanwhile. They said that they were “considering leaving their job”, which meant that they were too scared to do so. A year later, they’re still in the same job, and their startup didn’t go anywhere. The main critique to burning one’s ships is that you’re incurring huge risk by doing so. If you don’t have any backup options, what happens if and when your company fails? If I had to answer, I’d say that it won’t come to that, because you forfeited all permission to fail by leaving your backup options on the table. But realistically speaking, it’s not that bad. You’re a great engineer working on your new startup, but Google’s trying to recruit you to work there. Tell them to go away, and they’ll probably be back in the event that your company fails. Now proactive things you can do to decrease your permission to fail: - Telling everyone you know about your company. Every time you see friends, they’ll ask you “how’s your company doing?” And you’re going to want to have good things to say. - Join an early stage accelerator program like YCombinator or TechStars. I think this is critical, because you feel an immense amount of pressure to stay on top of all of your peers. You want to save yourself the embarrassment of having a crappy product to show for, and you don’t want to let down your earliest backers. Because they’re counting on you. To sum this all up, it comes down to one thing: psychology. There’s an incredible psychological impact of knowing that you can’t fail, and it’s artificially tapping into your evolutionary instincts. If you perceive that you’re about to get killed, you’re going to work that much harder to stay alive.