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.

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.

26 4 / 2010

Have you ever read an article by someone on the internet who shared awesome advice? And don’t you wish you could have them as your true mentors for your company? I’ve been applying the idea of having “virtual mentors”, where I pick just 3-5 people I respect and follow their supposed advice as religiously as possible. To keep it simple, I find one mantra that gives me context for any advice they would give me in person. 1) Paul Graham: “No distractions.” 2) Dave Mcclure: “Focus on core product, stop adding useless features.” 3) Sean Ellis: “Focus on product/market fit. Until then, nothing else matters.” 4) Eric Ries: “Build minimum viable product for everything.” The key isn’t in figuring out everything they would tell you, but rather in living by your virtual mentors’ rules. And you’ll find that if they were actually your mentors in real life, their advice would revolve around the mantras that you listed. The interesting thing about this is that you might yield up to 50% of a mentor’s value just by asking yourself “what would so-and-so say about this?” For example, some people have been giving me the advice of thinking about marketing and distribution more than I do about product. But if I go through my checklist of virtual mentors, all of them would have something unique to say:

"What should I do about marketing and distribution?"
Paul Graham: It’s a distraction at this point. Focus on building something useful first. Dave Mcclure: AARRR - optimize everything. Fix your landing page. Measure the funnel of conversions. Optimize signup page, make it as few steps possible. Fix core product to increase engagement, build in ways for users to refer their friends. Sean Ellis: You don’t have product market fit yet, and until you do, focus on product. Eric Ries: Resist the urge of launching. You’re locked into positioning, and you can’t launch again. Better to screw it up with early customers. Of course, I don’t know exactly how they’d respond to my question, but simple role-play can go a long way. Consider this an alternative method of getting free world-class mentorship :)

26 3 / 2010

I keep on hearing how great these guys from 37Signals are. They have great advice, it’s so brilliant, and yet it’s obvious sense, and yet people don’t listen to that advice. And then it occurred to me that people want to believe what they want to believe, then seek out advice that confirms their intuition. Then they think “wow, what a great intuition I have!” instead of acting on that advice.

This type of mentality needs to be eliminated as swiftly as possible, and it’s built into all of us from birth. There are two distinguishing factors I see in good entrepreneurs: 1) they actively solicit advice, 2) they immediately act on that advice. Most “entrepreneurs” have this false sense of productivity by doing part 1, yet they don’t follow up with part 2. Why is this?

I’ve had and still have this issue myself. And when I nod my head in approval at a good idea, it’s usually because it’s a good idea. I don’t follow up with part 2 not because I’m lazy, but because I can’t figure out how to get it done in the limited time I have. So then the idea gets tabled, never to return to unless I hear the same advice again. But even when I hear the same advice from a second source for the second time, I’ll probably get stuck in this endless loop of not listening to very good advice.

Here’s my advice: every time you hear good advice, do SOMETHING SMALL that helps you in the direction to achieve that advice. If someone says “start doing test driven development”, you’ll nod your head in approval because it’s a good idea. But then you get back to your desk and have no idea where to begin, the idea gets swept away in the back of your brain, and you’ll continue writing shitty untested code. Herein lies the problem that all of you face, even if you pride yourself on getting stuff done.

In fact, that’s the precise story of what happened last summer. We brought in great summer help from a guy named Sam Liu, and he coded his ass off, but things were breaking. “Jess, Andy, let’s do testing!” Andy and I were so busy were other things that we tabled the idea for a “free weekend” when we had nothing more important to do. But startups being startups, no free weekends exist. And therefore non-urgent tasks don’t get done. Ever.

But I started doing things with a new attitude. We started testing our code incrementally, knowing that it wouldn’t be perfect. We didn’t look into doing things perfectly; instead, we followed the Steve Blank model of doing “the minimum viable product”, yet applying this to everyday things such as following advice. And it works brilliantly because the advice you seek actually has an impact. And most advice never gets that far!

Next time you hear good advice, nod in approval, then write down the LEAST POSSIBLE thing you can get done in order to be making progress in that direction. Then when you get home, allocate an hour or two to get that thing done. This means that half hour meetings with prominent people should actually take up three hours from your day, because you’ll need time to execute on all advice. And if you think that’s too much time to spare, you’re wasting your time by taking the meeting.

The sad thing is that you probably won’t listen to any of this advice.

01 3 / 2010

Edit: (03/26): The event is sold out, and is being shown live via webcast on the website.

The student organization I work with (Computer Science Undergrad Association) is hosting the TEDxBerkeley conferenece on Saturday, April 3rd. I wanted to offer my readers priority to attend.

Essentially, TEDxBerkeley is a full-day immersion of TEDtalks and live presentations by some of the Bay Area’s most accomplished people. After going to my first TED conference, I felt the need to share the experience with my friends and classmates. And then TEDxBerkeley was born.

On the registration page, just mention that you found out via jessicamah.com to get priority. Half of the 700 seats are already gone.

25 1 / 2010

There are dozens of fantastic organizations that do incredible things for education - 826 Valencia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Teach for America, just to name a few. But it feels like everyone is so caught up with bettering the schools in poorer neighbors that little attention is left towards accelerated students. Yet it’s often these accelerated students who will ultimately make the biggest impact on the world. During my time at the early college program I went to, I was surrounded by 400 other students who were equally as passionate as I am. And it was upsetting to see that one of the biggest problems among the student body was simply paying for tuition. Many of my friends took out massive loans to pay off their private school tuition, and many more who were never able to attend the early college program because of its steep costs.

Yes - paying for college tuition is obviously a widespread problem. But when we’re talking about accelerated students who are highly likely to take leading roles in improving science, education, and society in ways we can’t even predict, I think we need to funnel more resources into seeing their dreams take shape. It’s not to say that I don’t care about students who come from poorer backgrounds, because I do. And so does pretty much every non-profit organization that aids education. But when the vast majority of the world’s leading thinkers and doers come from such a narrow margin of people, I think it’s a shame that we’re not providing them with more educational and monetary resources. From the non-profit perspective, these already smart students seemingly need help the least, when in fact they’re in a position that deserves resources the most. During my first week attending Simon’s Rock, the Early College, I sat beside representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They were curious about the mission of the college, but also on why and how the students ended up there. All of my peers and I would tell them a similar message: we went to college early because we felt educationally neglected in high school; not because we were rocket scientists or baby geniuses. Having a “good” educational system doesn’t seem acceptable to me, because it’s settling for mediocrity while not accounting for crucial edge cases. Highly intelligent individuals are being screwed over when placed in decent yet boring academic environment among not-so-motivated peers. It’s an insanely high opportunity cost to leave America’s brightest students behind in standard high schools. And as I mentioned earlier, transferring to a private school is rarely an option for the typical accelerated student. Many of my peers at Simon’s Rock wouldn’t have been able to come if it hadn’t been for scholarships, including my first roommate. That scholarship money is seen as a way to help her fund her education when in reality, it’s an investment in her ability to do amazing things for the world. While we’re yet to see the extent of her contributions to the world, I’m pretty certain that we’ll one day realize how incredibly efficient and effective her scholarship money was spent. The underlying problem, however, is much deeper. “Investing” into the education of accelerated students isn’t particularly complex, but identifying worthy individuals is a non-trivial problem, because they don’t even realize their own potential. There are plenty of smart and accelerated students in high school, but having them realize that there’s an opportunity for more has been a a huge struggle for Simon’s Rock. Truly smart individuals are humble and tend to underrate their own abilities. The parents also underrate their abilities, and I think this is partly because their parental attitude is what led to their child being able to excel in the first place. Many capable students don’t ultimately go into early college because they don’t think they’re smart enough, and those who do often have trouble getting the necessary financial support to go: thus leaving them behind in half-assed “accelerated” high school programs. Pity. I suppose that it makes sense that most educational non-profits are focusing their energy on poor public schools: the problems are clear, many of the solutions are evident, and it’s a cause that’s easy to gather support for. Yet it’s these smart and already accelerated students who are usually creating the solutions to these problems. Treating these accelerated students as “bonus points” in our pursuit to reform education simply doesn’t make sense because they’re the long-term solution to our world’s problems. Hopefully one day, we’ll see more and more early college programs forming that provide their students with theoretically infinite resources and support to help them achieve their goals and dreams.

08 1 / 2010

A few months ago, I wrote an article on how to come up with business ideas. I basically said to look at the world with a critical eye, and to keep track of everything that seems to suck. I still maintain that philosophy, and I recently discovered something about my “passions” in life: Everything I aspire to do is directly related to something that I dislike.

I hate education, and I always have. School has never been a fun place for me. In elementary school, I was bored out of my mind. My 5th grade teacher discouraged me from my entrepreneurial pursuits. High school was more about dealing with girl drama than it was about learning meaningful things. By having spent more than 80% of my life suffering through these traumatic experiences, I’ve become interested in something that I’ve forever dreaded. While I’m yet to do anything super innovative to help the world of education, my past project internshipIN.com was a start in that direction. I realized that most of my learning came from working at a company, and so I spent my limited free time on helping students find real world internships.

More recently, I decided that I hated accounting, I hated finance, and I hated money (although I enjoy the idea of having it). Managing finances is the one thing I despise most in building a company, and nothing stresses me out more than thinking about money. It’s the root of all evil, it causes people to kill, it leads to people going to jail (think Madoff), and yet it’s the biggest driving force behind every person’s life aspirations. So I built a startup, Indinero.com, around the idea of making money suck less for businesses. It’s something I plan on dedicating my career to.

One of my friends in the investment world recently asked me why I’m building Indinero. After all, why would any young college student want to work on a finance startup? I think about my life as doing two primary things: Minimizing my risk, and minimizing my dissatisfaction with the world. This is an odd way to think about things, because most people think about their life in the opposite way. But I’ve come to realize that minus the shitty things that happen in life, I’m an optimally happy person. If I can remove the things that crush my soul, I’d be a happier person, and the world would theoretically be a better place.

What would you rather do: Make the world a better place, or prevent it from sucking as bad as it does? I’d pick the latter, because it embraces the fact that the world is far from its optimal state. As my friend Manu told me, “make sure you’re creating a painkiller instead of a vitamin.” As I write this article, I’m suffering from the worst cold I’ve had in years. I’d pay anything to make this go away, and no cold medication has worked. So thinking about life from my current unhappy perspective, I see the world as a crappy place to live, and I’d be 10X happier if I simply wasn’t unhappy. What a seemingly simple idea!

Because think about it: during the happiest moments of your life, you probably didn’t have anything special or unique that made you happy. But in each and every one of these happiest moments, you lacked the things that would otherwise drive you mad.

This past summer was the happiest time of my life. I lived on ramen (literally), I shared a tiny Berkeley home with my team members at Indinero, and I was at the peak of my happiness despite my having zero material assets and close to zero fulfillment in my career. But I didn’t have the two things that stress me out most: 1) school and 2) money issues. Between being on summer break and having $35k in the bank (and a startup that creates software that helped cure my finance concerns), I couldn’t be happier. Or in more meaningful terms, I couldn’t be happier with my life.

I’m going to suggest the inverse of what Tony Hsieh from Zappos.com preaches. He’s big on figuring out what makes you happy, and it was inspiring for me to see. But being honest with myself, I felt that it wasn’t very satisfying because it just seemed too idealistic for even my liking. If you gave someone a week to think about what makes them happy, they still won’t be able to give you the correct answer. People are generally bad at thinking of what makes them happy, so instead of focusing on happiness, I think it’s much more practical to focus on unhappiness because it’s much easier for us to identify and eliminate.

Identifying sources of unhappiness is the easy part. Eliminating them is the difficult part. but it’s what makes life seem more interesting. I think entrepreneurs are so fascinating because they first eliminate that point of dissatisfaction in their own life, then dedicate their remaining time to helping others eliminate it too. My mom is a prime example: growing up in a poor family, she had no choice but to wear her older brother’s hand-me-downs. There’s nothing more depressing than a teenage girl wearing her older brother’s ugly clothing. So as a 13 year old, my mom designed and sewed her own clothing. Soon later, she started doing this for others. Fast forward a few decades, and it’s the driving force behind her career and the jobs of hundreds of people.

As pessimistic as it sounds, I think that identifying your sources of unhappiness is the most effective and honest way for you to live a better life. (and find ideas for your next company) What do you hate? How can you turn it into helping yourself and ultimately helping others? And that’s the key to happiness.

04 12 / 2009

"There’s incredible anguish felt when you think you’re at the pinnacle of your success. But if you never expected or saw or wanted that success, the anguish may go away. Appreciate those amazing moments in life. Cherish the journey you took to get where you are. Remember your dreams from when you were young and unexposed. Then you’ll have a re-inspired sense of how amazing and successful you are." - writings from my notebook during the TED conference in Long Beach. 02/05/2009.

Too many people have their happiness set on the future and on achieving an end goal, but life is all about enjoying the journey. So enjoy every moment while you can.

16 11 / 2009

Disclaimer: I’ve never raised VC money before. Back when I was just playing around with the idea for my startup, I decided to put together a quick executive summary and apply to the UC Berkeley Business Plan competition. And we got rejected from round one not only because our ideas were terrible, but one of the judges commented “you’re only looking to raise 30k?” Yes. Only $30k. I actually felt a little insulted that the tiny amount we wanted was a critique of my executive summary. For the stage we were at (two weekends before my co-founder Andy and I built a prototype), $30k was far more than we needed to get something running. Fast forward two months, and we won a $35k grant after building a prototype for $0. Who needs to enter a business plan competition anyway! (I now advise the business plan competition) Throughout the summer, we were burning through cash. Not going to college meant paying for our food and rent, so the $35k grant wouldn’t last long. We started talking to angel investors, and ultimately met this guy named Steve Blank. He’s best known for his writings on customer development, and wrote “The Four Steps to the Epiphany" - a book that I’d recommend to anyone and everyone who aspires to create a meaningful business. I told him about the problem we had raising money while still in school, and without that mystical hockey stick curve. He basically told me to not to raise money until I saw a hockey stick curve. "… but Steve, if we had a hockey stick curve, we probably wouldn’t have trouble raising money!" And that was the key lesson: To be in a position where we would never have to raise money. He essentially told us what every angel investor who said "no" told us: go back to the drawing board, get more traction. But instead of just saying that we should do all of the above, he told me why: If we were to raise money now, we’d burn through it no matter what. The important thing is to spend that money wisely, and without a scalable sales model, we’d be spending money on the wrong things. We’d be scaling an ineffective sales and marketing strategy, we’d be prematurely growing out the engineering team, and we’d basically be burning through money as ineffectively as Paris Hilton. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but after thinking about it more, I realized that he was right. Just this week, I was talking to some well-known venture capitalists about my company, told them about the idea, talked about the market, and one of the first questions they asked was "do you have a website yet?" Well… not only do we have a website up, but we have a product AND paying customers! And they were stunned because the majority of entrepreneurs who pitch them have nothing to show for but a nice powerpoint presentation. Not to mention, these "entrepreneurs" actually work full-time on their companies unlike Andy and I. And this got me thinking even more about the state of VC… people look at investment money as a means to an end, whereas people like Steve Blank see it as an accelerator for growing something that already functions. Remember back in your college days, when you flunked a test and thought "that test was stupid! I studied so hard, but I studied the wrong things!" Well, same thing applies to raising VC money too soon. You don’t have the kinks to your product settled, you don’t understand your market well enough to be marketing to them efficiently enough, and raising money buys you the time you want to scale an ineffective operation. So why bother? Now the worst situation would be if you’re a "hot" startup that’s raised a few million dollars, you have no revenue, no hockey stick curve, and you’re trying to raise more money now that your first round is almost dried up. Not even Steve Blank could tell you to give your first VCs their money back and to get things right, because it’s too late. You just wasted $X million dollars building a scrappy product, you don’t have any revenue, so you’re practically at the mercy of your next VCs. Crappier valuation, more dilution for the team. Last time I checked, the vast majority of web startups do this. So this is the second thing I’ve learned from my summer of entrepreneurship: plan that every round of financing is your last. With only $50k from grants, we’ll be fine. This means 100% ramen profitable for a 5 person team, and we’ll never have to raise VC money if we don’t want to, or if VCs don’t like us. And this is psychologically very good for us, because we know we won’t be any rush to appease the VC world, and because we can focus all of our time on the product. There’s nothing worse than spending time to raise money, because it effectively shuts down your company for the weeks (or months) that you go through the process. So I figured, if we’re ramen profitable, wouldn’t any smart investor want to come to us? And instead of it taking a few months to pitch a whole string of investors, we could focus on building a great business over the course of our senior year in college, then upon graduation it shouldn’t be too difficult to raise money. Yet again, we won’t need VC money since we’re already profitable… see how powerful this mental exercise is? Being still a senior in college, I might just be overly idealistic. Everything I write is how I think the world should work rather than how things actually function. But I think there’s a lot to be said about Paul Graham’s view of college-aged entrepreneurs:

"Someone ignorant but smart will come along and reinvent everything, and in the process simply fail to reproduce certain existing ideas"
My translation of this is to trust your ignorant instincts, and do what seems to be ideal because many people don’t understand why they do things in the way that they do. This directly relates to the argument of why it’s not good to copy the work of others: because you don’t understand how and why people did things in the way they did. How do you know that they aren’t copying the work of someone else too? By looking at things from a fresh and original perspective, you have a complete grasp over your decision making power, and you significantly decrease your risk of making stupid and uninformed decisions. I think of raising money in the same way that I think about getting married. It’s something I naturally feel inclined to do (since it’s something everyone seems to be doing these days), but I want to be honest with myself: why in the world would I want to get raise money (or get married) other than to be part of the norm? At the time of my writing this, I don’t have very good answers to either questions. My business isn’t operating at the level of efficiency needed to make good use of VC money, and I’m in no mood to give up my career for bearing children. Until I can directly and honestly answer the questions to my own life pursuits, I won’t be raising money or getting married. But who knows, my views are likely to change over the next few months. :)

11 11 / 2009

I’ve found this to be true across every type of relationship: friends, family, colleagues, classmates, and of course, significant others. My parents complain to me that my brother doesn’t call them as frequently as I do… and they complain not just because my brother doesn’t call them, but because their expectations of communicating with my brother are simply different from theirs. Or how about that school project where all 5 of your team members seem to suck? One of my classmates was complaining that all of the nerds in his computer science class weren’t putting in any work, but it’s not a problem of work ethic so much as its a problem of not setting proper expectations from day one. When I was recruiting our lead product person to join Indinero, he had already prepared himself to tell me he wasn’t interested. His reasoning had nothing to do with the idea, the team, or anything related to the business. He was just scared that our expectations of him would far exceed what he was capable of, when we were actually on the same page all along. Since then, he’s been tremendously helpful to the company.

How often do you hear of personal relationships not working out? In almost every case of a breakup, it’s that the expectations were off. The guy wanted a casual relationship, the girl wanted more. It’s very instinctual, but most people just don’t communicate these things. So when the guy starts talking about what he wants in his next girlfriend, the girl’s shocked to find out that he hadn’t even considered her for marriage. What a disaster… Not only should expectations be set, but they should be higher than what you’re personally expecting. It’s like financial planning - you have your “ideal scenario”, but in the back of your mind, you know you’ll never hit those benchmarks.

Set high expectations, expect low results. Then you’ll never be disappointed again!