Summer Entrepreneurial Experiences

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The Final Week

Sunday, August 7, 2016 9:10 pm

This week was the final week of my internship in Silicon Valley. The best part was that the company flew me down to LA to visit the new headquarters – a 4,000 square foot mansion in the middle of Venice, CA. This place was magnificent and right in the heart of the famous Venice Beach area. We were across the street from the famous Muscle Beach.

Venice, CA is a trendy neighborhood on the west side of LA on the beaches. It has the designers, models, and new tech companies moving in and restoring ugly houses into multi-million dollar properties. Snapchat, Google, and BuzzFeed are three of the many tech companies that have set up large offices in this small residential neighborhood. The Silicon Valley companies want to start moving here because it is a well-liked neighborhood with cheaper rent than San Francisco. In addition, they can start to tap into the talent pool and industries of LA. A lot of digital media companies have chosen to move to Venice because it allows them to work closer with the entertainment industry giants in LA.

The work/life balance in LA seems to be a little different than that of San Francisco. Residents of LA seem to enjoy being outside a lot more and enjoy the beach lifestyle that Venice and Santa Monica have to offer. The LA neighborhoods offer a variety of excellent restaurants, boutique stores, and fun things to do.

What is difficult about being in LA as a tech company is that the talent pool is much smaller than that of San Francisco. With fewer engineers, it is difficult to recruit top-level talent to build products that can rival those in Silicon Valley. However, each year it seems that more engineers are moving to Venice to take advantage of the lower rent and high salary offerings that Venice-based companies are promising.

The question remains: should Silicon Valley move to LA where there’s more room and more industries to integrate with?

Bootstrapping.

Friday, July 29, 2016 6:40 pm

As a startup, we only have so much cash to work with. Therefore we have to be super frugal and conscious of where we are spending our money. Part of the reason why the company is moving to Los Angeles is because they know that they can find software engineers for cheaper. We work out of shared office spaces and houses because those are much cheaper alternatives to the private office spaces that larger companies have. It is interesting to observe the decisions we make because we are strapped for cash.

When we pick our tools, we often go for the free versions of whatever is out there. Thankfully, since open source software is popular these days, it is not hard to find free software tools to help you run a business.

In addition, the company heavily relies on free intern labor (like myself) to get the hard work done. We have four other MBA interns working the business development team and I myself am working as a full-fledged software engineer to help build the launch product. Without the free intern labor, it would be hard to see how the three full-time founders could get by with the workload and deadlines we have.

In the startup world, all of these frugal measures are called “bootstrapping”, where a company looks to reduce costs in all areas of business. We only spend our limited cash resources when it is absolutely necessary to do so. When we can, we cut corners or find ways to get it done for free. That is part of the fun of being in the startup – trying to achieve big visions with the strongest constraints and limitations imposed on you.

Working Remotely

Friday, July 22, 2016 7:55 pm

Because the majority of the company has moved to the new offices, I am now technically a remote worker in what used to be our headquarters. It is a completely new vibe in many interesting ways. When I show up for work, it is now just another intern and myself. We constantly video chat with the others throughout the day to stay in sync with what they are working on.

It is these days that I am learning what it really means to be a remote worker. Communication channels are a lot choppier and there are times when the whole team can feel a bit out of sync. Despite these difficulties in communication, it is amazing how much technology has brought about the presence of remote workers.

We currently have a couple of other employees working remotely from Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, and even Ukraine. They all bring a diverse array of perspectives to the problems we are tackling everyday as we move to build our launch product.

Almost every morning I get up to chat at 8am with the designer in Ukraine and the product manager in Los Angeles. We sync up with our daily tasks and prepare for the day of work. When we sign off, the Ukrainian designer heads to bed. The time difference is so drastic that we notice that it can hurt our productivity levels. Sometimes I need design help, but then I realize that the designer is off to bed at the moment, so I have to wait till the next day. It can delay a lot of what I am currently working on, and this is one of the major downsides of remote workers.

In all, there are mixed reviews about how successful remote workers can be when working for a company in a completely different part of the world. Some like it because the labor is cheaper, but others feel that the disconnect in communication and time zones is far more destructive than the benefits of cheaper labor.

Frictionless Design

Friday, July 15, 2016 5:27 pm

At this phase of our company development, we are working on our MVP product to be launched soon. A lot of this work consists of designing for our potential users, which means we are unsure of the demographic of our user base. We can try to predict this demographic, but we cannot control it.

As a result, we are designing our product to work with a variety of demographics and be able to appeal to a large audience. Like many new hot startups, we keep our designs simple, minimalistic, and easy to follow. That way the user on-boarding process is smooth and frictionless.

Creating a frictionless experience is essential to growing the company as you want to make it easy for the user to feel welcomed on this digital platform. If you look at many of the popular startup products today, all of them are designed to make the user have a pleasant experience. Rarely do users feel frustrated or confused when they signup as a user at Twitter, Facebook, or Uber. The designers at those companies spent hours perfecting that process for users so that the company could appeal to thousands of new users.

The topic of design in Silicon Valley is an interesting one because it is one of the most difficult things to perfect. There are many designers working in the city, but there are only so many who are actually good at it. It takes incredible talent and skill to perfect the art of digital design, and many companies spend top dollar to attract the talent.

Most of the best designers come from a formal design background and attended schools to specialize in it. It is not uncommon to find designers who attended Parsons, RISD, or Waterloo. All of them are trained and skilled in the design of experiences and digital interfaces.

As the competition increases in the Valley, so does the standard for good design. Designers know this, and they work hard to stay on top of the game.

We’re Moving?

Friday, July 8, 2016 5:48 pm

In a surprising turn of events, the leadership team of the company has announced that we are moving headquarters from San Francisco to Los Angeles. There were many factors that led to the decision to move. Making a move is a big change in a startup as it influences the culture and employees that the startup hires.

San Francisco is a great place to launch a startup because there are plenty of engineers who are willing to join the next hot thing. Each of these engineers are well versed in their programming skills and can help a company grow rapidly very quickly. They are also comfortable in the startup environment since almost everyone here has worked in a startup at one point.

The downside to starting a company in San Francisco is that the engineers are not cheap. Because they are very talented, these software engineers know their value and therefore they expect salaries that are very high. This is the reason why some startups choose to move out of San Francisco into other cities, where engineers are cheaper.

One thing to note is that although an engineer is cheaper, he may not be able to output the same amount of work that a highly paid, highly skilled engineer can pull off. Therefore, ultimately it may be cheaper to hire one really good engineer rather than three decent engineers, since they could output the same amount of work. These are difficult decisions that management teams have to make in regards to paying for good engineering talent in the tech world.

What is fascinating is that there is an extremely high level of demand for good engineers, but only 4.9% of college graduates are engineering majors each year. They account for 60% of the United States GDP, which is fascinating considering that 95% of college graduates only account for 40% of the nation’s GDP. In Silicon Valley, software engineers have some of the highest salaries in their companies due to the value that they provide to the company. They are also the highest grade of engineers you can find in the world for developing software.

New Offices, New Faces.

Friday, July 1, 2016 5:26 pm

New Office, New Morale.

It’s fascinating what a new office space can do to change a company’s morale. We recently moved from one shared office space to another, but the difference between these two spaces were huge. Our new office offers a whole new set of perks and a different culture to our company.

We no longer have to grumble about the WiFi speeds or worry about the amount of coffee left in the kitchen. It feels that we have grown up a little and are moving up the ladder in terms of company maturity. There are plenty of other startups around us that are doing similar ventures, and it is reassuring to be in proximity to them.

We are surrounded by other small companies, all of whom are hard at work to make it to the next level. Many of these startups came from a well-known incubator called 500 Startups. For those who don’t know, incubators like 500 Startups and Y Combinator are one powerful way to start a new company. Every few months, these incubators accept applications for new business ideas and help those businesses get started by providing them with cash, offices, and mentors. Companies work in these incubators for a few months before breaking out to grow bigger. What really makes these incubators powerful is the network that they provide to entrepreneurs. Some incubators like Y Combinator have exported well-know companies such as AirBnb, Dropbox, and Reddit. These companies become part of the incubator’s alumni network that other startups can tap into for help and advice.

Incubators really started out to support new app and website ideas. However, as time moved on, they shifted into other businesses like enterprise software and healthcare startups. Today they pretty much support any idea that they feel will become successful one day and help change our everyday lives.

The way these incubators are able to afford these investments and support for startups is by taking a small ownership in each company that they invest in. By doing so, they can reap the benefits if the company every becomes extremely successful, much like AirBnb and Dropbox. Of course, there are hundreds of startups from these incubators that fail every year. Such is the nature of the startup world.

Setting Deadlines. Adding Constraints. Learning the new things.

Friday, June 24, 2016 5:18 pm

This week our team decided to do something different about our approach to tasks. We set a hard deadline to launch something soon. By doing so, there is something that we can work towards as well as something to motivate us.

When working in a startup, there is a lot of self-motivation that is needed on a day-to-day basis. One proven way to motivate a team is to set a deadline that everyone hustles to meet. We would like to launch a product soon, so we went ahead and set the deadline. This is a relatively short and quick deadline that will lead us to rush to push something out.

Another interesting thing that we have done recently is impose constraints. We understand that humans are most creative in solving problems when operating under the most difficult constraints. It is there where we can really attack the problem head on rather than working on the trivial stuff.

Lastly, to stay relevant in Silicon Valley, the whole team must be good with learning new things on the fly. We are improving our technical expertise to be able to push out better and more advanced products. Learning is a huge part of the startup game.

One of the more difficult things to learn is user behavior. We could spend weeks creating a product that we think the user is going to love, only to realize that we completely missed the target. It is important to continuously consult the user with your product and understand their input on it, as they are ultimately the ones that will be advocating for your good or service.

In the end, what really gets you through the startup life is perseverance and curiosity.

Hi There.

Friday, June 17, 2016 6:00 pm

Hi there.

Let me show you what the futuristic wild west of Silicon Valley feels like. A land where everyone has an app idea, an engineering degree, and a relentless drive to become the next $1 billion business called a “unicorn”. A “unicorn” might seem like a funny term to describe a widely successful business idea, but everyone in Silicon Valley is okay with it.

This summer, I am what they call a “Software Engineer” intern, but I really do everything that is thrown my way and fix everything that is broken. I work at a five person startup in a shared office space where dozens of other startups and techies are crunching out their products.

Within our company space, which consists of a 4 foot by 2 foot table and 5 chairs, we are working hard to define our new product and build a minimum viable product. What is difficult is that we are sitting at the starting line and we see ten or more different directions that we can run in, but only one or two may actually be successful. And we have to guess that path using the limited data and insight we have.

I have been through this experience before a few times. Last summer, I was also a “Software Engineer” intern at another young company called Handshake. We lived and worked out of a house in Palo Alto right next to Stanford University. It could not have been a more stereotypical entrepreneurial experience.

The company I am at this summer is called “Purple Squirrel”. Though it may sound comical at first, the term “purple squirrel” comes out of the same Silicon Valley dictionary as “unicorn”. It essentially refers to a job candidate that perfect fits all the job requirements and expectations that a recruiter is looking for. That is essentially what we are looking to do in our new web application. Help recruiters find their “purple squirrels” and help job candidates work at places where they actually want to work. It sounds general and broad, and one may ask how this “purple squirrel” company could become a “unicorn” someday. Those are valid questions which we are answering this summer.

Stay tuned to learn more about the wild risks we take, ideas we chase, and customers we meet.

The Startup Lifestyle

Sunday, July 26, 2015 9:35 pm

Over the course of my summer as an intern at a tech startup in Palo Alto, I have been exposed to many truths about being an entrepreneur. The movies and TV shows about Silicon Valley all show the fun of working in a tech startup, but they fail to display the hours and long nights of programming that it requires to get the product out. If the movie “The Social Network” was really accurate, it would just be a two and a half hour movie of Mark Zuckerberg coding alone in his dorm room.

That being said, there is a lot that is special about the startup life. You learn much more in three months of being in a startup than you do in three years in a corporate environment. The reason is because you are wearing many different hats and have to constantly jump between projects. In addition, your projects are critical to the success of the company, so there is a lot of weight on the importance of your work.

Being successful in the startup environment requires you to be extremely self motivated, a learner, and a scrappy worker. Nothing will be perfect and you have to learn to roll with that.

Learning about these truths has led me to love the startup environment. I love the “let’s just build it” attitude and working on a variety of quick projects. In addition, I love learning new things everyday about programming and product management. It is a very different skill set than what you learn in school. You have to love building things and building them quickly. You have to love working on your projects during the weekends. It is a lifestyle that only so many people love being in.

Adopting New Ways

Sunday, July 19, 2015 4:10 pm

One of the hardest things for startups to do is to convince people to try something new and different. Consumers become close to the familiar and the routine, and rarely like to drop that for something new. Handshake has continuously had to deal with this as it signs up new universities and students. The initial shock that everyone experiences is overwhelming, and our job is to make them feel comfortable. We listen to our users and figure out ways to solve their needs.

We have approached this challenge by doing something called the California Roll Rule. This rule is that “people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently”. When the Japanese immigrants originally tried to sell original Japanese sushi in the United States, no one bought it. The ingredients were too foreign and the food looked weird with the seaweed. However, once they introduced the California Roll, a sushi that has ingredients that everyone was familiar with, sushi became one of the hottest food categories. Today Japanese sushi restaurants offer a variety of interesting sushi dishes that consumers are willing to try thanks to the creation of the California Roll.

We adopt the California Roll Rule by making our service similar to other popular websites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. By doing that, students will not feel overwhelmed by a new website, and will grab onto something that looks familiar to them. Our interface is easy to use for students, and we feel that this is the best way to bring a strong user experience. With a good user experience, students will continue to use our website for their job searches.

Handshake has two key competitors: CSO and Symplicity. These two companies have been in the career services technology industry for a long time, and they have worked with thousands of universities. However, Handshake has been able to rapidly iterate through its product development and exceed the standards set by CSO and Symplicity. In addition, Handshake does an excellent job of listening to everyone’s feedback on their product. We listen to our customers everyday and try to find any friction that they may have in their user experience. Once we identify a feature that is causing friction, we work to improve it and quickly push out a fix.

Handshake has to continuously improve its product like other top web platforms. By doing so, users do not field alienated in their experience on the platform.

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