As the group entered the Greylock Partners’ building, many of my fellow
Tigertrekkers, as well as myself, were taken back by the beautiful interior
that was sprinkled with Halloween festivities. Once the trekkers were
comfortably seated, Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock, welcomed us and
the discussion fired off. I personally found it fascinated by the
organization of all the partners. Greylock splits its partners by whether a
company serves in the consumer or enterprise space. Asheem was one of those
partners who was more focused with the enterprise software sector. But one
thing that stood out for me is that Asheem explained that partners at VC
firm really have the best interest in mind for all their portfolio
companies as well as potential companies. He told us a small story of his
willingness to meet new potential companies on weekends even when he
himself was very sick. These extreme measures defined what type of partner
Asheem is. I guess I entered California with a very unfair misconception of
VC partners but hearing the stories by Asheem made me quickly realize that
these views were skewed. Of course not all VC partners are like Asheem
Chandna but without a doubt many excellent partners exist.
Even though every company we have visited has been amazing, one company
that is really unique for several reasons was Ariosa Diagnostics. It was
the only biotech company on the trip and also had a founder who was a
venture capitalist before becoming a CEO rather than the other order which
was more typical. Unlike some of the internet tech companies with college
dropouts calling the shots, almost everyone at Ariosa has their MD or PHD
Ariosa is a company which is trying to take the promise of the human genome
project out of the laboratories of academia and into people’s every day
lives using the start up as the vehicle. Their first product is called the
Harmony Prenatal test and it is a safer and more accurate test than the
standard amniocentesis for telling expectant mothers about possible genetic
trisomies. Ariosa runs the test from their location in San Jose and has
recently expanded to make the test available not only in the US but also in
Ken Song was nice enough to give us a tour of the facilities and answer our
questions about the company and how he came to be CEO. Because the medical
market involves so much testing and regulation, a quick cycle of iteration
might be 9 months rather 1 week at a software company. Also, there are
four main players that Ariosa must make happy to succeed. Rather than just
the customers, who are the first priority, Ariosa must also convince the
doctors to prescribe the test, the insurance companies to support the test,
and the regulation boards to approve of the safety. However, Ariosa really
tries to put the customers first, in both the low price of the test and the
type of feedback they give to sell peace of mind, and in this sense of
focus on the customer, they are like many of the other startups we saw.
Ken told us about how very important it is to choose really smart people
who you can rely on no matter how things are going. He had found the team
of scientists who developed a new method of testing while he was a VC at
Venrock and joined them to make it a real company back in 2010. Only a few
months in, they raised more capitol and realized that the method they were
planning to use wouldn’t actually work. Over the course of a few stressful
hours and practically in front of the other investing parties they were
able to figure out the method which is successfully used today. Ken says
that every startup will hit bumps like this that will really test the team,
so it is crucial to have not only smart people but people who you can trust
and work with when the times aren’t good.
One of the things we were curious about going in was how the culture would
be impacted by the much slower moving industry and the much higher levels
of education required to make a difference. While there was a subtly
higher level of professionalism and perhaps a few more ties worn to work
than hoodies, the Halloween decorations in all the cubicles and the
foosball table in the break room convinced us that they were a real
startup after all.
Our first full day here in the Valley was absolutely packed with visits to Nest, Khan Academy, Piazza, and Shasta Ventures.
In the evening we attended a Startup/Y Combinator Mixer hosted at Microsoft HQ where we heard from two Microsoft employees - Matt Thompson and Dan’l Lewin (Princeton Alumnus).
The following panel also presented and answered our questions:
Hai Nguyen spoke about his experience starting Appfluence while studying at Stanford, consulting for Ebay, and managing other part-time commitments. He explained that Appfluence was a bootstrapped startup (it didn’t raise venture capital) and became profitable with over 50,000 paying customers today.
Lee Linden (Facebook Commerce) spoke about his experience as part of one of the early Y Combinator groups and how he went on to found Tapjoy and Karma — the latter of which was acquired by Facebook around six months ago.
Steven Yarger talked about working as a mobile product manager at Trulia. He discussed the role of mobile in a more ‘traditional’ vertical like real estate.
Ray Bradford (KPCB) shared insights he learned while working for Amazon in cloud computing (Amazon S3). He also explained a few of the key factors he looks at when evaluating potential investment opportunities at KPCB including technical, market, and team risk.
After the panel presented, our questions prompted further discussion on a variety of interesting topics.
We discussed the value of an MBA, the central role of engineers in today’s startups, and the debatable claim that creating a billion dollar company (in yearly revenue) is near impossible on existing platforms such as the App Store. Further questions prompted discussion on the contrasting “lean startup and minimum viable product” approach vs. extended product cycles and development typical of hardware companies such as Apple. We noted that there is certainly a difference between hardware and software companies and no one size fits all approach to iteration and prototyping. We also discussed Peter Thiel’s assertion that there is a shortage of real deep innovation present in the country, with people instead adding incremental features on existing platforms.
For the last few days, I’ve been back in the San Francisco Bay Area with fellow students from Princeton’s TigerTrek group. It’s been like attending college in the Bay, but with four years of activities packed into one week.
We sat face-to-face with investors from Sequoia and engineering leaders from Andreessen Horowitz, and saw early-stage startups like MemSQL and Nest taking off. We talked about education with Sal Khan (Khan Academy) and product with Sam Lessin (Facebook), discussed business and history with PayPal mafia like Keith Rabois (COO, Square) and David Sacks (CEO, Yammer), and even received a surprise visit from Jack Dorsey in his Halloween costume.
The visit comes at a good time, as Princeton is just beginning to discover its entrepreneurial identity. We have just a few well-known hackers on campus, and little representation in outside startup hubs and forums. With insights gleaned from thought leaders in the Valley, it’s likely that Trekkers and their friends will become the first Princetonians to be influential representatives of their school.
Princeton has always been a liberal arts school with incredible engineering. We have the potential to balance West Coast engineering ability with East Coast humanistic perspective, and programs like TigerTrek create relationships and insights that make this actually happen. It really is the best of both worlds.
A lot of people see Venture Capital as the last job someone would pursue. People who make a difference do things differently. Keith Rabois went from being a successful investor to COO of Square. We were fortunate enough to get the opportunity to interact with him today and discuss his journey from being an entrepreneur to an investor and back to square 1 with Square.
Among the many important lessons he shared with us was that to make a company successful, you really need to surround yourself with the right people. People who are passionate about the project and people who will stand the test of time and go through ups and downs with the same passion. There are very few opportunities one gets to work with world class people on world class projects, which is why Keith joined Jack Dorsey.
The highlight of the day was definitely when Jack walked into the room. Undoubtedly one of the smartest people I’ve met, Jack shared some great insights with us. Drawing inspiration from things around us can play a great role when designing a product or developing a project. The art of making things simple yet beautiful is the key to building a great product.
Every company has a founder who comes up with the initial idea for a company. What blew my mind was Jack’s idea of there being multiple founding moments in a company. You may not be a founder by title, but surely can be because of the impact your contributions make. This was something many of us had heard for the first time.
Thus, as long as you are surrounded by smart and like-minded people and making a significant contribution, your experience will be fulfilling.
5 Decently Reasonable Things to Believe About Entrepreneurship (in 2012)
When I first set out for this year’s TigerTrek, I had quite a few
opinions on what made great entrepreneurship. Not anymore—which is to say,
all I’ve learned here has really thrown my beliefs into a flux. However,
despite the fact that extremely successful entrepreneurs take vastly
different stances on the best ways to grow a business, they seem all to
agree on at least a few things. Here is a list of what I have observed to
be 5 constants. Please discuss, add to the list, subtract, etc:
5 Decently Reasonable Things to Believe About Entrepreneurship (in 2012):
1. Be technical.
At least at some level.
2. Work with people you admire.
It’s one way to guarantee you’ll get something out of your work.
3. (Investment) money is easy to find.
I wouldn’t think this, but I have yet to hear someone who disagrees. Who
knew? And how long will this last, anyway?
4. Business school is a waste of time.
Seems to be the popular opinion.
5. It all depends on the circumstance.
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” -Mark Twain
One Kings Lane may be my mom’s favorite destination for pillow cases and lamp shades—but its also a killer business any aspiring entrepreneur can admire. After meeting founder Ali Pincus and CEO Doug Mack this morning, I turned a page in my thoughts on the home shopping website. This startup is not all fluff and bright colors—but in fact has quite a lot of substance. The secret to success, Ali said, is creating an experience, not just a flash sale. Doug shed light on how to keep a growing company from feeling corporate—trust your hires and avoid making formal procedures. Let things get done quick. With growing sales figures each day (and an eye for new visitors to the site), it’s clear OKL’s execs know what they’re doing. Attention to detail and good management are kings of this lane. There’s so much more than meets the eye.
This morning, we heard from Doug Mack, the CEO of One Kings Lane. Doug was very well spoken and offered a valuable perspective given that he was hired as a CEO and wasn’t involved in the founding of One Kings Lane. Doug talked about the problems that startup founders face (more tension) and how CEOs brought in from outside often have a cleaner path to decision making. Doug also listed some of the key characteristics that have helped him succeed— know where your blind spots are and have your strongest people in those areas; show appreciation and interest for every inch of the company; give input and ask questions but not specific direction (because you don’t want people to stop doing good things). It was fascinating to hear from someone like Doug who was able to offer so much insight into valuable leadership qualities. Though Doug didn’t come into One Kings Lane with a bunch of home decor experience, he is really good at building strong teams and making decisions.
Nearly every founder we’ve talked to has addressed the question of what size company will provide the ideal work experience for new grads. The consensus so far has been that big, well established companies generally don’t provide the ideal work environment — many are too set in their ways, and have allowed too much bureaucracy to develop. Developers have less of a chance of creating code with an impact.
Small and medium sized companies were equally favored, with an important caveat. For smaller companies, a belief in the product and the leaders was more important to consider. For medium companies, the technology and the potential skills that can be learned can play a larger role
In all cases , one thing was clear. Wherever you work, the people who will surround you should be the most important consideration.
The CEO of memSQL explained that companies that solve these problems place themselves ahead of their competitors. A fitting explanation for a company designing the fastest database in the world. Without a doubt, I could feel the intelligent and motivated aura that surrounded the memSQL team. For some reason, this aura convinced me that this is indeed a team capable of solving such a challenge. I personally found it energizing to see these individuals. To leave a comfortable job to pursue a passion is something I respect. I hope for the best for this team and look forward to their future.
A high point of today was discussing over dinner the relative benefits of two approaches to modeling intelligent behavior. As Peter Thiel explains in one of his Stanford lectures, artificial intelligence (AI) consists of attempts to model human intelligence with programs, as opposed to intelligence augmentation (IA), which involves creating human-algorithmic systems that behave more intelligently than the parts (Paypal’s fraud detection and Palantir follow this model.
Over dinner, students from different backgrounds discussed the issue and compared various startups in the space, from machine learning at Hunch to the collaborative model of Wikipedia, to cutting edge attempts to harness human pattern recognition in improving OCR, translation, and protein folding.
Paraphrased perspective on startups from David Sacks of Yammer:
"Starting a company takes years of your life. So look for four things. Look for product hook; Tackle a problem that adds value to an industry; distribution model-make sure you understand how to distribute your product; defensibilitiy-there’s lots of free software out there to build products; make sure your company can be distributed."
Last TigerTrek, we met exactly zero enterprise companies. This year, we met with Memsql, Cumulus, Platfora, Box, and Yammer, as well as Asheem at Greylock.
We have heard in other treks that enterprise is not a very fun place to spend your career. This time, we got a different side of the story.
They throw around revenues in the hundreds of millions like its no big deal, which is pretty cool. Acquisition for consumer companies usually means you wont ever hear from them again. David Sacks explained how acquisition can really take an enterprise startup to the next level. Asheem told us that guys in enterprise are motivated to solve really challenging technical problems.
Doesn’t sound like such a bad deal at all. Good thing recruiters from Greylock and Andreessen-Horowitz (as well as the very friendly John of Platfora) have offered to help find opportunities in the space.
That concludes day one of the TigerTrek. I flew out of Princeton yesterday with a group of 20 to spend the week visiting technology companies, startups and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. We’re going company to company hearing founder’s stories, discussing entrepreneurship, and as we do this I am forced to introspect. What do I want to do with my life? How can I make a difference?
My passion is education. I was fortunate enough to have some amazing mentors growing up, and to learn in a lot of diverse ways most people never have a chance to experience. I tried out gifted programs, nerd camps, one-on-one classes, online self paced learning, the works. I got involved in math circles, I took summer classes, I really was blessed to have every educational opportunity one could hope for. This, and the diversity of amazing teachers I’ve had has gotten me thinking about how people learn best, and how I learn best. Complementing this interest well, I’ve found I really love teaching- particularly math and computer science to younger students. It’s always a joy helping someone to tackle the Bessie the Cow problem or the game of Nim for the very first time.
Today a lot of young companies bring together my interests of education, computer science and technology. Websites like Coursera, edX, and Udacity virtualize the university experience, and Khan Academy joins them in making quality education accessible everywhere. Startups like Lore and Piazza foster discussions around classes, allowing the learning experience to extend more seamlessly beyond the walls of the classroom.
Today we trekked over to the new office of Khan Academy where our group got to sit down and discuss education with Sal Khan, and then we were off to Piazza’s office where we did Q+A with the question-answer site’s founder, Pooja Sankar.
Sal Khan is a really inspirational person. His collection of tutorials - which now spans a wide range of topics including mathematics and organic chemistry and art history - It all began with Sal tutoring his cousins over the phone back in 2004. Hearing him tell his founding story - how he went from tutoring one cousin, to many, to posting videos on YouTube and being well received all over the world. how he came to tutor the Gates children through his videos, and how after discussions with venture capitalists in the valley Sal made the choice to incorporate Khan Academy as a non-profit - Hearing this story from Sal Khan really drove home how empowering technology is and how tech is shaping the future of education. One smart man with a gift for explaining things clearly now teaches millions of students, an unprecedented feat since most lecture halls barely seat one hundred.
With the resources Khan Academy is producing, the purpose of the classroom is shifting. Lecture time in classes is becoming less and less valuable, and some classes have adopted a flipped classroom model. Students watch the Khan Academy videos at home, and then come to class with an understanding of the material. Students then use the class time to try out problems that would previously have been homework, now in a setting where they can get immediate help from their peers and their teacher. The flipped classroom model has been highly successful so far. One of Khan Academy’s ambitions is to, when someone comes to the site to learn about multiplication, be able to first offer an education on addition or any other prerequisites of the subject. Or after learning about one topic, they’d love to provide an education on the next logical thing to study. They’ve done a fine job of this with their knowledge map of mathematics. Each skill from 1-digit addition to calculus and linear algebra is connected with its prerequisites. Where this problem gets interesting, and where I’m excited to see what Khan Academy does in this space, is with more specialized subject matter. It will be interesting to see how this can be presented when the relationships between material stops being [understanding X is required to know Y] and starts being [X is related to Y] or [X is a good tutorial to follow for people who struggled with Y].
The data that Khan Academy is receiving about its millions of users puts the organization in a fantastic place for improving education. By the sheer number of users, there will always be groups of students studying the same material. In order to achieve this with a traditional education, students were forced to learn at the same rate as their twenty classmates. The class would drag slower students forward, and hold the brightest back. With Khan Academy students can devour mathematics at whatever rate they please, and there will still be folks online learning the same things as them. Self paced learning isn’t new. John Hopkin’s has offered it through their CTY programs for a long time, and MIT’s OpenCourseWare has provided content for free for years, but the content has never been open, free, and as community based as it can be today. Khan academy could bring these students, all learning the same material at the same time, together, perhaps even offline. Study groups like this are popping up all over the world out of Coursera classes. People meet up to watch the lectures together or help each other through homework problems. That’s a fantastic way to learn.
There’s so much to be gained from this sort of interaction. And there’s so much to be learned from a group of students working on mathematics together, even when they’re all at different skill levels. Traditional classrooms cluster students by grade; they’re all learning the same content at the same time, and they have been their whole lives following the same sequence through mathematics as each other. With students learning at their own pace on Khan Academy, it will be great to see a classroom with a wide spectrum of mathematical ability. The sort of learning that takes place when a fast-paced student, studying algebra ahead of his class, works with a peer struggling to master long division is rare and really valuable. This is the type of interaction I expect will arise naturally out of making K-12 mathematics a self paced endeavor while maintaining the traditional 5 days a week classroom setting.
One other amazing thing that Khan Academy, Coursera, and these other online education websites will be doing is individualizing the teaching experience. I already mentioned how Khan Academy could recommend different tutorials based on your performance or ability or interests. The individualization that can be done can also take place at a finer level. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller came to Princeton to speak recently and she explained some of the work being done in this area. The data that Coursera is receiving from students is tremendous in quality and volume. With classes of tens of thousands of people, a single numerical answer question will garner hundreds of different answers. There will be clusters in these answers, with thousands of people submitting the same incorrect response. This gives professors insights into the minds of their students they never had before. With this information, we can figure out exactly what sorts of mistakes are common, and how to avoid them. People likely to make a particular type of mistake can be shown content in a way tailored to them. There may be groups of people who tend share patterns in which mistakes they make, or which types of material they’re good at. The scale at which these courses are being offered and at which the feedback is being received will allow for insights into teaching that were never possible before.
That said, I think that while online education is young and still in its stage of constant iteration, feedback should be collected much more explicitly. The value of people’s behavior on Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc should not be understated, but these companies could learn so much more about their content and how students and “users” respond to their content it they merely asked. If Coursera put up two buttons next to their videos, one labeled “boring” and one labeled “interesting” (or “simple” and “confusing”, or “easy” and “hard”), or if they placed a feedback box underneath their video lectures, then I think the professors offering the courses would have a much better understanding of their audience. As it is, with both online lectures and live lectures, the professor gets very little feedback. They wonder Are my student’s understanding what I’m saying? Am I going to fast? Too slow? Is that kid in the orange shirt snoring?. This is one area where over the next year we have to leverage technology better. We need to get this feedback cycle right soon. These are the days that content is being produced at an incredible rate. The Khan Academy videos that go up this year, the Coursera classes being recorded every day - this is content that will last forever, and as we produce more of it, it’s so important that we maintain the highest possible standards, and for that feedback is critical.
While quality is important, so too is the opportunity for everyone to become a teacher. More on those thoughts another day. We won’t all produce lectures with the quality of Sal Khan or Kevin Wayne. It is primarily at the top that we must ensure the content is the best it can possibly be. Still, feedback from students is so important to anyone teaching in any capacity.
This notion, allowing anyone to teach, is so fundamental to the way education has to be. People learn from other people. Lore understands this. Piazza understands this. This is the philosophy that makes Albany Area Math Circle such an incredible group. This is why college campuses thrive and produce innovation. During our visit with Piazza, founder Pooja Sankar spoke about (in addition to teaching us some great lessons in entrepreneurship from the company’s founding story) Piazza’s mission to take down barriers to learning. Piazza is really succeeding in this. They’ve empowered people so that everyone in the class can be the teacher in a way that’s never worked in lecture classes before.
Going forward, only good can come of these trends toward moving education online. Khan Academy’s mission seems inevitable. A world class education is becoming available to anyone, anywhere. The best ways to make this happen are still being discovered, and there’s so much to explore in the world of online pedagogy. This is something to be excited about. This is something I want to be a part of.