Fire, meet ass (part two)

I recently connected with a classmate of mine from Columbia, who I didn’t really have the chance to know when I was still a student. In fact, the only time I remember meeting him was when he came to one of my dorm parties, as a friend of a friend, and excused himself to leave early because he came on a bike and needed to get back to his apartment in the heart of Harlem. (I should’ve known he was a BAMF from that alone.)

For all us non-tech people out there still dreaming the dream. David Xia is a name you might want to jot down. (In fact, you might remember him from such anti-feminist scandals as the leaked Citibank HR memo.) Having majored in theoretical math at Columbia, David told me how he ended up in a somewhat unfulfilling job post-graduation: a small company with an unfortunate big corporation feel.

After a mere 7 months on the job, David decided that it was time for a change. He quit, found himself a co-founder, and decided to start a tech company that provides smarter travel recommendation. At the time,  neither he nor his co-founder knew how to code.

And thus began his 6-month odyssey into the world of hacking and building. As I chatted with him about his experience, he kept using the same word to describe the process: “hard.” He talked about his weekly pilgrimage to a friend of a friend’s home to learn coding, one bit at a time. He described how he had scrimped and saved to live on $1400 a month in New York, an amount that most people pay for rent alone. He also talked about being in the trenches, traveling to Vancouver for a travel bloggers’ conference to promote his product only to get caught in the 2011 hockey riots. It’s really hard to get people to use your product, he explained.

Though it’s not what we imagine when we think “tech entrepreneur”, what David experienced makes sense. There is a significant reporting bias in today’s tech startup world – you often only hear about the homeruns and never about the guy who bootstrapped for 6 months with his cofounder and finally decided that he needed to get a paying job. David did have to get a job after a while, but he didn’t have to settle for going back to his old one. He now works as a junior developer at SkillShare. (They’re hiring!) And yes, he still rides his bike everywhere.

When he talks about the risks he took in quitting his 9-to-5, David humbly brushes them off. At this stage of our lives, he says, we have nothing to lose. In a lot of ways, he’s right. David refers to the past 6 months one of the most intense learning experiences he’s ever had – he spent 80 hours a week (banking hours, hollah) learning to code and many more hours learning how to succeed as an entrepreneur.

He is, perhaps, the best representation I know of someone lighting a fire under his ass. I forced my co-founder to learn all the front end stuff, he says with a grin. He’s been thanking me ever since. If you’re lucky enough, he might light one under yours, too. 

Bartab… so why is this a thing?

This week, I met three interns that worked at this startup. Bartab is a social drinking application that allows you to send $1 drinks to friends, redeemable at a host of partner bars across the US. The app started on Facebook and was awarded $25k from FBfund. I’m not sure how many people were employed at this company, but the fact that they had three interns representing signals to a team of about 10 people. 

I mean, I know the economy is bad and nobody can find jobs… but really? This is what people choose to build instead?

Bartab… so why is this a thing?

Another kind of bubble

A while back, critics and cynics were calling the internet an echo chamber. While the Internet was supposed to be a platform for democratizing speech and content, new web algorithms have steered the web into the complete opposite direction. These “smarter” algorithms have been designed to make content hyper-targeted for individuals without his/her consent, thus filtering out content and information it deems uninteresting to us. Social media has taken this a step further by allowing the audience to more consciously choose their sources. 

I hadn’t really believed this story at first. Yes, my twitter feed is definitely filled with left-leaning new sources and tech entrepreneurs, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was closed off to other perspective. My Facebook Newsfeed tended to show the same friends’ updates, but I was free to merely click through to other news, too. At the end of the day, I was ultimately in control of how much these smart algorithms served to re-enforce my point of view. 

Then came a little bit of perspective. I was talking about the state of the tech bubble to a senior banker familiar with the tech space, and he said:

Airbnb? Why are they getting these crazy valuations? They’re just apartment listings… what, like Craigslist? 

 I was particularly surprised by how vastly different his reactions were to those on my Twitter feed. A while back, Fred Wilson even admitted that Airbnb was the one that got away

This also came up in a separate conversation with a friend who is a former consultant. She said:

Seems like startups these days are just taking regular things and putting them on the web. That’s not innovation, that’s just re-packaging. 

Both of them with didn’t buy into the whole web startup frenzy. While the startup world referred to these web startups as “disruptive” or “game-changing”, those outside the sphere didn’t even see them as innovative, nor value-creating endeavours. While technology has been often cited as a growth engine for the US economy, neither of them saw the current startup world as a contributor to that. 

As for me, I’m still on the fence. My echo chamber, created by Meetup groups and my Twitter feed, has long led me to believe in the growth of startups in America. The other perspective, however, does hold clout. Even I have met a fair share of startups that just left me perplexed as to what they were trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, how can we really measure value-creation for the economy and society as a whole?