Growing up in BASES

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Ruby Lee & Matthew Goodyear, BASES Co-Presidents 2012-2013.

What does it mean for someone to “grow up” in your organization? What kind of values would the person possess? What would the person be really good at?

I started thinking about this after attending a board meeting for BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students) as an advisor. In that meeting, we elected Ruby Lee to serve as the new Co-President, which brought me all the way back to September ’09 when I first met Ruby. At the time, BASES did not have a way to get freshmen involved, and it suffered from a shortage of talent to step up and lead. In response, I created a “Freshmen Battalion” to suck in the freshmen as soon as they set foot on Stanford’s campus. We would then rotate them to different teams so they can see what they’re interested in. Ruby was part of this inaugural class of freshmen. Flash-forward to today, Ruby has a vision for where the organization needs to go, and over the last three years, she has developed the skills and the confidence to do it. She’s what I would call a “BASES person.”

The idea of a “BASES person” is fascinating because it describes me. I came to Stanford not knowing how to spell the word entrepreneurship. BASES exposed me to founders who inspired me, investors who encouraged me, mentors who showed me how to get things done, and peers to collaborate with. I went from having never organized an event to producing one of the largest social entrepreneurship competitions in my sophomore year. I got my first experience managing a small team to put on four startup career fairs that connected students with real-world internships in my junior year. I met a like-mind who wanted to go above and beyond, and collaborated with him in the summer to revamp the BASES website. Once we finished that, we started working on side projects that became our startup Crowdbooster. In my senior year, I learned the difference between management and leadership when I became Co-President of BASES, which was just shy of 100 volunteers at the time. In one of the events we put together that year, I met the person that would become my other co-founder. BASES never promised me these things. I joined because I wanted to see what entrepreneurship was about. What I ended up with was way more than that.

Of course, I am the result of all the experiences I’ve had and all the people I’ve crossed paths with, but BASES was one of those really poignant experiences that made a very tangible impact in the course of my life. To get that, I dedicated a very significant portion of my time at Stanford to the organization. And yes, BASES happens to have the mission statement, “to develop the next generation of entrepreneurs,” so it worked out perfectly for Ruby and me. But I think this focus on developing people should be part of any organization’s mission, including our startups. Now that we are hiring, I am starting to think about what makes a “Crowdbooster person.” I think the person is undeniably someone who obsesses about creating the most transformative product, who won’t settle until she gets there, and who does it all with a strong sense of humility. “Crowdbooster people” will learn these values, develop the skills and the confidence to go on to have tremendous impact in the world, with Crowdbooster and beyond. That’d be so much fun!

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BASES people. Imagine the kind of impact they’re going to have in the world!

Photo credit: Tamer Shabani Photography

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What Steve Jobs meant to me

What Steve Jobs meant to me.

Having just learned about his death, I’m mustering something together to try to articulate Steve Jobs’ impact on my life. Unlike many people here in the valley, I wasn’t much of a geek, let alone an Apple fanboy. I came to Stanford because they offered me a great financial aid package and because it was an elite institution close enough to home in LA in case I ever needed to go back. That was ’06, I had no idea Steve Jobs just made a commencement speech one year before that I’d discover later and change my life.

Going to school at Stanford was a huge culture shock. I couldn’t fit in. In dorm activities, I learned about my peers’ amazing backgrounds and felt sorry for myself for not having any of their experiences in life. I walked around the dorm asking every person if he / she played an instrument, and I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t. I did not have the study skills necessary to succeed, and got a C during my first quarter while others marched on to great academic performance. On campus, iPods and other Apple products were pervasive, and that only added to the perception – this was a school for privileged kids, not me.

I felt that way until my first spring break. I didn’t want to go home since there wasn’t much to return to. I decided to stay and went on a trip led by some upperclassmen called “social entrepreneurship in the bay area.” A little context, I hated “business.” That was a dirty word. My father was in the stock market and he was pretty much bankrupt by the time I turned 4. Growing up, he tried to give me what he knew while trying to turn himself around with no capital to no avail. I always rejected him. My mother left around then, and I struggled to grow up like a normal kid when nothing was normal about my environment. At 14, I started working so I can help pay for things around the household. It wasn’t much, but it helped. Business (more precisely, buying and selling stocks), was the reason why all this had to happen.

On this trip, we visited companies like Kiva, World of Good, Papilia, and Benetech. I realized where I was. I am not just at Stanford, but Silicon Valley, where there are “businesses” that actually did good things and made the world a better place. That was extremely eye-opening. By the time Spring Quarter rolled around, I knew what I needed to do. My perspective was completely transformed.

By bringing me here, Stanford was lifting me up and putting me on equal footing as everyone else because for once in my life, I did not have to worry about money, at least not here. The school also gave me everything I needed to succeed, with resources like the alternative spring break trip, and incredible peers I can team up with to achieve dreams. I wanted to change the world the way that people in the Silicon Valley were doing it, with massive impact. As I learned more about startups and entrepreneurship, I found myself increasingly drawn to it. In school, I made it a point to utilize the resources available to me and, more importantly, I tried to learn as much as I could from my peers.

Over time, I found out what I was good at. I’m good with people. My upbringing had ingrained in me special sensitivities that helped me navigate teams to work better together and eventually achieve success. I was never the smartest in the room, but I didn’t need to be. I found a niche in school as someone who championed the cause of entrepreneurship, bringing the startup spirit and the message of empowerment to every part of campus. I also started dabbling in startups by first working for them, and later, with the right teammates, built products that would eventually become Crowdbooster.

So what did all this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, in college, I discovered his commencement speech. I found myself watching it over and over again. Even though I am a fanboy now, it wasn’t about his products. It was his story. Like me, he came from a low-income, immigrant family. He had to do things like pick up cans so he can sell them to buy a meal. When he found out what he needed to do, he went after it, without fear. He took the leap, and he assured me in his speech that you can’t connect the dots going forward, so you just have to have faith. That encouraged me to go from a kid who didn’t fit in to one who dared to pursue his dreams, despite economic circumstances and allures of elite jobs that pay. I knew what I needed to do. He told me to jump, and I did. I jumped. Crowdbooster is first of many businesses I will build to maximize the impact I have in this world. Thank you Steve.

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Y Combinator is over, now what?

Many people ask me, “YC is over, now what?” I guess I’ll make that a blog post.

Y Combinator is never really over. Why would you want it to be? I want to build a serious business, and that was very clear in the beginning especially when we traded company stock for a small amount of money in order to get going. Y Combinator was an enabler for first-time entrepreneurs like me to get started and focus on building out my dream. Without YC, I still would have tried to raise money with a half-baked idea and some prototypes. If that didn’t go well, I would have worked somewhere and moonlighted it. But the summer at YC was all about focus. That was part of the reason why we didn’t have a co-working environment. It was also why the formal programming like the Tuesday dinners were spread out enough to not slow us down or disrupt our rhythm. Every company eventually finds its own rhythm – it was essential to find ours so we can keep up a consistent pace. My favorite part about coming to the Tuesday dinners was being in the company of my peers and the chance to chat and socialize (it’s lonely doing a startup). I also needed to seek validation / feedback from others so that I don’t fall in the most dangerous trap of building something that people DON’T want. YC dinners were perfect for that, especially over beer.

I can look back and see how far we have come. We weren’t the only team that experienced a major mid-summer pivot – knowing that actually helps tremendously. It’s also inspiring to look at my peers to see them experience small wins here and there (press, funding, users, PROFIT, etc.). I love celebrating with them and, at the same time, reminding myself that I need to get there. I am sure it’s the same with those guys. Celebrate the small wins, but move on quickly to focus on running and building the business. YC is never really over, since we stay in touch with each other and we will continue to do this exercise of looking at each other, celebrating the hardworking people who have earned it, and then putting the focus back on our own businesses. It’s good to know that we are in this together.

Being a YC alum is also kind of cool. You are like Sam Altman, or Steve Huffman, or Drew Houston, or Brian Chesky, or Garry Tan, or Adam Smith, or any of these Silicon Valley household names (there are way too many names, don’t get mad if I didn’t include yours). But you have to get there and really earn it. The alumni network is supportive in every single way, and we do cut special deals for each other. Harj also works on some really cool deals on behalf of YC as a whole. Think YC Zipcar, or YC Ubercab. That’s just uber-cool. I know I can always count on Paul and Jessica to be there to give advice and support us (plus, I know where they live =P). Not to mention Kirsty (who answers my accounting questions, among other things), Kate (who, in order to accommodate more companies, pushed the wall back in the YC office without you ever noticing) and all the friends of YC. John Levy, the YC in-house lawyer also doesn’t charge me a bajillion dollars for a quick call about closing some angel investors or a contract with a customer. He even shoots me emails to check in and make sure that everything is okay.

YC is never really over. It’s a marathon. So stick it out, and make something people want. Build a world-class company. Apply.

PS: My company is not launched yet, but you can be sure to hear from us soon. Stay tuned.

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Recruiting for Your Student Organization

School year is coming to an end, and I am graduating have graduated (I waited before I published this one)!  Right before the end of the year is usually transition time for many student organizations because smart leaders understand the need to spend time transitioning and ramping up their young and fearless replacements.  During this time, applications are collected and students interview other students.  I have done this a few times, so I thought I will share one valuable lesson that I have learned about recruiting students.  The best students are the ones who do the most.

Not all the time, of course; but, when I used to interview other students, I would look very closely at their resume and figure out what they would be involved with in the coming school year in order to gauge if they can dedicate time and properly commit to my organization.  “Will you have enough time for BASES?”  “Where would BASES be on your list of priorities?”  I think these are valid questions and they make logical sense.  Looking back, however, I don’t think those students with less commitments necessarily outperformed.  In fact, my rockstar team members were also rockstars in their many other organizations.  Maybe it’s because these rockstars just prioritize extracurriculars over other things.  Maybe they just have greater capacity than others.  I don’t know.  What matters to me is that when it comes to choosing people to work with, the most important questions to me are: “can I trust her?” and “how can I make my organization be on the top of their priorities list?”

I think that’s what it ultimately comes down to – your job as a leader is to convince the best student organizers to prioritize you over the others.  Find common ground, align your goals, understand their motivations, inspire them with the mission of the organization and your vision for it this year.  That’s your challenge.  That’s why trust is important.  It does not matter how many commitments this person has – assuming that you manage to convince her that what you are working on is a worthy cause, can you confidently say that you can trust this person to carry out what is necessary to get the job done?  Anyway, I’m blabbering.  What do you think?

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Scaling Myself

At Startup School late last year, Tony Hsieh talked about motivation vs. inspiration.  He said that when running a company, most people think about motivation, whether it’s through incentives, threat, recognition, etc., but if a company strives to inspire its employees, motivation becomes less important.  That’s a great concept.

A couple of weeks ago Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus (who also spoke at Startup School and at BASES ETL) was interviewed by the New York Times and talked about the idea of “making everyone a C.E.O. of something.”  He explained it this way:

You can manage 50 people through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep. You can touch them all in a week and make sure they’re all pointed in the right direction. By 150, it’s clear that that’s not going to scale, and you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.

This is even more true in volunteer students organizations like the ones I’ve been involved with.  If students are not inspired or empowered, there’s no way to really “manage” them effectively.  I had to pay my dues to really learn this the hard way.

When I was leading my fraternity, I led a small executive committee of 10 people to operate a 50-member fraternity.  Micro-managing was possible then, especially for my teammates that needed extra help, I was there.  I got a good sense of what each person was capable of, and I learned a lot about how to make things as easy as possible for busy students to complete, and how to get as much out of people as I can.  You can ask me all kinds of tricks and tactics, from how to write an email to running effective meetings to persuading everybody.  I don’t know how my teammates tolerated my craziness but I hope it was a good learning experience for all of us, and I really appreciated everything they did for the fraternity.

Leading BASES now is another story.  I am now working with a team of about 70 students to produce events and programs for thousands of attendees and millions of viewers, with stakeholders in our faculty advisors, alumni, sponsors, and every single one of our team members.  Micro-management is impossible.  After a quarter of trying to do everything and really suffering, I decided to take a step back and think about ways to go beyond just myself, and that resulted in a renewed focus to first respect my own time and then investing the time in other people.  I purposely stopped getting stuff done (if I made a promise and people counted on me, things got done, but I did not do any more).  Limiting emails to only once or twice a day rather than checking all the time made me realize that things that I usually would spend 4, 5 minutes responding to in order to close the thread ended up closing themselves after a couple more emails from people because they’d eventually figure it out.  I was gradually getting rid of the notion that my teammates had before to “just ask Ricky” because I wouldn’t respond to your emails until the end of the day and sometimes things couldn’t wait so they took care of it themselves or went elsewhere.  I did offer my phone number, so if it was urgent enough, then call me.  It almost felt like my involvement before was stopping people from really stepping it up, and so when I started seeing what people were capable of, I got super excited.  Of course, I see things falling through the cracks now that probably wouldn’t have before, but it’s a trade-off.

In addition to scaling back and creating room for growth, the time that I freed up was for my teammates.  In the past, because it took less time to just do things myself rather than having to sit down with somebody, unload all the information, and train them to be able to take on a task successfully, I would just do that.  Now I’ve realized the importance of investing in those around me, helping them understand the organization, our goals, relationships, processes, and how to get things done.  I think this approach resonates well with students, who join organizations partly to acquire these skills.  Have you experienced something similar?  I recognize it’s a lot more nuanced than this, let me hear it in the comments.

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Problems That Cannot be “Fixed” – Part 1

I have had the great luck to be the student leader of some amazing organizations on campus.  Maybe it’s just me and the fact that I am often displeased with the status quo, I find myself faced with “turn-around” jobs when I take over the leadership of these organizations.  One way I evaluate the health of an organization is by looking at how many people compete to become leaders of an organization (if there’s an actual “vote”).  If there are no competitors, that means the organization failed at growing passionate, young leaders.  It also means that the organization itself is not worth the time.  When I see this, I get scared, but then I get psyched about the potential to learn a lot and really do something great.  I’ve heard from some CEOs and PE fund managers that turn-around jobs are the hardest, and people should think twice before committing to avoid falling in the ego trap and end up a mess.  I am not experienced, but I can definitely see what they mean.

Keeping it rolling with that theme.  When I take over organizations, I do a complete assessment to identify every single thing that is wrong with the organization.  I am meticulous about looking at everything, and from there, coming up with ways that we could “fix” everything.  So in typical Ricky fashion, I change and shake things up when I come in.  Partly because I very much believe in the idea that for organizations that have “institutionalized problems,” or hard-to-fix problems that have been with the organization for a long time, the only way to really change and improve is to completely shake it up.  I got this idea from Prof. Behnam Tabrizi, who specializes in “organizational transformations” and teaches MS&E 134 (Organizations and Information Systems) – probably my favorite class at Stanford.  I usually restructure some parts of the organization, bring in a set of people that I’ve worked with and trust, and really lay down solutions to implement in order to address every single thing that is wrong with the organization.

Last year when I led my business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, I had a great team.  I dived into the set of problems I had identified in the beginning, and was really hands-on and tunnel-visioned.  One-by-one, we made changes, implemented improvements on existing processes, added new things.  For example, if the fraternity was not close enough, then we made more “social events.”  If the fraternity wanted more “professional” help (since it is a professional fraternity), then we made more “professional events.”  If the attendance was poor, then we called everybody before meeting, or even more drastically, kept track and started fining people for not showing up.  We accomplished A LOT of things, and these “fixes” definitely were worthwhile, however, they did not really work or get to the core of the problem.  My team worked and worked and got really burned out because of the poor feedback we were receiving from our work.  I tried to be inspirational to my team, and I communicated everything to the entire fraternity.  It’s like putting bandages on cuts, we were trying to fix problems without really understanding the root causes.  I made one bad decision, and that one bad decision was probably something that I was remembered for, not the incremental improvements I made across the board.  Shameful.  To be continued…

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On Saying No

But no is cold and heavy. It puts an end to things. In that way, it is a word of control. Its very use suggests a speaker who actually knows something, who won’t bend, who won’t give in to what you want simply because you want it. No says the case has not been made.  –  Read the Article.

I read an article this morning about “When to Say No,” so I thought I’ll write about it.

At one point in my life I used to sell Cutco knives.  It was a great experience and I was trained with tactics that would help me get a customer to say “Yes.”  For example, one that I remember was to always end my sentences with a question.  Even better, end with one that naturally led to a “Yes.”  “Could I show you the next set of cutlery?”  “Do you see how I cut through the tough leather?”  Enough of these, you’ll eventually get a “Yes” when you pop the most important question: “Would you like to buy?”

Maybe it had something to do with the training, I was pretty eager to say “Yes” to a lot of new things at Stanford.  My Freshman year I said yes to all the fun things (rightly so), but my Sophomore year was filled with frustration because I had said “Yes” to too many commitments.  “Yes” was the word to everything because I was opening myself to options that Stanford is particularly good about giving.  Coming from a background where options were limited, Stanford was the brave new world.  But “Yes” killed me.  My grades dropped due to too many commitments.  I did not perform particularly well in any of the organizations that I joined.  My health suffered and I wasn’t getting any sleep.  “Resume-padding” was something I actually thought about.  It was okay to say “Yes” (despite my other commitments) because it added a line or two on my resume.

Then someone somewhere told me (remind me if it was you): “It’s hard to say ‘No’ in the short-run, but it’ll benefit you in the long-run.  Vice verse.” (It’s easy to say “Yes” in the short-run, but it’ll kill you in the long-run). Junior year I decided to say “No” to a few of my commitments.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to decide which ones I was going to say “No” to.  Everything started going uphill from there.  My health improved, I started in leadership positions, I focused on creating substantial items under the few activities left in my resume.  In the process, I found my passion (entrepreneurship) and what I am excited about doing (e.g. drive the idea of entrepreneurship to students at Stanford, solve critical problems through entrepreneurial endeavors, etc.).  I got busier (with less commitments!), but it was because I loved what I do and I did them well.  I attribute this to my saying “No” in the beginning of Junior year to some of my commitments.

Some thoughts though.  Without having said “Yes,” I wouldn’t have joined the organization (BASES) that eventually defined my role at Stanford and most likely my career out of college.  It’s quite easy to say “Yes” when you have no items on your resume in the first place.  It’s also easy to say “Yes” when you don’t know what it is that you want to do.  I think these are legitimate situations to say “Yes.”  Stanford’s awesome this way and you have to take advantage of it.  But there comes a time when “Yes” becomes natural because it’s too hard to reject opportunities when they come to you.  A time when “Yes” becomes competitive because, as a Stanford student, I think I can do everything.  That’s when “No” becomes the magic word.  IMHO.

P.S. I wasn’t that great (but wasn’t bad) of a salesman with Cutco and it really taught me to appreciate their work and great salesmanship.

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