Scammers and Founders

Today marks the first day of junior year of college and the Summer of ‘13, marked with great trials and tribulations, is finally over. My friend Nithin and I incorporated an investor backed startup, Wintria. I also purchased my first car, almost got scammed by a man my dad’s age, interned at a major company, and attended my first hackathon.

All of it was new, maybe avant-garde, to my impressionable mind. While reading, imagine a characteristically oversaturated Southern California scenery as the backdrop. These experiences, both the good and the bad, allow for introspection and growth by trail-and-error.

2003 Ford Mustang, snagged it for $5K

The car I bought, snagged it for $5K

Wintria - Our Startup

At the start of January 2013, I began to write the code for what would become Wintria. Wintria is a news search engine and aggregator. There are millions of ways to aggregate and present news content to people, but to do it sensibly and elegantly, then the task becomes a challenge. This is reinforced by the statistic that as of 2013, nearly all news aggregators have failed. This challenge of building a news presentation product was elusive for many, but not insurmountable, as evident by a few unique news-aggregation giants such as Twitter and Flipboard.

Working with Nithin, my partner for Wintria whom I met this Summer, has been exciting but bedeviling. Nithin strongly insisted on playing a business centric role for Wintria. While our skills complemented each other, we both were stubborn with tightly held opinions and contrasting backgrounds, mine being more technical and his being more business. The two of us frequently stalemated on product vision. For example, how should we present aggregated news, do we focus on visuals? summarized paragraphs? Do we want to distill articles down to their keywords and present those or show the articles verbatim? Do we want to enable user account creation or keep things stateless for launch?

One of my shortcomings was a predilection for taking individual feedback personally. I’d listen to each individual and implement their advice one by one in piecemeal fashion. We had the technology and the execution, evident in the tremendous success of our open sourced tech later on, but there was a stark lack of product vision and methodical execution that followed that vision. Despite the product failure, we shipped great code and technology for the news tech discipline. Our code went on to become the most popular in the world for news related functionality and used by journalists, researchers, and media conglomerates such as CNN, LA Times, and Buzzfeed.

You are trying too hard to please everyone instead of looking at the bigger picture. – Nithin

The Scam - Dangers of entrepreneurship

Before Summer started, a visibly older and almost urbane looking man approached one of my TAs, a friend, and me for the opportunity of forming a startup with him. His alias for this story will be Jon.

For our first two meetings, Jon charmed and regaled us on a weekly basis. He was suave, articulate, scrupulously dressed, and gave off fittingly paternal vibes. When we first met, he showed up in a clean black suit and drove us in a shiny black S-class Mercedes to treat us to The Montage, an opulent seaside eatery and lounge in Laguna Beach. One night with Jon and the others, the sky was an orange twilight, and The Montage was characteristically filled cliques of artificially attractive trophy-wife-looking women and older men. We racked up over $500 in bills while Jon saved his intention of asking us to build him a prototype until the end of the night. By then, the three of us were hopelessly beguiled by the charm of the evening and agreed to build him whatever he wanted.

The Montage, in Laguna Beach

The Montage, in Laguna Beach

As the weeks passed, a few red flags on Jon began surfacing. Jon became more prescriptive and commanding in his relationship with us, the engineers. He would only talk about his ideals of the prototype with us, increasingly allowing for fewer opportunities for dissent or open discussion. Also, a lot of the roles, legal, funding, organizational issues were simply never raised. We did not get paid, despite being verbally promised lots of equity in the near horizon. Whenever anything sensitive was brought up, Jon responded by exclaiming how much money we would make after some obscure milestone.

My mistrust of Jon grew. He was aloof and refused to to open up about his background or even show any vulnerability. All of our meetings began to feel authoritarian. Increasingly, no product dissent was allowed and I was frequently told to stop talking. I felt an increasing disconnect between the engineers and Jon. My primal instincts were screaming at me to jump ship and thus I decided to back out but. A few weeks later, it came as no surprise when I found out from my TA colleague who stayed on that both the startup and prototype failed. The communication between Jon and the other two engineers simply broke down. I wonder, had we subserviently stayed on and done everything to Jon’s whim, what would have happened? It’s clear in retrospect now that Jon just exploiting our naivety with money, and he viewed college students as easy targets and cheap labor.

Pennapps 2013 - Awesome Hacks

Pennapps, which is held at UPenn twice a year, is America’s largest college hackathon. Attending it was very enlightening because it was my first hackathon and I never really had the chance to sit down with a big group of people where everyone genuinely enjoyed building stuff. Some of the projects which were created required a deep understanding in multiple fields and disciplines, not just software.

Compared to local or smaller school sponsored hackathons, this was on a whole new level. Contestants came from over 100 universities all over the globe and free food and tons of sponsor gear were provided! I ended up recieving $100 in AWS credit, $2000 appengine credit, and 10GB Dropbox storage! Oh, and unlimited free tshirts :) Words can’t describe how frenetic and convivial the environment was. There were students laying half awake holding their laptops at 3-5A.M. in the morning.

I’m glad that hackathons exist, they bond people from different universities and countries together to not only build things together, but to mix ideas. I actually felt a distinct iconoclastic energy at Pennapps experienced nowhere else. Imagine a mass of students whose goal it was to disrupt entire industries with hacks produced in 48 hours.

Conclusion

Thus, Summer has come to an end. My close friend from high school, Jake, came down to SoCal from Seattle to visit! I also did a lot of side hacking with Jason, a colleague and friend from Reddit’s programming forum. Stay tuned for some cool applications from us! For the final three weeks of Summer, I visited my family back home in Seattle before school started, it was nice to finally slow down a notch and relax.

However, I’m back on campus now and ready for next year! Goodbye for now, more posts to come soon!

Lucas Ou-Yang Hey, thanks for reading! I'm Lucas Ou-Yang, read more about me here. I'm enthusiastic about creative media, recommendation engines, Asian identity, political praxis, and making latte art. Please feel free reach out professionally with any concerns or comments!

  • Twitter - political efforts
  • IMDB - funding
  • Github - software
  • Share this article with your friends:

    comments powered by Disqus
    "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." - Michelangelo