This interview is with Roger Lee, co-founder and president of PaperG, an advertising technology company that automates online advertising for more than 20,000 small businesses through 150 media companies, including Hearst, Gannett, and AOL. PaperG was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 100 Most Promising Companies in America, and was described by the New York Times as “An Ad Engine to Put Mad Men Out of Business.”
- Harvard undergrad
- Internship: JP Morgan
- Offer: McKinsey (declined)
- Founded PaperG
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I’m 26 years old. I studied applied math at Harvard. I started PaperG right out of college, so this is my first full-time job.
Q. Tell us how you made the decision to start your own company right out of college. What was your thought process?
A. I first got really interested in the Internet in high school. I made my first commercial website when I was 13. It was a site called antistudy.com. It’s a search engine for free book notes and study guides.
We were reading these books in English class. I wanted to get quick summaries on them, but all the sites out there covered different books. SparkNotes would have some books. Cliff’s Notes would have different books. PinkMonkey would have other books. It was painful to figure out which one had the study guide for the book I was reading.
So I just made a search engine for those sites, where you just type in the name of the book and it links to all the study guides available for that book. I mostly just intended it for my personal use, and of course, to share with a few classmates, but before I knew it, there were people visiting the site from schools I didn’t even know. Pretty soon, people were coming to the site from all over the country.
That was the first time I really realized how powerful the Internet was. That, to me, as a kid, was really awesome. The idea that someone sitting from their home computer could just make something that could have such an impact was fascinating.
It became even more fascinating when someone e-mailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I want to advertise on your site. I’ll write you a check for $1,600 tomorrow if you let me put my banner ad on your site.” Up to that point, I wasn’t thinking of making money on this. I just thought it was cool that thousands of people across the country were using the site I created, but now, it sounded like someone was going to write me a check for more money than I’d ever seen in my life, no questions asked.
So then I started realizing that not only would it have an impact on so many people I didn’t know, but I could even make money from it. It was like, “Wow. It’s the coolest thing ever. It’s awesome.” There’s nothing that could be better than doing something I enjoyed and having all these people derive value from it — and then making money from it too.
A couple years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I made another website with a high school friend of mine called SubProfile.com. That ended up being even bigger than antistudy.com. It had about 3 million users. It was really amazing. Again, I was in high school at the time, so I didn’t expect to be able to have that kind of impact.
By the time I got to Harvard, I was thinking about what I wanted to do as a career. I had this experience with the Internet in high school. I thought, “This is really cool. If I could make a living off this, why wouldn’t I do this for the rest of my life?”
That said, being in college is about exploring new things, and I was an applied math major. I did what all applied math majors at Harvard did. I did a Wall Street internship. I interned at JP Morgan to see what finance would be like and realized from that summer experience that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t get the same feeling of impact and it wasn’t fulfilling.
Then senior year, I was like, “Finance is not for me, so that leaves what? That leaves consulting.” Those are the two things people in my class did. So I interviewed and ended up getting a full-time offer at McKinsey in New York City after graduation. That was what I was considering at the time. Should I go to McKinsey after graduating? It seemed like a good business experience. I would get exposed to all these industries and strategies, the usual consulting pitch.
As it turned out, I didn’t end up doing that. I ended up deciding to co-found PaperG instead. McKinsey was nice enough to let me defer my offer for a year, so that I could pursue PaperG instead. That became a no-brainer to me because I could try PaperG out, see how it was working and still go to McKinsey in a year if it didn’t work out.
Of course, as it turns out, I never ended up going to McKinsey. A year later, PaperG was starting to do well and started to get off the ground. I did some soul searching and realized that tech start-ups are always what I’ve wanted to do, even before college, and this was certainly the right path for me.
Q. You built your first website at 13. You built a second website in high school, and it was even bigger. How did you figure out what to do – how to build, how to get users, how to grow to 3 million users, how to market, and all the other things Internet businesses normally do?
A. In terms of learning how to build, when the Internet started taking off, I became really interested in learning HTML and the basic building blocks of the Internet. I learned HTML when I was around 12.
The way that came about was, my family was going on a trip to Taiwan for three weeks over the summer to visit relatives. I was worried that I wasn’t going to have anything to do for those three weeks, that I would just be sitting around my grandma’s house in Taiwan. I got the idea “Hey, maybe I should buy a book on HTML and read that.” So that’s how I first picked that up.
In terms of marketing, that was brand new. I had not built the site with any marketing plan in mind. It was just a tool for myself and my friends. I ended up stumbling into the world of SEO – search engine optimization. When I found out that I was starting to get more traffic, going through the analytics, I realized a lot of it was coming from Google, which was a rising search engine at that time. This was in 2001.
I thought, “Hey, that’s interesting. The search engine can actually send a lot of traffic my way.” It turned out that for certain keywords, I was ranking pretty well. So I started to really explore that further and research it more to figure out how to get more visitors.
I read about SEO online. I visited a lot of different forums that had an SEO focus — at that time, not many people were doing it. It was certainly less popular than it is today, so I really tried to figure out what I could do to gain an edge on that and get more people to visit my website.
With SubProfile, we didn’t build it with mass distribution in mind. Three million users were way more visitors than we ever expected. SubProfile.com was created in 2003. At that time, AOL Instant Messenger was very popular. That was the way everybody talked to each other. It was pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-Gchat. All my friends used it.
In AIM, there was a very basic way to create a profile about yourself, where someone who was chatting with you could click on this info button. It was a small window where you could write some text in it. It was very basic, up to 1,000 characters of just plain text of what you wanted to write about yourself.
So my friend and co-founder of SubProfile thought, “This is pretty limiting. You can’t write very much in this profile. It’s boring. You can’t spice it up. What if we could create a service that allows you to have a richer profile and put more things in it, including unlimited text instead of a thousand characters?”
That’s how SubProfile was born. It was basically a profile service where you could make a really interesting profile. You could post things like quizzes and links and you could see who had visited your profile and how many times people had viewed it. You could have people write in your guestbook, which I guess people now call the “wall” for Facebook. And basically, you could just have an interesting profile, which at the time was innovative, because again, at the time, there was no Facebook, no Friendster, no MySpace. So this was one of the earliest profile services.
We basically used the service ourselves and that grew virally. What happened was our friends would click on our profile and see that our profile was different and better and more interesting than everybody else’s, and they would see a link that says, “This profile is powered by SubProfile.com. Get yours today.”
Then they would click on that and sign up, and their friends would see their profile, and they would sign up, too. It was classic viral organic growth. AIM users would just see other people’s subprofiles and then get their own. That’s how it spread from our high school and, ultimately, across the country. We had 3 million users at our peak.
The only thing we didn’t do was try to build in a “friending” mechanism inside the profiles, which would have ended up basically becoming the first social network had we done that. But at that time, it wasn’t necessary because in AIM, you already had your buddy list. You already had your friends. So there was no need to have a separate mechanism to make friends through your subprofile.
In any case, it was an awesome experience. We got tons of people using it and toward the end, we were selling ads in the profile so we’d be able to monetize the tens of millions of pageviews we were getting each month. That’s where I got my first real experience in online advertising, which would become relevant later with PaperG.
So two sites, antistudy.com and SubProfile, were basically made with our demographics in mind, for ourselves and our friends, with no intentions of distributing or marketing or monetizing, but we ended up stumbling upon SEO, viral marketing, and then online advertising.
Q. What was the most important thing you learned about building products through this experience?
A. One important thing and something I constantly advise other people is that distribution and user acquisition is as important, if not more important, than the product itself. In my case, I ended up stumbling upon SEO as the distribution mechanism for antistudy.com, and the viral growth of SubProfile was inherent in the product itself, and we very much built it with that in mind and how it was going to spread. We got lucky with those. But once we realized that was going to be a key driver, then we started doing a lot more of what we could to acquire more users.
So what I’ve learned is that the product itself is not enough. Having a good product is a prerequisite to gaining users, but you have to really think about what’s going to be the hook that ends up getting users. Is it going to be SEO? Is it going to be some viral component that you build in, or do you have to acquire users through more traditional means like buying Google ads or hiring salespeople?
I think having that strategy is important for any startup or product to succeed.
Q. What is your preferred distribution mechanism?
A. If it’s a consumer web product, where I would be targeting regular people instead of businesses, I really like the viral component. It’s one of the most natural ways to get users, to have a product that has an inherent viral hook.
One personal product I created a couple years ago called Job Change Notifier had this viral hook in it. The product was built specifically with that user acquisition strategy in mind, where anybody who signed up for the service could refer others, and that’s how it ended up getting users over time.
Q. What exactly was that product and why were users incentivized to refer other people?
A. Job Change Notifier was basically a LinkedIn service built on top of the LinkedIn API, where you could get an e-mail alert whenever any of your LinkedIn connections change their jobs. I originally built this because, at PaperG, we had a lot of business contacts that were in our LinkedIn networks, but sometimes those business contacts couldn’t help us or be a customer of ours just yet.
Maybe they were not high enough in the hierarchy to make that decision or maybe they weren’t at a company that was completely relevant to us. But then, once they changed jobs or if they got promoted or they ended up leaving their job for another company that suddenly became relevant to PaperG, they might end up becoming legitimate leads that could become customers.
LinkedIn didn’t make it easy for you to find out when your connections changed jobs, so often it might get overlooked, like this friend of ours was suddenly promoted to VP and could end up doing a deal with us. So I created Job Change Notifier as a way to just get e-mailed whenever one of my connections changed jobs. That way, I’m always staying on top of what’s going on in my network, so that if a new sales opportunity results from it, I would know right away.
Recruiters really loved using it because they could get a sense of who’s moving around with jobs. If someone in their network changed jobs, that means two things: one, the old company probably has a new opening to replace the person who left, so that’s great for a recruiter to know; two, the new company that hired this person is probably hiring more people so that’s good to know too.
Business school students use it to just see what’s going on with their contacts from business school. We have some journalists who use it to see when to get breaking news, for example, when an executive departs a company or a startup founder suddenly works at Google, maybe there was an acquisition that happened there. We ended up having a broad range of use cases.
But to answer the original question about virality, basically signing up for Job Change Notifier is very simple. You go to the website, JobChangeNotifier.com. You click a button which connects the service to your LinkedIn profile. You enter your e-mail address that you want e-mails to get sent to. You pick which connections you want to track. And finally, you are encouraged to share with your LinkedIn friends. So just click one button and it would post an update to LinkedIn and say, “Hey, I’m using Job Change Notifier to see when my connections change jobs. Sign up to get e-mail alerts too.”
I think that’s a case where a lot of users would sign up for it. Obviously, they’re getting value from the service and they want to spread the word and get other people to do so. We strongly encourage them to do that, and you get this organic growth. It’s the same with a lot of social networking apps these days, where you are strongly encouraged to share with your friends and broadcast it.
Q. I understand a LinkedIn recruiter even reached out to you for a potential software engineering job.
A. Yes. When I first launched Job Change Notifier, I was trying to stay under LinkedIn’s radar, because I had heard of them killing a lot of apps that were built on their API for competitive reasons or hard-to-understand reasons. Even though I thought Job Change Notifier was pretty benign, I wanted to play it safe and not broadcast it to their attention.
But as it turned out, some of the first people who heard about Job Change Notifier were people at LinkedIn, which I guess shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. It turned out they really liked the service. So I got an e-mail from a recruiter asking if I wanted to explore a job at LinkedIn. I got some other people reaching out as well. The service was profiled on TechCrunch and Mashable.
It definitely spread quickly, more quickly than I expected, even though I built it with a viral hook in mind.
Q. Tell me about your current role at PaperG. What do you do day-to-day?
A. PaperG is a local online advertising company. We’re focused on helping small businesses advertise online effectively. Many advertising companies are geared toward national brands like JetBlue, American Express, eBay, etc., advertisers with huge budgets.
We really see a big opportunity to allow even small businesses, like the plumbers and dentists of the world, to have the same capabilities as national brand advertisers. Our mission at PaperG is to help all sorts of businesses and advertisers take advantage of online advertising, even if they have small budgets, even if they don’t have an ad agency working for them, even if they don’t have a designer, to open the playing field and allow anybody to advertise online effectively.
My role as the president is to run the business side of things and make sure the day-to-day operations run smoothly, that we’re growing and we’re executing on everything. Most of the business teams report to me in one way or another. I oversee the product team, sales team, account managers, support team, etc.
When we were smaller, I was doing a lot more things. In the very early days, I was doing sales and developed the products. When we started scaling and getting traction and hiring more people, my role shifted more toward managing a team and making sure the company was executing on its vision and helping to grow the company as much as possible.
We have about 30 people at PaperG right now, and that’s growing pretty quickly. We’re interviewing new people every day. So if you were to shadow me, I think one thing you’d see would be interviews and the hiring process and trying to recruit good talent to join the company and take it to the next level.
On a day-to-day basis, I’d say it’s the hiring process and interviews. In terms of the managing aspect of things, it’s meetings with various members of the team. Obviously, there are lots of e-mails, where I’m just on my computer answering e-mails either from clients or internally from people on the team, just helping to answer their questions, or giving suggestions or advice or feedback on what to do or how to approach a particular problem or task.
Of course, as a co-founder, I’m really responsible for trying to build the startup as much as possible. A lot of my time is spent with the founders, discussing strategy, what we should do next and bigger-picture items.
Q. How did you meet your co-founders and why did you decide to work together?
A. I have three amazing co-founders. Probably even more amazing is that I didn’t know them prior to starting PaperG. They were actually strangers, which is very unusual. Conventional wisdom says you should be very careful about who you’re starting a company with because you’re going to be married to them essentially and spending long hours working together and going through challenging times.
Everbody says you should ideally pick someone you’ve worked well with before, that you’d complement, and that you’re friends with. In my case, I lucked out because it worked out well even though I didn’t know them at all.
So the story about how we started was that, in college, I was the publisher of our student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. We didn’t get any funding from the university, we were independent, so to operate we had to make money from advertising.
I sold lots of ads to local businesses and realized it was pretty easy to convince local businesses to advertise in our print newspaper, but surprisingly difficult to get them to advertise on our website. This was 2008, but it’s still true today.
That was interesting to me because, talking to these businesses, it was clear they saw the opportunity and the need to have a presence online because more and more people are using the Internet. If you want to reach people wherever they are, it makes sense to do online advertising. But they were unsure of how to go about it. They weren’t technically savvy. They didn’t know the lingo used in online advertising. They didn’t even have an online ad to use or a designer to make one for them.
So that’s what got me thinking. It turns out that local online advertising is a $20 billion market, so it’s a huge opportunity. But you always have businesses sitting on the sidelines that want to be taking advantage of it but don’t know how. So is there anything we can do with technology to make it easier for these small businesses to take advantage of online advertising?
It turned out, at that time, a group of students from Yale were thinking about the same opportunity, so I ended up getting connected to what became one of my co-founders, Victor Wong, through his girlfriend at the time, who was from Harvard. We met each other that way and started talking about the problems we were seeing, trading notes, bouncing ideas. It turns out we had very similar thought processes and were really interested in starting a company, which was rare in 2008.
Most people coming out of college, certainly at Harvard and Yale, were thinking of going into finance or consulting. Doing a startup was a rare option at the time, so it was interesting to meet people who were as interested in it as I was. And so we ended up getting together and ultimately started PaperG.
Q. How did you and your co-founders go from conversations to actually starting a company?
A. Definitely lots of brainstorming and conversations early on. It was very informal and once we identified the opportunity and the problem we were trying to solve, the question became, “What’s the best way to solve it? What can we do specifically to help make online advertising easier for local businesses?”
There were a lot of days when we talked about products and figuring out what we were going to build. Even in the early days, as we were building, things ended up changing once we started getting customers. It was a very iterative process. We had an idea, we’d try to build it, and then get feedback on it because, as a B2B company, the products aren’t good if no one’s going to pay for it. So we tried to experiment and get feedback on what was going to solve the problem and deliver the most value.
One of our key insights early on was that, in order to get the company kickstarted, it wasn’t going to be practical for us to sell to small businesses directly. We learned that would require hiring tons of salespeople to go knocking on doors and selling ads.
We made a conscious decision to be focused on technology. We want to be a technology company and try to make that work to our advantage and not have to worry about hiring lots of salespeople to knock on doors.
We realized the best way to do this was to build an ad platform to make it simple for local businesses to advertise online. But we actually sell that ad platform to media companies instead of local businesses directly, so the media company ends up being our direct customer. They license our ad platform and pay us a monthly fee.
We realized media companies already had tons of local salespeople who already have relationships with local businesses. They were already selling something to these businesses. It could be a newspaper ad, if they were a newspaper. It could be a TV ad. It could be a website or whatever else.
Since they already had that sales team and relationships with local businesses, it was the perfect entry point for PaperG, where we could just sell our technology to media companies and their salespeople would be able to then use our ad platform to sell online advertising to small businesses they had relationships with.
That’s what became our motto in the beginning. Since then, we’ve broadened beyond newspapers to all sorts of media companies, like Gannett or Hearst or AOL or Time Warner Cable.
But the impetus first came from the fact that selling to these media companies was going to allow us to leverage our technology combined with their sales team to really produce the best results for local business.
But one key challenge was no media company was actually willing to pay for our product in the beginning.
Q. So how did you get them to sign with you without a track record?
A. It was really challenging. In terms of steps to starting a company, here it is: One, get your co-founders. Okay. Two, figure out the problem you are going to solve. Three, figure out what your solution is going to be and build that. And then four, find your customer. We got through one to three and now, we were trying to figure out four. How do we get our customers?
It was tough because, as recent college grads who had no work experience, we didn’t know anyone at media companies or newspapers. It’s not like we had worked in the industry before. We had no connections. So we had to do a lot of classic networking and cold calling, trying to call everybody whom we could find to get feedback on our product, and more importantly, try to find our first customer – so, lots of e-mails, cold calling.
Most people just ignored us. They didn’t e-mail us back. They didn’t answer our calls. It was tough, but luckily, we did get one response from someone at the Boston Globe. I think it was the VP of Sales who actually agreed to meet us and hear about our idea and product. We were like, “Awesome. This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for, to get a meeting with an exec from the Boston Globe. This is where we are going to go in and wow them with our product and convince them to write a check and pay us for it.”
So we went to that meeting. We did our pitch. We showed them the product. We tried to tell them why it was awesome and why it would really help the Boston Globe get more sales and more local businesses to advertise online.
At the end of the meeting, he liked the product and could see the fit, but ultimately decided he didn’t know for sure whether it would increase revenue, and so he couldn’t commit to that. It was a good idea and concept but there was no proof it was going to actually work for them, so he decided not to sign a deal.
We left that meeting pretty dejected. It was our chance and we blew it. What do we do now? We thought about it more and realized we had to prove this product actually worked. We had to somehow demonstrate this was going to actually increase sales for the Boston Globe.
Of course, we didn’t have any other customers to point to, so we couldn’t say, “Oh, it worked for this newspaper, so it can work for you too.” So what are we going to do? We decided that instead of asking the Boston Globe to pay us money for our ad platform, we offered to pay the Boston Globe instead.
We told them, “Hey, what if we bought ad space on your site? You don’t have to do anything. Just run our ad, and we’ll pay you for it.” Of course they said yes, because why not, right?
Once we got that in place, then we used our own ad platform to try to sell ads on the Boston Globe’s website. So we, the founders, tried to eat our own dog food and actually went out and used our own ad platform and went door to door to local businesses and tried to sell advertising on the Boston Globe’s website using the product we created. It worked. We got local businesses to advertise on the website.
Over time, we built a steady stream of advertisers in this ad space that we paid the Boston Globe for. The whole point of this wasn’t actually to pocket the difference between what the advertisers were paying us and what we were paying the Boston Globe. The point of it was to demonstrate that if a couple college kids with no sales experience could profitably sell ad space on the Boston Globe’s website using PaperG’s products, then surely a well-trained sales team at the Boston Globe could do even better, so proving out the business model to them by doing it ourselves.
We made the case that, “Hey, look, we’re making more money off your ad space than you were making before, and we’re just kids, so think about what you can do if you give your sales team access to this amazing technology we built.” That ended up working. They saw the value of what it could do, and the Boston Globe ended up becoming one of our earliest paying customers.
From there, we tried our best to make sure it succeeded, and luckily, it did. The Boston Globe was doing well. It was making new revenue. We were demonstrating that this product we had built was working.
From there, it became easier to get our second paying customer, and when that was even more successful than the Boston Globe, it was even easier for us to get a third, a fourth and a fifth customer. It snowballed from there, where it got to the point that we had these really successful cases. We ended up getting customers referring us to other customers and building up our reputation and our value from there.
Q. How long was it between signing the Boston Globe as your first customer to landing your second customer?
A. Probably six months, maybe a little bit longer. The first customer took a really long time to get. The second customer was not as difficult as the first customer, but was still hard. It was certainly a challenging process. It got easier over time, but definitely, the early days was a lot of work and required a lot of effort to make it happen.
Q. And during this time, at what point were you in school versus doing this full-time after graduation? How did you fund this when you went full-time?
A. PaperG launched in 2008, which is the year I graduated, so I started working on it while I was still in school, but ended up graduating and working on it full-time. My other co-founders also graduated or took a leave of absence from school to pursue PaperG full-time.
The shift from student to full-time was a big one because it meant we could focus all our energy on the company instead of having to worry about school and classes at the same time we were doing the startup. I’d say that was definitely a great moment when we were actually able to work on it full-time and once we did, we really started seeing things pick up a lot faster than they had before.
Actually, that was a very good experience and led me to give advice to anybody thinking of starting a startup, that it doesn’t become real until you commit to it full-time. When you’re still at your job or in school, you can obviously brainstorm and start working on it a little bit. In many cases, it’s the safest thing to do and the most practical way to do it.
But it’s when you decide to take that leave of absence or quit your job and start focusing on the startup full-time that it becomes real, that things really start to happen. We certainly saw that with PaperG.
In terms of paying the rent and everything, the nice thing about us starting a startup after school is that you have no baseline of expectations for how much you’re making. We never had a job before, and so we were used to not receiving a paycheck anyway. We were pretty scrappy. We had to get by with not having the expectation or lifestyle of a regular paycheck coming in.
We did end up raising a small amount from friends and family to make sure that we could, at least, pay basic expenses. We lived on $5 burritos for a while. That’s actually one of the big benefits for a lot of people when they’re coming right out of college or shortly thereafter.
A lot of people wonder, “Maybe I should have some work experience first and build up some savings before I take the plunge and build a startup. A lot of classmates in my year were interested in starting a company, but they all felt it was wise to get some work experience first, work at big companies and see what that’s like, get that paycheck and build some savings, then maybe a few years later, do the startup. Certainly, that’s a fine approach and many have done it that way and have done great.
I did the opposite approach, where I just dove right in. Certainly it’s nice to do before you have a family, kids, before your expenses start to get a lot bigger.
When you’re out of college, your needs are pretty basic, so in some ways it’s the best time to start a startup because you’re able to be scrappy and do what it takes to get the company off the ground.
Q. What’s the biggest learning you’ve had so far in your career?
A. I think one of the key things is that, for anybody starting a company, is to really just dive in and do it, and not worry too much about, “Do I have the right experience yet? Do I have the perfect idea?”
For me, my co-founders were even strangers. I think it’s not as important as people make it out to be to get everything perfectly right. The most important thing when you’re starting out is just to commit to it and get started, because once it happens, so many things change anyway.
Your first idea is never going to be what the company ends up becoming. In terms of experience, you’ll learn a lot along the way. And some of the background you think is relevant ends up not being as relevant as you thought, or you end up getting new experience while you’re doing it.
For doing a startup, the most important part of it is just getting started. It’s not going to be great right away. It’s going to be a lot of struggle. A lot of learnings, trial by experience, but that’s where, honestly, you learn way more than you would by trying to get that experience somewhere else or spending too much time thinking about the idea or trying too hard to find co-founders.
Smart people will figure things out and plug in the holes and weaknesses and figure out where they need to go to build a successful company.
Q. Do you feel that everybody who’s interested in starting a tech startup should develop technical skills?
A. Yeah. Certainly for me, it was very helpful to be able to program. I wouldn’t call myself a programmer by trade. I don’t do any of it for PaperG currently, but from having made websites in the past and still keeping up with it and working on side projects, it has helped me understand a couple things.
One is what is technically possible and that really helps in terms of driving the product and laying out what the vision should be, knowing the capabilities, what obstacles there are, what challenges there are, and how you can build a really defensible product. For me, that was really important, to have that technical background.
Two is to be able to understand and be on top of changes in technology, because often the best companies come when major technological shifts are happening. Whether you end up being a programmer or not, it’s important to know enough that you can understand and follow these trends, because then you can really take advantage of them in your company in a way that gives you an advantage.
For those two reasons, it’s really beneficial for me to have that technical background. Certainly there are many great founders who don’t have technical experience, so it’s certainly possible to start a successful business without one.
The other thing I noticed is that, even in a tech startup, the innovation doesn’t always have to happen in the product or the technology. For many companies, their product or technology may not even be that unique or innovative, but where some companies really succeed is innovating on the distribution, the user acquisition, the sales or the business model or the pricing model, innovating on operations.
There’s a lot more to a business than just the product or technology. Sales, operations, fundraising, hiring, marketing, user acquisition, PR, etc. These are in many ways as important as the product or technology. I think that’s where a founder who might not have technical abilities could still do really well, by thinking about the other things that perhaps other founders or incumbents or competitors are not thinking about.
Q. Meanwhile, with your side projects, are you generating any cash flow from them?
A. Well, antistudy.com is still actually alive and doing well 10 years after I first created it, which has been great. It generates revenue off advertising and affiliate fees by referring users to places where they can buy study guides that they might not be able to get for free. I’ve been able to generate revenue that way.
Other side projects are not as money-focused. For example, Job Change Notifier, that’s a service which I think is valuable for me and some members of the PaperG team and I thought would be valuable to everybody else as well.
Again, what really drew me to the Internet and startups to begin with was the thought that a single person could have such an outsized impact and affect people everywhere, and in some cases that also generates money. And it’s a dream job to be able to work on something that’s really interesting to you, that you have passion about, that you really enjoy doing, and be able to actually make a living out of it. I think many people couldn’t ask for anything better than that.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. My plan is to be an entrepreneur and work on tech startups as long as I can make a living out of it. Right now, that’s PaperG, that’s what we’re trying to really grow, and we hit profitability last year. It’s been growing well and so, we’re obviously trying to continue to make that a success and take it to the next level.
Down the road, I think there’ll be another startup after that, and another startup after that, because I think starting a tech company is the most effective way I can have impact on business and on society. To me, when you think about the short time we have here on earth, what do we hope to get out of it? What are our goals? To me, it’s really to make an impact and change things for the better.
If you think of it that way, what’s the best way to do that? For me and for many people, it’s technology.
Q. What advice do you have for folks who are inspired by your story to think about as they navigate their own career paths?
A. One, if you’re thinking about starting a startup, commit yourself and take the plunge and get started on it. It’s going to be scary, so definitely seek the advice of people who have done it before on how to get there and how, psychologically, they were able to make that commitment because it’s certainly a big decision. Don’t worry about having the perfect idea. Just dive into it. That’s the best way to learn.
Second, spend your time to just be creative, make things you think are interesting, whether they could be a viable business or not. Some of the earliest websites I made were not made with a startup or fundraising or monetization in mind. Even projects I do today aren’t really viable startups in themselves, but I think, in all those cases, there was a need I could address and a problem I could solve.
For me, that has really been helpful because, one, it gets me always thinking about where can I solve a need. Where can I really add value or contribute, because after all, what we’re doing with a tech startup is trying to build a company that’s going to be valuable to people.
Sometimes, things can be a viable business. Sometimes, they can’t, but training yourself to thinking about ways you can really make things better for people and actually going out and doing that, no matter how trivial or straightforward or unmonetizable it might seem, just gets you in that habit, so that eventually, inevitably, you will stumble upon or think of an idea that ends up becoming a viable business, and that will end up being your startup company.
Great write up and interesting story !
Hope more people read it, so they can benefit from other person’s experience.
Very interesting interview and good story!