Today I decided to interview a more senior entrepreneur. Joyce Park is the co-founder and CTO of Renkoo, a new startup that helps you plan events with your friends. She’s raised $3 million in venture capital and has hired a great team to help her launch Renkoo. She is also one of the most sarcastic and opinionated people I’ve ever met, so this interview was really fun.
There’s also a special surprise for iwillteachyoutoberich readers. Read to the end for it.
Note a few things in her interview:
- Joyce was the first person fired for blogging. It was huge news, so we talk about that a little.
- She talks about the myth of finding a great idea, and points out the futility of trying to keep your idea secret. That’s my kind of entrepreneur.
- She explains the difference in hiring senior (30+ year-old) engineers vs. 22 year-olds. This is especially interesting for young people who want to work in a startup.
- Above all, she talks about people who can get it done. This is the whole point of personal entrepreneurship–people who can have a disproportionate impact by actually getting stuff done, not sitting around, complaining about things not being perfect, and wondering what to do next.
You’re kind of famous, huh?
I think you mean “infamous!!”
Well, you were one of the early engineers at Friendster…
I was lucky to work there. Whenever you get the opportunity to work at scale, you learn things you can never learn any other way. Plus I made a ton of great friends there, without whom Renkoo could not exist.
And you were fired for blogging? What’s up with that?
I think you actually mean “shitcanned for blogging”. OK, here is the real deal: I actually don’t know why. Literally when I got fired all they said was, “This is a termination meeting, and the reason is blogging. There is no performance aspect to this termination.” Then when all the negative publicity happened, everyone involved in the decision started trying to blame someone else. So now it’s totally a Rashomon situation… and after a while, I have come to prefer it that way. Life should have some mystery, you know? I have never edited any of the posts on my blog that referred to the company in any way, so you can judge for yourself.
That’s pretty cool. And now you’re working on your new venture. What’s Renkoo?
Renkoo is a web platform that helps you plan outings with your friends when you know who and what, but not when and where.
So let’s say you and a few friends want to get together for dinner… there’s probably a lot of back-and-forth about the best day of the week, what time, which restaurant, whether someone wants to add a friend, how to get there, you are going to be going to be late, etc. It’s a pain to manage the planning – Renkoo solves that.
Why not just use Evite?
Evite is for large parties where you already know who, what, when, and where. It works on an old-fashioned host-guest, hub-spoke, one-to-many model of what social life is all about. Most social life isn’t like that… 90% of my socializing is with smaller groups of people where we decide the details of place and time by consensus. Coffees, lunches, drinks, movies, clubbing, game nights… do you use Evite for that stuff?
No, I hate Evite. So is Renkoo about a better design, more features, better tapping into the social web?
It’s about a different concept of what social life is. A social software product always embodies a theory about what social interactions are all about, doesn’t it? Did I mention that I was trained as a social scientist (BA, MA, most of a PhD in Japanese cultural history from the University of Chicago), not a computer scientist?
How many people on the team?
8 full-time, 4 contractors.
Your startup is a little different than PBwiki in that you took funding almost immediately ($3 million in VC). Why? And how’d you go about doing this?
Actually, “almost immediately” is a little bit of a misconception. We took a very small angel round after 9 months, and a venture round more than a year after we started. The reason for the funding is twofold: 1) we probably have more complicated technical stuff going on than a lot of websites, and it took us a relatively long time to build that stuff; and 2) I’m 37 years old, man… I don’t have 22-year old friends who I can convince to work for me for free. The people I know and trust are senior software engineers.
But what was right for Renkoo is not necessarily going to work for very young people with no track record. The VERY FIRST THING that an angel or VC is going to ask — even before they look at the idea in any depth – is whether they are positive that this team can get it done. My team had a very strong track record at scale, and I would suggest it might be a waste of time for a very young team to seek funding from the same sources until they have a little more traction. Might seem unfair, but that’s the fact Jack.
So tell us how you go about constructing a social app like this once you have the idea?
If you look at the successful social software apps these days, they are almost without exception founded by people who are about my age or have been around the block a few times. (And before you mention Facebook…do you know who Sean Parker is and what his role in that company was?)
Why is that? Because we’re keeping the younger people down? Because experience helps you get funding? Because we cater to geezers like us? No… I think fundamentally it’s because it’s a bit easier for us to absorb the lessons of the past when designing the product.
We 30-somethings have a tremendous reservoir of ideas from the first Internet boom that had a lot of merit but didn’t pan out under those circumstances. 7 years ago this month, I was interviewing at Epinions…which was the Yelp of the day. My husband was interviewing at a major search engine whose CEO told the employees that search was not a growth area and therefore not worth new investment… ironically, just a few months after Google got its first venture funding. But from the seeds of those “failures”, many great successes have grown. When I talk to younger people, I often wish I could tell them… Dude, it’s not the idea! Maybe you should worry less about being completely original, and more about executing on anything… ” (Ramit’s note: Hmm, sounds like The Myth of the Great Idea.)
With venture backing, you have different expectations than a college kid starting a blog, etc. How do you meet those expectations?
Hmmm… how can I put this? When you’re a new engineer, you think that success means that you finish your tasks earlier than you said you would… so you maybe start estimating long. As you get more experienced, you realized that success means that you finish EXACTLY when you say you will — so it’s mean-zero, on average your estimates are neither long nor short. Analogously, I think what I’d say is that it’s not the venture backing per se that creates the crushing expectations… it’s the inherent size of the idea that you are lucky enough to have had. If your idea is the size of a blog, it’s your job as an entrepreneur to create the maximum value that you can from that blog. If your idea is the size of Google, it’s your job to create the maximum value that you can from Google. I will say that my funder’s expectations of me or of the company are never greater than my own.
How do you market Renkoo?
Marketing has changed a lot in the past few years. Traditional marketing has been about spending money on mass media – billboards, magazines, radio ads, TV spots — in every case, you have to pay to play. Today, people send things like pictures and videos to their friends that they find funny, outrageous or simply bad-ass – the biggest sites today have relied on viral marketing! Renkoo is an inherently viral application — after all, it’s about friends and family — and we are focusing on building features that make it fun and easy to invite your friends to have fun. Of course, we periodically have events that appeal to users too.
What are the things that keep you up at night?
My experience has been that the success or failure of a startup is largely not a question of outside factors like competition, but determined by internal factors like the strengths and weaknesses of the founders. So I’d say what keeps me up at night is worrying that some character flaw in myself or my co-founder Adam Rifkin will turn out to be defective.
What is the stupidest thing you’ve heard people say about doing a startup? Btw, knowing you, this question is not limited to one thing.
Oh man… I could go on forever!!! Definitely one of the things I’ve heard a lot is that you can start a great startup with no money. Uh…find out the facts about the early funding situations of Facebook and YouTube and Reddit and Basecamp, not just the hype. Your idea of “no money” and Fortune magazine’s idea of “no money” might be very different.
What would you say to a young person who wants to do something entrepreneurial?
Do not worry for one second about someone stealing your idea — you’re really not that brilliant. People already have more ideas than they could possibly implement. (Ramit’s note: Also see Your Idea is Not Good Enough to Keep Secret.)
What qualities do you look for when hiring?
A deep love of RFC 2616. A desire to learn a lot — everyone says they feel this, but it’s actually a rare quality. And I don’t think you’ll be successful at Renkoo if you don’t have much of a real-life offline
social life… we’ve had to go thumbs-down on otherwise great candidates because they don’t seem to get out much.
And are you hiring interns, by chance?
Sure! Send ‘em to email@example.com.
So I hear you have a surprise for my readers.
Right now, we are switching from a private beta to a more public beta. We are very excited to have iwiillteachyoutoberich readers be our first blog audience to get to try it out! To sign up, go to http://renkoo.com/selfsignup.php, sign up, and invite a few friends. Let us know what you think.
Now what? To get an invite to Renkoo before anyone else, click here (try setting up an event with your friends). Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.