Build the Future is privileged to host intimate conversations with incredible founders every week on campus. This semester, we brought in innovators with all kinds of backgrounds—from Thiel Fellows to unicorn builders to venture capitalists. They were building in niches spanning from agriculture to fitness to space. In the spirit of accessibility, here’s a collection of the learnings we took from the Fall 2022 semester. We will keep this updated as the semester continues.
From Mark Gainey, founder of Strava
Mark first thought of an online community for runners when the Internet was gaining traction back in the 90’s. His thesis has always been the same: fitness makes people better.
But during the first dot-com boom, fitness centers weren’t equipped to sponsor full-fledged communities online. They were struggling with the infrastructure of the Internet and could barely keep up with all their emails. The world wasn’t ready for a Strava, so Mark co-founded Kana Communications, a company that helped businesses manage their email. Mark helped create a world where his vision for a digital fitness community could flourish.
The common wisdom in Silicon Valley is that you must quit your job. But for Mark, the question was not one of whether to quit, but rather, of where to work. He realized that he couldn’t continue his job working in private equity while building a company, but he did want a job. So, Mark got a job at a local cycle shop.
You have to leave your ego at the door and find a job that gives you the freedom to build.
He kept his rent down by negotiating with his landlord: in return for cleaning his apartment pool, he could pay less rent. At the height of the dot com boom, Kana had a $10B valuation on the NASDAQ. Mark left in 2008.
In 2009, Mark was able to build out his initial dream by founding Strava, an online community for athletes. As of 2020, the startup was valued at $1.5B.
At every step of the process in building Strava, Mark was focused on serving his customer. Growth was a symptom of his customer-first approach.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the big numbers. But when you’re starting out, you have to focus on maximizing value for your first users. Community will follow naturally after.
From Delian Asparouhov, principal at Founder’s Fund and founder of Varda Space
Many of us know Delian from his loud, amusing, and sometimes entirely left-field Twitter account. Meeting him IRL was like meeting a micro celebrity. Many of the students stuck around after class to get one-on-one time and selfies with him.
As a past Thiel Fellow, Delian was thrown into the startup world before he had finished his sophomore year of college. He dropped out of MIT to start Nightingale, an app that ultimately failed. Having this experience so young gave Delian insight into what it takes to start a successful company. He breaks the process down into 2 steps:
- Vision: Where do you want your company to go? How will it change the world?
- Team: Who are the people you need by your side to make your vision a reality?
When he started his current company, Varda Space, Delian was more intentional about the way he approached the building process. He had a vision for a company—one that would improve life on earth by manufacturing difficult-to-produce products in space.
Varda was a highly technical moonshot, so once Delian had his vision, he needed to craft his team carefully.
I had archetypes in mind of exactly who I wanted to hire. Then, I went out to find people who fit those archetypes.
By setting out with an idea for who he wanted on his team, Delian was able to search for people with more intention.
While many founders see jobs as a distraction, Delian sees his part-time job working at Founders Fund as an asset. Because he is an investor, Delian knows exactly what VCs are looking for when they hear out founder pitches. As a result, Delian has able to get capital from likes of Khosla Ventures, Lux Capital, and General Catalyst.
Delian’s strength, both as a leader and speaker, lies in encouraging fearless ambition.
Do what you’re best at and what’s easiest for you. Become the top .1% in that thing.
From Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Medium
Ev Williams is no stranger to founding generational companies. At heart, he is a writer. All 3 of his companies—Blogger, Twitter, and Medium—have served to help the world communicate better through words. And he believes all good ideas share one key intersection.
Find the overlap between a need in the world and an opportunity to do business.
Such good ideas are not created over night. They are the product of careful iteration over many years. Twitter started out as a place for people to stay in touch with friends through status updates. After many iterations, it has become the platform we love today: a social network where anyone can post text-based messages.
Iterate on your idea until it’s so good it seems obvious.
Twitter is so simple it seems effortless. Building the company up to success sparked new questions for Ev about media and information sharing.
Now that we’ve made sharing information virtually effortless, how do we increase depth of understanding? And how can we create a level playing field that encourages ideas that come from anywhere?
Such questions led him to form Medium, a journalism platform that wasn’t gate kept by credentials—anyone could share long-form ideas on the platform and find an audience.
In building two recognizable media companies within the span of a decade, Ev learned how to understand the industry and predict where it was headed. He encouraged students pursuing their own ventures to analyze viral products to understand the market.
Recently, we’ve seen the rise of platforms like TikTok and BeReal. TikTok’s “For You” page shifts the focus from individual creators to their content. You don’t need to know the influencer to love the videos they make. BeReal is the opposite, a platform that is made by the close friends you have on it, instead of the pixelated selfies you post.
Ev believes that these products rising in tandem are an indicator of the words “social” and “media” disconnecting from each other. The future is for people who learn the market and seize it.
Speakers Coming Up
Interested in joining our conversation with these speakers? Sign up to audit the class here.
- Eric Tarczynksi (founder, Contrary Capital)
- Ivonna Dumanyam (co-founder, FathomAI)
- Immad Akhund (co-founder, Mercury Bank & ex-partner at Y Combinator)
- Ilya Abyzov (co-founder, Forward)
- Jonathan Hsu (co-founder, Tribe Capital)
- Luana Lopes Lara (founder, Kalshi)