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Jerk Cornell Alum Tries to Build Startup Based on Caring

This is a guest post from Walter Chen, BS '04, as part of an ongoing series of posts about his experiences as a Cornell startup founder in San Francisco. He is the co-founder of Leasely, which makes online tenant screening dead simple.

I've never been a particularly successful student. My high school grades were bad enough that at some point, by dad broached the subject of community college. My cousin Eric was a Marshall Scholar and got his Ph.D from Oxford in Mechanical Engineering. Once we were chatting, and Eric leaned in and told me his secret. He said, "Pretend like you care."

When I was just starting out with Leasely, I described the concept to Kevin, a close friend of mine. I told him about the product from a few different angles. I said it was as simple as taking a process from pen and paper to the internet. I also compared it to a common application for apartments that high school students have for colleges. He said, "It sounds like a great opportunity." "But," he added, "I'm personally not looking for opportunity -- I'm looking for inspiration."

One dominant analogy playing itself out on the web right now is that of customer happiness as business development. I think it would be tough to have that maniacal drive to make customers happy without caring for them and being inspired to help them through technology. People like Tony Hsieh and Steve Jobs are showing dweebs like myself how technology should be a means to the end goal of providing a great user experience.

When I was in college, I remember some guy happened to walk by my open dorm room door and did a double take. He asked, "Did I see you in Goldwin Smith last week yelling at your English professor?" "Probably!" I said. I also got into it with my technical writing professor because he thought I mocked him openly in class. I did regret my contentiousness once -- I argued at length with a computer science professor for giving me a B+ after I had gotten a 100 on every exam and assignment before doing poorly on the final project. I didn't have much of a leg to stand on -- my program took about 8 minutes to launch when it should've taken a second or two -- and it didn't work.

It seems like young programmers these days are far more business savvy, and I imagine that their arguments are less about, say, how nice functional programming is, and more about how to get customers coming back to their site for more. I know that programmers and computer scientists have a heritage of lionizing the outcast and rebel, and it's hard to do your own thing without financial independence. In establishing my new venture, I'm forced to move away from my previously combative instincts and instead focus on the needs to the customer. To my surprise, I don't have to take Eric's advice here; with both economic independence and pride on the line, I do genuinely care.

Walter Chen | Posted on December 16, 2010 (#)

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