David Chen: Three Strikes and You’re In!
Why is the stereotype that Chinese people are academic Nazis so prevalent? I always asked myself why so many Chinese students which I met would live up to this stereotype as well. Once David Chen explained the way he grew up, it became clear. China emphasizes a different set of priorities from other countries. Academic excellence is so treasured in China that teachers would post the grades of every student in every subject from highest to lowest to foster academic competition. Chen did not only excel in that environment, he became a shining example of it; he always loved competing when it came to grades. Looking back with pride, Chen recalls, “The best feeling was looking at the first three out of 500 and saying ‘yeah that’s me’.”Chen’s grades never let up either. Everything about his life seemed to be on course, which is why he felt he owed it to himself to chase his dream of attending Harvard University.
When some nerdy fifteen-year-old Chinese kid decides he wants to go to the U.S. with the dream of eventually attending Harvard, nobody hands him a free pass for good intentions. David Chen would have to punch and kick his way through stubborn obstacles in order to make his dream come true. When Chen first arrived in the U.S., he basically felt like an alien. His journey began when he attended a small conservative Christian school of 150 students in the small town of Houghton, New York—a dramatic transition from the densely populated environment he was used to in China. What’s more, this was his first experience in the U.S., which led him to believe that it was a representative sample of American culture. This would throw Chen into a whirlwind of culture shock. It’s not enough that he couldn’t speak English, he also couldn’t relate to anything that his peers were up to. The only thing to do, he felt, was to copy everyone else. He admits, “I didn’t understand anything my friends were doing: basketball, soccer, golf, I only knew how to study. Getting a good GPA is all I knew how to do. I was fat, couldn’t play sports, so I guess instead of physically challenging things I could only do intellectually challenging things.” One of his favorite pastimes was “listening to music and solving math problems.” Another culture shock for Chen was the teaching of creationism instead of evolution, which he also found quite intriguing. Life at this school might’ve been interesting and even fascinating for Chen, but he would inevitably find himself waking up in the middle of the night often wondering, “What am I doing here?” He often times felt lost and lonely, but then he would remember: Harvard.
Despite these dizzying circumstances and drastic life changes, Chen found a way to use his strength (getting a good GPA) to excel in this new strange environment. “So that’s what I did,” he explains. As a non-Christian he went as far as to teach Bible class to other kids his age as an extra-curricular activity. Someone from the other side of the planet was helping teach kids how to better understand the stories of their own religion! Unsurprisingly, Chen excelled in this school and had many interesting social and personal experiences along the way. After so much improbable achievement, he found himself feeling a bit stuck. He remembered why he had come here and he just did not feel any closer to his goal. His ideology was that once he’d decide what he wanted to do, he would move closer to it. That is why he came to America in the first place, so he packed up and moved to Massachusetts to be closer to Harvard.
After attending his new school in Massachusetts for a while, Chen was shocked to discover that there was such a thing as “student government”. In an effort to test himself and see how far he could go, Chen decided to run for class president. His Chinese friends told him with sincere intentions: “Don’t do it, it won’t work, it’s never been done,” but Chen was determined. He rallied as many friends as he could, including his Taiwanese roommate who got all of his friends to back him up. Chen was not one to find a comfort zone and stick to it; he hadn’t even known what that feels like since leaving China. In a dramatic performance, Chen pulled out his written speech in front of his entire class only to say “I wrote a speech, but who cares?” and tossed it aside. This was a stunt as the speech that he gave was actually memorized verbatim. Incessantly trembling, he followed up his speech with a heart-felt song dedicated to the students. Immediately after he finished singing, Chen was shocked to receive a massive standing ovation.
The next morning Chen woke up to a phone call offering him the position of class president. Immediately after the phone call he jumped up in ecstasy and celebrated with his roommate who had supported him throughout this improbable endeavor. Chen recalls, “That was the first time I knew I didn’t have to copy other people; that was the first time I realized I could be myself.” He soon put some serious effort into losing weight and wound up losing 40 pounds within a few months. Shortly afterwards he got his first girlfriend. Following this series of accomplishments, Chen found himself at his prime in terms of confidence and achievement. It was time to apply for every Ivy League school he could ever dream of, but most importantly, Harvard. After several applications and several responses, Chen found himself in a pile of rejection letters from the pinnacles of his highest ambitions, including Harvard; it was devastating. For two days he locked himself in a room and had no desire to talk to anyone. As horrible as this depression was, it didn’t last very long. He admits, “It was a humbling experience; I can’t get everything I want.” Chen once again took his failures and misfortunes and turned them into positive energy.
He was accepted at the University of Chicago. There was no time to dwell; the experience actually kick started his academic work ethic and threw it into overdrive. He would become the vice president of the university and go on to be the co-founder of a nonprofit organization. His ambition thrived to the point where he wanted to be able to apply for Harvard, get accepted, and then reject them himself. Finally, he took an internship in Hong Kong at a large investment bank where he met one of his future co-founders. Banking was not enough for him. His friend was a top level coder and was also interested in starting something new separate from banking. They started out with a crowd funding website created for students, but as Chen put it, “we made every mistake you could possibly think of, spent more time talking to successful people than our actual customers, probably one of our biggest mistakes…The product wasn’t perfect. We were a team of three and had no sense of leadership.” After spending an entire summer on the project full-time, they felt it wasn’t going anywhere.
When the next summer came around, they finally talked to potential users and customers. They asked them: “What would you use our website for? What would you want funding for?” Many students said the same thing: “We don’t need funding.” Puzzled, they would ask these students “You don’t need funding? Then why would you want to be on our crowd funding website?” Again, most students had a similar answer, which was: “I just want to have an online presence.”
This epiphany led to a pivotal point. Chen and his co-founders decided to create a page that just contains a basic profile and then a button at the bottom that would say “if you want one for yourself like this, click here.” The reaction to their initial attempt was incredibly negative across the board. Everyone was discouraged. Two of the founders soon left to focus on their studies, and this traumatized Chen; to him, it felt like a “breakup”. It hit him very hard, and he decided to leave the startup along with any memory of it by returning to China. He became extremely doubtful and was constantly questioning himself. Soon enough, Chen and his team were beginning to receive emails from students who were wanting to know when version 2.0 would come out. This brought some drive back to their entrepreneurial spirit, and they decided to get together again to create Strikingly 2.0. Once completed, they shared it all over Facebook, and they were lucky enough to receive a few hundred sign ups within the first two weeks.
Unfortunately, as Chen put it, “everyone hated version 2.0 too,” but there was one person who did use it for a small organization and told them that he loved it. For Chen, that one person was enough for him to feel like they had traction. Their next step was to apply for Y Combinator. The interview lasted much longer than they expected, which they saw as a good sign. After the interview they went to celebrate at an “all-you-can-eat Sushi restaurant”. They expected to get a call while they were eating. Chen describes the experience: “Then, one hour passed…two hours… three hours…” They then realized that it had been a bit too long to have not heard back. Chen so happened to check his email as a way to distract himself from the tension he was feeling, and inside he found an email from Y Combinator; it stated something along the lines of: “The market is saturated and we’re not sure if you can get enough traction.” They were rejected. None of them could eat after that. There was a 20-minute awkward silence in which they were trying to decide whether they should continue or not. Within that time, they all seemed to agree that they really loved what they were doing and didn’t want to stop. Chen told them, “I’m going to drop out and hustle my way through it, even if you guys don’t want to.” Then everybody decided to go full-time and go all out on utilizing user feedback to create the ultimate product.
Then, Strikingly 3.0 was born. The third was a charm; users were reacting positively to it. They had placed a button at the bottom that said: “click here to upgrade,” but funnily enough, they didn’t have an actual payment system in place yet. One day, they noticed that a girl from Harvard University had actually clicked the button to upgrade. They got ahold of her and asked: “You actually want to pay to upgrade?” to which she replied, “Yeah, when can you have it fixed?” David Chen’s answer was an unhesitant “Right away!”
Chen admits, “We didn’t know how to do marketing, so we just talked to every customer we could. I replied to every single email I got. I spent about 100% of my time talking to users.” As a result of this hard work and dedication, they became what Chen described as “Ramen profitable”. After five months of progress they finally went to apply for Y Combinator again, but this time, before the interview they had a quick little discussion about their intentions. They said to each other, “We’re doing this for ourselves, not for them. We’ll just show them what we’re doing and say ‘If you like it, thank you. If you don’t, that’s fine. We’ll continue to power through this.’” The folks at Y Combinator seemed really impressed by the fact that they were back again and still continuing to work together on the project even though they had told them that it was probably impossible to do. Chen’s friends had similar opinions on the venture. Chen quoted a close friend as saying, “David, I love you so much, but I think you’re probably going down the wrong path.” It was the conviction and persistence that Chen and his team possessed that won the hearts of Y Combinator, and they were accepted.
In hindsight, Chen believes this was a turning point, even though he and his team didn’t realize it at the time. “We kept on thinking that we were dreaming,” Chen admits. He even mentioned a time when his friend had taken a nap and woke up only to say “I just had a dream that were accepted at Y Combinator,” to which Chen of course replied, “It’s not a dream, we really did!”
When we asked Chen what was so beneficial about being at Y Combinator, he explained: “The biggest benefit of being in Y Combinator was really being integrated into the entrepreneurial community and being able to talk to other entrepreneurs who could relate to our struggles and help us solve problems.” Chen recalls, “I didn’t know what the ecosystem was. I heard about it a lot, but I didn’t really get it until I was in it. What was also special about it was that we got three months where all we had to do was worry about the actual product, and for a startup…that’s beautiful!” Following this unyielding persistence and incessant dedication, David Chen’s Strikingly team went to demo day and managed to raise $1.5 million. This is more than some “rags to riches” story; this represents the power of setting high goals, being persistent about achieving them and not allowing yourself to fall into doubt and depression. As David Chen has proven, you can utilize the most uncomfortable and unfavorable circumstances to create the most successful outcomes, as long as you have the right determination and mindset.