Justin Kan, co-founder of Justin.TV and Exec: ‘You’ve got to have the relentless ambition to not give up!’

Total read time: 10-12 minutes

Justin Kan is the ‘Justin’ of Justin.tv, co-founder of one of the largest live video platforms in the world with more than 30 million uniques/month, TwitchTV, mobile social video app SocialCam, and errand service Exec where he currently serves as the CEO. He is also an angel investor and part-time partner at YCombinator. Justin graduated from Yale University with degrees in physics and philosophy. 

- Lets start off by discussing the beginnings of your entrepreneurial journey. When and how did you get into programming and web development?

- I got into programming when I was in high school. I remember I took this class that was taught by this employee of Microsoft. He was a programmer and he taught this class at the community center about programming, so I learned about programming and Visual Basic. That was my first exposure to building programs. Then I really didn’t do much with it in college and as a senior at Yale we were doing an experiment in my physics lab. I remember we automated this little platform called Igor which you use to automate various experiments and that got me back into programming. At the same time I was also working on my first start up, Kiko, which went through Y Combinator in 2005. It was an Ajax-based online calendar system similar to Google Calendar. I really didn’t know much about programming, especially about web programming and I just started hacking together with a friend of mine. He was a better programmer than I was - Emmett Shear, who was a classmate of mine at Yale. That’s really how I got started. Emmett taught me a lot and I learned a lot by just goggling. 

- What was the story behind founding each of your companies. Let’s go through each of them.

- Kiko and the story behind it. It was a senior year at college. I was working with a couple friends of mine, Emmett and another friend of ours - Matt Fong. We were in college with a great safety net. I said, ‘We should just try to start a company because we have access to all these smart people and we don’t have any jobs and we don’t have any expectation of getting a job right now’. We have some time to start something and we just decided to get together. We saw that Gmail had just come out and someone said we should just build a calendar for that and that’s how we got started. After we graduated we got into Y Combinator and it went from there. Later when that startup failed, we started Justin.tv and that was just some crazy idea we had in the final days of Kiko. Basically, we had this idea of building our own reality show where I’d wear this camera around my head. We started that and then it eventually turned into the live video platform that spawned a lot of different video applications including Twitch, which is the ESPN for video games and Socialcam, which is a video sharing app. For my most recent startup, Exec, I started with an idea I had on the way to Burning Man with some Y Combinator friends of mine. We had this idea because one of my friends needed something done in the city while we were on our trip and there was no way to get it done. Eventually we had to call in an Uber and go from point A to pick up something and deliver it to a point B. And I said I thought it would be cool if we had something like an Amazon Mechanical Turk for the real world, a way to immediately outsource your errands that needed to be done.

- What were the main lessons you learned while working at each of these companies?

- Well, in Kiko, the thing I learned was that you should work on something you actually want to use. We were college students and we didn’t even use calendars because we didn’t have much to schedule. Justin.TV - I learned a lot of different things. I learned a lot about the technical side of scaling. We did scale very quickly in the early days especially and we did a lot of that ourselves. I learned a lot about customer development and trying to build something that people wanted. And that you could build something narrower, like TwitchTV, which is a great example of something that, what we thought, was a niche at first. But by really focusing on delivering the needs of a few customers really well, like the gamers, for example, we were able to build a much better product that expanded and ultimately got much bigger than Justin.TV right now. With Exec I’d say what I’ve learned is a similar lesson. One thing we’ve done is that we focused down on something that people really wanted which was cleaning and that’s allowed us to grow and expand.

- Did Exec start off as a platform?

- Yes, we started off as everything, anything you wanted, very horizontal and now we focus on primarily cleaning.

- What keeps you going? You have 5 companies behind your back and you’re still in the game.

- I think I am motivated by just continuing to be successful and trying to build something that’s great and touches a lot of people. That’s what really gets me up every day and that’s the only thing I know how to do. What else would I do if I wasn’t doing this?

- Have you ever taken a vacation between starting these companies to brainstorm for new ideas?

- I’ve never taken a long vacation from the day I stopped working actively on Justin.TV and started working on Exec. I really haven’t taken an extended vacation, I think I’d get bored. I do take vacations like a regular person.

- Tim Ferriss is known for saying, ‘The diversity is the spice of life’. Do you subscribe to this philosophy? Do you start something and when you stop having fun, does that make you explore different possibilities?

- I definitely like doing new things, that is something I personally enjoy a lot. I also believe there is something to be said for really sticking with an idea even when it’s difficult and you don’t like it as much if you really believe in something. Your enthusiasm will always naturally vary. It comes like a roller coaster. Your typical entrepreneurial journey is like a sign wave of ups and downs. You’ll get growth one week and then the next week is not as good, and then it comes back. I think that part of being an successful entrepreneur is really sticking with things and persisting through the times when you don’t want to or it’s not as fun. I don’t believe in just trying something and when it’s not interesting anymore you just give up. I think I never would have built anything if that was the case.

- As a partner at Y Combinator, what mistakes do you see young entrepreneurs make over and over again?

- The mistakes that entrepreneurs make are always the same in their early days. They don’t talk to their customers enough. They build something that nobody wants. They are not validating the market. They aren’t moving quickly enough. They are distracted by things that are basically irrelevant, like business development deals or partnerships, things that aren’t talking to the customers and building what customers want. I think the early days are about learning as fast as possible. You want to test your hypothesis as fast as possible and you want to discover what provides the most customer value, to hopefully, a niche of customers that can be expanded. That’s what i think a lot of early starters need. Anything else is usually a distraction.

- Going back to academia and your college years. What were the 3 most memorable classes you took at Yale?

- One was the intro to psychology class. It was very influential to me. The best book that I read at college and the greatest takeaway book was called ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini. It’s a great book. We covered it in our Psych 110 class which I took senior year at college. A lot of the things that come up in that book, like how you and your products interact with people, are things that I think about even today. I took a logic class that has a lot of concepts that are translatable into programming. That was helpful because I didn’t take any programming classes. I also think the most fun I ever had was this robotics class, where you build a remote control robot and you had to try to do this physical challenge like navigate around a table. The tasks change every year. Our year we had to build something that simulated deactivating mines. That was cool because it was something very creative. With this set of materials you could do whatever you wanted and build something that would achieve these goals. It’s kind of like entrepreneurship, where you have to figure out creative ways to solve these problems.

- Let’s try to go to a kind of futuristic question. If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would those, say three, people be?

- If I could have dinner with anyone in history?

- Yeah. Genghis Khan, Leonardo, you name it. Richard Feynman?

- I don’t know. I guess, Feynman might be one of them. He was a great writer and, obviously, he was a great teacher. I really look up to classic businesspeople, like Henry Ford. Tesla would probably be another one. I’ve never really thought of that before.

- Anyone you would like to meet, any particular celebrity you would like to meet, one that is still alive? An actor? An author?

- There are a lot of tech celebrities – like Richard Branson, who is a person I’ve always looked up to, same with Bill Gates. I grew up in Seattle, and he is someone who, while growing up, was a thought-leader in technology, especially in the Seattle area. They’d probably be on my list.

- Which entrepeneurs, or hackers, did you get a chance to work with? And what specific things did you learn from working with them? 

- The co-founder of my first company, and then Justin.tv, Emmett Shear, we grew up together on Capitol Hill, and he is now the CEO of Twitch. He, basically, taught me how to program – in a production environment. He was ahead of the curve, he learned on the job. He had a CS degree from Yale, so we worked together and he taught me everything I know today about web development and programming. So, that was a really great experience. That’s probably one.

My other co-founder – from Justin.tv, Michael Seibel – who eventually went and spun-off SocialCam, which they sold to Autodesk last year – he has always been someone who is great to work with, a great friend of mine. And he was someone who, the way I put it, he wasn’t someone who was afraid to ask the hard questions. In startups, there are a lot of hard questions – why isn’t this getting done as well it could have, maybe that’s someone’s responsibility. It’s uncomfortable to ask that – why isn’t this happening? How could this be better? Could you be doing this better? But Michael would always ask the hard questions, and I think that I have learned that from him. It’s very valuable to ask. It is really important to figure out honest ways to assess your situation in startups, because it is so damaging if you waste your effort. We were constantly re-evaluating.

- Which books shaped who you are and effectively changed your life?

- Well, there’s one really good one, that I think is my favorite book of all time and it’s called ‘Shogun’ by James Clavell. It’s the story of this English adventurer who gets marooned in Japan in 1600, and he has to integrate into feudal Japan. The book is a political intrigue-thriller; it ist about how he integrates and also the backdrop is this war between these two warring factions in Japan, and how one of them – the side that he ends up on – becomes, well, their leader becomes the Shogun.

- That sounds like a book which would inspire Edward Zwick to make ‘The Last Samurai’ with Tom Cruise.

- Yeah! I mean, I also loved ‘The Last Samurai’, that’s one of my favorite movies. It’s similar, but that occurs later – it’s during the Meiji Restoration period. It is about 200 years later. I really like ‘Shogun’ because it taught me a lot of things; there’s a lot of philosophy in there, but also basic things, such as the character, who is the leader of the Japanese side, he always waits. He’s willing to wait for things, to extend his decision-making. I think that was something that has been a very useful as an application in these startups.

- Patience.

- Yeah, patience! It’s also just a really great, well-written book. That’s definitely the one I recommend to everyone.

- Which blogs do you find yourself reading the most?

- Blogs that I read the most? Probably TechCrunch is up there. I also like Marginal Revolution, it’s an economics blog, run by a couple of economics professors. Those are probably the two. 

- I read your post yesterday on how to accomplish anything by breaking things down.

- Oh, yeah! Cool!

- Which areas of your life would you like to improve?

- I think the main area I would like to improve is really in my ability to lead – leadership and leading the company. I think I’ve learned a lot since we started working on startups eight years ago, but I continue to learn about it every day and try to be better – some days, I am; some days I am not. So, that’s work in progress.

- Anything in areas outside of work? Maybe, learning foreign languages, traveling, or learning things faster?

- I’d like to do more for other people. I think that in startups it is pretty easy to – you are obsessed with making your own thing work, making your company work or being successful. That’s really important and I think those are good goals. But I also think that a balanced life is one in which you do things for other people as well. And that’s something I want to improve at, myself.

- And that is what Exec is as well.

- Yeah, I think so!

- Justin Kan: this is how I work. Do you have any routines that you developed to be more productive?

- Routines to be more productive? Well, I started drinking coffee in the morning. The one thing I do to be more productive is – if I hit a wall or a problem (whether it is a programming problem or not) – being able to take a break and saying ‘I don’t have to force it right now’; I think that stepping up, going somewhere, and walking, or working out, or something like that can be great ways to unblock yourself mentally. I think when I first started I said ‘I’ve just got to do this right now and solve it right now’; but being a little bit more patient, I think, is helpful.

- Are you on maker’s scale, as opposed to manager’s scale some of the days – let’s say, on Fridays you don’t hold any meetings and just focus on building and have an interruption-free day?

- I don’t really do schedules like that on a day-by-day basis. Monday is our meeting day at Exec, but I try to – I’m more of a person who is a one-track mind: what’s the biggest problem and then I try to solve that problem. So, sometimes, that is a programming thing, but more and more often it’s something that is more management, or figuring out how some system should be built, or something like that.

- So, you still code on a regular basis?

- Yeah! Just a little bit. We have people who are far better engineers than I am at Exec, thankfully.

- What is the single most important trait for entrepeneurs to succeed in your mind?

- Relentlessness. I think the single most important trait is that you have this relentless ambition to not give up and that you are going to make it work – to stick with it, no matter what. Because, I think that – especially in technology and the Internet – it’s a growing space. So, it’s kind of like a positive-sum game; if you get in the game, and stay long enough, it’s likely that something is going to work. I think that just sticking with it is the hard part. A lot of people get discouraged, and they go do something else or they go work for someone else, but if you stick with it – I think it’s a prerequisite to be successful.

- Knowing everything you know now, what would you do today if you were, let’s say, eighteen? Would you go to college?

- I would have started Dropbox!

- That’s a good one! That’s it? Nothing else?

- I think so far I’ve done fine. I think that there are things that I could have done better, maybe started things smarter, or started different companies, or been faster at integrating those companies, or integrating our ideas, but would I have done that? I think that I’ve learned things at a pretty good rate. I’ve been pretty good about it. So, I don’t have any regrets. I don’t regret going to college, or something like that. I think that was a good use of my time. So, I think that I don’t know if there is anything I would have done differently.

- Finally, what would you say to eighteen-year-olds out there, as well as to your eighteen-year-old self?

- What would I say to them? I think I would say that you should learn how to program. Becoming a good web-developer is probably the single most valuable thing I have done in the past eight years. That’s what I would say; I would say, ‘It behooves you to learn how to program’.

Guest of the episode: Justin Kan
Creator and host: Arman Suleimenov

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