Perspectives on entrepreneurship, startups and venture capital from K9 Ventures.

Insane Perseverance in the Face of Complete Resistance

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It was 2:00 AM and I was still sitting in ‘The Cave’ — the name we affectionately gave to the cubicles in the bowels of Wean Hall  at Carnegie Mellon. It was called ‘The Cave’ because it’s all under ground, with no natural light portals whatsoever. The cave was kinda like Vegas — once you enter you lose track of time. Day or night it looked the same, and smelled the same (and not too pleasant at times!).

I was in the cave late that night because I was firefighting. A couple of weekends ago, on a whim to teach myself Java I had written up software for hosting chat rooms. The server was the decrepit little Pentium 200 sitting under my desk. The problem was that the server was crashing under the load of all the people using it. I could just go home and sleep, but the problem was that if the server crashed, I would end up with a ton of email the next day from the disgruntled users. In hindsight, I should have used Moore’s Law to solve the scalability issue. But I was a student and buying machines in 1996 was still expensive.

I was chatting with one of the frequent and loyal users of my site that night and explaining to him how I didn’t have enough resources to keep up with the growth of the service. Running thousands of concurrent users was pushing the limits of what the Java VM could handle on the P200. That’s when he suggested, maybe I should start a company — and start charging for the chat rooms. The bit flipped — I went from being a hacker, to being an entrepreneur.

There is nothing like your users telling you to charge for your service, because they want it and need it. At the time when I started my first company, I had one of the few Java-based chat solutions available, and was one of the first to offer what are now known as embed tags so that people could create their own rooms. SneakerChat, as I called it, had over 20,000 concurrent users with well over 50,000 registered users (registration was optional).

Starting my own company sounded cool. I knew it was something I wanted to do eventually anyway. It’s what I had always considered doing, right from the time that I was building and selling musical doorbells to my parents friends. (That’s a whole other story for another time). But, I knew nothing about starting a company and I knew even less about what it meant to start a company in the United States. I hadn’t grown up here, I was only here as a student and that too on a student visa. And I didn’t have any extra money I could use as capital to start a company with — but when did that ever stop anyone!

I decided I needed to learn about what it meant to start and run a company. Some of my classmates had taken a course on entrepreneurship at the business school across campus. I asked them which class it was and who the professor was. They recommended taking the class appropriately called ‘Entrepreneurship I’ taught by Professor John R. (‘Jack’) Thorne, who was the Director of the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at the business school. In the next couple of days, I walked over to the business school and into the Don Jones Entrepreneurship Center. Jack’s assistant (whose name eludes me right now, but I think it was Suzanne) was great at calming my nerves as I was probably visibly nervous when I walked into my first meeting with Jack.

I told Jack that I wanted to take his class on entrepreneurship. Jack suggested that I take a different class — Technology-based Entrepreneurship, which was offered the following semester. He explained to me that his class was only for students of the business school and on top of that, it was already over-subscribed with a long waiting list. I was somewhat disheartened, but didn’t know what else I could say or do. Though I was despondent, I decided to at least show up for the first lecture for Jack’s class to see what it was like. Later that week, I snuck into Jack’s class and found myself a corner I could stand in without being noticed much. I was at least 5-10 years younger than everyone else in the class, I wasn’t from the business school, and didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

The first slide Jack put up that day was his definition of entrepreneurship: ‘Insane Perseverance in the Face of Complete Resistance.’ That was it! I was hooked. It took a couple of seconds for it to all come together, but then it just clicked. Jack had just given me the perfect way to get into his class. It was the first test on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. I decided right there, on the first slide of his first lecture, that the only way I could be successful as an entrepreneur was to first convince Jack Thorne that I should take his class!

I scheduled a followup meeting with Jack and in his office. I told Jack that he had already given me what I needed to take his class: Insane Perseverance. I told him that I was not going away. That I would keep showing up to his class and hiding in the back listening in. I wouldn’t ask any questions or say anything so as not to disrupt the class, but I was going to be there for every lecture, and the only way Jack could get rid of me would be to have me thrown out!

Needless to say, Jack relented and he welcomed me into his class. I got to take his class when several other people on the waiting list didn’t. I took every single class Jack Thorne taught at the business school. Entrepreneurship I. Entrepreneurship II. Entrepreneurship Project. Entrepreneurial Management. If it had the word entrepreneur in it, I was there. I wrote the business plan for my company as a class project for Jack’s class. I incorporated my first company, SneakerLabs, Inc., while I was still a student in Jack’s class. I was 20.

Jack Thorne
Jack Thorne

Jack Thorne passed away last year. He was one of my mentors, without whom, I would have never gotten one of the most important lessons of my entrepreneurial life — Insane Perseverance in the Face of Complete Resistance. Those words were at times the only things to fall back on when things got tough. And while there are lots of other experiences and stories that got me there, that first day in Jack Thorne’s class is the day I started my journey as an entrepreneur — one with Insane Perseverance.

Thanks to my wife and Ron Yeh (@ronyeh) for proofreading the above post.

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  • It has been 30 years… and just now the paradigm opens up. Manu, is 30 years perseverant enough?

    I had a similar “forced entry” experience with Professor Karl H. Pribram at Stanford. He was the head of the neuropsych dept there, I did not belong but did belong. It as late in the summer of 1979 when I showed up at his office door wherein life as I knew it changed significantly for me thereafter.

    30 years is how long I have waited and worked on, and tested, and waited… one idea. One complex invention. Many pieces pulled apart and flexed and tested in applicable marketspaces but the “readiness’ was just not there yet… until this last year…

    Paradigm shifts (ref: Thomas Kuhn and Drs. Miller, Galanter & Pribram – Stanford Behavioral Institute) are real and can be motivated to shift to some degree. I wish the market were as easy to “move” as Dr. Thorne.

    Congrats to you and all your successes… and the positive social consequences of these successes and over time.

    So many shades of perseverance and Purpose.

    Lovely story.

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  • P

    You hardly know me, but in your own way you have inspired and driven me. You’ve always been ready to help out and very approachable. As a uni student (though I incorporated mine at 21 – i started unofficially at 20) it is always nice to have someone to look up to.

    Thanks for all those emails. And hope to meet you soon when I start pitching in the bay area in the next few months.

    PS: Posted using an alternate email, so don’t try to guess 😉

  • Manu, as we discussed briefly this is probably one of the most critical aspects of “building” a business. I couldn’t agree more with Prof. Thorne and your paraphrasing his maxim with your own experiences. Thanks for posting this.

    When we started Aeroprise in 2001, conventional wisdom was that enterprise wireless was overcrowded and overfunded and as the insiders called it – “game over.” There were too many well-funded companies present for a new entrant to make any impact. I had a spreadsheet that even with limited research tracked about 68 potential competitors.

    Of course, 4 yrs later (when we were still bootstrapped but with 60+ paying enterprise customers) only 9 of these companies in the list of 68 were left (interesting all those companies have grown between 2006 and today). So much for overcrowded and overfunded. Ultimately the best offerings that customers cannot do without survive, but not before entrepreneurs decide to (insanely) persist in the face of harsh resistance (sometimes even conventional wisdom).

  • Sheba

    Nice post, Manu. So interesting to hear about the story behind your turning an entrepreneur. Jack Thorne must be proud of you.

  • Rajeev Kutty

    This brought back fond memories of my time at Tepper and the Entrepreneurship department headed by Art Boni & Frank Demmler in particular. They helped me and my classmate from Tepper launch our first venture. Since we used the CMU campus extensively to get the business off the ground, your description of Wean hall resonated very well.

  • Manu – thanks for the postscript and additional details – fascinating.

    Also, I didn’t mean to take away from the note about Jack Thorne. I hadn’t heard of him, but the mention makes me reflect on some of my own professors and the impact they’ve had.

  • Great story, reminds me of similar experiences at CMU. I can’t speak for other universities, but CMU really does a good job in helping determined students get access to resources.

  • Great story. You leave out what maybe other entrepreneurs are wondering. 🙂 How did SneakerChat get from 0 to 20,000 users?

    • @Jonathan: Good question. I’ll describe some of it here briefly.

      The site “launch” with just a posting to Usenet groups. The hook was to tell people that they can get their own chat room on their own website, and they could even customize it by putting their own logo on it. So the service was mostly white-labeled. I started by hosting 5 chat rooms on my own website, but then allowed people to open up their own rooms. They could do that either by just typing in a name in the UI, or they could embed the new room into their own website using an HTML embed code (it wasn’t called an embed code back then).

      The initial growth was all organic. In hindsight, I would say that it was mostly getting lucky and being very early — so there weren’t a whole lot of competitors out there. And for the ones that were out there, I was competing on two things: quality (features and reliability) and simplicity. Once I realized that it would be cool to actually have more rooms and more users, I started to think about it a little more strategically. I entered my “applet” in various Java Applet contests. It landed up winning some awards and so now I could add badges on the site, and also got links back from the contest websites. I also created little animated GIF buttons that people could add to their web page to say that their site was powered by SneakerChat.

      Then I realized that by having a white-labeled product, I was limiting my viral growth. So I added a banner ad at the bottom of the chat client. Every page which was using the free chat room, would now be displaying a 468×60 ad banner, which would have an ad saying “Get your own chat room” or something like that. When some of the users complained about the ad, I started offering a paid version. But, I was running low on server resources and didn’t have the money to buy any hardware. So I started offering a paid version of the software, that people could install on their own server. I didn’t really understand the value of “traffic” back then (I probably still don’t!). I was, and still am, a techie/software guy. I didn’t think I could make any money doing ads or by having a lot of people. But I knew I could make money by selling software. What the experience with SneakerChat taught me is that I could actually make money by providing software as a service — back then it was called “on demand,” then it was called “application service provider,” today we call is SaaS.

      Your question made me go look up if any of the old site was still on the Wab Back Machine. Here is the archived version of the site. You’re welcome to poke around and see for yourself what it looked like. Of course the server isn’t running any more so that chat itself won’t work. Also, bear in mind this was in 1998, it was just me, myself and I — all three of us. I was doing everything, the code, the site, the graphics, the marketing, the customer service — everything from soup to nuts.

      To close the loop on this story, I sold the “traffic” and the user base from SneakerChat for about $100,000. I got about 60% of that up front as cash and that’s what became the bootstrap capital for the company. I retained the software, since that’s what I wanted to build — a software company.

  • Bowei

    Great post. Now I wish I had taken his class back in Carnegie Mellon.

    Though I must say, Prof. Boni and Prof. Emerson were great mentors as well. CMU students are very fortunate to have them around.