I’m a 15-year-old with an amazing product idea. Should I ask for funding?
Answer by Andy Manoske:
Short and vulgar answer:
"Fuck funding, get coding."*
Considerably longer and slightly less vulgar answer:
When I was in college I used to have the same fascination with trying to fund some of my ideas. I wasn’t much older than you, but because I was in my undergrad I didn’t feel like age was my limiting factor. Instead, I felt the limiting factor was my school’s lack of prestige.
I went to San Jose State University in California (note: the same place where attended). SJSU is a great school for engineering/cs and has an awesome curricuum and faculty. But it’s significantly overshadowed in Silicon Valley by Stanford and ‘Cal, and at the time I went there it was considered something of a second tier school.
I experienced firsthand the startup stigma of not being at an Ivy/top-tier tech school with some of my first internship interviews. Back then Facebook wouldn’t accept my resume because SJSU wasn’t one of their target schools. LinkedIn, Meebo, and a relatively-recently IPO’d Google were all nebulous black holes that would ignore you even for requests for a campus tech talk. MySQL and a few other places were decently friendly - if only because their HR staff or one of their tech people happened to be an alumni.
After getting burned up and down Silicon Valley looking for an internship, I felt pretty defeated. This sense of defeat also trickled into my creative aspirations. If I wasn’t even going to get an opportunity to interview at a startup because I didn’t go to MIT or Caltech, why would their investors want to spend time with me? This was reinforced by the fact that we never had VCs speak at our school back then, with the first venture guest speaker/lecturer at the time being Ron Conway in my senior year.
Eventually I stopped being so damn emo and got over myself. I realized that the perception of others is secondary to your own personal passions, and if you make yourself successful regardless any otherwise preconceived notions you can shock - and really impact - people.
Given that the system seemed kind of stacked against me because of my lack of pedigree, I decided to disregard it. I broke into tech talks at Stanford and forced the recruiters to take my resume. I benignly hacked into a few websites and submitted White Hat-esque comments on how their security sucked (and how I could fix it). I even used social engineering to get past elitist recruiting schemes: I figured out the syntax of email addresses at some companies, crawled LinkedIn to figure out their corporate structure, and directly mailed senior HR staff in the hopes that they’d forward my email to recruiters that worked under them (who otherwise would ignore my school .edu address).
Venture would be a little bit different. I could use some of the same dubious tactics to try and get meetings with Sand Hill, but after watching my parents rise - and fall - with their dotcom era startup I learned that the best way to attract VCs was to be visibly successful.
So I decided to start doing tech competitions.
I did a lot of competitive programming early on in college with ACM and TopCoder, but I wasn’t as fast or as polished as some of my other 10xer friends. So I started building projects at much slower-paced hackathons and other student dev competitions, and made sure that I focused on things that could be evolved into much bigger solutions to solve what I saw were my “stellar ideas.”
My first project was Tenebra (see screenshot from presentation below). Tenebra was a hardened, encrypted version of Linux that ran in memory and stored information on flash drives so you couldn’t compromise and steal the data left in a local hard drive.
I felt that lots of data theft came from the fact that users stored sensitive information on very unsafe / unhardened environments - un-patched archive servers, their personal computers, etc. If we could add some cryptography and use an architecture that made it really hard to sneak malware like Trojans onto a machine, we could solve a lot of issues with sensitive data loss and identity theft.
This all might sound kind of impressive, but the truth is Tenebra as a prototype was straight up clowntown. My C was (and still is) comically bad and I really didn’t know what I was doing when it came to Linux system development. The whole thing only half worked, and most of the cool features I touted in my presentation weren’t actually in the project.
But a shitty prototype is better than not having a prototype at all, and like your “stellar ideas” this was something that could have a big impact. Endpoint security like Tenebra is a $9B+ market in the United States, and the arcane nature of cryptography means that there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the consumer and non-enterprise/military segment. I brought all of this up in my presentation and in my business model, and I ended up being one of the winners in the collegiate 2008 Silicon Valley Neat Ideas award.
Right after I presented, a well-dressed guy with much shiner shoes than the ones I was wearing in approached me. He said that he was impressed with Tenebra, and regardless of whether or not I wanted to make this a full company he wanted to talk to me. He gave me his business card, invited me to lunch sometime, and headed out to a meeting. After he left I glanced at the card and read the title of the firm he worked at: Lightspeed Venture Partners.
He wouldn’t be the last VC I’d meet in the competition space. I ended up being a finalist in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition, where I met many of company’s execs at MSFT and pitching/meeting partners at a score of other venture firms.
Just like my experience in the Neat Ideas fair, the investors I met were all interested in talking with me because I was able to show them a project that I cared about and built on my own. It wasn’t like I was “dialing for dollars” and trying to force my way into their offices - they were trying to talk to me, and it made things a lot easier (and a lot more fun) to deal with.
Fast forward a few years, and now I’m a venture capitalist myself.
So what’s the moral of this story? Four things:
- Don’t worry about what other people think: Don’t be too concerned with what people might think about you because you’re young. Get passionate about the things you care about and prove anyone who looks down on you for your age wrong. Bonus points for style and creativity.
- You don’t need investors to build a good prototype: You don’t need to be a badass developer to build a prototype for your “stellar idea” - you just need to have the passion to learn what you don’t know and the resourcefulness to make things work with what you’ve got.
- It’s way easier to talk to investors when you’re already successful: Trying to get good VCs to talk to you when you don’t have any good indications of success is really rough and basically impossible nowadays.
If you can make a name for yourself by building a really cool prototype and popularizing it, you won’t have to worry about finding investors; they’ll see your success and try to track you down.
You could totally spin your age to be a positive thing with the press. Launching a successful app at 15 is definitely worth a TechCrunch or Mashable article, and if an early stage investor doesn’t at least notice you then they’re not doing their job.
- You have something much more valuable than money - time: You’re 15, so I’m going to assume you’re in high school. You still have a few more years till you get to college, and you have a lot more time to focus on things than other people older than you who have jobs or are already in college.
Use this time to start learning the skills you’ll need to build your “stellar ideas.” Learn Python and/or Ruby. Get used to coding in the command line. Play with Git. Code a simple mobile app. Start building those technical skills, and just start putting things together to help realize those cool ideas you’ve got floating around in your head.
You’d be surprised how little time it takes to build some simple prototypes when you’re focused. Unfortunately, people older than you have their attention stolen by other things - work, bills/rent/mortgage, kids, etc. You have the luxury of not having to deal with that stuff.
Also if you decide to study computer science you’ll have a hell of a head start on your basic programming classes. It’s worth noting that it’s no coincidence that most of the mega-successful engineers in Silicon Valley started programming long before they got into college.
I’m excited to see you succeed. Good luck!
* = This is a reference to the famous Biggie Smalls and Jr. Mafia song “Get Money”.