This interview is part of our Entrepreneur Interview series.
To think that some people get to do what they love as a job every single day doesn’t seem to happen very often, right? Well, not for Andrew Chen. He knew he loved writing about startups from a very young age which is why he chose to move to Silicon Valley. He began speaking with many different entrepreneurs to come up with great writing ideas, which is what triggered creativity in writing about startups and the entrepreneurial tech industry. Andrew shares with us his secrets and knowledge about entrepreneurship and how to grow in the Bay Area.
Get Advice and Run With It
1. Every entrepreneur needs a great origin story. Why did you start writing weekly Silicon Valley newsletters? Do you find yourself becoming inspired by the other entrepreneurs because of your writing?
I started writing as soon as I moved to the Bay Area. It was always only a matter of time before I moved to Silicon Valley. Even when I was a teenager, I’d read articles about the dot com bubble, my jaw dropped and eyes as big as saucers, on all the crazy stuff that was happening down there. So after a brief stint in venture capital, and then at a investor-backed adtech startup, I decided to make the move in 2007.
When I made the move, I decided to write down everything I was going to learn in the Valley, and to publish it as a blog. I always enjoyed writing, and kept a journal when I was a student, so this seemed like the next obvious extension. My job when I moved was to be an “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” at the venture capital firm Mohr Davidow Ventures. It meant I got to meet with a lot of wonderful entrepreneurs, who would come and tell me their best ideas. When ten or more entrepreneurs told me the same idea, then it’s clear it’s moved from a hush-hush competitive advantage to an overall industry trend, and I’d start to develop some of those into my own ideas.
This made my first year of writing easier and more frequent than it is now!
Do What You Love
2. What is the hardest part of being an entrepreneur?
It’s important to keep in perspective that being an entrepreneur, especially here in the Bay Area, is a great job. The vast majority of entrepreneurs here are doing it out of choice, often backed with investor dollars, to do something they love. It doesn’t get better than that. I think that’s especially important to keep in mind while living in a city like San Francisco which also shows enormous problems with poverty that are visible on a daily basis. So I think being a tech entrepreneur is great.
All that said, being an entrepreneur is certainly harder than a typical staff job because you have to create all the energy to keep everything going. Unlike a normal job at a successful larger company, if you stop working, or you start making bad decisions, everything goes off the rails. It’s impossible to coast. Whereas if you’re working at a company that’s already making money and doing well, then the company’s success probably doesn’t depend on you. That pressure and inability to coast becomes draining as you operate the startup over multiple years. It’s the psychology that gets you.
Use Your Contacts to Grow
3. Who or what inspired you to become who you are today?
The most amazing thing in the tech industry are the mentors it provides. I’ve noticed that young entrepreneurs in their 20s, who are working on mobile apps, often have a few mentors that are in their late 20s or early 30s, who worked on Facebook and other social apps. And those older guys look up to a generation of people who are now in their 40s that created the first generation of web products. And those guys have mentors who are a bit older who worked on enterprise software in the 1980s.
It’s amazing how helpful everyone is in the Bay Area, and my experience has been no different. There’s a long list of people to thank who have supported me over the years, and I’ve learned enormously as a result.
Creating an Audience Doesn’t Happen Overnight
4. Your weekly newsletter generates a lot of traffic and many people take your advice seriously. Can you explain how you ended up being known as an expert startup advisor?
I love writing and I love tech. My essays have gotten some readership because I never worried about “what I was going to get out of it.” It’s purely because I enjoy writing, and even if I didn’t have the readers, I’d still be doing what I’m doing. So there’s no ROI that I have in mind, which makes it easy to focus on the quality of my work over time.
When people head into blogging specifically to pursue some goals around “personal branding” and “content marketing” it seems as though they often give up pretty quickly, because it takes years to grow an audience. My opinion is that writing and developing an audience for your ideas is a lifetime task, and it’s one of the few things I can imagine myself doing for the remainder of my life.
Innovation Changes Everything
5. Your work as Product Marketer with a big data company was slightly ahead of its time. What has changed in the big data space since your days with Audience Science?
My previous adtech company was founded in 2002, has taken nearly $100M in venture capital funding, and is still around and operating. It went from a “data warehouse in the cloud” company to being a pure advertising/marketing play. We tried out many different kinds of “behavioral targeting” including some very early versions of retargeting, but never quite figured out the one thing that was going to work.
These days, a lot has changed- display ads on the web has been completely reinvented because of exchanges/RTB. Obviously mobile has changed everything. And retargeting has become a standard tool that every company uses, rather than a subset of “behavioral targeting” which is how we viewed it.
As long as consumers prefer free products over paid ones, we’ll always have ads to monetize products. So adtech will continue to evolve and grow over many years- it’s an important industry that keeps our products/media free.
Make Shareable Content
6. In understanding what Onboardly does and what our readers are interested in (PR and content marketing for startups), how have you used either strategies (or both) to grow your current weekly newsletter base?
Probably the most clever thing I do, as far as content marketing, is to use Twitter as my test bed for ideas. I’ll often tweet an opinion or headline, and see if it gets a lot of engagement. If it does, then I’ll develop it into a full essay. It ensures that I’m spending my time in the right way and developing content that’s naturally shareable.
All About the Fundamentals
7. Any pro tips, tricks, or things you have never shared before (that you will for us) that have helped you launch or grow your company?
I think it’s all about fundamentals. Put content into the ecosystem that’s high-quality and valuable, and publish as much of it as you can. With all the value that you create, I’m sure it’ll be easy to capture a small % of it, and make your business work. The key is to focus on value creation, rather than how you get paid.
Andrew Chen is a blogger and entrepreneur focused on consumer internet, metrics and user acquisition. He is an advisor/angel for early-stage startups, a US patent holder, a 500 Startups mentor and has been quoted in publications such as the New York Times, Fortune, Wired, and others. Toping 550+ essays, Andrew’s writing is a continuous source of knowledge and inspiration for technology founders and their teams.
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