My First Web App – An Interactive Database

Alumni are precious for any student organization, but maintaining alumni relations is tough when student leadership changes constantly – and of course, the alumni are moving constantly too. How can we combine up-to-date, public information (i.e. LinkedIn) with the historical information that connects alumni with the organization?

This semester, I finally took a crack at solving this with a Delta Sigma Pi Roster.

DSP Big Four Family Tree

What exactly did I create?

Part I: The Roster

With data on 300+ members, the roster answers the core question of connecting up-to-date information with historical. I’ve integrated LinkedIn with the key information that a member of ∆ΣΠ would want to know: pledge semester, graduation semester, big bro, and family. (See “The Family Trees” below.)

In other words – if you’re a member of ∆ΣΠ, you can instantly find out:

  • Who was in that Fall 2010 pledge class again?
  • Which members are graduating this year? How many freshmen do we have?
  • Which alumni are currently working in the industry you’re curious about?
  • What cities are those alumni in? Which ones are nearby, or where you want to be?
  • How are you uniquely connected to them through ∆ΣΠ? Are they in your family?
  • Do you know anyone they pledged with? Anyone who was at USC at the same time?

Part II: The Family Trees

Like many Greek organizations, ∆ΣΠ has a “family” system where Big Bro / Little Bro relationships can be organized into sets of family trees. Our Chapter previously mapped out these relationships in a scrapbook, but it hadn’t been updated in 3 years. With scrapbook in hand and the collective memory of my peers, I had enough to reconstruct them dynamically.

This was probably my favorite part of the project. As an excessively proud member of the “Big Four” family, it was really fun to be able to visualize my “family history” (shown above), as well as others.

Part III: The Map

As a finishing touch, I created a map that shows the global coverage of our Chapter’s membership. From Korea to Madagasgar, we are everywhere! By clicking any pin, you can also see exactly who is there.

Given more time, the map is where I would continue development. I’d implement a more dynamic map that re-plots the location pins based on searches – exactly the same way that searching the roster works, except shown visually on the map. I think the added functionality would be fairly straightforward – but I always think that before I start writing the code. Nevertheless, I’m proud of this feature.


There are many other smaller features – login for administrative functions, membership permissions, autocomplete when selecting big bros, mass editing, etc. – but the main points are summarized above.

To be honest, now that I’ve built the site… I’m extremely happy with the results and I had a lot of fun creating it, but I realize its limitations. There is significant work to be done before it’s robust enough to be managed by someone without any database knowledge. Moreover, there is potential for increased functionality by integrating something like Facebook (which I actually started, but then found that LinkedIn covered enough to meet my basic requirements).

As a whole, however, this was a fantastic project to serve as the capstone for my learning in two classes: Patrick Dent’s ITP 300 (Database Web Development) and David Tang’s ITP 404 (Web Services & APIs). Patrick also taught me in ITP 301 (Interactive Web Development). I’m incredibly thankful for both of these teachers. Between the two of them, I’ve learned CSS, Javascript, jQuery, PHP, mySQL, and a number of other coding concepts like AJAX, MVC frameworks, and more.

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Modeling Pandora: The Money Doesn’t Stream Like the Music

Want to learn financial modeling? You’re in luck.

The truth is that modeling is easy – but the most efficient way to learn is to play with someone else’s model, and then build your own from scratch. And finding another model can be tough, since they are usually build for proprietary business reasons.

In FBE 421: Financial Analysis & Valuation, our final project was a full-blown valuation of Pandora Radio, including a discounted cash flow model. If you would like to take a look, I’ve included links to both our final report and the supporting model below… as well as our colorful cover slide to get you excited :)

Pandora Title Slide

Pandora Valuation Report (PDF)
Pandora Valuation Model (Excel)

We were tasked with analyzing Pandora on behalf of a fictional private equity firm. Should the firm take a controlling stake, a non-controlling stake, or no stake at all? If the firm invested, what would the Pandora’s ongoing strategy be?

As you can guess from our title, we recommended not investing in Pandora. Pandora is the leader of an unattractive industry. Yes, it dominates internet radio and yes, Pandora has an expansive user base and valuable brand – but the industry faces extreme competition (from Spotify, terrestrial radio, and major media companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Apple) and enormous risk in government regulation (internet broadcasters have to pay enormous content acquisition costs for every song streamed). From a private equity perspective, there are limited exit opportunities considering that likely acquirors (major media companies) generally already own internet radio assets. Of course, there’s also the fact that Pandora is a growth company with no cash flow, which eliminates the standard PE strategy of adding debt. (For more, see the report.)

The model allowed us to quantify the qualitative assessment stated above. How difficult is profitability when content acquisition costs take 60% of revenue? We had to make some aggressive assumptions about operational improvements in order to get Pandora cash flow positive within a reasonable period. Additionally, even with those dramatic improvements, our DCF gave us a target price that was only slightly higher than Pandora’s current market price. Considering the significant premium that any purchaser would pay for a growth company like Pandora, there was no space for returns to the private equity firm.

Hopefully, playing with the financial model is fun. This model is very different from the models I built during my investment banking summer internships – it’s more like the models I build for case competitions with Marshall Case Team – but nevertheless, it will give you an idea of what “financial modeling” really means.

Lastly, sincere thanks to Professor Julia Plotts as well as my group members – Damir Becirovic, Greg Bumstead, Arjun Chaurushia, & Priscilla Lee, for a phenomenal semester in FBE 421: Financial Analysis & Valuation.

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We’re Launching a Class!

For a class that doesn’t start until Spring 2013, Venture Investing for Impact is already absurdly popular. The 20 seats available for registration filled before the promotional flyer could be distributed. When the class was expanded to 35 seats, it filled again within days. And I know these students will not be disappointed.

The class represents an extraordinary collaboration between multiple departments in USC Marshall – it is a class hosted by the Greif Center for Entrepreneurship, taught by a Senior Fellow of the Society & Business Lab, and inspired by Finance & Business Economics curriculum and the Center for Investment Studies.

It was also instigated by Conquest Capital Ventures – my ragtag group of students building a student-run venture capital fund for social enterprise.

Launching this class is only one piece of the broader purpose of CCV. Nevertheless, it represents an enormous step forward by helping us build credibility and provide structure. On top of that, I’m tremendously proud that my team and I played a key role in offering something powerful and unique for USC students.

How powerful? I am deeply confident because of one reason: Fran Seegull, the professor for Venture Investing for Impact.

I won’t repeat her credentials, but I will say this: she gets it. She gets that conscientious investors are necessary in a world with amoral financial markets. She gets that students not only want to learn about this paradigm shift, but they also want to cause it. She gets that we are energized when asked for our best. She gets that we are inspired by mentors with passion.

Of course, we’ll see what happens next semester. But I have high hopes.

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LSM Day 3: Bringing order to the chaos

I can show you pictures, tell you stories, and walk you through the process (and I will!) but most importantly, I gained two key insights:

  1. Entrepreneurship is chaos – experience it yourself!
  2. Lean Startup is a mindset, not a formula

Why experience the chaos? It feels different – completely different – when you are in the moment. Last week, I read The Lean Startup and immediately, I thought it clicked. Yet I could not fully understand it until I applied the tools. For example, in our final presentations, Trevor forced us to summarize the weekend in this table:

Pivots during LSM SF

Presented like this, the experiments and decisions seem obvious and logical. Yet when we were working through it, it was incredibly chaotic… we conducted experiments that ended up testing something completely unrelated, we had countless extra conversations, and frankly, we spun our wheels. By creating the table, we suddenly discovered that we had wasted a lot of effort. The waste was everything that didn’t fit on the table.

In other words, when I tell you experience the chaos yourself, I mean: Entrepreneurship is hard!

The Lean Startup mindset empowers you to order the chaos. Throughout the weekend, we were iterating on the business concept itself, progressively moving through our fundamental hypotheses on customers, problems, and solutions. We learned a ton, but in the big picture of a business, we hardly scratched the surface – we were still developing our basic concept!

Yet this weekend taught me that the Lean Startup is a mindset. When I was reading, I thought that Eric Ries was providing existing businesses with a formulaic framework rooted in concepts like the engine of growth and value hypothesis. Wrong. Those two concepts are the results of applying the mindset to a particular situation – an existing business. But that mindset can be applied to nearly anything, including a vague idea aspiring to become a business.

Lastly, I’m very glad that we focused so exclusively on our customer (international students looking for jobs). Since we had no idea what their precise challenges were, and therefore couldn’t begin to imagine solutions for them, our entire process was liberated. We went into interviews and experiments with no biases. We just learned.

Another day, I’ll document the play-by-play of how our team worked through RememberMe (remembering crucial details about people) and InterLink (helping talented international students find full-time jobs in the US). While the main outcome of the weekend was learning the Lean Startup method of thinking, it also empowered us to gain a lot of insight on topics I care about.

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LSM Day 2: I suddenly get it.

Remember the idea I was so excited about yesterday? Yeah, we abandoned it.

Meeting Eric Ries

Luckily, we had the fun distraction of meeting Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, as we were debating new alternatives. His talk was packed with quotable moments like defining vision by asking, “What are the things I am so committed to that I’d rather see the company fail than violate these commitments?” Of course, he was equally clear in saying that the real gems of the Lean Startup methodology aren’t cool slogans – they are the nuanced details that require real, critical thinking.

But back to business.

We settled on a new idea: helping international students find jobs after graduation. Almost immediately, after just a few conversations, we were convinced that we had discovered a much more “painful” problem. We were hearing lengthy explanations of the complexity of their challenges, and even long rants on the struggles of recruiting for international students. Not everyone had the same degree of pain, of course, but every single interviewee converged on a single challenge: inability to reliably determine which companies are willing to sponsor international students’ H1B visas. Every single person said, unprompted, that they wished they had a list or database with that information. We had validated the problem and the customer (international students without green cards seeking jobs outside of investment banking, accounting, and top-tier consulting).

The next step is “solution testing,” i.e. brainstorming solutions and rigorously testing the assumptions underlying those solutions. We are already in the process, but it has been incredibly exciting. Armed with a good baseline of information – the foundation of what LSM mentor Jason Evanish likes to call the “MVP House” (MVP means minimum viable product) – I can see how rapid iteration can form the rest.

Most importantly, this single day – plus reading The Lean Startup – has transformed the way I think about startups. For example, I suddenly get

  • …why you must actually talk to people… immediately. Between our first and second ideas, our conversations with potential customers completely changed – and showed that the international students had a burning need, whereas people managing relationships were casual about the problem.
  • …how difficult it is to be disciplined in experimentation. Who wants to “slow down” and lay out the assumptions to be tested? Yet I’ve realized that assumptions that sneak in are incredibly dangerous – and huge time-wasters.
  • …why accelerators/incubators focus on mentorship. I cannot even count the number of times a mentor walked in and just rocked our world. Their insights have saved us hours of work. It’s unreal.
  • …that entrepreneurship and startups are addicting. Working from 9am to 11pm feels like nothing. I am literally energized and engaged for the entire time. Honestly, I wish I could do this every weekend and  refine my skills – which, coincidentally, is what my teammate Nate is doing.

Lean Startup Machine has already given me more than I could have imagined. I cannot wait to see what amazing new lessons tomorrow brings.

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LSM Day 1: Wow. This is real.

LSM Day 1
The RememberMe Team: Me, Patrick, Praveen, and Nate (photographer)

I am CEO of a lean startup around remembering the critical details of your relationships.

At least, I am for the weekend at Lean Startup Machine. Founded by Trevor Owens, LSM is a phenomenal new program that forces entrepreneurs to apply the powerful methodology of The Lean Startup in an action-packed weekend. It’s like Startup Weekend, plus passionate mentors and a game-changing framework for entrepreneurship.

It’s been insane so far. First off, I thought my idea would be too obscure… yet it was one of the most popular ones. For a while, there were going to be two teams pursuing my idea (though the other team eventually changed their minds).  Now, I’m working with three other great entrepreneurs – Patrick, Praveen, and Nate – to turn this into a viable business with real customers.

The mentors have been incredible. The way they think – and the way they move through LSM’s “Validation Canvas” – is just mind-blowing. During every conversation, we’ve been learning more and more. And I can’t say enough about my team as well. Everyone has been contributing so much enthusiasm, originality, and critical thinking. I have never experienced anything like it.

Lastly, if you’d like to learn my initial idea, here was my pitch, more or less:

This weekend, you’ll meet 50 great entrepreneurs. But in a year, how much will you remember?

Let’s say you and I get coffee. Professionally, do you remember that even though my LinkedIn says Goldman Sachs, my passion is business development for consumer web? And you probably wouldn’t remember that personal story I told you about my brother. Yet that’s the information that truly matters.

I’m proposing a relationship management tool that will help you remember and organize the critical details of the relationships you care about.

Posted in My Life | 4 Comments

San Francisco, Play-by-Play

This summer, I’m interning in San Francisco – a.k.a. startup paradise! For quick, semi-daily updates, see my Tumblr:

Why not post everything here? I do my best to make sure every entry is thoughtful and original, adding value in some unique way. Since I’m not sure that my random daily thoughts will always be the most intelligent ones, I thought I’d push them off to my Tumblr until I can synthesize my experiences into something comprehensible. In the meantime, enjoy the Tumblr!

Here’s the first entry: Day 1 in SF has been amazing!


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Team is everything – and the best team of my life

This semester, I have had the life-changing, perspective-altering experience of working with Rachel Gross and Bilawal Sidhu in the best team in my life. I learned a crucial startup lesson: Team is everything.

To demonstrate how fantastic our team was, just take a look at a few of these pages, which we put together in just a few days for a special talk called “TEDxDSP: Lifehacker.”

The images are crisp and beautiful. They’re funny. They are vivid and realistic. Yet they have been thoroughly manipulated – as anyone could tell you, after a second glance. They are images that I could never recreate (on my own). They are a product of this amazing team.

Our presentation, which walked through a day in the hacked life of Alex Park (a rockstar in his own right), was only a small part of our team’s function. In fact, our major work was an unrelated program – Internship Boot Camp, a 5-week program that transformed 16 energetic, yet inexperienced USC students into driven, savvy professionals whose ability to build relationships will yield careers.

Both TEDxDSP: Lifehacker and Internship Boot Camp (IBC) were created in service of our professional business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi. However, the question remains: why would the same team work on such divergent projects? And why were we the right team?

I think that there are several key lessons that can be drawn from our success, with a simple underlying concept: Team is everything.

1. Common values unite different personalities.
During this experience, I had the rare fortune of hand-picking my team from a pool of a dozen committed, passionate applicants. With this sort of organizational SWAT team (details of the left image will be a future entry… maybe!), commitment to the wellbeing of the fraternity was a given, but I made a point to look for immutable character traits: ability to inspire, ambition demonstrated by accomplishments, and a profound desire to give back and change lives.

Aside from those fundamental values, however, I sought everything I lacked. Personally, I am hyper-analytical and ruthlessly logical. Both Bilawal and Rachel are much more intuitive and empathetic, focusing on people instead of tasks. Their natural inclinations are to foster growth, whereas my inclination is to seek results. Bilawal and I are obsessed with technology, but he gravitates towards user experience and design and I gravitate towards functionality and logic. Rachel and I bond over social impact and entrepreneurship, but she focuses on tangibility, like a restaurant or hotel, whereas I focus on scalability, like a web service. Yet our common values allowed us to actually use the differences in our personalities.

2. Team precedes mission, but not vision.
After our team was finalized, we were tasked with figuring out what we were going to do. We literally spent weeks thinking about how to address the fundamental issues that our organization faced.  We experimented. TEDxDSP: Lifehacker was an experiment. When brainstorming for IBC, we went through countless different iterations – should it be internal or external? Should it include the entire organization, or should it be opt-in? Would we elect leaders aside from ourselves?

Ultimately, we settled on these two ideas for our semester plan, from a slate of infinite options. The two programs looked completely different from each other, but they were born from a unified vision for professional excellence and constant learning.

The Team!3. Teamwork should be joy.
Most importantly, this experience taught me what it feels like to work on a great team. Every meeting was a joy. Even when we were floundering or confused, our unique mix of personalities united by common vision meant that every meeting was tremendously productive, yet completely stress-free. Even spending 8 hours working was fun together. Teamwork was a complete joy.

Lastly, for anyone curious about the apps that we recommended in TEDxDSP: Lifehacker…

Posted in Inspiration, My Life, Startups to Watch | Leave a comment

Education is here… it’s just not well distributed (yet)

Kids catch on to technology fast!

In Piriati Embera, kids have access to education up to high school.

Piriati Embera is a rural community of indigenous people in East Panama where most homes have dirt floors and reed roofs, electricity is intermittent, and entire families live on about $20 per day. Yet they have high school through Telebasica, a television program for rural communities that requires only a supervisor to go through workbooks matching the curriculum.

During spring break, I worked closely with several families in Piriati Embera on a Global Business Brigade, serving as a business and financial literacy consultant. With increasing pressure from the “outside world,” the previously independent Piriati Embera society must develop to keep up while also maintaining their unique culture. There were tons of lessons that came out of the trip, but I constantly returned to how education would be critical for the community. And how technology could facilitate that.

Telebasica is one wonderful example of how technology is distributing education, but there is more change to come. Several weeks ago, I attended an event with X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis where he mentioned one of the latest education prizes. The vision is beautiful. Imagine a teacher that not only knows your academic progress, but also your interests and your preferences – so it can teach you on your terms, whether that is in terms of baking or baseball.

Education Game X PRIZE

There is a global shortage of great teachers. If an online or mobile gaming platform existed that was able to reliably teach students in a compelling and engaging fashion, it would transform education around the world for anyone with a smart phone. Imagine if learning a subject was fun and done with your best friends.

Is this vision too far out? Not at all! When I was in Panama, we saw that people had Blackberrys… despite not having electricity to charge them (spurring an industry in itself). Telecommunications technologies are absurdly pervasive in developing nations. Moreover, there are increasing efforts to conquer the “digital divide.” One Laptop per Child has already put laptops in the hands of over 2 million students and teachers in 42 countries.

We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop... With access to this type of tool... they become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

In the words of William Gibson, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

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Using TripIt to connect a generation of jetsetters

By the end of my semester in Milan, I will have visited 18 different cities in 10 different countries. It has been an insane amount of travel, but it is only the extreme case of a larger, much more pervasive trend in my life – in our lives.

Even in my normal life, I am constantly on the move. Home is Chicago. School is Los Angeles. Summers are Shanghai, New York, San Francisco. Week-long trips to Nicaragua, Panama, and so on. And I’m not the only one – my friends are equally mobile. The 200 students who made up my high school class have scattered across the country, and are now floating around the world.

This creates two simple desires:

  1. When I get wherever I’m going, I want to know if any of my friends are there.
  2. If my friends have been where I’m going, I want to know what they thought.

Of course, I’m not the first person to recognize these desires. There have been a deluge of startups dedicated to solving these problems. Arrived, a startup that I have watched excitedly for months, just launched and is tackling the first desire. During my travels, I have tried Trippy with some success, though it seems to require too much effort from the recommender when addressing the second desire. The latest I’ve seen, TripBirds, is set to launch soon and will be joining me at LeWeb.

But these startups are missing something very powerful, and that is my favorite travel app of all: TripIt.

Using TripIt is a wonderfully simple process:

  1. I book a travel arrangement, like a flight, train ride, or hotel stay, and then forward the confirmation email to TripIt.
  2. TripIt translates the email into an event, which is automatically imported into my iCal (or other calendar), including confirmation numbers, seat numbers, etc.
  3. When I travel, I have the information at my fingertips exactly when I need it.

TripIt is the most powerful travel application that I’ve seen, and it isn’t just because it has made my travel so much more convenient. It’s because TripIt has data, on the city/region level, of where I am and where I’m going.

Of course, these days Facebook has a lot of the same information, and it is Facebook that drives Arrived, Trippy, and TripBirds. Facebook, with a user base exceeding 550mm users, is obviously a gargantuan source of data as well. But TripIt distinguishes itself by automatically collecting predictive data on where their users will be. Plus, its information is more complete; in my case, TripIt knows a lot about every time I make a major move.

In other words, TripIt has data on the future. What a great basis for making plans! Sure, it’s not as big as Facebook, but it represents an extremely valuable additional layer of data.

I want to spend more time learning about TripIt and the data available through its open API. I’ve contacted TripBirds already about the possibility of adding TripIt (currently, they have Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, and Gowalla), but more broadly, if anyone is building tools for travelers, take a moment to think about TripIt – and get in touch with me, because I would love to help you think through it.

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