Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Graham


Why it’s so hard to succeed in Silicon Valley when you grew up poor

I’ve been collaborating with my college classmate David Tran on our start-up since 2010.
In some ways, our story is typical for a startup: We went through the mentorship at Y Combinator and StartX, raised seed funding, and then launched.
We introduced Crowdbooster to help thousands of organizations around the world use data to improve their Facebook and Twitter performance. Our newest product is, where we’re building software that delivers PR services on demand.

But our story is unique in one crucial way: David and I both grew up in poverty.

We can call ourselves “battle-tested” when it comes to both life and startups. So when the talk in the Valley turned to income inequality recently, our ears perked up. For a moment, our two worlds were colliding.

Building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor

Here’s a quote from Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham that got our attention.

“Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility,” he wrote. “I’ve seen this myself: you don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor.”

Graham was right, and it’s a truth David and I are intimately aware of as startup founders.

Not only are the cards stacked against us to even have the opportunity to found a startup, but building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor.

We have been fighting this very idea since starting our company in 2010, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. The main problem is what David and I call mindset inequality.

To really understand it, I need to put you in my shoes. Let me take you on a personal journey.

How I got here

When I was 11, I moved to the United States with my dad, to Granada Hills in Los Angeles. We were broke in Taiwan. I picked up the English language; my dad did not. He also didn’t work, so I started working when I was 14 by doing all kinds of odd jobs.

On top of that, I did all the things immigrant kids are familiar with, like translating or simply handling all the business with landlords, bills, government services, insurance, etc.

I was smart, but I wasn’t very good at school, and not knowing the language definitely didn’t help.

My standardized test scores were bad enough that when I decided to take school more seriously in high school, my counselor actively discouraged me from taking even just one honors-level course.

I had to bring my dad to the office the next day and told him to pretend to say some words in Mandarin while I just demanded that I get put in an honors-level English class. I got a B in that class, and that was enough to start taking some AP courses the next year.

High school was no joke for me. I was so underprepared and didn’t know how to learn that I basically committed to sleeping only three hours a night and reread the same chapters in the textbook three times to force myself to memorize the material.

I came to school every day with bloodshot eyes. One time I got a stress-induced bald spot that was pretty embarrassing, so I learned to develop a sense of humor.

I found out about the SATs in 10th grade. I took a mock test and scored around a 900 (out of 1600), and panicked because I knew college was my way out.

I took the money I made at my odd jobs, and instead of helping to pay the bills I paid for a few SAT classes at Elite Education Prep in my neighborhood.

When it came time to renew, I told them I couldn’t pay anymore, but the amazing folks at Elite decided to just let me take classes for free and supplied me with all the study materials. I ultimately scored high enough that they put my picture up on the window to market to more students.

You can imagine how lucky I felt when I got into Stanford on basically a full ride (Go Card!). I spent my first year perpetually awestruck. All these amazing individuals to talk to. All these great resources to access.

Stanford successfully created this physical and financial bubble around me that meant that for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to think too much about money.

That was extremely empowering. I felt like I was just like my peers and that I could do anything. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I’m just going to say it again. During my first year at Stanford, I felt so empowered I believed I could do anything.

Of course, that was an illusion.

Reality quickly set in. I took an “elective” course about contemporary African politics my first quarter and I received a C+ despite grade inflation.

I didn’t know how to talk in a small, discussion-based class of 12 students. I was scared. I was quiet. I didn’t know how to read or skim the volume of reading we were given, so I was stupidly trying to read week 1 materials word for word during week 4. I didn’t know how to think critically about what I was reading.

At one point, Professor Weinstein sat me down during office hours to ask me what was wrong and how he could help. I didn’t even know what to tell him.

In the dorm, where I was constantly inspired by my peers, I noticed that everyone I talked to played an instrument, which made me feel out of place. Instead of moving on, I surveyed the rest of my dorm to see who else played an instrument, only to learn that I was the odd one out. Just a poor kid out of place. Not good enough.

Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource. My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money.

Sophomore year was when it all fell apart. Like many of my peers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so like them, I decided to do everything. I joined a bunch of clubs while the classes got harder. Soon enough, I fell into a slump.

When you’re in a slump, you start to look around and find even more ways to show yourself that you’re not good enough.

I’d go to the same classes with friends and dormmates, but then I’d notice how fast they were learning the concepts while I was struggling. I asked one of them to tutor me, and even then I wasn’t keeping up. On top of that, the extracurricular commitments I picked up totally overwhelmed me, so I shirked many of my club duties.

I also noticed that in order to keep up socially, I had to spend money to participate in a lot of activities, like going out to movies or on dorm ski trips  —  and that was on top of having to buy my own books. I remember having to borrow a few hundred bucks from one of my best friends while I applied for another loan to cover the expenses.

I remember running to the student loan office crying because I felt so bad. I told the loan officer I needed the money as soon as possible because I didn’t want the lack of money to ruin friendships the way it had ruined so many other things before.

I spent the next 48 hours basically stressed as fuck until the loan money showed up in my account and I paid him back. He’s still one of my best friends to this day.

The money problem was hanging over me the entire time in school.

I’d get calls from home about money, but there wasn’t much I could do other than picking up a side tutoring gig. I remember lashing out at my dad on the phone because I didn’t want to carry him around as baggage while I was trying to get through Stanford like a “normal” student.

I didn’t want to have a lesser, second-rate experience. I so desperately wanted to maintain the illusion that I was on equal footing. I wanted to believe that there wasn’t anything holding me back from achieving, that I’d get through this.

I did.

I went on a trip led by Kimber Lockhart and Andi Kleissner to visit social enterprises in the Bay Area. I learned about entrepreneurship through companies like Kiva and World of Good. The two of them suggested that I join BASES, the Stanford student group for entrepreneurial minds. Then I fell in love.

I attended Y Combinator’s Startup School the same year Jeff Bezos announced Amazon Web Services.

I ended up finding my niche at Stanford as the co-president for both BASES and AKPsi, a coed pre-business fraternity. I worked as a young VC at Alsop Louie Partners, where Stewart Alsop gave me my first Apple product (his old MacBook), and then I interned at Eventbrite, where Kevin Hartz saw something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.

I became “that guy” on campus who was the most gung-ho about entrepreneurship. I learned how to execute, and then I learned how to lead. My side project with David became a startup that got funded by Y Combinator. We raised money, built Crowdbooster to profitability, and now are building PRX, which is an even bigger idea to offer PR services on demand. It’s well on its way.

What is mindset inequality?

With that story in mind, now let me explain mindset inequality and why “very few successful founders grew up desperately poor.”

I was lucky that I found something I loved in entrepreneurship, which helped me focus my energies away from academic classes. I was lucky I found out that I was good with people and loved organizing and leading teams to achieve great things. I was lucky there were no other traumatic events that knocked me further into the deep end.

I could’ve easily given in to the realities, dropped out, or just given up the illusion that I was the same as my peers and adjusted my goals  —  except I chose to start a company. Starting a company for me was the ultimate declaration that I wanted to hold on to the illusion and continued to believe that I could do anything.

But because I fought hard to maintain this illusion for myself all through Stanford and while building the startup, I’m extremely aware of the disconnect to reality.

The world is clearly not a level playing field. Just with myself and my experience, I can see a lot of buggy code in my mind’s operating system that isn’t conducive to building a successful startup. Here are some of the issues with my default mindset that I’ve had to fix over time.

One example of a poor mindset is to minimize conflict, because fucking up is costly and opportunities are hard to come by, so I have trouble putting my ideas out there and defending them.

I often hear about people having intelligent conversations at home with their parents. I never ate at the dinner table, because we didn’t have one in the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my dad. You can imagine how this translates to pitching your startup. The idea of putting my grand idea out there and vigorously defending it to investors trying to tear it apart was new and counterintuitive.

Related to that, a poor founder tends to be less confident.

My mom, who didn’t go to college, used to say this to me, and it bothered me a lot: “We’re not meant to be successful, so what you’ve achieved is good enough!” Compare that level of confidence to a kid with successful parents who’d say something along the lines of, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it!”

Now imagine walking into a VC office having to compete with that kid. He’s so convinced that he’s going to change the world, and that’s going to show in his pitch. You can’t just muster up that confidence on the spot.

I don’t have “friends and family” money to get going. In fact, I’m sending money to my dad every month from the measly income I take out from my startup.

Then there’s knowing how to manage resources. Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource.

My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money. I had to fix this when we raised our first seed round, but it took quite some time.

A simple decision to hire, for example, took a very long time because we weren’t comfortable spending money on hiring talented people to help us move faster.

Then there are also human resources, networks of people who can help you. Again, growing up poor meant that there weren’t successful aunts and uncles who could show me the ways of the world or even give me a little nudge in the right direction.

I’ve had to learn to work the room, to talk to and talk like a successful person, and to know how to ask for help.

I’ve also noticed the huge difference having some built-in resources can make. I don’t have “friends and family” money to get going. In fact, I’m sending money to my dad every month from the measly income I take out from my startup. Knowing that you have “friends and family” money to get going or even some family money to help you when you fail makes it that much easier to be more risk-seeking and build the appetite for hyper-growth startups.

Most of the time, potential founders who share my background tend to work at lucrative jobs in finance or tech until they can take care of everyone in their families before they even dream about taking more risks  —  if they ever get there.

Finally, there’s the constant guilt. If you have a Stanford degree and share my background, you’re likely the only one they can count on at home. You most likely would have the opportunity to work in safer and more lucrative careers that would be of more immediate help to your family.

It’s very irresponsible to pursue the startup path, and even if you do succeed in upgrading your mind software to get rid of all the bugs I mentioned above, you start to sound and act differently from the people you grew up with.

You might even get accused of losing your identity. This is why successful rappers are told they’re turning their backs on their communities all the time.

All of this contributes to the mindset inequality that founders like David and I have to overcome. We think this is the reason why poor founders tend not to be successful. Fortunately for us, we consider this the biggest chip on our shoulders, a known bug in our mind software. We’ve overcome so many of these issues, and we’ll keep chipping away at it until we win.

But for others, I think it’s important to note this: Tangible inequalities  —  that which can be seen and measured, like money or access  —  get the majority of the attention, and deservedly so.

But inequalities that live in your mind can keep the deck stacked against you long after you’ve made it out of the one-room apartment you shared with your dad. This is insidious, difficult to discuss, and takes a long essay to explain.

David and I are living proof that if we can upgrade and improve the way we think, and overcome our mindset inequality, then maybe we can help others do the same. For me, that starts with sharing my story so far. Stay tuned.

Ricky Yean is co-founder and CEO of, a Y Combinator–backed startup offering PR on demand. Previously, he started Crowdbooster, a social media optimization service. Yean graduated from Stanford in 2010 with a BA in science, technology, and society and serves on the board of BASES, a student entrepreneurship organization. He is a former entrepreneur-in-residence at the Stanford-StartX startup accelerator.

Note: This is the story of my life. It is good to have lived in a country with plenty of opportunities and a mobile life-style.

Illustrated: History of programming languages

If you are of my generation, you might be familiar with programming languages like Fortran, Cobol, Lisp,  Prolog, Pascal, and Basic.   Later, newer generations will be using C, C plus, Java, Script, Ada, Smalltalk, Python…

 posted this Feb. 16, 2014

James Iry’s history of programming languages (illustrated with pictures and large fonts)




This post is a tribute to James Iry’s fantastic One Div Zero blog.

Message amplification, Free Prize, Where do Purple Cows come from…?

“Where do Purple Cows come from?”

Bob at Arnold Architectural Strategies asked a question that was similar to many: What’s the free prize, why don’t you talk about it more and how do I use it?

Seth Godin posted on August 09, 2013

In Free Prize Inside, my sequel to Purple Cow, I point out:

As marketers, our instinct is to believe that we have to make a product or service that flies faster, jumps higher, costs less, works infinitely better and is generally off the charts at doing what the product is supposed to do.

We get our minds around one performance metric and decide that the one and only way we can be remarkable is to knock that metric out of the park.

So, hammers have to hammer harder, speakers have to speak louder and cars have to accelerate faster.


This is a distraction from the reality of how humanity chooses, when they have a choice.

We almost never buy the item we buy because it excels at a certain announced metric.

Almost no one drives the fastest car or chooses the most efficient credit card. No, we buy a story.

The story is what the product also does.

It’s the other reason we buy something, and usually, the real reason.

Simple example:

You have a 7-year old daughter. The last time she unexpectedly woke up after going to bed was three years ago. Of course, you’re going to hire a babysitter and not leave her alone, but really, what are you hiring when you hire a babysitter?

Is it her ability to do CPR, cook gourmet food or teach your little one French? Not if she shows up after the kid goes to bed.

No, you’re hiring peace of mind. You’re hiring the way it makes you feel to know that just in case, someone talented is standing by.

If her goal is to be a great babysitter, then, good performance doesn’t involve honing her CPR skills or standing at the door, listening to your daughter breathe.

Good performance for a babysitter is showing up a few minutes early, dressed appropriately, with an air of confidence.

Good performance is sending a text every 90 minutes, if requested, to the neurotic parents.

Good performance is leaving the kitchen cleaner than she found it.

It sounds obvious, but it’s rarely done.

It’s frightening to build and stand for ‘other’ when everyone else is making slightly-above-average.

The free prize is the other metric, the thing we want to talk about, the job we hire your product to do when we hire a product like yours. T

hat’s what we tell a story about.


Choosing to be formidable

Seth Godin posted on August 12, 2013

You’ve met people who are an accident just waiting to happen. What’s the opposite of that?

What we’re looking for in a boss, in a CEO to invest in, in a business partner, in a candidate, is to be formidable. Someone to be reckoned with.

Not someone with all the answers, because no one has all the answers.

No, we want someone who is magic about to happen.

This is the electricity that follows the star quarterback around. We aren’t attracted to him because he’s a stolid, reliable, by-the-book play maker.

No, it’s the sense that he has sufficient domain knowledge combined with the vision and the passion to create lightning at will. Sarah Caldwell was the same way, bringing a sense of imminent possibility to the work she gave us.

They don’t teach formidable in school. They teach compliance and rote and perhaps spin.

They teach us to be on the alert for shortcuts and for ways to get away with less.

Not surprisingly, the formidable leader takes the opposite tack in every respect. She’s willing and eager to take the long way if it gets to the elusive destination.

She doesn’t need to spin because the truth as she knows it is sufficient.

There might only be two critical elements in the choice to be formidable:

1. Skill. The skill to understand the domain, to do the work, to communicate, to lead, to master all of the details necessary to make your promise come true. All of which is difficult, but insufficient, because none of it matters if you don’t have…

2. Care. The passion to see it through. The willingness to find a different route when the first one doesn’t work. The certainty that in fact, there is a way, and you care enough to find it. Amazingly, this is a choice, not something you need to get certified in.

Formidable leaders find the tough questions, and instead of being afraid to ask them, eagerly decide to seek out the answers.

They dig in deep to the details that matter and ignore the ones that merely distract.

They bite off more than others can chew but consistently avoid biting off more than they can (because they care so much, it hurts to admit that you’ve reached the end).

It’s not a dream if you can do it.

Paul Graham gets full credit for coining the term. “A formidable person is one who seems like they’ll get what they want, regardless of whatever obstacles are in the way.”

Message amplification isn’t linear

Seth Godin posted on August 14, 2013

Put two loudspeakers next to each other, and the perceived sound isn’t twice as loud--and ten times as many speakers certainly doesn’t seem ten times as loud.

But when you hear an idea from two people, it counts for twice as much as if you randomly hear it once.

And if you hear an idea from ten people, the impact is completely off the charts compared to just one person whispering in your ear.

Coordinating and amplifying the evangelists of your idea is a big part of the secret of marketing with impact.




May 2023

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