Failure, Start Ups, and PhDs

Rejection is hard – both for the people receiving it and giving it.  I am writing about my experiences with rejection and failure over the past year. Some of the people I hope may find these thoughts useful for:

  • People frustrated with failure
  • People who have to reject others
  • Myself, whenever I’m in again in either of the above categories
  • Myself, looking back at these events from the future
  • Someone considering doing a PhD

Within this past year, I’ve grown to recognize failure and rejection as feedback and learning.  Nobody does everything right – what’s more important is that we learn from the mistakes that we do make.

For most of my life, I’d been pretty “lucky” about failure.  Me and the world had a deal: if I worked reasonably hard and went through all the right motions, things would just work out.  Sure, I failed some exams or didn’t get a job I wanted, but these seemed incidental. For the big stuff, especially “career” stuff, I always won.

That changed around February last year.

I remember proclaiming to my Nana when I was about 10 that I would do a Bachelor’s of Engineering in Canada before going to grad school at MIT or Stanford.  Weird dream for a 10-year-old, but I ended up staying on that path, worked hard, and graduated with a Bachelor (Hons) and Masters in Engineering from UBC in Vancouver.

I applied to five top PhD programs in the United States in the fall of 2011.  From January to April, I was rejected by every program I applied to.  For someone not used to failure, I was crushed.

I had been nominated for a PhD scholarship from my academic department at UBC.  Scholarships make it easier for admissions because it gives external validation of the student’s abilities and also reduces the financial commitment of the university the student is applying to.

Somewhere in the middle of being rejected from schools, I received notice from the funding agency that my application was not sucessful but would be put on the waitlist.  Waitlists are never good news in academia, especially with research budgets being reduced as part of austerity measures.

This was around March, and a good friend, Andrei, convinced me to apply with him to TechStars’ and Y-Combinator’s summer programs.  We applied to both with a proposal for movement feedback for runners, and later other sports (RUNNR).   After being passed over for TechStars, we were offered an interview with YC in April.  The invitation went to Andrei, and he texted me saying we’d gotten it.  I immediately replied to say it wasn’t cool to joke about that – he knew I was bummed about my PhD applications.  A call and forwarded email reassured me: we were going to California!

The next few weeks, we worked very hard on making a prototype and preparing for the interview.  When we applied, pretty much all we had was a vision, splash page, and small understanding of our market and competition.  In the two weeks before our interview, we managed to get a prototype that sometimes worked, did some more market research online, and talked to all our friends who run.

We were confident going in to the interview.  Probably overconfident.  We told all our friends we’d be moving to California in a few months and had started looking into visas.  I remember walking across the bridge over the Highway 85 near the YC office, and thinking the concrete wall and steel fence looked like a prison.  I was heading to a parole hearing, and my luck was about to change.

The interview was a great experience and looking back I’d even say fun.  The atmosphere in the room is pretty tense, to the point, and urgent.  There have been a fair number of articles and a few apps aimed to help prepare for the interview.  We didn’t spend a lot of time with them and I don’t think they would have been helpful for us.  I think the interview tries to determine personality and character of the team, and if you’ve done your homework on your business.  I’ve heard of companies that “hacked” their way in, but I think they must be rare.

We spent a lot of time before the interview prepping our pitch and prototype demo.  Maybe it helped a bit, but the interviewers didn’t seem interested in the demo and we basically had to show it while holding our laptops as they were kicking us from the room.  Instead of wanting to see our demo, they asked mostly about our users, market size, operations plan, and a few questions that I am pretty sure were just engineered to see how we think on our feet.  In general, we were not well prepared for the interview.

Andrei’s more detailed thoughts on the interview are here (http://designcodelearn.com/blog/2012/05/01/lessons-learned-from-unsuccessful-yc-pitch/)

After we were done, we headed to Palo Alto for the afternoon.  The wait was about seven hours, and it felt even longer.  While wondering aimlessly through the mansions behind University Ave, we finally got the email.  We didn’t get in.

After a very quiet and wandering walk, we eventually made it to Nola’s Bar in downtown Palo Alto.  Andrei was in a far chattier mood than I was: 

“What could we have done differently? What are we going to do next?”

He wanted to dissect the interview and what we could have done.  I wanted to save that for later, and just relax and try to enjoy my beer.  Sensing I wasn’t up for a chat, he changed to trying to cheer me up:

“Just making it for an interview shows we’re on to something.  You’re a smart guy and everything will work out.”

I’m normally a pretty relaxed guy, but I snapped.  I wasn’t sad, I was angry!  I had been working hard and the world had gone back on our deal.  I’d been rejected again:

“Stop trying to cheer me up, I’m not sad!  I’m just tired of losing!”

That was enough to get him off my back until we finished the round.  Sensing I was more up for conversation, Andrei remarked that I must be feeling better.  I was.

“I decided I’m not going to lose anymore”

For the most part, I’ve stuck to that.  Runnr.me, Andrei and I were selected a month later for the LeWeb start-up competition in London, one of ten teams out of 600 applications.

At the end of summer, it became apparent that our product concept at RUNNR was not well aligned with what runners actually needed.  We needed to completely change our product or find another market.  After careful reflection, Andrei and I agreed that we weren’t that passionate about running and we couldn’t think of applications of our product that would be big enough to grow a big venture.  This was almost exactly what the YC interviewers had advised when they sent their rejection email months before.  

Around the same time, the scholarship I had been waitlisted for came through. 

Wanting to work more on medical projects and to improve my technical abilities, I decided to try again to get into PhD programs.  I have recently started a PhD in Bioengineering in England, and love my program.  Andrei is working on several different projects, one of them being http://www.coderook.co/ which is a start-up to provide mentors to apprentices in software development and http://stasishq.com/ which does corporate wellness programs.

So what changed?

First and most importantly, my perspective.  I realized my “deal” with the world was stupid.  The world didn’t owe me anything, and karma is not something you can “cash in”.  Failures sometimes just happen – to paraphrase Rocky Balboa, sometimes you just have to take the hit and keep moving forward.  Maybe this is just a lesson of maturity and one I expect I will continue to learn. 

I learned I needed to be a more active participant.  At the highest levels of a field, I don’t think you can afford to be casual about things you really care about or want to happen.  In particular, I left my first round of PhD applications largely up to the system.  I emailed a few professors I was interested in working with but didn’t push nearly as hard as I should have.  I felt bad taking the time of these people, who I know to be very busy and with inboxes flooded with applicants.  What I should have thought was: yes, I am using their time, but if it works out they will be getting a great student.  There are times when it pays off to be different levels of pushy and have a willingness to bend the rules of the system.

The second time I applied for PhD programs, I emailed around 5-8 professors directly.  Two seemed interested.  On this, I booked a flight to Europe to visit them and their labs.  I then told some others that I’d be in Europe and would like to meet with them.  I added five more meetings after booking my flight in a total of five universities.  After I got back from my trip, I ended up with offers to every place I applied!  Big difference in results.

When I first applied for PhD’s, there was definitely an ego component.  I picked universities based on prestige and location more than where particular professors were that have research interests similar to mine.  I dreamed of going to university X and dropping out to do a start-up, largely as an egotistical comparison to now-famous people who had done that.  Maybe the applications committee saw this through my application, and rightly gave me a thumbs-down.  Ego is a poor reason to do anything, and especially something that is a multi-year commitment.

The time between when I decided to stop working on RUNNR and when I had offers for PhD programs was interesting.  It was the first time in eight years that I had taken more than a three week break, and for the first time in my life I was neither working on something nor waiting for something to start. 

It was a great time in my life.  I consider it a sabbatical – it wasn’t that I wasn’t doing anything, but I wasn’t working on projects that had long term goals.  I bought a sketchbook and tried drawing, thinking it might help later in product design and also just to try something artistic.  I read a few books a week.   But probably most importantly, I spent a lot of time thinking about what was really important to me and that I should aim to do more of. 

I learned the most important thing and what I put the most additional effort on were the relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.  I used to take these for granted more than I should have, and relationships with other people really are the best part of life.  As part of this, I learned more about the desire of finding your “tribe”.  I’ve always found it easy to get along with a wide variety of people, but have never really found a group that I totally felt was my “team”.  Maybe such a “team” doesn’t exist, for me or anyone.  I think it’s important to look for it, but also have the independence to thrive as an individual.

The other thing I learned was my value for making my work solving meaningful and important problems.  To me, most of these problems are medical.  We only have one life.  We spend a lot of our lives working.  And, most importantly, our work can make a difference in the world.  To me, it’s important to try and make that difference with my work.

I plan to go back to entrepeneurship after my PhD.  Biotech is a field where I think PhDs are well justified for entrepreneurs because new technology is the main competitive advantage for many companies.  Grad school is also a great time to explore, learn new things, and learn about yourself.  There is such easy access to knowledge, from free journal subscriptions, to sitting in on lectures, and to visiting speakers speaking on a wide variety of topics.  Playing the “student” card is also a great way to get to talk with people who normally are hard to get to talk with.

It’s been a wild ride.  I’ve learned a lot, and I expect there is plenty more to learn.  The failure that I was so down on only a few months ago has both made me a better person and aligned me more with my goals.  In a twist of fate, I’m much happier and excited with where I’m at now that I would have been if I had gotten my way a year ago, and I’d like to think I’m wiser for the experience.   

One thought on “Failure, Start Ups, and PhDs

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