Justin Zhen makes being a founder sound like a lonely sort of business. He insists that only a few people are “wired” for the entrepreneur life. And when they finally manage to build something from scratch, founders have to fight like hell to keep it alive.
Often, that means “sugar-coating” the progress of their company, even through the hardest of times.
You’re always "winning". When you have a startup, you’re always doing "well",” he says. “That can be dangerous, because it doesn’t reflect the truth.
Even Zhen is cautious to reveal anything other than success for his own venture, a data-tracking company called Thinknum he co-founded in 2014. And for the most part, he needn’t. Thinknum is doing well. Zhen has grown the New York City-based company to 18 employees. Their technology crawls public data from the web and delivers it to hundreds of paying clients, namely investment firms and corporations.
For example, a department store chain might license a Thinknum algorithm to detect when a rival store marks certain items on sale. A media company may reference Thinknum to monitor job listings when evaluating a competitor’s expansion strategy.
Zhen started his career as a financial analyst after graduating from Princeton. He used data to inform his investment strategy, but there was no easy or reliable source for the data he sought, and few elegant options for sharing the information within his enterprise. So, he partnered with former classmate Gregory Ugwi to found Thinknum.
“Nothing went well in the first year,” Zhen says. However, the pair were accepted into startup incubator 500 Startups. They raised a $1 million seed round before demo day. “We were fortunate to get in front of the right people at the right time,” he says. “The timing really worked out.”
When they first released their product to the market, their customers were already a few steps ahead. Thinknum started with an analytics solution, but clients were hungrier for the raw data. Rather than argue with the customer, they shifted gears -- fast. “We had to swap our product pipeline,” says Zhen. “I wish that we did that sooner.”
The pivot worked. “For an investor...this kind of data enables them to learn things about investments that are unique and that creates an edge for them,” says Zhen. What started as a data resource expanded as Web 2.0 and mobile technology ushered in a new connected consumer era. Now, virtually every company needs to publish public data so its customers can research its offerings online.
Zhen cautions that Thinknum only crawls public and complete data sets. The team doesn’t log in to any sites to access private or proprietary data. They designed an automated system that performs checks to make sure a given data set is complete.
Ultimately, he relies on his team to manage complex account relationships. He insists Thinknum’s culture is “brutally honest.” The office hosts a weekly meeting every Monday and a breakfast every Friday where staff hangs out and talks about their projects.
We’re extremely vulnerable when something doesn’t go well, but we also celebrate our successes together.
But being a leader comes with its own set of worries. He relies on frequent one-on-one drinks with other founders, where he meets with people who run both small startups and large companies. “I think it’s very worthwhile to talk about your problems and things that aren’t going well with people that are facing something similar,” he says. That can be anything from company politics to job candidate searches.
Other times it means gathering the courage to take more risks. To be a founder, one has to be wired for “extreme risk,” says Zhen. “You can’t be extremely normal and start a company. If you were normal, you would just do what society tells you to do, which is work for a big company, get promoted, and then that’s it….It’s conviction in an idea when no one else does.”
For Zhen, the risk is what drives him. Aversion to risk is what makes other entrepreneurs fail. It’s not a peaceful existence, but “in my opinion, the upsides tend to outweigh the downsides,” he says.
In fact, if he could tell anything to his younger self it would be to take even more risk. “The worst things that can happen to you, they will always blow away within a couple of days,” he says. “If people don’t agree with you, they weren’t going to anyway.”
It’s startup philosophy according to Zhen, and certainly not for the faint of heart. But in his case, the data backs it up.