The context behind the advice

This was originally written for a short keynote talk at a University of Washington mentorship event on 1/29/19.

Hi there. I’ll keep this brief as I know you all are excited to talk with your mentor or mentee.

I want to talk about just one thing; the context behind advice.

I was recently reflecting on a conversation I had with a student who wanted to talk about venture capital and startups. She had reached out to me because of my work experience, but looking back, I realized that so much of what I was saying was actually a reflection of my life experience. A life experience very different than hers. She came from an unstable, single parent household, where meals and housing were consistently as risk, and much of her family was plagued by incarceration.

In contrast, I was blessed into a loving, stable family where, while we weren’t rich, we had our basic needs covered.

And yet this difference in our background wasn’t known to her, but it mattered. It still matters.

I realized that advice comes from our individual experiences, and our individual experiences comes from the world context we were born into and how we handled that.

A great example is the advice to "focus less on grades and more on learning outside the classroom", through side projects and internships. This is how I personally approached college and it worked out for me, but there's so much context behind that advice. This comes from someone who doesn't have a GPA-minimum scholarship, doesn't have to maintain a minimum number of credits for international enrollment, and has open minded parents that can stomach this risk. All these factors are the context I was born into that enabled me to make the choices I did.

This isn’t to say that a difference in context makes one’s advice invalid, but simply that understanding where the advice is rooted from helps you calibrate their words.

Vinod Khosla, a legendary venture capitalist behind over a half dozen billion dollar companies, recently said in an interview that “the single hardest decision you’ll make is who’s advice to trust on what topic.”

The more you know about who is giving you advice, the better you can assess and internalize their words. This plays even more importantly in mentorship, where topics go beyond just how to code or design, and deeper into one’s ambitions, goals, and their definition of success.

Today, whenever I meet a student who wants advice or when I meet with someone I want to learn from, I try to take time to learn about their life story, beyond the resume.

Things like where they grew up and what that was like, to what their values are today, and what their ambitions are for tomorrow. What sculpted their individual worldview.

Tonight, we have a good amount of time. I challenge you to take some time to dig a bit deeper. And while it may feel awkward, or uncomfortable in the beginning, I promise that if you approach it from a place of genuine curiosity, what will result is a stronger, lasting relationship built on trust, understanding, and advice through their context.

Enjoy tonight, and best of luck.

Things can get weird

For all the pros and cons of working in a startup studio like MVL, I can definitely say there's no shortage of odd days. When you're deep in the weeds of an idea, things make sense. But when you take a step back and look at what's happening out of context, you can't help but realize the unorthodox work environment. For memory safe keeping, I thought I'd record some of ones that have stood out so far.

Today at work, I went to buy live worms, cockroaches, and crickets in order to photograph them on raw bloody meat and produce with a $20,000 camera. The store didn't have any bags so I had to put the critters on the back of my motorcycle and hope a worm wouldn't fly 67mph onto some lady's windshield.

Today at work, I walked around town from funereal home to funereal home, trying to schmooze my way past receptionists to sell funeral directors an AI that would help grieving families. I got unpleasantly familiar with the smell of funeral home lobbies.

Today at work, my coworker and I walked into a beauty salon office holding matching motorcycle helmets looking like a biker gang. I proceeded to leave with a free bag of skin care creams and a sponge that promised me "the most nourished pores".

Today at work, I was sitting at my desk in an open office space, google image searching "toddler swim suits", resulting in a 32" monitor filled with HD pictures of very young children in bikinis and swim trunks. Any passing bystander would then witness me copying these photos and putting them into a folder titled "assets".

Today at work, I had to do an audit of my Facebook chat history and filter through many unsavory high school and college correspondences before giving it to a coworker to do natural language processing over the topics I talked about. Kids are crazy.

Today at work, my coworker put me in contact with a biltong (South African beef jerky) producer. Within a few hours, I was standing in this stranger's home, buying pounds of fresh uncut biltong while learning about how Shakespeare would've responded to the question "Who are you?" by the stranger's mother-in-law. I am now slinging biltong on the side. hmu.

...

Often times, taking a moment to step back and see what's happening around you, things can get weird.

Seattle Seed Stage Investing Firms

For some reason, I couldn't find an updated list of active investment groups in Seattle -- many lists show groups that have since been out of commission. So for my own use, here's a list of most early-stage investment groups in Seattle.

Anchor institutional firms

Boutique / newer institutional firms

Angel Investing Groups

I know I'm missing some, so please let me know: justin.ith12@gmail.com

How do I break into startups in college?

If you’re reading this, then I probably sent you this in response to your question “how do I start a startup in college?” (or some variation of that question).

This breaks down what I’ve told countless others and now I’m sharing it with you. Hopefully this helps! :)

Core principles

  1. Meet other like-minded peers with complimentary skill sets
  2. Don’t limit yourself to only multibillion-dollar ideas
  3. Learn foundational industry standards
  4. Leverage the Student Card and build a vast network
  5. Enjoy it!

1. Meet other like-minded peers

College gives you an unparalleled opportunity to meet vastly diverse peers. Leverage the crap out of that! Keep an eye out for creative, curious, ambitiouspeers — these tend to be the most founder-rich attributes in college. They are found in all fields of study, so don’t only look at the business or engineering school. Focus on complimentary skills: if you’re technical, find a business-oriented or design-focused person. Vice versa.

Here’s some ways how:

  • Join student clubs across diverse interests (I remember going to several sales club meetings as the only technical student)
  • Take or audit classes in areas separate from your own. (Put your phone down and actually meet the person next to you)
  • Seek out departmental events and drop-in on them
  • Ask friends if they know anyone who’s XYZ-minded

2. Don’t limit your ideas

There’s a tendency to think that you should only work on business ideas that could be multibillion-dollar businesses. I saw countless friends and peers in college who were just waiting for that perfect idea. They say, “I’m going to start something one day, trust me, I’m just waiting for that perfect big idea.”

Don’t be that person.

The act of executing an idea — any idea — is extremely valuable in college. Even learning how to create something simple like a bubble-tea delivery service on campus will teach you so much about logistics, hiring, management, unit economics modeling, software engineering, and hustle. College is your time to double down on learning, don’t let money rob you from that.

  • Don’t shy away from simple ideas — they’re more likely to happen/work
  • Don’t worry too much about competitors, especially if you’re doing a localized service
  • Research is very important, but don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis(common business student problem)

As a matter of fact, the best way to start a startup in college is not to start a startup. Start a side project. Starting a “startup” brings all this baggage on what a “startup” is expected to look like and behave, out of the gate. Don’t let dogmatic preconceptions of a “startup” limit your creativity and execution. Conversely, side projects don’t have constraints or pre-conceptions of what they’re supposed to look like. Pull learnings from the startup world, but don’t let that limit you.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with trying to find a multibillion-dollar idea. Just don’t let that stop you from ever starting something in your 4-years.

3. Learn the foundations of the industry

There are a few foundational concepts that everyone in the industry refers to and follows. It’s up to you to choose whether or not to follow it, but you should take the time to at least understand the reasoning for them before you decide to run contrary. Not only is it valuable for you as a founder, but it will make your discussions with mentors and your external network much more productive. I don’t know how many times I’ve spent coffee meetings explaining these baseline concepts to students, instead of digging into deeper, more challenging parts of their idea.

  • Lean Startup —Foundational mentality on bringing new products & services to market.
  • Paul Graham’s Essays — The oracle of modern day startup creation, PG’s essays are unparalleled in their relevance, wisdom, and ease of reading. If you’re just starting, read these: onetwothreefour.
  • Customer Development — The predecessor to the Lean Startup. Internalize the concepts, particularly the focus on problem/market validation.
  • Crossing the Chasm — How to push successful upstarts to astronomical enterprises.
  • Zero To One — Emphasizing the value of contrarian, truly unique ideas, and how to get them.
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma — How small guys beat big guys.

There are many, many more books and lists of resources out there, but these cover the baseline industry terms and concepts.

Get up to speed. Expect it to take a couple months of concentrated effort.

4. Leverage the Student Card

The Student Card is a card you keep in your wallet at all times that says “I’m a student, therefore help me out.” It’s one of the most valuable things you own during your years in college. The Student Card gets you meetings with people who are otherwise untouchable/very hard to contact.

Here’s a truth about adulting: after college, you’re expected to figure life out. No more training wheels, you’re just another shmuck trying to make their way.

But as a student, you get the amazing opportunity to connect with anyone you want and actually get a response! Why? Because everyone wants to be heard, feel important, and feel like they’re a good, altruistic person. Getting coffee with a local student to answer their questions and mentor them gives all these feelings. Leverage this once-in-a-lifetime membership card to build your network of CEOs, founders, investors, executives, and other industry leaders.

For an exact play-by-play on how to do this, email me at justin(at)madronavl.com

5. Enjoy it!

For those with entrepreneurial bones, there’s nothing quite like that feeling of launching and seeing people get value from your creation. There’s an addictive rush that comes with solving problems, with your unique efforts, for real people. The feeling of freedom and fear that comes with paving your own road. The deep camaraderie you feel with your co-founder, through the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

College is a unique blip where disbelief is suspended, time is under your control, and the entire world is rooting for you to win.


I always enjoy meeting ambitious students and entrepreneurs. Feel free to reach out at justin.ith12@gmail.com