Ten years of student entrepreneurship

Since being a student at UW in 2012…to now ten years later, I have always been involved in student entrepreneurship. I’ve seen probably hundreds of students enter this space, try things, fail at things, grow, and find joy and passion. I’ve also watched people try it, and realize it’s not for them. And that’s totally okay.

When I look back at the last ten years, I see through lines in cohorts of student entrepreneurs. There are consistencies and reincarnations of people, ideas, and goals. There are the loud students who love the chance to pitch and share, who need to learn to be quiet and listen. There are the timid but strong students, who need to learn to share their ideas and thoughts with conviction. There are the ones who are ping ponging around a dozen ideas a minute, and there’s someone who’s been baking a project for the past three years and want to keep going for the next three. You have technically minded ones, you have business hustling types. You have people who are eager to learn, and those who are more skeptical.

You see a lot of glamour in the idea of entrepreneurship and being a founder. There are dreams of fame, glory, and wealth. There are also dreams of more balanced expectations, following in the steps of their parents. You have those who look down on that. And you occasionally get ones who see the holistic spectrum of entrepreneurs and can appreciate the strength with all.

I have rarely seen student ideas continue past a year, let alone past college and beyond. Few ideas that are started in college will reach the success and conviction needed to forgo a high paying job and cost of living. 

And that’s okay. 

I think there are so many learnings and growth that happens when you try to create a company. Try to build a product. Try to collaborate with others. Try to make sales. Try to handle customer service. Try to design something useful, helpful, delightful. The more chances you take at learning these things, the more you’ll get better at it. You’ll make many mistakes when you try, and you won’t get it right the first time, or the second. But you’ll keep getting better. And it will work with time.

Success comes with applied effort, day by day, week by week. If you trust in your effort and you have high integrity, you’ll succeed at this game. Eventually, you’ll also ask the question if this is the game you want to play. It’s totally okay if it’s not - there are many ways to be happy and fulfilled, entrepreneurial life is just one avenue.

Seattle Date Ideas

I've actually been meaning to write something about this for a while. This is the quick and dirty version.

All these ideas are assuming it's sunny/not raining/pleasant to be outside (which is a big assumption).

Favorite areas

Downtown waterfront

Probably my favorite spot in the city. I think exploring Pike Place, especially below the main drag is really fun. Similarly, go check out shops in the Alley. There's a new developed space on the far-west side of Pike Place that has long steps meant for sitting and looking along the water. Perfect for lunch.

Some favorite bites: Le Panier is the 2nd best french bakery in Seattle. Storyville Coffee always feels like you're entering a speakeasy cafe. If you go on Sundays, there are free chocolate cake slices (and they don't skimp on the portion size! It's deliciously free). Meesum has quality buns there. Pike Place Chowder actually lives up to the hype and has the best clam chowder in town.

After Pike Place, I love moseying down to the waterfront near the aquarium and waterfront stores. Frankfurters have the best hot dogs in town. Ivars is a classic. My favorite table seating on the waterfront is on the south side of the pier that has Elliot's Oyster House. You have to walk past the outdoor seating with red umbrellas, and it looks like a private path, but it's actually public. You'll see a row of tables that border the south side of the pier all the way to the back. I've never not found an open table. Gorgeous views of the water, ferris wheel, and the Argosy Cruise boats coming and going.

After time there, you can swing north to the Olympic Sculpture Park and even keep walking into Mrtyle Edwards park (which is seriously underrated and feels like the most locals-only park in Seattle in my opinion). There are small cute beaches there and if you keep walking north you'll hit this brand new beach that Expedia built for public use. Really cute vibes with seating, grassy steps, and sandy beaches. Incredible views if you catch a sunset there.

If you don't swing north, you can go back into downtown and hit Westlake area or Chinatown. Right now I wouldn't suggest it given safety issues.

Capitol Hill

Even though Caphill is known for it's nightlife, I think it's most charming by day. The food, parks, stores, and people are way more fun. Most interesting food in Caphill right now; Malaysian spot called Kedai Makan. The line can be long and they're only doing takeout right now, but it's so good. For specific dish recommendations hit me up. Favorite sushi joint in Seattle is Gokan Sushi, right in the heart of Caphill (Gokan Dragon roll is life (sorry Dermot but I like eel too much)). Tacos Chukis is debatably the best tacos in town (no fish taco though). Rhein Haus has the best German food. 

If you're not eating, Cal Anderson is fun. There's usually pick-up dodgeball that's super friendly, funky, and jovial. Very date-dependent. I'm a big fan of ballroom dancing so I love going to Palace Ballroom for some evening salsa/swing. They have beginner classes that I promise to be super fun and charming dates. 

There's a ton of cool shops and drinks around. Big fan of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, I can spend hours browsing there and talking about books with a date. I like how every aisle could be a conversation starter.

Molly Moons is a classic PNW funky ice cream shop. If you want to be extra hip, Salt & Straw is even funkier and experimental but it's still hella good. Just be prepared going in. For lunchtime snacks/vibes, Bakery Nouveau is the best french bakery in town.

Great Bars

Each watering hole brings its own vibe and flare. Depending on what mood you're going for, here are my favorite bars for a night out:

    • Unique Bars
      • Flat Stick Pub - South Lake Union - Mini golf in the bar itself. A lively crowd of mostly yuppies. A great transition from here to Art Marble 21, which is a bit more low-key and has games.
      • SPIN Seattle - Downtown Shopping District - Ping pong bar. Room full of ping pong tables, drinks, and music. The entrance going downstairs has a hidden, speakeasy feel. 
      • Add-A-Ball - Fremont - Pinball and games galore, really fun old school 70's throwback vibe
      • Jupiter Bar - Belltown - Pretty much like Add-A-Ball but in Belltown 
      • Cowgirls - Pioneer Square - Loud, rambunchous, and so fun. They have a mechanical bull to ride; laughs and shock are ensured.
    • Roof Top, Seattle "bougie"
      • mBar - South Lake Union - My favorite rooftop bar in Seattle, it has stunning views of the skyline and the water. Higher priced and posher. Modern slick feel.
      • The Mountaineering Club - University District - The vibe of a neighborhood bar but within a refined outdoorsman decor placed on a rooftop overlooking north Seattle
    • Dive Bars
      • White Horse Tavern - Downtown Pike Place area - British-style pub. Dimly lit, less rowdy crowd, and fairly clean for a pub.
      • Streamline Tavern - Lower Queen Anne - A fun old-school dive bar, pinball machines, pool tables, and a cash-only food counter. Affordable drinks for a neighborhood bar
      • German Beer Hall
        • Rhein Haus
        • Queen Anne Beer Hall
      • Party
        • Unicorn

      UDistrict, Lower Queen Anne, Greenlake, Old Ballard to come...

        Musings on "The Theory-Based View: Economic Actors as Theorists"


        Key highlights

        "Importantly, we also suggest that in their search for paths to value creation, economic actors are not constrained by their arsenal of existing resources (cf. Barney 1986). Rather, novel questions, novel problem frames, and novel economic theories reveal previously unseen paths to solutions and value in assets."

        "Our physical reality and environment has a large if not infinite variety of features, characteristics, and possibilities that remain latent or dormant (Chater et al. 2017). However, theories provide a mechanism that allows for salience and unique observation. Novel theories, sparked by novel questions and novel problem frames, allow us to see, look for, and express that which may previously have escaped awareness. And importantly, the reinterpretation of even mundane objects, events, occurrences, or readily visible factors may take on completely new meaning and insight in light of the novel theories we possess."

        "Organisms—humans included—attend to their surroundings not in a computational or camera-like sense (cf. Geisler 2011Tabachneck-Schijf et al. 1997) but rather through the questions, problems, hypotheses, and theories that they have in mind and impose on the world (Koenderink 2012). Thus salience and observation, in terms of what we are aware of, are driven by theories and questions and not by the inherent characteristics (called “natural assessments” in the literature), presence or even nature of objects (cf. Kahneman 2003). This intuition, intriguingly, was featured in some of Simon’s early work, when he argued that “a subject perceives what he is ‘ready’ to perceive in it; the more complex and ambiguous the stimulus, the more the perception is determined by what is already ‘in’ the subject and less by what is in the stimulus” (Dearborn and Simon 1958, p. 140, emphasis added)."

        "What animates our vision are the questions that prompt observation and perception. Therefore, the environment a strategist perceives—the potential resources recognized and the value-tags affixed to assets and resources—is always a reflection of a question asked or a problem framed."

        This is incredibly accurate and personally provoking. People with different perceptions of the world can drive down the exact same street and see and notice completely different things. None are wrong, and all are right to that person. Thus, greater value comes in our ability to see through a multiplex of perceptions and stitch together a multi-dimensional view of the world.

        "Valuable theories—whether scientific ones or economic theories of value—perform several key sight-giving functions. By effectively framing a problem or a set of problems, a theory provides a coherent, abstract, causal representation of the world. It serves not as a (or the) representation of the world, per se, but rather as a map of what might be observed: a way of seeing things that may not be evident or obvious to others."

        "Our approach, on the other hand, is fundamentally about identifying possible discrepancies with widely agreed current or future realities, or creating what we might casually reference as a “reality distortion.” That is, if realities—as discussed in the preceding section (also see Chater et al. 2017)—are multifarious and multistable, then the “distortion” of reality is simply a way of pointing out and making alternative realities, through questions and theories, more salient and possible (cf. Attneave 1954)."

        I really enjoy this definition of reality distortion. Basically, reality is simply one perception of the world, and yet you can have multiple perceptions of the world that are all correct. Therefore distorting reality is simply changing the perception of the viewer.

        Joining Slightly Robot

        I'm excited to share that I'm partnering up the exceptional team at Slightly Robot!

        For four years, Matt and Joe have helped thousands of people around the world who suffer from compulsive behaviours like dermatillomania (skin picking), trichotillomania (hair pulling), and onychophagia (nail biting). Those with these conditions experience negative repercussions in their social life, school, or occupation, raising anxiety and insecurity.

        By combining their experiences in material science and embedded machine learning, they created a wrist-worn device that detects when these passive compulsive behaviours occur and alert the wearer when it's happening. Their customers are able to bring real-time awareness and objectivity to an otherwise passive behavior, and many report a significant reduction or termination of the compulsive behaviours within 2 weeks of usage.

        Today, we're working on a new device that addresses a severe problem facing society: food addiction and compulsive overeating. A third of Americans are clinically obese, and a large portion battle their relationship and behaviors with food. By building off the experience gained from tracking compulsive behaviours, we're working with researchers across the country to develop, test, and hopefully reduce the prevalence of food addiction. We're motivated to bring the same level of awareness and intervention to this population.

        For those that know me well, they'll know that my dream company sits at the intersection of cutting-edge technology, built for a meaningful mission, with the opportunity to help millions around the world. I couldn't be happier with the fit of this team and am thrilled to push the bounds of what we can accomplish.

        To my network, I need your help! We're looking to meet and learn from other consumer hardware founders who have pursued institutional venture funding. With my background in software, I'm trying to get up to speed as fast as possible with the hardware arena and any and all introductions would make a world of difference.

        Stay tuned for more after the new year :)

        Why I suck at texting

        Hi. My name is Justin and I suck at texting.

        Why do I suck at texting? I'm not sure. I think it stems from being bad at small talk. I vastly prefer having meaningful conversations or joking conversations. Conversations that are neither meaningful, interesting, or humorous I am just bad at. Generally, I find it difficult to conjure these types of conversation via text messages. So therefore, I'm bad at texting.

        Another reason I'm bad at texting is because it takes time throughout the day. One could argue, it's just a few seconds to respond to a message. Which is true, if the text requires only a message or two. But actual conversations take much more than a couple messages. Therefore, I am specifically bad at conversing via text messages.

        Also, responding to conversational text messages requires you to not be present wherever you actually are - at work, reading, watching Netflix, being with friends, etc. More often than not, I'm more engrossed in whatever I'm presently doing than conducting a conversation via texts. Therefore, I am bad at texting.

        Here are some texts that I freeze up at:

        • How are you doing?
        • How's life?
        • What have you been up to?
        • Any remotely open ended question about how I am
        • What do you think about [insert philosophical concept]

        Here are texts that I'm better at responding to:

        • Do you want to go to XYZ event?
        • I'm here. ETA?
        • Check out this cat video [insert cat video]

        Am I also bad at in person conversation? I hope not.

        So if you want to have a conversation, let's meet up or hop on a call. Yes, as a 20-something in 2019, I just suggested we hop on a call. Calls are much more efficient for conducting actual conversations. Better yet, a video call. I'd also wager both of us would enjoy it more in the end.

        Please accept my apologies for long response times. I wish I didn't suck at texting. But alas, I am bad at texting.

        My context

        The more I write about my outlook on life, the more I want to put a giant asterisks by what I say.

        This is that asterisks.

        Every piece of advice, view point, or expression should be filtered through the following context:

        My upbringing

        • I was born into a very stable, loving family environment in a safe neighborhood

        • I grew up in a financially stable household

        • I grew up in one of the most liberal cities in one of the most liberal states of one of the most historically liberal countries in the world: Seattle, Washington, USA

        • I was born without any chronic physical, social, or mental impairments 

        My career

        • I grew up in a deeply entrepreneurial family environment. My parents and both sets of grandparents were lifelong entrepreneurs, working almost exclusively for themselves.

        • My parents are calculated risk takers and they encouraged that within their children

        • My parents are believers in actively pursuing one’s passions and dreams. They’ve supported my brother and I in all aspects, including financially.

        • I was born in a city who is a major epicenter of my career interest (Seattle -> Technology)

        My education

        • I had a very involved mom who worked hard to expose me to many interests / areas of life

        • I went to private catholic school, then public school. I was in honors classes.

        • I had no scholarships that were GPA / performance contingent

        • I paid in-state tuition with minimal student loans

        • I had no employment restrictions throughout college

        My world view

        • I am a straight, Asian American, cisgender male

        • My parents and extended family are all immigrants to the USA

        • I am ethnically Cambodian, with a deep influence from Cantonese and French culture. My parents grew up in both Eastern and Western environments.

        • Throughout my life, I’ve had the opportunity to travel Europe and Asia through my parents.

        • I have family around the world who’s experiences influence me.

        • I grew up studying spanish and mandarin and spoke broken Cambodian at home

        In the hierarchy of privilege one can be born into, I know I’m a genetic lottery winner. Does that invalidate my outlook? Not at all. It simply adds a step in determining the transferability of my views to your own life. All of this is the context behind my words and views. Even with this listed out, I know there are aspects of my life that I am unaware of how they’ve influenced me.

        The best I can do is remind myself that everything we believe to be “true” must be filtered through the life experience that we were born into and nurtured in. For more on this, check out the context behind the advice.

        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.


        Here is the context that influenced my world views and outlook. Your mileage may vary.

        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, ambitious peers — 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.ith12@gmail.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