How are you feeling about your higher education bubble thesis 10 years after the Thiel Fellowship?
It’s so crazy to see it become more normalized now. When we started the fellowship, one of our goals was just to make that conversation of, “Hey, should I, or shouldn’t I go to college?” more normalized inside families. Now it’s totally different. People talk about it all the time. It still might not be typical for people not to go, but it’s way more typical for people to have that conversation. Is college the right path for me? One interesting thing is when we first launched the fellowship, we were called “the most misguided piece of philanthropy out there” by school administrators because they knew it was cutting into their paycheck.
When we launched invisible college, which is our 50k program for 1517, we got such a positive response. People were tweeting out and saying things like “I’m pro college, but I think this makes sense for students to take next semester off and try something different” It’s been really interesting to see it go from us being the devil for telling people, “Hey, you might want to think that school is not the right choice for you potentially” to people praising us for our actions now 10 years later. So it’s kind of wild. I’m very curious what will happen even in just the next two years, given what’s happening with COVID and higher education. I think 10 years ago we didn’t know that the pandemic might be the final strike on higher ed.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
I’ve done a lot of things that people would think are pretty risky. I grew up on the East Coast and moved to San Diego. I remember the town was 22 years old and my grandfather was like, “How are you going to pay yourself?” I’m like, “Well, grandpa, I have more job security than my friends. I have 14 clients, and if one of them leaves, I still have 13 clients. Whereas if I lose my job, I lose my whole job.” The things that some people see as risky, other people don’t see as risky.
One reason why starting businesses has not been risky is that I’m very good at scaffolding the risk itself. For example, before I started my tutoring company, I put ads on Craigslist as the tutor and was able to test them and figure out, “Oh yeah, it seems like people in San Diego are interested in having a tutor.”
For me, that scaffolding piece is really important and especially with risks that I get scared about. When we started 1517, we bought two t-shirts that had 1517 on them and we went to a Hackathon and we pretended that 1517 existed. We had nothing, we didn’t even have a website. I think people usually think about the end game of risk instead of what it takes to get started.
What do you think the future of software is?
I think the future of software or the people who work in software is that there will be many more embedded systems over time. We already see that hardware is a lot cheaper to build now, and of course, embedment with software is really important. That’s already happening within things like biotech.
What is most interesting about any area is the intersection of one area with another that maybe hasn’t been put together. I’m always trying to tell people, “Hey, you’re an engineer, that’s great. Put that together with something where maybe engineering doesn’t touch it as much, or it hasn’t happened yet because I think that’s where you get things that are novel and interesting and sometimes epic failures too.” Even if it’s not going to work, you will learn a ton by doing that. My tip would be to keep looking for places where software hasn’t been implemented and see what that would look like if you brought it to that space. Like I said earlier, the world of atoms is getting cheaper and cheaper. I think it might be wise for people to learn more about embedded systems and things more on the hardware side.
Who inspires you today and who you look up to?
My founders inspire me a lot because they’re taking so much risk. When I think about public figures who are good at giving kudos and praise to their teams, I love to see humble leaders like that.
It takes humility to start a startup, but it also takes a certain amount of hubris to be like, “I’m going to do this crazy thing.” I really admire seeing people step on that track outside of the company path and say, “Hey, I want to bring this new thing into the world.” Some of our founders are not going to school and maybe going against what their families say is smart for them to do. It’s really tough. I have a lot of admiration for people who are just getting started because there’s a lot of pressure to do the safe thing.