When I first met Gabriel at the Entrepreneurship Summit, I was first taken aback at how much experience he had, especially as a student. Gabe covered a range of interesting topics and offered a number of valuable advice that it became increasingly hard to leave the conversation! He was so open and candid about his experience that I felt like I could listen (and learn) for hours. As a student entrepreneur, Gabe offered a unique perspective for students, like myself, aspiring to be entrepreneurs one day. It’s safe to say that my conversation with Gabe was one of the most serendipitous occurrences I had all day!
Comments from Gabriel Otte, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Computational Biology ’11:
How did you feel about this year’s Entrepreneurship Summit?
In some sense, Cornell’s entrepreneurial spirit is just getting started. Schools like Harvard and Penn have long been driven by their business schools but Cornell is just starting. As a result, there was a sense of anticipation at this event that I haven’t seen in events at Penn. That being said, I think Cornell could do a better job highlighting some of their younger entrepreneurs who are currently working on their businesses. There are a lot of growing pains that they could share, that would be beneficial to new founders.
What was your favorite take-away?
I was super impressed with Skybox and the feat that they pulled off as a startup. I don’t know how they managed it. The other take-away was confirmation that this really is the golden age of startups. Even old companies like Ebay have their “start up”-like groups developing new products fast.
Can you speak a little about your product, Acorn, and why you started it?
Acorn was a location-based messaging and reminders platform. It allowed you to organize information by location. For example, you could write a grocery list for your significant other and leave it at the grocery store so they receive it right as they are walking by on their way home!
What aspect about the product / business / entrepreneurship makes you “come alive”?
Entrepreneurship is only for those who thrive on the excitement of having your ideas come to reality. However, this comes with HUGE risks. At the end of the day, only about 1 of 10 companies ever exit successfully, so I understand that many people would just prefer a steady income and a nice work/life balance. You really shouldn’t do a startup if all you want to do is make a quick buck. Go into banking or consulting if you want that. Personally, I really can’t think of doing any other job because there is nothing like coming up with a new way to better the world, and making it a reality.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned so far?
They aren’t joking when they say startups aren’t easy. There will be days when you cry. There will be days when you think everything is going to fall apart. Honestly, the people who tend to be the most successful at starting a business are the people who will not give up even when things seem to be going south. I can honestly say that I’ve cried, I’ve thought things would fall apart and I held on.
As a student building a product, what were the greatest challenges you faced and what would you have changed to overcome those challenges more easily?
Since I was a PhD student at UPenn, things were pretty challenging with regards to starting a company. I was actually almost kicked out of my program because starting a company violated my PhD contract. Thankfully, it was worked out in the end and I’m currently on a leave of absence.
What experiences/skills/knowledge were you able to leverage in building Acorn?
I was born and grew up in Korea until I was 9. Since moving to the states, I have been coding nonstop. My dad is a professor of philosophy and taught me a lot of formal logic which translated into CS for me. I think starting early is a huge advantage. You never have as much free time to experiment as you do in your junior high and high school days.
I released my first software, OSXplanet, when I was 13 and that led straight to my first job at Filemaker when I was 17. The early learning, the persistence and simply having more years to make mistakes have made me a better coder and a better entrepreneur.
How did you capture the attention of investors and potential buyers?
I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about the deal yet because it hasn’t been finalized. However, generally speaking, we were able to get the attention of investors through word of mouth. One thing that they don’t teach you in undergrad that they should is who you know is always more important than your classwork. Of course you should do well in your courses, but the relationships and the partnerships you nurture are much more important. Through word of mouth, we got investor meetings and even a spot on national TV on Fox’s Risk and Reward show as the start up of the week!
Did potential investors treat you differently because you’re a student? Do you have any tips in striking a deal with investors?
I don’t think they treat you differently. You do need to convince them you are an expert in the field you are trying disrupt and that’s easier if you have some experience working in the field. Striking a deal with investors is like dating. You are going to get a lot of first dates that are duds, but eventually you’ll meet the right one that you pull the trigger with. I think the most important thing to remember is that most investors are not going to invest after meeting you once. They need to get to know you over a period of time. If these meetings are like dates, actually getting funded, is like getting married.
Where do you see your product / business in the next 3-5 years?
My new venture, Freenome, is doing some pretty novel work in cancer diagnostics. Biomedical research is a field that is ripe for disruption and I hope that one or more of my ventures will be successful in doing so.
Do you have any words of wisdom to students aspiring to be entrepreneurs?
I think there is a misconception that the way companies start is by just having an idea. Ideas are worth almost nothing in business. You need to think about starting a business like doing research. You have to have a hypothesis and gain data to prove or disprove it. For example, if you are making a product that allows you to interact with email in a new way, your hypothesis would be something like, “Email is broken because of X. Y is the solution that fixes X.” Once you have the hypothesis, you should gather as much data as possible that proves that “Email is broken because of X.” This can be prior studies or believe it or not, you can just go out into the streets and ask people in a poll! Then you prove the second part by creating/executing Y and seeing if it does fix X. By doing this, you minimize one of the many risks of starting your own company.
Acorn is a mobile, location-based messaging and reminders app. Think of our technology as digital sticky notes (called “acorns”) that you can write and drop anywhere in the world, allowing the message to be received at that location. Download here.