How I Hacked My Way From TC To YC
Exactly a year ago today, I was getting ready to present my hack for the TechCrunch Disrupt NYC Hackathon. In 24 hours I had built Vrban, a VR application for visualizing the impacts of proposed projects in urban environments. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Most of my friends have heard this story before and might be sick of it by now, but this weekend I reflected on how much my life has changed since May 4th 2014 and wanted to share the story.
I had only started going to hackathons about 6 months prior — I wasn’t a CS major in college and had missed out on the collegiate hackathon scene, so I tried to immerse myself in the NYC hackathon scene as much as I could. The month before TC Disrupt I had even organized a hackathon out in Red Hook to bring together professional devs, college students, and even high school/college dropouts who had never touched a line of code. Initially I started going to hackathons in search of a new job. But eventually I was going to seize all the opportunities available at a hackathon: picking up a new language or framework with the help of actual people not online tutorials, learning to think about the minimum set of features necessary to ship something functional, hanging out with people smarter than I was, and the list goes on. The prizes were nice, but the knowledge, soft skills, and connections were prizes in themselves.
In December I had won $500 from a hackathon and I decided to buy an Oculus Rift. I was curious what all the VR hype was about and was excited to learn to hack on 3D/VR applications. It quickly became one of the best investments I ever made.
On May 3rd I walked into the Manhattan Center with my Oculus Rift DK1 and not a clue about what I was going to build. I was a bit late since I woke up in a bit of a slump that morning and almost decided to just stay in bed (thanks to my girlfriend for getting me out the door). Once I was there I started thinking about cool VR apps I could build and thought back to my time at Columbia as an undergrad. My sophomore year a new building was constructed that ended up blocking up a good portion of our observatory’s view of the stars. I had been thinking a lot about practical applications of VR and figured this was the perfect use. And that’s how Vrban was born. Vrban was a simple web app powered by Three.JS that enabled people to walk around a 3D model of an existing city and visualize the impact of a new building. Users could change the position and height of the building while experiencing these changes in VR.
To my disbelief, on May 4th I won 1st place at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon. I was ecstatic, but also suffered from serious imposter syndrome. Did they know this was all held together by some of the worst code ever written? Did they pick me only because VR was cool and new? But none of that mattered because it made me delusional enough to think I could start a company based on this idea. The prize was a big $5k check, but really it was freedom. The hackathon earnings, savings from my first year of work, and confidence from winning gave me the freedom to try working on something of my own.
I don’t come from a wealthy family, so deciding to quit my job was hard. Trying to start a company seemed like a rather selfish thing to do. My parents had sacrificed a lot to get me through college and I felt like I was about to squander my savings chasing a VR dream. But something about it seemed right and I’m grateful for the support I got from my family.
A couple of weeks later I started working with Russell, my college roommate and now Co-Founder. He was the one who had initially encouraged me to buy the DK1 so he was stoked about trying to start a VR company. We talked with the New York Department of City Planning, urban designers, architects, and even an oil company. They all wanted VR, but not for video games or porn. They meant business.
In June I was lucky enough to join the Orbital NYC Bootcamp, a new project by Gary Chou aimed at helping people launch ideas from their head and into the real world. There were 3 key lessons that I’ve carried with me. 1) Learn from data. You learn more from a failed experiment than from not doing anything at all. 2) Some things are out of our control, but we should give 200% to all the things that are in our control. 3) Enjoy the journey. I think we often get caught up reading and thinking about how we can be the next startup “unicorn”, but the experience of trying to make that happen is worth more than anything money can buy.
In August I decided to fly out to California for YC hacks. I hadn’t really budgeted for this, but getting to hack out of YC for 24 hours, talk to the partners and alumni, and pitch to PG, Sama, and Aaron Levie was totally worth it. Our VR hack, Vrniture, helped people arrange furniture in interior spaces using the Myo and once satisfied let them order everything they had placed. We walked away with the 3 Parrot Drones, a DJI Phantom 2, an iPad, and a free clerky incorporation. But the real prize here was getting on the YC radar and I think it worked.
In October we decided to apply to YC with Vrban, which had evolved from the original urban planning idea into a platform anyone could use to visualize their pre-existing 3D models in VR. One of the things we quickly learned from talking to people was that they were experts at 3D modeling, but even Unity was too complex for them to get started with VR. So we aimed to reduce the friction in leveraging VR so that we could learn what people actually wanted to do with their content in VR.
We were invited to interview.
In November we flew out to Mountain View for our 10 minute interview. It started with PB asking “you guys are the VR furniture guys, right?” Yes, but we weren’t there to talk about home decorating in VR. We were there to explain how VR was going to change industries from architecture to retail and we would be the ones to pioneer it.
I left the room thinking it went terribly. Most people were easily impressed by a VR demo, but the YC partners weren’t susceptible to the flashiness. They cared about the business. And unlike a VR startup doing movies or games, we weren’t relying on consumer VR to take off. We were going to do everything in our power to make enterprise VR happen and I hoped we had convinced them we could pull it off.
That night we got the call. I remember my initial response to PB on the phone was “are you serious?” I couldn’t believe that what had started as a hackathon project 7 months before was now becoming a YC funded company.
Now I’ve gone through YC and it’s May 4th again. And Vrban is now InsiteVR. We’re enabling architects to take advantage of VR as a communication tool and way to better understand their designs.
Sometimes I wonder how many things could have gone differently. I could’ve spent the $500 on something other than a Rift. I could’ve stayed in bed instead of going to a hackathon. I could’ve worked on another joke app. I could’ve saved some money and not flown out to Mountain View for a hackathon. But if my parents taught me anything it’s that you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get. So I did.
Sometimes I think that I got really lucky. But I also like to think that I did whatever was in my control to set myself up for success. Our company is by no means a success yet, but the journey in and of itself has been. I’ve learned so much in the past year, met so many inspiring people, and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
The YC application asks: When have you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage? This story will likely always be my answer to that question.
Thanks for reading,
p.s. May the Fourth be with you.