7,686 Miles from Slovakia to Hawaii. How I got an internship and the opportunity of a lifetime.
My success story starts like many others, with a failure.
I was 16 year old and had a strong desire to study at a high school in California. As a boy from Slovakia (Central Europe) it was an amazing possibility. I looked for opportunities but none of options got me really excited. I could pay around $10k (that’s way more than yearly average wage in Slovakia) to an agency but none were able to guarantee that I would end up in California.
I knew it could be done better so I created a small website called Host Me In California. On the site, I was seeking a host family for my next year of high school studies in California. Looking for a feedback I sent the site to few friends, and by the time I took a shower, my friend had passed it along and the first article about the site was published online. And that was just the beginning.
My other friend, posted the site on YC Hacker News with a title: “This 16yo boy from Eastern Europe has a better sales page than you”. The site started trending and soon became #1, and that was the moment when it all started. Paul Graham thought that was misleading and renamed it to: “Host me in California” and messaged my friend warning him: “Don’t rename your post!”
In one night, my website was seen by about 30k people, liked by more than 800 and tweeted by around 300. It got huge media attention all around the world and was on a national TV station [SK]. I got lots of emails with offers to host me and it was starting to blow my mind. I was young and made a lots of mistakes.
Mistake #1: From all offers I got, I chose a family in the Bay Area. He was an entrepreneur and she was a director of a startup in San Francisco. They seemed to be very excited to host me for the next year. We talked about what school I could attend, numerous things I could learn, how I’d go every to school every morning…
And then they simply changed their mind and told me it would be better for me to come to the US for my university studies. It was just about time to sort out paperwork, insurance and VISA. I gave up.
Mistake #2: Cutting out communication with other families while I talked to the best option. I learned it is better not to rush things while excited and wait with final agreement until everything is sort out. It’s still taking the same risk, but more coordinated even though it would require more effort on my side.
Host Me In CA Round 2: The Intern Site
Now, as a 19 year old, I was thinking how to get the most out of the 4 months before the university starts. I talked to a very good friend who is currently working in LA, he told me: “Make a kickass resume. I will send it to few people.”
I did my best to make the kickass resume and after a discussion with another friend, we agreed I should make a website (because nobody really reads CVs anymore). I decided to not to give up and to try it once again and I started working on a design right away. In a week I had a website ready.
I put it on my old domain although this time I was not just focusing on California, but was open to experiences worldwide. I posted the link to YC Hacker News again and went for a ballroom performance rehearsal hoping that someone would appreciate my effort and help me.
By the time I came back, my site hit #1 again! The same numbers. 30k visitors in one day. Social media impact. 150 e-mails with offers, compliments, valuable feedback. Even our president’s son shared my site and appreciated my approach.
I replied to all the emails, asked about compensations during the internship and ended up with about 15 amazing offers from all around the world: Berlin, Boston, San Francisco, Spain, Netherlands, India, Kuala Lumpur, Italy… I was so excited about the possibilities for my summer that I skipped a class to have a call with a guy from New Zealand in the hallway at school instead.
Every offer was awesome, and it made the decision one of the most difficult of my life. Everyone offered a good salary, free accommodations, flights and dreamy perks! I was overwhelmed but had to think about what I would like to do in my future and what I wanted to learn.
What surprised me most was the response of companies I rejected, as they were still very welcoming and offered their help if I changed my mind.
After accepting one of the offers, I picked a small group of my smart friends and shared the opportunities I didn’t select. By doing so, I was able to help my future university mate land an internship in Lisbon, Portugal.
I decided to work for a guy from Hawaii. A “famous” (the one that helped me to edit this post and made me put that in quotations) internet entrepreneur who has founded several companies, went through YC, mentored & invested in many startups, founded non-profit organisations and is now settled in his hometown in Hawaii. Beyond just his business success; he has a great family, two lovely children and is just in his 30s! He was more than my possible summer boss, but my possible life role model. My goal was to learn about starting companies from the initial idea to getting final product in customers hands, therefore I rejected 2–3 times better paid offers to spend the summer working next to this person and learning how startups in the US work.
As a one wise guy said to me: “Perks are easy to offer. Salaries are easy to offer, nowadays money is cheap. If that’s your goal, you’ll have plenty of options. Companies with a real sense of purpose and traction, with a real team who’s experienced and committed yet young — that’s rare.”
This is why I prioritised the learning over money.
Given my previous failure at the last minute, I was a little worried as I had still not spoken to my new mentor on the phone and he said it would take few days to move funds to cover my airfare. As I waited I was starting to lose hope, but the morning I woke up to the beep of a new email with notification that I have received money, I was back on track.
I booked my flights and that is when the dream got real.
I planned a 2 day layover in Silicon Valley so I could to see some famous startup headquarters and meet some nice people. And then after as little as 15 hours spent flying I finally I have arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii. I live in a small town with a population of 13k, called Waimea. My apartment is attached to the office where I have a nice desk with a new large display. Now I am working hard day and night designing user experience mockups and building a mobile app. And between the long work hours I’m setting off on adventures in paradise.
It was really hard to leave everything I had in Slovakia — my family, my girlfriend and friends and start from a scratch on the other side of the planet. Just to pursue my interest with hope that it would be worth it and a passion to learn. My boss became a good friend of mine. He teaches me constantly to understand money, things that are happening and helps me figure out what makes sense and what does not. I am always fascinated by how quick he is able to give valuable feedback into every part of the product development, look at things differently, see the bigger picture. He is also the one always persuading me to drop out off the college and start something on my own. Well, we will see if I am ready for such move in the end of the summer. Even if I am not, the Host me in CA website brought me few other offers from the geekiest companies in Prague, where I have decided to start my university studies in October after my unsuccessful interviews for Computer Science at Cambridge University. Well, life is not always about the success and everything happens for a reason. Anyway, another great opportunity to learn more is waiting ahead and I am so excited to seize it!
To see how the rest of my journey unfolds, follow along with my Facebook updates. See you at the end of the summer with summary what I did and learned! And if you come to Hawaii in the next 2 months, let’s go surf!