Jacob Choi, a 2018 Threshold Venture Fellow graduate, tells us about his experience as COO of Going Merry, which makes it easier for students to find and apply for financial aid, and his time as a Threshold Venture Fellow.
Tell us what you do at Going Merry, and how you got to the company.
I’m the COO and I wear a diverse range of hats, from operations and product/design to partnerships. Before I got here, I was studying management science and engineering at Stanford University from 2016 to 2018 and starting to explore entrepreneurship. I decided to go to graduate school to help me with a career shift from civil engineering to technology. While at Stanford, I randomly met Charlie Maynard, who became the CEO of Going Merry — he sent a blast out to the engineering school’s email list, asking if anyone was interested in jumping on board a business to help students pay for college.
I was interested right away. I’d volunteered as a high school teacher, and both of my parents are educators — my dad is a political science professor and my mom used to be an elementary school teacher. And I loved the idea of working with high school and college students.
Why did you decide to leave civil engineering?
What attracted me to civil engineering was being able to build things. But you’re building things in the real world, which isn’t scalable. With software in the virtual world, you get the ability to reach and help many more people. And I wanted to work on something with a greater social mission, and with a more diverse group of people.
Why did you want to become a Threshold Venture Fellow?
I wanted to be part of a group of people that would go in similar directions — like-minded people with similar goals, who’d have a sense of community. Even today, a handful of my best friends are all from the fellowship.
What surprised you about the fellowship?
There’s a perception that the fellowship is only about starting a company and raising money, or that it’s just about networking. But you have to separate networking from the idea of fellowship. Networking can oftentimes be transactional. The fellowship is wholeheartedly about relationship-building and true friendship-building.
It’s also about building yourself into the best person you can be in order to properly create something. In our sessions, the topics we covered were much more about emotional qualities versus intellectual qualities. With the other fellows, we touch on things that people avoid talking about — like the hard parts of hiring and firing, the ethics that go into scaling a high-growth company, how to deal with crises, and how to empathize with people that look and think differently from us, so we can explore how to build a better society.
Can you draw a line between what you do today, and what you learned as a Threshold Venture Fellow?
I think it makes you a really good team player, which helps you when you’re at a small company because we all have a common goal. An early-stage company is more like a family where you really want the best for everyone — and a big company is more like a sports team, where you might be internally competing a bit for that starting position or that next promotion.
What we learned in the fellowship also makes you very user-focused. You wake up thinking about users and you go to sleep thinking about users. And because of that, you tend to come up with more natural, genuine solutions for solving their problems. Thinking back to myself as a senior in high school, I remember those struggles about paying for college quite specifically. Anyone that has ever been in student debt remembers that cloud sitting over your head. It’s a journey many families will go through, and it’s a pivotal moment in people’s lives. It’s at these life inflection points that we can provide incredible value with genuinely helpful products.
What should every entrepreneur know before starting out?
I remember that at one point during the fellowship, someone asked Heidi [Roizen, Threshold Venture Fellow co-lead], about the moment when you know for sure you should start a company. She said that toward the end of your career or the end of your life, you don’t want to look back and say to yourself, “I really wish I’d done this one thing.” You start a company because you can’t imagine saying that to yourself.
I remember another piece of advice from a founder who spoke to us: On your computer, put a sticky note of five things that could kill your company in a year’s time. And focus on mitigating those five things.
What was the most important thing you took away from your fellowship experience?
I spoke at a Threshold Venture Fellow informational session last year for prospective fellows. I told them that the fellowship would be worth every penny of their Stanford tuition — and in fact, would bring them better relationships than they’d make in their regular coursework.
When you’re teamed up with the other fellows, it’s like you’re in a family with varying backgrounds and skill sets where everyone can contribute and build relationships with every other person. We become the best versions of ourselves.
Interested in the Threshold Venture Fellows program? Find details here.