Austin Vaday: “I Lost My Hearing (That Is, I Became Deaf) When I Was Three Years Old”
Austin Vaday is the CTO of Aquaint, a social network that lets you seamlessly find other people’s social media profiles in one place, by making one profile with one username. After becoming deaf at the age of 3, Austin has overcame unbearable challenges and exceeded expectations — proving to the world that disabilities are super-powers, not disadvantages. At only 17 years of age, Austin experienced his first of three software engineering internships at NASA and Amazon. Austin’s true talent is not in his technical ability, but in his ability to inspire and motivate others.
Q: What are some challenges you faced when developing your venture?
My co-founder Navid Sarvian and I have been pursuing Aquaint since November 2015. I’d say the biggest challenge I faced involved balancing my life as a student. Navid and I both transferred into UCLA from community college just 2 months prior to the birth of Aquaint, so we were both still adjusting to the fast-paced quarter system. As a full-time Computer Science student myself, it’s quite challenging to keep up with the pace of technological development in the startup community. But if you know me well enough, I’m one to enjoy challenges. Just as an example, this past summer I worked at Amazon as a software development engineering intern. Every weekday I’d wake up at 6:00am, go to the gym at 7:00am, work at Amazon from 9am — 6:00/6:30pm, get back to my apartment at 8:00pm, and work on Aquaint until 12:00/1:00am. You’d also see me committing entire weekends to working on our iOS app and throwing mini hackathons quite often. If you’re really passionate about your product and idea, you’ll make the necessary sacrifices and undergo calculated risks to get the job done.
Q: Was there any point when you thought it was over? That you were going to fail?
There was never an explicit thought of “Oh shoot, it’s over” for us. Navid and I are both extremely success-oriented, we set out to accomplish what we started no matter what obstacles we face. In the beginning, we would constantly fear that competition would come out and dethrone our business, a very common paranoia in the startup community. But as we developed a stronger product, this fear evolved into confidence as we had no doubt about our ability to execute. Now, every time we find a competitor we analyze their software features, leadership, and progress over the past six months. We keep track of what they do well, and more importantly what they don’t do well, to help us create a better product for our customers.
Q: As an entrepreneur how important has flexibility been in developing your venture?
It has been extremely important to be flexible. We’ve had at least 4 major pivots in the last year, and every single pivot serves as a unique learning experience. Whenever we find a decent competitor out there, we adjust slightly based on what we observe. As an entrepreneur, it’s important to understand that things won’t always go the way you want it to go. This could be a result of your own mistakes, or issues that are directly out of your control — such as government regulations. I saw this in action during my time as an intern at NASA and Amazon. However, it’s critical that we reflect back on these occurrences, learn from them, put on a positive mindset, and keep moving forward.
Q: What was your spark, where did it come from?
I lost my hearing (that is, I became deaf) when I was three years old. Throughout my childhood, communication with my peers and family was extremely limited. At an early age, I learned how to lip-read, but it was exhausting and unreliable. As a result, I would ignore reality and escape into a world of my own imagination. You see, in my imagination: I was free. I had wings that allowed me to soar throughout the sky; I was able to do anything. But at the age of 12, I began to learn American Sign Language, and realized that I was able to communicate in other ways than spoken words. So that one barrier I had, that one little obstacle that prevented me from interacting with the real world, was gone. And that’s when I realized I could soar throughout the sky in the real world too, with my well-developed imagination to guide me. That was my spark.
4. What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?
Two very important non-work habits I have are exercise and meditation. Maintaining a healthy mental and physical state-of-being is very important to me. Doing so can increase self-confidence, productivity, and charisma, all of which can be considered important traits of an entrepreneur. In particular, I enjoy playing basketball, weightlifting, and even staring at blank walls for long periods of time (try it out and see what happens).
5. What is your best tip for entrepreneurs?
Put in the work, and be open to receiving feedback on your work. You won’t get anywhere if you just do one or the other; you need to do both at the same time. I expect my teammates to be critical of my work, and I expect them to want constructive criticism on their work as well. This will allow for your company to grow much faster and unleash its true potential.