In 2008, I came to the United States and spoke no English. With an unstoppable pursuit of the American Dream, I have created 8 successful web apps and worked as a freelance programmer for companies worldwide. I was named one of the 10 inspirational entrepreneurs under 21. I am currently a high school senior.
As seen in...
I built an a system for Warner Music Australia that automates their sales analysis and reporting process.
I extended the system to fit the multi-currency and visualization needs of Warner Music Asia-Pacific.
I worked at Alameda County to make an app for shuttle riders to view time estimates, route maps, schedules.
I developed a WordPress plugin for searching through a company directory for Pat's niche site network.
I wrote a series of articles on WordPress theme and plugin marketing for WPTuts+ on the Envato network.
I made a version of App Store instant search for App of the Day, a popular iOS application discovery network.
I created a full-featured warehouse management and invoice processing system for a local apparel business.
I devised an algorithm to process and display eBroadcast's TV guide, the No.1 provider in Australia.
I served as the lead developer for Teens In Tech, a global network for inspiring young entrepreneurs.
"I am happy with the reporting application Stephen has developed for our users across Asia. Aside from delivering an application that met our requirements within budget and schedule, Stephen also provided prompt technical support throughout the rollout period competently."David Wong, Operating Director of Warner Music Asia-Pacific
"Stephen's exceptional skill-set has enabled eBroadcast to offer its users a state-of-the-art user interface with exceptionally quick search features. His ability to think outside the square is complimented by his excellent development and implementation expertise."Glen Murphy, Managing Director of eBroadcast
"Stephen brought new energy to the team with his 'can do' attitude and his ability to think differently to deliver a solution that would benefit all county employees and residents."Tim Dupuis, Director of Alameda County Information Technology Department
"Stephen may be a little younger than me, but he's definitely someone I look up to. He's an extremely gifted person and anyone in the world would be lucky to work with him, as I was."Pat Flynn, Founder of Smart Passive Income
You've already shipped an incredible number of products. How do you get ideas for your projects?
It's a simple 3-step process. 1. Pay close attention to things around you and find problems that annoy you. 2. Create the best solution to solve those problems. 3. Look for people with the same problems and promote your solution to them.
What rate did you start out at? And what's the highest you've charged?
The first time I put out a price tag, it was $50 per hour. I pretty set that rate because I saw a post (I think it was on FreelanceSwitch) recommending the starting rate to be $50. At the peak, I charged $125 per hour for some specialized work. My public rate is $95 per hour.
What are your long-term aspirations? What are your next steps?
It's my long-term goal to build a low-maintenance, high-return online business, whether it's a web app, a mobile app, an info product, a class, or all of them combined. I want to live comfortably while building something that solves a problem well and customers will pay for.
What advice can you give to other young entrepreneurs?
Marketing > coding. It is how businesses had been run for centuries, but it seems to change in the tech industry. If you want your business to be successful, you need to focus on marketing first. You need to communicate with customers. You need to generate leads. You need to get your pricing right.
What advice would you give to a developer that is just about to begin a side project?
Focus on solving a real problem for people. There are so many misconceptions out there that you should always buy a domain and start writing code right away when you have an idea. From my experience, that never works. The process of idea validation is crucial to the idea's future success.
How do you bring ideas to life?
First, I validate the idea. I believe it's stupid to write a line of code without having someone willing to pay for it. Then I go to a whiteboard to sketch the idea. I plan out how each screen looks like, how they connect to each other, and improve them until they make sense. Then I'll go on a coding period when I write all the code as fast as possible.
What is the most valuable thing you've learnt from the time you've been running startups?
Make your creations really good so that people want to talk about them. This is very powerful. When I made iTunes Instant, because people enjoyed it so much, they told their friends and blogged about it. And from this kind of word of mouth, it became insanely popular in short amount of time.
What have been the best surprises that you found in starting your business?
I found out recently that you don't have to be big to be successful. The common notion is you have to have a $xx millions company with #xxx employees to be successful. But that's not true. I will consider myself successful when I make $10k/month from a simple one-man lifestyle business.
What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor?
My first entrepreneurial endeavor is OneExtraLap. I started around November 2009. It was treated mainly as an experiment. It came along pretty well. Our small buy loyal group of users loved it. I just kept on developing what users requested, and at the same time, learning more and more about the world of programming and marketing.
A web interface for Alameda County residents to view their property taxes.
A mini website that features a list of my cool, nerdy T-shirts.
A link shortener that helps CVHS students to get to teacher's web pages faster.
A simulation that outputs a random result and displays probability.
A Chrome extension that shows a list of Facebook's emoticons and their syntax.
A super fast, Dropbox-powered blogging engine that I wrote for my personal blog.
A mobile interface I created for Hacker News with jQuery Mobile.
A simlulation of an entire Major League Baseball season under my own rules.
Five years ago, I couldn't understand or talk to anyone in English. Today, I can confidently give a speech in front of an audience in English. Five years ago, I didn't know any programming. Today, I've developed 8 successful web applications and worked as a freelance programmer for several global companies. Five years ago, I relied on other people's help. Today, I constantly share my experience and give advice through interviews to other young entrepreneurs.
The last five years have been unbelievable, and I would like to share the entirety of my journey with you.
1. When I Was a Kid
I was born in Kaiping, China, a city 200km from Hong Kong. I lived a normal childhood, but my parents' friends kept telling us that I had the potential to accomplish big things. Although I had participated in our elementary school's math Olympiad team, I couldn't comprehend what they meant.
2. The United States, Here I Come
Fast forward to July 30th, 2008: It was a beautiful, sunny morning when our flight landed in SFO. When it was our turn at customs, I had no idea what the officers were saying in English, and that was my first experience of the enormous challenges I would be facing.
3. The Struggle Began
A month after I arrived, I stepped into my middle school classroom for the first time. I realized I couldn't speak or understand any English beyond simple pleasantries. To make it worse, I knew absolutely no one at the school. I felt lonely, isolated, and desperate. To be honest, I really did cry a little on my first day.
The owner of a tutorial service told me that it would take at least four years for my English to catch up. When I left the tutorial service because we didn't get what we paid for, I told myself I could do it in two years, without the help of her tutorial service.
4. Plan of Attack
I made a plan for myself: 1) Write down any vocabulary I didn't understand at school; 2) When I get home, check the definitions of the words, memorize them, and put them in sentences; 3) Use the words in in conversations the next day.
Every day, I would go home, open up the dictionary and the translator, and start learning new words non-stop. I forced myself to learn at least 50 vocabulary words a day. It wasn't an easy task at all - I often stayed up until 11PM studying. In addition, I would arrive at school 30 minutes early and stay there an hour late so I could practice my English with classmates and teachers.
5. A Little Bit of Progress at a Time
In three months, I at least had a clue of what was going on around me: I got used to the environment, I got used to the procedures, and I got used to the people.
In six months, I became comfortable with my new friends and found myself being more extroverted. I was no longer that shy student sitting in the back of the classroom, and I was no longer that lonely kid eating in the last row of the cafeteria.
In nine months, I got a huge award. My English teacher presented me with The Student of The Month award for working so hard to improve my English and having the best grade in class. It meant a lot to me to be recognized in front of the entire staff for something I worked so hard on.
In twelve months, things started to click after getting through the tough initial barrier. Before that, I couldn't ask a question when I didn't understand something! But after one year, it wasn't a problem anymore to raise my hand and ask my teacher to clarify a topic in simple English or ask a friend to explain a difficult word in context.
6. Into Technology and Programming
7. Building My First Web App
After few weeks, I wanted to build something from the ground-up that I could actually show people. I've had the idea of social quizzing for a while, which was a website for people to take and create quizzes while competing with friends. I called it OneExtraLap.
After spending every single night of spring and summer of 2010 writing and rewriting code, (and graduating from middle school,) OneExtraLap was launched on August 8th, 2010. On the first day, people were loving the site, and I got some really nice tweets and emails of encouragement.
The honeymoon period didn't last long though. As the initial buzz died down, the site activities dropped gradually, and the number of new users per day lowered significantly. After about two weeks, there was no action on the site whatsoever. I began to realize OneExtraLap wasn't something that users needed on a daily basis.
8. Middle School Graduation
I graduated from my middle school in June of 2010, almost two years after I came to the U.S. I still didn't have the same amount of vocabulary as most native speakers had My English had. I still needed to say filler words frequently so I could think of the right phrase to say. My grammar was still far from perfect. But after so much hard work, my English had gotten a lot better than when I came here. I could hold fluent conversations with people just like everyone else. I no longer "looked weird" or "acted differently".
9. iTunes Instant Exploded
On September 8, 2010, Google released the instant search feature, and I immediately smelled an opportunity for building a version of instant search for iTunes, because the search interface for iTunes.app was both slow and cluttered. I dived into Coda, and built iTunes Istant in three hours.
After promoting the site on Twitter, iTunes Instant went viral. The next day, I emailed a lot of bloggers, and iTunes Instant got featured on Mashable few hours later. Then the blogosphere snowball effect began. iTunes Instant ended up getting featured on Gizmodo, The Atlantic, Fast Company and more.
10. Getting Paid for My Code
During all this craziness, I was approached by eBroadcast, wanting me to revamp their scheduling system after seeing the great work I did on iTunes Instant. I formed a great relationship with them, built them a fast back-end and designed a clean front-end, and eventually I was paid $75/hour.
11. More and More Apps
In October of 2011, venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar pitched me the idea of viewing other folks' Twitter home timelines. I loved it and built TwtRoulette in a week. It appeared on the homepage of Forbes, TechCrunch, and PCMag. Even Twitter implemented the feature on their own site later.
To keep my app strides going, I also built OhBoard, a whiteboarding app for Google Chrome. It didn't take off as I had hoped, but I have still gotten a moderate number of sales over the last couple years.
12. Finding My Way Through the World of Marketing
With many of the native full screen editor apps coming up, I thought it would be great to have that feature inside WordPress. The feedback was surprisingly positive: 60% of people said this was something they wanted, and the majority said they would pay at least $10 for the tool.
After three months of intense development with some programming help from Sean Fisher, Artsy Editor was launched in June 2011. I promoted on my beta email list, pitched to blogs like The Next Web and WPMU, partnered up with startups.com, did case studies for WooThemes and ZURB. I sold more than 200 copies within the first month with 60 successful post-launch strategies.
13. Fourth Year Was a Blur
At the start of my Sophomore year in high school, I wanted to contribute my technological expertise to my school, Castro Valley High. I built a link-shortener for all teachers' web pages, CVHS.me. I also helped our technology department implement a set of iPads into the classrooms.
My main focus programming-wise during the school year was on freelance work. I had the pleasure of working with Warner Music to develop an internal sales analysis and reporting system to automate manual labor. That saved the Fortune 1000 company a lot of money and maximized their profit.
Over the summer of 2012, feeling annoyed by having to manually enter phone numbers from those Lost My Phone Facebook groups, I built NeedNumbers.me to automatically pull in the contacts and insert them into your phone's address book. It was used by few thousand people within the first week after making appearances on TechCrunch and AllFacebook.
14. The Hardest Year in High School
Junior year in high school was indeed a tough one. I signed up for five AP classes, and I also took the required standardized tests such as the SAT. On top of that, I still worked with Warner Music as a freelance programmer. I really mastered the art of time management. After optimizing my schedule, I still managed to give myself at least seven hours of sleep a night despite having a lot of school and client work, and never missed any assignment due dates or client work deadlines.
15. Second Place at Hackathon & Government Summer Job
On December 2012, I participated in the inaugural Alameda County Hackathon and took second place with a park finder app, ACPark.org. My partner Caleb Kim and I received $1500 and formed a great relationship with the folks at the County IT department. This relationship eventually led to an opportunity to work on their mobile team this summer of 2013.
16. To Infinity and Beyond
Speaking of the future, I'll be applying for college this fall, and hopefully I can get into my dream college, Stanford! But regardless of where I end up attending, I will be starting an online business that exemplifies what I always believe in: Technology should be used to minimize the time of the input and maximize the scale of the output. What that means is I'll be building tools that automate the annoying tasks that people have to do every day and use smart algorithms to make people more money and increase their life quality.