In 2008, I moved from China to the U.S. at the age of 13. After teaching myself English, I've built a successful online business comprised of 8 popular web apps and worked as a programmer for companies worldwide. I spoke at TEDx about young entrepreneurship. When I'm not working, I am a photographer, cyclist, sports fan and mathemagician. Currently, I am a freshman at Stanford University.
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.
(This is also my Common Application essay in response to the following prompt: "Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.")
Starting from the Bottom
“It’ll take at least four years for your English to catch up.” The verdict came from the owner of Kittie Land Tutoring Center. Looking out the window to an early September overcast, I prepared myself for an uphill battle ahead.
I came to the U.S. in July 2008, not knowing any spoken English. Eager yet naive, I immediately dreamed about starting a business in the land of entrepreneurship. However, I never realized the difficulty of overcoming the language barrier until the first day of school, when curious students bombarded me with questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where’re you from?” Embarrassingly, I couldn’t answer them, so I sat cluelessly in the last row while immature kids made fun of my thick glasses and outdated T-shirt. To make matters worse, I had no friends who could help me out.
I needed serious assistance. Soon, my family found a tutoring center called Kittie Land. They offered one-on-two English training at a hefty price, but we had no choice. Before we signed the contract, the owner told me, “Even with a daily two-hour session, it’ll take at least four years for your English to catch up.” I promptly activated my mental math machine and figured out how much I’d be spending my parents’ hard-earned money in the next four years. Feeling guilty yet desperate, tears dropped from my eyes for the first time in seven years.
Things didn’t make an upward turn. As the owner accepted more students, I was instead receiving one-on-seven help. Meanwhile, I was still failing every class except for math. Three weeks later, I told myself, “I can prove the fraudulent, incompetent owner wrong. I will learn English by myself, and I will catch up in two years.”
The next day, carrying a yellow notepad with four distinctly-labeled columns - vocabulary, definition, translation, sentence, I started executing my plan right away. I quickly jotted down new vocabulary, at a pace of 30 words per class. When I got home, I opened up translate.google.com and dictionary.com and learned every word’s definition and translation. Then I put the words in context by creating coherent sentences. The following morning, I got to school half an hour early trying to converse with classmates on first-grade topics. After school, I practiced dialogues with teachers without realizing they had lessons to plan.
Despite the awkwardness, mockery, and occasional all-nighters, I was making tremendous progress. In 3 months, my ESL teacher promoted me to the mainstream English class. In 6 months, my writing was evaluated as beyond my grade level. In 12 months, I received Student of the Month award for working diligently to improve English and earning the highest grade in my mainstream English class. In 24 months, I could communicate with anyone without problems. I was no longer the kid who “didn’t speak your language” or “acted differently”. I achieved the goal of catching up my English in two years, half of the time the owner claimed, all without going to her tutoring center.
This journey has fundamentally shaped the way I approach challenges. Without the resourcefulness I acquired through learning English, I wouldn’t have become proficient in four programming languages in two years. Without the independent learning I constantly practiced, I wouldn’t have successfully created and operated eight web applications by myself. Without the confidence I built up trying to become a better speaker, I wouldn’t be brave enough to speak on interviews with KCBS, Inc. Magazine, and The Mercury News about young entrepreneurship.
Steve Jobs spoke accurately in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” When I first set foot in the U.S. in 2008, I had no idea what I would become five years later. Looking back now, it’s amazing to see how my dots connect.
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