When hackathons first started getting popular, I was an undergrad student at the University of Minnesota. This is when I first started hearing about these kind of events. After graduation, I went to Europe and interned at CERN. This is where I organized my first formal hackathon. All of these scientists were there—I didn’t hack because I was organizing, but we did 17 projects and a lot of those were actually adopted by CERN. The next year, I attended the same hackathon at CERN, but this time as a hacker. Our team created a game called Particle Clicker, which was built to educate people about high energy and particle physics. The idea was pretty simple: people can click on a particle and earn points as they learn more about it. We had almost 50K people play the game within one week and almost 200K within a month. It's actually still on CERN’s website.
After school, I continued to organize hackathons as I got my Master’s at Oxford. It was pretty informal; I teamed up with some of my friends to get a small group together to do open source projects around our interests. We met every weekend in someone’s house or apartment and hacked something. Through these groups we actually met a person from Said Business School who ended up becoming one of our first business partners. That was a really important moment for us.
When did you decide to make hackathons more of a profession than a hobby?
I was a pure computer science student, and at that time I had a few job options after graduation from some nice companies. I also had some offers from universities, as I thought I wanted to do research. I never thought I would start a company—I was to my core an engineer!
Ultimately, I decided to go to Oxford to do research. While there, I realized I was less interested in the research and that I really wanted to do more with my ideas. I wanted to organize a hackathon and a team, so I started thinking about the best ways to do this. I went to the Computer Science department and the Said Business School and started sitting in on classes to get business knowledge, even though I wasn’t a student there. This really opened my eyes to the possibilities.
After graduation, I found a few partners who were interested in building a very early stage hacker community in China. So we lauched a small community of students and engineers at Tsinghua University in Beijing. We gradually became more popular and other hackers and OS contributors started to hear about us and wanted to sponsor our hackathons or post technical problems to our group. This helped me realize that there is a disconnect between enterprises and hackers and that there was a great opportunity to bring these communities together to do real work.
What’s the #1 most valuable skill you’ve learned as a founder?
I’ve learned a lot of things so it’s hard to say one, especially because in different stages I acquired different skills. That being said, if I were to name one I would say it’s about having a real vision that creates value and being able to bring that vision to reality with a business approach.
It’s something we’ve been doing over the past few years—it’s not usually easy, but sticking to your vision and working towards it in a practical way is key.
What’s the #1 skill you wish you had or could improve?
As a founder or CEO, there are a few dimensions that are critically important. The first is the ability to identify the direction or vision. The second to attract people and talent, and to get them to work with you and your view of management. The third is to manage the team. This is very important. I would list funding as the fourth, since you need this to grow and you need the revenue to build.
For myself, I want to improve on all of them, but the most important area for me is the ability to manage the team. As we are expecting our team to grow, especially after this funding round, we are going to have people working across offices and countries. This is an exciting challenge and will make it even more important for me and my co-founders to manage the team well and achieve their goals.
What is your superpower?
I’m determined. I have the vision and I’m a believer.
What’s your kryptonite?
I need to improve my ability to manage the team, a lot. One way to solve this problem is not necessarily sticking to the management position myself, but hiring people who have the capacity and ability to help us do certain things.
Do you have any other hobbies or things you like to do?
I’m very interested in money technology. I’m supporting a few blockchain projects. I like a crypto called GRIN, an early implementation of MimbleWimble protocol. I play with it. I think privacy is very important now and will be more important in the future. When privacy meets cryptocurrency, it means freedom on a fundamental level. MimbleWimble allows scalable privacy preserving cryptocurrencies. I think this technology is very important and I want to build DoraHacks in a way that works with companies from different sectors.
I’m also really interested in some social impact projects. For example, I pretty actively give to Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, one of the biggest ecology and environmental protection agencies in China. I’m also looking at a number of different NGOs across China who are doing great things for the environment.
Who is someone that has changed your life?
There are a lot of great people who have had positive impact on my life. One of my mentors at CERN was Ben Segal. He’s an honorary staff member of CERN and was one of the mentors of Tim Berners-Lee. I was lucky to work with Ben at CERN on Citizen Science, [email protected] He gave me deep insights of how the internet and new technology is evolving, and he is a role model for having great integrity and capability to achieve things.
What’s your advice for other founders?
A lot of people have ideas, but most people won’t act on those ideas until it’s too late. So timing is important. It’s also important to stay true to an idea and try to think about the value behind that idea—what you can provide to the world. It’s something I ask myself all of the time and is something I believe founders need to remind themselves of.