I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with arguably one of the smartest dudes (just look at those big words and lofty accomplishments!) I’ve ever sat down with (I was standing when I met Neil Degrasse Tyson): Mike Chen. This dude co-founded not one, but two tech companies that couldn’t be any more different: one is Magic, a virtual person assistant accessed via text (that I reviewed once upon a time) and the other is Made In Space, a firm that puts 3D printers in space. Casual.
So let this be your friendly daily reminder that you’re not a special snowflake and that you’re merely a barnacle in an ocean of wildly successful sharks, despite what your participation trophy case tells you. And now …
Brutally Honest Advice from Mike Chen
Entry Revel: Mike, thanks for taking some time to chat with us … can you give us your 30-second “Shark Tank” pitch?
Mike Chen: I think of myself as an entrepreneur and a startup founder, but I think what that really means is that I spend my time working with people to build things that matter. I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for my brilliantly resourceful co-founders, employees, and investors. There’s also quite a bit of luck involved in business. Whenever anyone asks me how I’ve accomplished what I have, I always do a little bit of a double take, because when I think about everything I want to do, I feel like I’m just getting started. Earlier in my career, I focused on skills like software engineering, sales, marketing, and product design. While I still focus on those things, my main focuses at this stage are recruiting and leadership. I’ll never be able to accomplish as much as a team of people can if they are sufficiently empowered to work together to achieve a goal.
ER: We’re a big proponent of embracing who you are outside of the office. Can you walk us through a Saturday (or other off-day) in your shoes?
MC: I don’t believe in off-days. If you’re doing what you love, it should feel rejuvenating and exciting to do it. Some of my earliest memories are of staying up late as a child reading books about math, science, and computer programming. That said, startups are quite demanding, so it’s important to attain balance — but that doesn’t have to be by shutting yourself off. On Saturdays, myself and my cofounders at Magic typically work from home and spend about half the day on a long conference call going over what happened the previous week in the business, and what the plan for the next week is. Some would still call it “work,” but it’s actually quite refreshing for us because our company is bigger than it used to be, so it’s one of our only chances to work closely and directly with each other, which we love doing. We’ve been friends for years, so we have fun solving problems together.
ER: What is the most brutally honest advice you have for a millennial trying to survive the “real world”?
MC: It sounds simple, but if you aren’t doing what you want to be doing in your life, then you need to stop whatever else you’re doing immediately and start taking actions towards being where you want to be. No more excuses. When I was 17, I was working in the local pharmacy when I realized that I wanted to start a software business. I left that day and I started working on the software I wanted to release that very night. I haven’t stopped since. Especially if you’re younger and don’t have a family, the risk of doing something like this is probably much lower than you think it is. Even if you fail, there’s plenty of time to recover and try something else. The biggest mistake you could make is to delay working on what you actually want to be working on.
ER: How does it feel run a company that is “so 2005” in Silicon Valley terms (i.e. using text, no app)?
MC: We created Magic because it was something that we wanted to use ourselves. I use Magic every day, to book meetings, appointments, travel, order things, send gifts, pay my bills, do research, and countless other things. I have to be honest, it’s truly wonderful to be able to just do these things over text message. I can just say what I want, which makes it flexible. Even if I’m in a meeting, I can shoot off a few text messages and get things done. Part of the benefit of being available over text is also that Magic works across all my devices seamlessly. I can start a conversation with Magic on my computer and then pick it up on my phone again seamlessly.
ER: You also co-founded Made In Space … can you explain why you decided to send a 3-D printer to space … that seems like a prettttty niche market?
MC: As long as I can remember, I’ve always had the personal dream of going to space. But more importantly, opening the space frontier is essential for the long-term survival and expansion of our species. I co-founded Made In Space to accelerate progress towards human space colonization, by providing the first real alternative to rockets for getting things to space. It’s cheaper, faster, and safer to build stuff there than it is to launch it. Made In Space currently manufactures parts for NASA and other organizations and companies directly on the space station, avoiding the need to use expensive and risky rockets to get those same items into orbit. One day we’ll look back at the time when the only way to get things to space was rockets and think to ourselves how inefficient that was.
ER: Thanks, Mike!
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