Tech Trek: Penn Students Take on the Valley

By Steve Krouse E’16

Bouncing on the balls of his feet Aaron Levie quipped, “Sorry, but I’m not the life-hack guy. Save those questions for Jack.” The room of twenty bright-eyed Penn students burst into laughter for the tenth time of our brief meeting with the twenty-eight year old founder of Box. Incredibly enough, we could, and in fact did, save those “life-hack” questions for Jack Dorsey when we met him at Square the next day. In fact, we—as some of the luckiest tech fan-boys and fan-girls that ever lived—were able to bounce points and questions from one billion-dollar-founder to the next in our five-day TechTrek of Silicon Valley. We asked Dave Mcclure (500 Startups) about Joe Lansdale’s (Palantir, Addepar, Formation 8) bet on enterprise; we chatted with Bryce Roberts (OATV) about the Quantified Self movement and then later got a sneak peak taste with Rob Rhinehart (Soylent). If you’ve ever wondered what the startup ecosystem is like, there is nothing like a Tech Trek to show you.

For many of us, this trip planned by PennApps organizers James Feuereisen and Philly DRF Partner Pulak Mittal, was an opportunity to get a real sense of what Silicon Valley was all about. After visiting twenty companies, ranging from Series G to seed-stage, meeting with founders and coders alike, we began to piece together where in this mess we would each personally fit. While some of us were inspired to follow in the footsteps of the Valley’s legendary founders, others resonated more with those who joined larger companies. And even within these categories, we began to be able to make even more precise distinctions. Some of us were pulled towards the grand mission of HealthTap, while others preferred the chill environment of Sincerely. There were even some that were able to definitively say that startups just weren’t for them.

But for those of us who were pulled even further into our love for startups, meeting with these founders and companies was a clear way to being the discussion of possibly working there. The undercurrent of each meeting was invariably recruitment, recruitment, recruitment. “So come work at Khan Academy. We pay top-quartile,” Sal Khan said while backing out of our meeting. “It’s for the children!” he joked. Then, as he closed the door, “And…we pay top-quartile.” Even the angelic Sal Khan couldn’t resist the recruiting push. Already, a number of the companies we visited have reached out to members of the trek and some of us are currently interviewing. While the trip hasn’t directly resulted in a hiring (yet!), it definitely can be a starting point for working at one of these companies.

But besides showing off the cool photos on Facebook, meeting with legendary tech founders was especially awesome for the actionable advice they gave:

  • “Spend all your time starting companies,” said Aaron Levie.
  • “You need the appropriate background before jumping in and starting a company,” countered Ron Gutman at HealthTap.
  • The Ampush Media founders (all Penn alums) disagreed: ”Be action oriented. Don’t over analyze before jumping in and getting started.”
  • But beware, said Joe Lonsdale, “A 21-year-old kid can’t start a company in finance or government without an experienced adult on the team.”

While it might seem difficult to parse through a mess of contradicting advice, it wasn’t actually that bad once you realized who was giving it. Personally I resonated most with the Ampush Media guys and so I found their advice particularly compelling. At the same time, others fell in love with Sal Khan’s vision of education and took his advice for “finding time to sit and think” to heart. More than anything else, we all were left with an impression of how many paths lead to success

I would argue that as awesome as it was to hear from Sal Khan and visit Tesla, it was just as amazing to spend five days schlepping around the Valley with twenty tech nerds from Penn. I am a firm believer in the power of continuous time. Chatting with a classmate for five minutes before class each week for a semester makes an acquaintance. Spending five hours squishing twelve people into a van meant for eight makes instant friends. Part of our hang-out activities included piggy-back rides up Twin Peaks for an incredible view of the city and walking around downtown Palo Alto. Personally, my favorite activity was driving around San Francisco in a van packed with way too many people for two hours literally in circles: after two hours of driving shenanigans we ended up a few blocks from where we started.

I remember chatting with my grandmother the day before I headed on the Trek. “Yeah, I think it’ll be fun,” I said, “But I dunno. What if I don’t like the kids or I’m not having fun and I’m stuck there?” But my grandmother knew better than that.

“I don’t understand.” she said, “With what you’ve just told me of the trip, how could this possibly not be one of the best trips of your life?” And as she often is, my grandmother was spot on.

SteveBio: Steve Krouse studies Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is passionate about functional programming, education, and company building.