Founder's School: From Zero to One

“Start when you’re inspired, not when you’re ready.”

This phrase is the tagline of UCLA Founder’s School 2016. In the beginning, no one truly believed that we can make this event happen. We set our goal high initially, and planned on organizing a conference that is at the level of YC’s Startup School or Business Today’s Start@Startup. In fact, no one on the team had experience planning a large scale event, but we were inspired by the people at YC and Business Today to pursue the idea. As one of the few examples of student-run startup conferences, Founder’s School was different from any other Hackathons. The idea of hosting an entrepreneurship conference to bring together the top speakers and students in tech just started out on a whim with a few college students. However, we did it. As a small group of only nine core organizers, we threw the largest student-run entrepreneurship conference in Southern California.

From Zero

The planning process was tough - much more than I thought three months ago. When I first listened to Hannah Jin, the event initiator, about the idea, I did not expect all the challenges that we would have to overcome. From getting sponsors to inviting speakers, every detail about organizing the conference presented difficulty along the way. Not to mention that the entire team slacked off for a month, so we only had about two months to plan the event (we will start way earlier next year for sure!).

During the event planning process, I worked closely with Apurva Panse to find the speakers for the conference. As a Twitter avid, I happend to learn quite a few well-known names in tech by swiping through my feed often and decided to invite them to speak at the conference individually. This was the start for the long process of cold emailing. We obtained most of the contact information by browsing through personal websites, Linkedin profiles, and simply by guessing. We were also “forced” to reach out to some speakers by tweeting. Surprisingly, many individuals that I once thought would be too busy to read emails/tweets replied to the invitation. Even though many of them could not attend the conference due to business reasons, we were grateful for their replies.

Almost every officer helped brainstorming and contacting potential speakers. The process of finalizing the speaker list was truly a team effort. After nearly two months of continuous “spamming”, we finally secured twelve successful individuals to speak at the conference. At the end, we had Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood, as our keynote, along with eleven other successful individuals in the tech community. The full list of speakers for the 2016 Founder’s School is shown below:

  • Vladimir Tenev - CEO, Robinhood
  • Michael Hartl - Author of Ruby on Rails Tutorial
  • Stephanie Lin - Founder, Sandbox: Startup Stories
  • Kevin Hale - Partner, Y Combinator (his talk happened a day earlier)
  • Mahbod Moghadam - Founder, Rap Genius
  • Tess Rinearson - Software Engineer, Chain
  • Shahin Farshchi - Partner, Lux Capital
  • Peter Brack - Partner, Mucker Capital
  • Forrest Browning - Co-founder, StacksWare
  • Justin Brezhnev - Executive Director, Hacker Fund
  • Ajay Kamat - Partner, Pejman Mar Ventures
  • Tiffany Li - Investor, Anthos

Finding speakers was just a part of the challenge - we also had to get sponsorships, reserve venues, arrange speakers’ travel itineraries, rent recording equipments, etc. We had a large range of problems; but since we only had nine organizers, everyone was forced to take on multiple roles and gave 100% effort in all aspects of the planning process. Fortunately, we pulled through.

To One

These months of hustle proved worthy in the end. In the morning of Founder’s School day, students, engineers, founders, and investors from different organizations assembled at Rolfe Hall of UCLA to hear Vlad’s keynote. The chair of CS department, Professor Mario Gerla, also attended the event and introduced the keynote speaker personally. During the keynote, Vlad shared his experiences with Robinhood and gave advice to attendees on launching a startup. Through the one-hour long fireside chat with the Robinhood CEO, we were able to learn about his approach to various technical and non-technical problems, and more importantly, being inspired to create a venture on our own.

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After the keynote, the conference proceeded in breakout session format. There were three breakout sessions throughout the day, and four talks happened simultaneously during each breakout session. The reason for breakout sessions was to keep the size of the talks as small as possible, so attendees had the chance to have one-on-one conversation with the speakers. While I was busy running errands from places to places, I found myself enough time to sit down and listen to Michael Hartl talking about Cargo Cult Startup.

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We received overall positive feedback from the attendees during the closing ceremony. Even the CS chair was surprised by the quality of the event, and emailed us the next day to congratulate our team. As part of the organizing team, I felt highly rewarded for hosting such a successful event that promoted the entrepreneurship culture on campus.

Finally, we took a picture together to mark the end of the first Founder’s School:

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Conclusion

Similar to building a startup, planning and organizing an entrepreneurship conference also requires the step from zero to one. That step is the transition from an idea to an action. Sometimes the fuel for the transition is inspiration. More generally, as long as we have a little inspiration and a heart of determination, many things can be accomplished despite of “imperfect timing”. At the end of the day, we hope that Founder’s School has successfully inspired the attendees to pursue their ideas, as it has taught us many valuable lessons about organizing in the past three months.

Notes

  1. The event would not happen without this amazing team!

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    • Organizers: Hannah, Yingjia, Apurva, Jennifer, Brandon, Jeffrey, Li-wei, Shitij, and me
    • Volunteers: Luke, Andrew, Jasmine, and Rishabh
    • Special thanks to the UCLA CS Department (Laurie, Cassandra, Professor Gerla, and more)!
  2. The videos and photos for Founder’s School will be uploaded to the website soon.
  3. Let me know if you are interested in learning more about Founder’s School!