The Road to Entrepreneurship – An Interview with Dan Shipper

Written on August 8, 2011

Dan Shipper is a student from the University of Pennsylvania, he has been working in and exploring the world of technology since the age of ten, and has produced an array of fantastic web services and applications. Recently, Dan has created the popular webapps WhereMyFriends.beReadStream and DomainPolish. We invited Dan to have a chat on The Startup Project to share his story, and to offer some great advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

How did you get into the world of technology and entrepreneurship? What drew you to the industry?

I got into technology and entrepreneurship shortly before I started programming in 5th grade. The reason I started doing it was because I knew that I wanted to produce something of value. I wanted to have my own business. And the only way, as a 10 year old to really produce something that people want, for free, in a scalable way is to know how to program. Being able to take a computer and make it do whatever you want is an unbelievably powerful thing for a kid. So I would spend hours and hours on weekends going through these big thick books on Java and C because I knew that I wanted to do make something that people wanted, and programming made that possible.

You’ve created and launched numerous web applications, including WhereMyFriends.be and ReadStream, tell us the story behind coding and launching those apps.

In high school I started my first real business by writing apps for BlackBerry. This was right before the iPhone came out, and no one knew what an app was. I used to say I was “writing software for BlackBerry.” I started doing it because I had read Bill Gates’ biography and realized that Microsoft had been successful precisely because it had started writing software for a new platform – the first PCs. I looked around me and noticed that people had these small computers in their pockets, cellphones, that had very few pieces of software written for them. So I decided to create software for BlackBerry. My first product was an anti-theft app called FindIt (later renamed GetItBack) and by its fourth version I had iterated it into a fully functioning web control panel for your BlackBerry. You could lock your phone, make it call you, back it up, see its location on a map and more all from the web. It was tested by the U.S Army for use by their soldiers (apparently they kept losing their BlackBerry’s) and I was in serious discussions to sell the whole company to PocketMac.

My other most successful product during high school was a BlackBerry app that turned the track ball on your phone into a weather globe. I had seen these weather orbs in Brookstone that changed color according to the forecast, and realized that the trackball on my BlackBerry Pearl could turn different colors. So I hunkered down for about a week on a school vacation to Florida and came up with Pearlcast. Once you loaded it onto your phone and entered in your zip Pearlcast would give you a two day forecast, and change the color of your trackball depending on the current temperature, or the current weather conditions. You could set it up so that if it was raining your trackball was blue, or if it was over 70 degrees your trackball would be orange. That was probably one of my favorite products to develop, especially because I used it every day.

After high school I began my freshman year at UPenn and between school and friends I started doing a lot of web development. Around that same time an app went viral at Penn called PennMatch. Basically it allowed you to see two random Facebook friends at a time (one boy and one girl) and if you thought they were a cute couple you could press match. It was very similar to FaceMash. The thing about it was that you could only match one boy with one girl. So I immediately dove into its JavaScript, figured out what was going on and then matched the creator of the site Wesley Zhao with another male friend of mine a bunch of times. Then I Facebooked Wesley, and told him how to fix the vulnerability.

From there we started talking, found out we had a lot in common and started working together. He came up with the idea for a site called WhereMyFriends.Be which would map your Facebook friends on a map, and about two days later we had a working site. Wesley’s best friend Ajay registered the domain name and emailed the site around to a few tech blogs. About a week later we were featured on Mashable, the site promptly crashed under the heavy influx of visitors, and we spent about two days with no sleep trying to get it working again. At the time of this writing WhereMyFriends.Be has over 40,000 registered users and we’ve mapped over 5,000,000 friends.

After WhereMyFriends.Be we kept releasing projects and were surprised to find out that we had been invited to interview at Y Combinator for their summer batch. The day we found out Paul Graham emailed us and said, “I like your team, but not your idea. Come up with a new one to present to us.” So we spent the two weeks leading up to our interview brainstorming ideas, came up with the idea for ReadStream and built it in two days. The idea was that whenever we scrolled through our Twitter timeline there were lots of articles we wanted to read. The problem was that it was a pain to open up all of the articles in tabs and have to go to each tab to read each article. ReadStream followed all of the links in your timeline, scraped the articles, and put them into a nice format built for easy scrolling.

In your opinion, what is essential in creating a successful startup or tech product?

There are a lot of things, but the most powerful thing I’ve learned recently is if sitting down to code is the first thing you do when you get an idea you’re doing it wrong. I’m a programmer, so when I find a problem I want to solve my first instinct is to fire up the Terminal, open up TextMate and get to work. The problem with that is you will very often waste a lot of time building a product that no one wants. When I first thought of the idea for DomainPolish I immediately sat down and emailed 20 people who I thought might be interested in it. The feedback I got helped me identify, and understand my market and without that I could have ended up building a completely different product. The first thing you want to do when you come up with an idea is find your customer, figure out their problems, and make sure that whatever you’re building solves those problems. Then distill the idea down to its most basic form, the MVP, build it and sell it to those customers you’ve identified. Then gather feedback, iterate the product and repeat.

You recently launched a new service, DomainPolish, what can you tell us about that?

DomainPolish is a quick and easy way to get feedback from the average user about your website. Basically you submit a website to me, and I craft a usability survey for it, and send it out to reviewers from Amazon Mechanical Turk. I built it because I had been using Mechanical Turk to get feedback about the websites I was building for myself, and I thought hey, if I think it’s useful maybe other people will too.

After I started talking to potential customers about the idea, I sat down and built the site in about 2 days of total coding time (spread over a little less than a week). When I finished the site was just three pages and some payment code. When someone bought a plan I would have to look up their order in the database (in my Terminal), write an HTML survey, post it to Mechanical Turk, format their results once the reviewers had taken the survey and then send it back to the customer. I released DomainPolish last week by posting it to Hacker News. It made it to the front page for a little while and I waited for the orders to pour in. None came that night. Again the next day not a single person bought a plan. I was pretty depressed.

Then the day after, two days since I released it, someone bought a plan. I was ecstatic! I had set a goal for myself that I wanted to make $5 that weekend, and he had bought the $20 Professional plan. Then I realized, much to my chagrin, that I had left the testing version of the payment code on the production site and I had only charged him $1 for 25 reviews from my testers. I was really upset with myself, but gave him all of his reviews anyway. Then another order came. This time it was a basic plan purchase from Iain from a site called Swiperoo. I was pretty happy at this point. I wrote up a survey, pushed it to my reviewers, got the results back and emailed them to him. He loved the service! Then he asked me if he could write a blog post about it. I said yes, of course, not knowing what was to come.

After he wrote the post, he put it up on Hacker News. Within a few minutes it had made the front page. Within a few minutes after that the orders had started to pour in. So many orders were coming in I was scrambling to fill them. By the time the dust had settled I had been processing orders all night, and went to sleep at 6 AM with over $200 in sales. The next day they kept coming in and by this time, about a week after I released it I’ve made almost $1,000 in revenue. I’m going to continue to iterate the product – I have a few exciting things in the pipeline for next week – and hopefully I will be able to grow it into a real business.

What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve had as an entrepreneur? How did you overcome them?

Well I think the biggest challenge for any young entrepreneur to overcome is gaining the self-confidence to put yourself out there, accept failure, and overcome it. It’s very easy, after a bad product launch to say to yourself “Hey, I’m not good at this. I don’t think I’m going to do this any more. I bet Mark Zuckerberg never failed liked this.” The problem with our perception of successful people is that we only see their successes. But that’s actually a gift in disguise because if I don’t know all of the times that Mark Zuckerberg made a terrible website that no one wanted, I know that NO ONE is going to know about all the times that I’ve made a terrible website that no one wanted. No one cares about your failures. Unless you’re running a scam, the failures fade into the mist of memory, and the successes rise to the top.

What additional advice would you offer to aspiring founders and entrepreneurs?

First of all, learn to program. There’s nothing worse than someone who wants to start a software business who doesn’t know how to code. Second, get to know your customers. If you don’t go out every day and talk to people and figure out what they want it’s almost impossible to create a successful product. Third, care about your customers. They shouldn’t just be a number on a spreadsheet. If people are spending their hard earned money on what you produce it’s your responsibility to go above and beyond to make sure that the money that they spent believing in you didn’t go to waste.

Be sure to follow Dan on Twitter here to keep up to date on his latest projects, and check out is Posterous page here for some great reading on the world of startups.