Scene 2 of Back stories in Entrepreneurial Story Series
By Amin Ariana — May 2013
A label on a coffee cup
My name is Amin.
Let me begin with a customer-focused observation: "Amin" as a string is half of the name "Benjamin". Though if you introduced yourself with the former in Starbucks, you'd always hear back "Ian?" My name doesn't fit the mold, which is fitting if you'll forgive the pun, because neither does the strange course of my life.
Noticing and taking advantage of such subtle disconnects makes the difference between engineers who "build it right" and entrepreneurs, who "build the right it". Value is not what you offer; it's what others want to receive. If you apply that lesson in overcoming resistance sporadically, you'll win a few times in life. If you're willing to master it through changing your default course, you'll understand wealth as a strategy game.
What is wealth? It's not money, which is its medium. Wealth is to have the time to write a paragraph introducing yourself to a stranger somewhere in this globe, who may be wondering how this paragraph ends. Wealth is to sit with a cup of coffee; to capture thoughts that might matter to others; to have the freedom from the oppression of the nine to five routine to work on a personal masterpiece that may materially improve someone else's life; and to gaze without focus at happy children outside the window, while you can remember a childhood forgotten without a trace in war and revolution.
Wealth is to chuckle at the name given to you with care, misspelled on a cup of coffee; invoking the thought that if you of all the forgotten children of the world can afford this precious moment of luxury, perhaps you can spend it such that more children can, next time. Wealth is to survive in the cracks of an intolerant world, without getting hung up on fairness; to come out at the precise moment when the world has lost its purpose; to seed it with exactly the thoughts it condemned to the cracks. To leave wealth behind is to have innovated; to have left the world with more meaning than it had when we entered it, as a participant in a glorious orchestra without a conductor. It's not to sell another cup of coffee, but to get strangers to ask each others' names.
By the way, what's your name?
On a business card
I'm a Computer Scientist turned Software Engineer turned Tech Entrepreneur (my résumé), from San Francisco Bay Area. I have a Masters in Engineering and Innovation Management (M.S.) from CMU and a Honors Bachelors in Computer Science from University of Waterloo (B.C.S.), and I'm an ex-Google and ex-Microsoft engineer. Though in life, I always seek blank canvases, or what I call new "S-curves".
My areas of focus are Internet- and mobile-based social innovations backed by subscription models or the power of corporate advertising. As a technology leader, I've advised agile engineering teams on startup product strategy, systems and architecture. As a software entrepreneur, I envision, contextually design and technically validate innovative solutions and teams around disruptive new Internet-based consumer-facing markets following Moore's Law.
Opportunities for new types of experiences have always attracted me, because learning from them helps in creating and propagating meaning into the world. The lessons sometimes shine through in articles I've written. The purpose of my writing is to interpret for others the new experiences they're braving through for the first time. One generation's obscure reader, experimenting in the forgotten cracks, is the next generation's prophetic leader.
In my shoes
We founded Sponsorbrite , a San Francisco based fundraising startup, where I am currently the Technical Co-Founder and CTO. Sponsorbrite started with the goal of making every school in the United States financially self-sustainable after the great recession.
Our schools, after the U.S. government started slashing education funding, realized that most of their educational and sports programs had to be cut unless the local community helped. So a grassroots industry for school fundraising formed, moving $7B of donations a year from families to school and sports activities. We looked at how low-tech and difficult the operations were within the new industry, and decided to build a technology platform to eliminate waste. The typical fundraiser on our platform reaches more people in the community, keeps them engaged for more years, and costs less and less to run year after year than what every school is used to.
We've done so well with schools and sports that we're going to expand our services to non-profits ($37B donations) and religious institutions ($52B donations). Not only we figured out how to reduce cost and inefficiencies, we might have discovered the most surprising strategy possible: how to give away fundraisers for free. We'll be the first fundraising business, ever, to give schools 100% of what they raised.
A general social malaise of this generation is the effect that technology has had on job automation. Many have argued that tech, while increasing the total wealth in the world, concentrates it in the hands of the powerful owners of means of productivity while taking away lower-level jobs from the poor. I'm a techie and I can't change that. But we believe one remedy to the wealth gap is education, a social good that's becoming expensive at a rate four times faster than inflation. To address this from a high level, we believe corporations must fill the gap where governments have failed, and make education more accessible to everyone. The way we'd like to see that happen is by putting the weight of school fundraising costs on the shoulders of corporations.
The good news is that corporate brands love the idea of being mentioned as a supporter by a child to supportive parents. Not only can they generate goodwill, but also offer discounts aligning with the event's goals. The value is in the lift effect for the fundraiser promoters, and the customer acquisition effect for the brands. Our fundraisers essentially generate conversations and moments of generosity; and the sponsoring corporation is willing to pay the costs of those conversations and even make promotional offers, as long as its name is mentioned. "Johnny's dad supported his school's running team with a donation. Nike would like to match the cost, and offer a discount on shoes." #Win-Win-Win.
Solving social problems is a little like martial arts: there's a way to arrange the momentum of all the forces such that you can fight without a weapon. And when you spend enough time thinking, you'll find a way for everyone to appreciate the value they get out of it. I expect we'll master the nuances of this game in under 10,000 hours. And I'm all in.
More importantly, these days, I'm running around looking for others who can help a whole generation. Will you?
Under the ol' resume
Prior to starting Sponsorbrite in 2012, I was an engineer at Google with the Ads team, working on penetrating SMB markets using lean and innovative technical strategies. Concurrent to full-time work at Google, I completed my masters in Software Engineering and Innovation Management from Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley campus in NASA Research Park. We consequently changed our name at CMU to Integrated Innovation Institute. Completing the program prompted me to switch gears and start up on my own.
Before Google and CMU, I worked at a number of social and advertising early-stage startups, where I gained on the ground-floor experience with how to calibrate a company at different stages, and acquire and maintain product-market fit.
Previous to my Silicon Valley experience, I worked at a number of Enterprise related companies, leading to an early career start at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. I transitioned from Enterprise to Consumer products there by working on MSN and consequently XBox. I also fell in love with the West Coast.
Over a lifetime
My career originally began as a Computer Science student in University of Waterloo where I pursued fundamental lessons in Mathematics, Operating Systems, Compilers, Databases and Machine Learning design, formerly known as Artificial Intelligence. In conjunction to engineering, I found an interest in Social Psychology in which I have a minor. The lessons from those electives played a major role in my later decision to tie in engineering and computing to doing a social good and changing the world. My first entrepreneurial project happened during my internship in a hospital IT mini-department as a freshman in the late 90's: I created an Internet hub for doctors to share and collaborate on radiology imaging scans, a very radical idea for the early Internet.
My relationship with computing and my identity as a tinkerer and disruption seeker began in 1988 with an Atari 2600 that my father insisted on getting me instead of a plastic robot that I wanted, followed by stumbling upon GW-Basic on an 8086 16-bit DOS machine running on a 5.25" inch floppy. It's a funny story now, but when every waking moment of my time started going into programming, my parents and school teachers were dismayed that I had chosen "a toy with no future" over studying for a bright career.
I have a world view that stems from my life experience as an immigrant. I immigrated as a teenager from Tehran, Iran to Toronto, Canada and later, to Seattle, Washington. I now live where my heart is, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I find culture, opportunity, tolerance and beauty everywhere.
Once upon a fascination
Like many others, I'm fascinated by the idea that life itself is a computer, a Turing Machine: a Y combinator algorithm on a sub-atomic Operating System, where the computing agent is a Quark, the memory is made up of distance, and the only assembly instruction is gravity. This world view has informed my interests in the past, such as genetic algorithms, functional programming, machine singularity following Moore's law, neural-network-based collaborative robotics, nanotechnology, replicators and memes.
My motivation comes from the observation that unlocking the secrets of nature creates wealth and eliminates the need for hunger, conflict and war, putting us on the path to discover new frontiers for our curiosity. I consider life to be a dream state for the universe, one that may rise and tide universally like waves of the Pacific Ocean. We are part of that metaphysical dream. We are not responsible, but are rather defined by the work of expanding our world beyond the borders of curiosity.