Curtis Lee on Thinking Inwards Before Outwards

Editor’s Three Key Takeaways
  1. It’s important to reflect and think about what actually excites you and motivates you.
  2. Take steps towards developing the skills you want and finding a network of passionate people from whom you’d want to learn and work with.
  3. You should take risks and minimize regret! It’s much easier to take risks now — the repercussions of failing are more costly when you get older. Take as many opportunities to explore, learn, and find out what you’re good at.
    (Penn would be a good place to do just that!)

Curtis Lee is the founder and CEO of a startup called Luxe, which offers on-demand parking and valet services. After spending a frustrating 40 minutes trying to find parking before a dinner, he came up with the idea (on a napkin at the restaurant) to have someone meet you at your destination and park your car for you. Late April 2017 (after this interview), Luxe decided to end its valet service operations and will launch a new service in the summer.

Curtis only became an entrepreneur later in life: after graduating the University of California Berkeley with a degree in Economics, he followed a “typical” finance path before attending the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business for his MBA. Afterwards, he chose to work at tech companies including Google, Zynga, and Groupon, before starting Luxe in San Francisco. (He’s also a “Believer of the Impossible,” according to his Twitter.)


Penn is really pre-professional, and people just end up falling into finance or consulting, even if they do not like it. How were you able to ultimately pursue Luxe?

You mentioned this idea that people in school tend to follow the crowd. They do things that they think are proven paths to take, and oftentimes it's a plan of their parents; they say, “You can be a doctor, you can be an investment banker,” or whatever it is. But, just as the world has changed, the job market has fundamentally changed as well. And so maybe the way to think about this is the risks that you don’t take are actually the bigger risks that you have to deal with in your life. People at Penn are very smart, motivated, with high IQs. And so no matter what they up doing, they’ll do pretty well. It’s about the direction in which you go. People that do well are ones that 10, 20, or 30 years after they graduate, they're extremely passionate and happy with their jobs. You get that by following what really gets you motivated. It’s hard, but you should think from inwards to outwards. Anytime people have made an “inward-to-outward” decision, I feel like it’s led to a better, more satisfying outcome than just an “outward” decision.

Now there's a whole separate question of where did you find your passion: in school, or maybe you couldn't find it at all, or maybe you need to take some time, but I think it’s worth the extra effort to take a year off to self-reflect.

I know it sounds so sacrilegious not to have a job after graduation, but it’s worth taking that one year or six months off to really think about it and then ultimately deciding your career, instead of jumping into something and spending two to three years on something that’s ultimately a big waste of time.

Taking it back to me, I think I could have done Luxe a lot earlier had I followed my advice to you, but it took some time for me to understand these life lessons. Around Luxe specifically, I saw a need and a novel approach for fixing a situation. It’s a personal problem of mine, so I’m passionate about it. And, I had a team of people who I wanted to work with. So when you have a combination of a great team and you have something that you want to build, that’s an opportunity to actually start a company. That's what I ended up doing.

My philosophy on my career at that point in time, only a few years ago, is that you got to take some chances and minimize the regret you have in your life, the risks you think you should’ve taken.

The repercussions from failure are much easier when you’re younger. You're not typecast as a person that's failed and you learn from it and move on.

Whereas when you get older or further in your career, there’s less opportunity — the risk of failing is higher. It gets significantly harder to take on risk when you’re older. There’s more at stake.

So my point on all of this is that after you graduate you should find something that you're extremely passionate about, and find a set of people that you're excited about doing something with. And if that means that you have to go to a large company to find that network, so be it. At Penn, you can find the intelligent people that you really like working with. And then you have to find a problem you’re passion about.

So about finding the right people, how were you able to find teammates who were just as passionate as you were?

I think it's a common problem where a lot of people come in more dedicated and devoted than others. I think the key is that you have to work with a person for a while, like a feeling-out process. There's no reason you have to say, “Hey you, you and I should start a company right now,” when we haven't even worked together. So I think there should be a track history of working together in a company or working on a project together at school, so we know how we act and behave especially under pressure. And secondly, you have to find people whose motivations are similar to yours.

It seems like you’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit (since age 10, according to this Forbes article). Coming to Wharton for your MBA, how did you explore that passion for entrepreneurship?

If you look at my pre-MBA, post-undergrad career, it was very safe, the typical finance path: investment banking, private equity funds, venture capital funds. At the time I graduated, it was sort the “cool” path everyone wanted to follow. I felt sort of trapped. I didn't really think about if this was what I wanted to do. The summer before I entered business school, my grandmother ended up passing away. I got to spend time with her at the hospital, and she told me she had a lot of regret in her life, regret that she didn't pursue all the passions. I think that really shook me to the core. Life is super precious. If you always had that dream or passion about doing something on your own, and you never had the guts to go do it — all that stuff goes away at that point in time. If you ever need a point of motivation or a moment of clarity, spend some time in a retirement home because it will really start to clarify what's important in your life.

So entering business school, I pivoted what I wanted to do out of business school, which was I wanted to eventually start a company. So I geared my education and the internships that I got towards making that a reality.

I did take an entrepreneurship class. In my first year, there was a hardcore entrepreneur in my class, who, after his first year, ended up working on his idea and never came back. He dropped out of Wharton and started the company, AdMob, which he sold to Google for $750 million dollars. You have a guy who saw a need. He was passionate about it, started building it himself. He could've taken a much more conservative path, could have said, "I'll just wait one more year. I could work on it on the side." But he said, "I'm going to work on this no matter what because the opportunity is now." And it all worked out for him.

Real entrepreneurship is like burning the boats and saying, “I'm going to work on this, come hell or high water and make it work.” And you go out and do it.

So after pivoting in business school and to the point when you started Luxe, how did you make career changes and job changes? How did you get the knowledge, insight, or skills in order to start Luxe?

I went from a pure finance path to wanting to start a technology company. I felt like that was where the momentum of the world was moving to: technology will continue to be a growth center for at least like 50 years, in my opinion. So I wanted to be in that space. When I was in finance, I spent some time on some early stage technology investments, got to see a lot of technology company pitches, so I was pretty familiar with a lot of the trends.

But I never really had the skills around building something, so that’s first and foremost. I knew I had a passion for building things. Often when you start a company, you're building something from scratch. So I needed those skill sets, as well as a network of people that I could start a company with (engineers and product people).

So I figured out a plan to develop those skills and people. And I did that by getting a job at Google after graduation (from Wharton MBA). I tried to move more towards that path of product management, getting acclimated, learning from the best and brightest people, and then ultimately building a network of people.

And every step of the way I tried to get more skills, get more leadership responsibilities, and finally when I had an idea, a dream that I thought was worthy of jumping in and taking a chance, that's exactly what I did.

You went to UC Berkeley as an undergrad, and then Wharton for your MBA. What would you say is the difference between your Wharton experience versus UC Berkeley?

Broadly speaking, the benefit you get from a Bay Area school is the environment. Some of the most amazing companies are right in your backyard. You could do internships at a lot of these companies and network at a bunch of events. Penn students have to work harder on reaching out to technology and entrepreneurial people to come to campus, finding a way to get in touch with them and being inspired by them.

You have tons of great entrepreneurs who came to Penn though. Penn does have an entrepreneurial culture of people — Wharton people or computer science people — who want to start companies and change the world. While Philadelphia may not be the best place for technology or entrepreneurship, Penn’s school environment is much tighter and better, at least against Berkeley, which is a public school. At Berkeley, there's much more of a sink-or-swim mentality, you can get lost in the shuffle because you're one of thousands and thousands of people. In private schools, there's much more cohesion, and you're set up more for success because the school has more resources.

What would you want Wharton or Penn to improve on with preparing students to be entrepreneurs, careers in tech, or just in general promoting an entrepreneurial mindset?

I think Wharton in particular needs to broaden the exposure and its positioning to go beyond finance. Even when I talk to people now, they go "You must have gotten a great finance education." And I think that's a missed opportunity. I think there are opportunities to work hand-in-hand with companies and incubators. One of our investors, who runs YC (Y-Combinator, a renowned startup incubator), sent out a Tweet two days ago, saying that business schools don't train their students very well for entrepreneurship. A few hours later, he sent another tweet saying that the Harvard and Stanford business schools were the only two schools that reached out to him, saying they're willing to work with him and YC to improve their curriculum. I wish Wharton reached out to him too. If YC, which is like the best incubator out there, is willing to reach out to schools and help them, then I think that's an opportunity.

Spending some time working at a real company as part of the curriculum would be valuable. Maybe Penn could team up with companies nearby and have students work on a project on behalf of the company. This would give students more real life experience. I also think changing some of the curriculum to be less theoretical and more practical would be interesting as well. Penn could tailor classes more readily around topics that actually matter in entrepreneurship, like sales. Sales is an example of something that an entrepreneur does all the time, and no one talks about that.

What advice do you have for students who don't think they have the skills but would want to be involved in tech and entrepreneurship?

I'd say that for people your age, you still have a lot of time. For people my age, I'd say focus on your strengths, don't focus on your weaknesses. I've taken some coding classes, but I'm only going to be a mediocre coder unless I spend a ton of time developing my skills. So rather than doing that, I have a competitive advantage with product knowledge, analytical skills, and creativity. So that's where I focus my efforts on. When building a team, you want to find complementary pieces to who you are and what skills you have. For me, it was finding a technical cofounder. But at your age, when you're still in school, you still have many opportunities to potentially be a coder.

I would say the most important thing you can get out of college is discovering what you're good at and what your passions are.

Take some of those classes on coding and see if you actually like it or if you want to do something else.

Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible, get a breadth of knowledge and meet different people, and I think you'll get a good start afterwards.


Header photo courtesy of Mercedez-Benz.com.

Melinda Hu

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