Editor's Three Key Takeaways
- Be knights, adventurers, and explorers — go out and tackle something really hard and scary with your best friends.
- If you’re smart, hardworking, and lucky enough to go to a great school — your downside is incredibly limited, especially when you’re young. Take risks, be an entrepreneur.
- Universities are a great places to explore, to meet people, and to really go deep into intellectual fields — but don’t forget to bridge the gap to industry.
Edward is an angel investor in over 40 companies, managing partner at Horizons Alpha, cofounder of Horizons School of Technology along with Abhi Ramesh and Darwish Gani, and a cofounder of Y Combinator-backed GovPredict. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business in 2014.
Editor: In the winter of my freshman year I crossed paths with Edward. I became enamored with his clear vision for a school called Horizons — an institution built for the 21st century. He burst with an entrepreneurial passion and curiosity that made me want to meet likeminded Penn alumni. Edward’s cofounder at GovPredict describes him best: “The ambition of Alexander the Great with the touch of Midas. Blessed with a personal magnetism, Edward is an unstoppable force as a cofounder and a visionary investor. I expect, not long from now, for him to be known as the best of our generation.”
Tell me about your path to becoming an entrepreneur.
Back in high school I had a cashmere scarf company. You hear about people who had lemonade stands when they were ten but that wasn’t necessarily the case for me. I think I was a little bit more shy in middle school and high school and then I went to a more American school.
Originally, I grew up in Paris, France, where classes go from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Then I went to an American high school that had more clubs and activities which helped me become a little bit more entrepreneurial. It got interesting when I arrived at Penn. Freshman year, we’re 18, and all I can say is, “Wow, all of the world’s possibilities are open”, and two weeks into college I see people going to Goldman Sachs info sessions. And I have nothing against Goldman Sachs, but what I’m saying is if you’re 18 and you’re a week or two into college should you really be attending investment banking info sessions? That was a big surprise to me. I saw a lot of friends who had artistic interests and who gave it up because saying, “It’s not useful” or “I can’t make money doing that.”
So my very first web application was a site called Famocracy where people could post things as five different categories — photographers, musicians, designers, models, and movie makers — where they could get upvoted and be able to win auditions and jobs. That was my first online thing — it was a response to the fact that so many creative people were choosing one track so early on instead of keeping the flame alive for whatever passion they had. I built that when I couldn’t code, and it was quite frustrating. I didn’t feel like I controlled the product. After that experience I knew that I needed to learn how to code to make my own minimum viable product.
In terms of how I got started building stuff, I knew a couple good friends that were programmers and I sat down with them in Huntsman Hall and told them, “I want to build my first website can you help me with this.” They would sit next to me and eventually I started feeling more comfortable.
The key is to build the stuff with friends, sometimes even during the winter I would walk down to Towne from 40th Street because I didn’t want to do the homework alone and knew it was better to struggle with friends. It’s easier to feel way more confident when you’re sitting at a computer with someone else. I think in math and computer science confidence is essential. You have to believe you can solve the problem in order to even have a shot.
You’re also an active angel investor. How did you get started with that and what do you look for in your investments?
I realized that I was already talking with several founders every day for fun, because I was excited to learn about what they were doing and wanted see if I could help. That I was already doing a big part of the job. I love investing because I’m very curious and want to be involved with all the great projects out there. You can only really start one company at a time but you can be involved with dozens of others, not necessarily working on them every day but making yourself useful whenever the founders need you. You end up learning a lot about being a founder in general and about extremely different spaces. It’s an amazing way to keep learning.
I invest early and 80 percent of my decision is based on the founders. There’s a big intangible part to this but I think you feel it when you see it, those founders who are truly competent, relentlessly intense, inevitable, and who could not be doing anything else. They’re not convincing you of anything, just explaining it.
The other 20 percent is whether I understand the idea and think it’s a good one, and again whether I think the team will be able to adapt quickly enough if the idea is slightly off. It most likely will be and it’s all about whether they’ll be able to morph successfully time after time until they find fit. And they have to care enough about the space to make it that far.
Did you take the introductory computer science classes at Penn?
So I skipped 110 (Introduction to Programming) and took 120 (Programming Languages and Techniques I) and 121 (Programming Languages and Techniques II: Data Structures and Algorithms). I think 120 and 121 were both really interesting, they were essentially math problems you solved with lines of code. But again, 120 doesn’t teach you how to build a web or mobile app. That you still have to pick up on your own, which is both fine and not fine. It’s great you’re able to explore and be challenged by 120 and 121, but aren’t you also supposed to be prepared for what you’ll be doing after school?
So do you believe there’s merit to the challenge raised by more theoretical, head-wrenching approaches to computer science while still in school?
Probably. I don’t know. I don’t actually know what effect it has on people’s minds to be solving difficult problems like that. I wonder if people become a little bit less sharp once they leave school and once they do more repetitive day to day work and aren’t constantly faced with these difficult problems. I think there is some sort of merit, but maybe the most value added is for those people that have tremendous curiosity about the field. I have friends that were very, very good at 121 and 320 and won competitions for optimization and you could tell that they loved it, and others who didn’t enjoy it as much. But maybe those that didn’t enjoy it as much would make incredible front end designers.
The goal of many computer science courses is to develop algorithmic thinking in students. The argument being that algorithmic thinking applies across disciplines — what do you think about that argument?
The actual thing that applies across disciplines, and if you ask me is that the most useful thing you can do, is to read a lot of good fiction. I love reading great books and I find that great books allow you to live a full life, in a very sort of condensed way. They’re the most condensed form of life, if you know what I mean. And if you just ingest a lot of good ones you sort of become wise beyond your years.
You have 18-year-old kids that have read all the great novels and they empathize with these characters and are in tune with very subtle feelings and that cannot be conveyed without the story, without the experience. If you’re talking about stuff that’s useful across disciplines I think that fiction and novels is more useful. But back to computer science, I think that 120 and 121 are very useful if you’re going to be a software engineer that’s going to be working on backend stuff. Even as a web developer, we sometimes think of run times and things like that. The value of 120 is that it throws a lot of work at you and teaches you how to suffer through problems. It gets you thinking about being efficient, and I think that has merit.
So what kind of jobs do you recommend students interested in technology should get and how do you approach the issue at Horizons?
We have a few different tracks that we implement into the Horizons curriculum. We attract a bunch of different people with a bunch of different goals. Some of them might want to become software engineers. There is a PM track for those that know they want to be a product manager. There’s also an entrepreneur track — for those that want to build a MVP. It’s almost sort of entrepreneurial coding, Abhi, Darwish, and I are all technical but I wouldn’t say that we are great coders by any means. My code gets messy, it’s not all pretty and commented everywhere, we code to get it done, that’s our approach and our philosophy. We get a lot of interest from MBAs who say they already have a product they want to work on. Others say, “I already have my job offer in consulting but I don’t want to be limited by my skillet down the road.”
A big part of the program is helping our students figure out what their interests are. It’s crazy when you hear people talking about their careers and they go, “Should I do finance at Goldman Sachs or should I do tech at Google”, and those are the only options that exist in their mind. What we’re actually working on and releasing soon is our jobs database, where we find really interesting and fast growing technology companies that very few people have heard of but that have raised 50 or 200 million dollars. There are hundreds of them and they’re often more interesting than the Googles or Facebooks because you get to be on a smaller team and grow faster. We want our students to work at places that are in line with their interests and their personalities, what would be a good fit for them, and then bring a lot of people from these companies into our program as speakers.
What was your first job?
Sophomore year I interned with StartX, that was the year I taught myself how to code. I wasn’t that good but I wanted find a creative opportunity that not a lot of people would go for, and be exposed to startups. I got to work on the team of StartX building tools for their companies and I just loved being able to see all of them in one place. Junior year I had another coding internship at a company in San Francisco that I perhaps shouldn’t name because two days in I told them I was going to quit and write my novel that summer.
So I wrote 200 pages of a novel that summer. I had this zoomed out perspective on life where I thought, “What other moment in my life am I going to have a free summer while I’m still in school and the consequences aren’t that bad.” And I’d always been interested in writing. I thought, I could always do this later, the real world will come and so I just got up in San Francisco every day at 5:00 am wrote for six or seven hours and spent the rest of my days with my friends just living more adventures that I could write about the next day. I did that and then got a little bit bored and sort of lonely after a month and a half, so I started working on another project with Abhi and our friend Vinny, which was another tool to allow people to sell stuff on Facebook then worked on a bunch of other things.
My first job out of college was working on a company I started — GovPredict. My close friend Emil and I got into Y Combinator, a startup accelerator program, and moved out to Palo Alto for the summer and worked on it, I’ve worked on a bunch of projects since and Horizons is the newest and most ambitious one.
You probably have a lot of friends who decided not to pursue entrepreneurship. Why did you go to YC after college, and work on side projects with no sense of security?
Abhi Ramesh and I talk about this all the time. We had a great time at Penn. On the other hand, you could view your university education, as far as an entrepreneur, as a disadvantage in many ways. A lot of people graduate and have a very high perceived opportunity cost. Everyone thinks, “Well I could be making $140,000 or $150,000 at Goldman Sachs my first year”, which makes entrepreneurship seem to be a much riskier option, but actually what I think a lot of people think the risk is much higher than it is. If you’re smart, hardworking, and lucky enough to go to a great school — your downside is incredibly limited, especially when you’re young. It’s very unlikely you’ll be in a position with no options — we have a bunch of unfair advantages — but the upside is infinite as an entrepreneur.
Abhi recently quit his job. And what happens in the worst case to people who don’t have a job, but know how to code and who are smart and well connected? You can almost always find other professional opportunities, so you might as well give it a shot.
I also think from an existential point of view, there is already infinite risk to being alive. Everyone grows old and dies, that’s the human condition, it’s very difficult. You know what the outcome of life is going to be, you might as well do crazy stuff. Why not.
It sounds like you love to work with your friends on projects. What do you think about friends as co-founders?
I think that the best part about entrepreneurship is that you get to work with your friends. It’s like the modern version of being knights, adventurers, or explorers — going out and tackling something really hard and scary but in it together. I think friendship is a huge part of entrepreneurship. My best friends have often been my cofounders, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s always risky because everything can go wrong at once, the company, the friendship. But you have to be willing to accept that risk.
I think friendship is the best part of entrepreneurship. When you’re working on your own thing, it’s difficult and scary all the time. You think of giving up pretty often, but when you care about the people that you work with, you don’t give up. You owe it to them to be strong and to keep working. Work is one of the most meaningful parts of your life, what else could link you so strongly to someone than spending so much of your time with them?
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent Horizons or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.