From Food Delivery Drones to Research Platforms — The Journey of 21 Year-Old Entrepreneur Steven Zhao
Not all have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. You can certainly develop the skillset over time, especially when it comes to your discipline level, pitching, and building your business model, but there are so many vital intrinsic qualities that cannot often be taught…they have to be felt.
If there is one thing that our CTO Steven Zhao felt early on at the beginning of his undergraduate studies, it was this desire for something beyond the academia grind and handing in assignments. “When I started university, I actually had the mindset of everyone else, get good grades, good job, you know, the common route to success. But to be honest, I didn’t like studying that much…I found it was really boring, especially because I was in engineering and all my courses were pre-selected and they didn’t have anything to do with my major which was electrical/computer engineering.” This is a common theme we find among most entrepreneurs, what excites them is not following the crowd, but going off on their own path to discover success.
“I was in the mindset of, hey I want to build something for myself, I want to create something that is exciting. I want to wake up and be like ‘yeah I want to work on this today, this is going to drive me’.”
This is how Steven found himself starting his first entrepreneurial pursuit with a friend, a story he told Prosh Marketing CMO Roshni Wijayasinha on her podcast Lunchtime LaunchTime. “We were really naive back then,” he admits openly, “our first idea was this drone delivery service, but instead of packages we would deliver food.” He laughs about it now, remarking that perhaps the idea is about 50 years too early, especially given what drone technology is today and how customers tend to not want their food spilled all over the place.
“We had this broad vision for what we want in our lives but we didn’t have the ability to execute.” The importance of this initial exploration of ideas, albeit how inviable they may have been, was that it indicated to the young entrepreneurs that ideas are only as good as their foundations are strong — and that starts with the business model.
As mentioned in our previous article, a weak business model is the most widely noted cause for a startup’s failure. Steven’s second iteration on a business idea prior to joining the company behind DotsLive, Dataraction, is where this point was really driven home for him. This second attempt found Steven and his business partner pitching in a competition hosted by a NYU incubator, something they assumed would be a slam-dunk, but they were rejected in the first round. “We asked one of the counselors where we could improve, and he said everything was good, except that we had no concrete business model.”
Once again, he had a revelation regarding key aspects of his business that he had never considered. “I didnt think in-depth before, I was so focused on building something cool, and then thinking ‘oh we can talk about the money later’. But if you want to get investments, you need to find ways for people to pay for it [the product].”
Steven, now 21, has gone into his latest endeavour with an entirely new perspective, and his vision for Dataraction and its two products, DotsLive and DotsMobile (the latter is launching in December) is not a mere pipe-dream, but something tangible and highly valuable to an underserved market.
“[DotsLive] is a knowledge-sharing platform targeting researchers who want to share their ideas.” This idea was directly born from the work of Dataraction’s co-founder and Chief Scientist, Zhicong Lu, and the two, along with CEO Anferny Chen, collaborated in building and launching the first iteration of DotsLive in October 2019.
“There are a lot of research papers out there with alot of effort behind them, but they are not widely recognized…people don’t want to read a book these days, much less a research paper.” He remarks jokingly, but it is painfully true, especially when over 2 million new research papers are published every single year. The fight for relevance and the chance to breakthrough to the mainstream is a never-ending struggle that many just do not have the resources to overcome.
“But the funny thing is, there is a YouTube channel called VSauce, it has 10 million subscribers…all his videos are talking about random facts. So it shows that people do actually want to learn about this stuff, but it has to be in a form that captures them, it’s engaging, and it is easy to absorb.”
Running several pilots and gathering feedback from Zhicong’s research colleagues, the team were quickly able to start implementing innovative tools and features to better service researchers that until now had no centralized hub that can really help them gain visibility, find collaborators and build a community. DotsLive truly combines fun and engagement with the learning process, making it peer-based to enable the organic growth of a community.
In the past year, Steven has really taken advantage of user testing and market research, something he previously had only limited experience with before, which has helped him refine the product to the mature stage it is in now. “It is actually alot easier to do market research when you have the product…[laughs] I am actually not sure which is the best way to do research for a product, it seems a bit counterintuitive, but if you do market research first then you don’t have to build the product, but if you build the product first, then people actually know what your market research is about.”
From building Dataraction with the two co-founders from what was essentially the ground up, to becoming the young CTO that now leads a team that has quadrupled in size the last four months, Steven has certainly come a long way from his whimsical dreams of building food delivery drones.
But one thing is for certain, and perhaps it is a trait he shares with all entrepreneurs that came before him; he has passion for what he does every single day, and his ambition and willingness to learn wil help lead Dataraction to greatness.
Listen to his full story and more tips and strategies he has for launching a startup on Lunchtime LaunchTime:
The Importance of a Business Model
Check out the current research seminars happening on DotsLive right now: