Yan-David Erlich: Serial Entrepreneur

CS alumnus Yan-David-Erlich“As an entrepreneur, the hardest move is taking the first step. After that, people will almost magically come out of the woodwork to help you,” said Yan-David Erlich. The Rice University computer science alumnus quit his job with Google in early 2007 to start his first company. He’s been entrepreneuring ever since.

He left Google about a week before the Fortune article came out saying Google was the very best place to work. “I’d grown up in France with parents in traditional roles: an attorney and an engineer for a global oil and gas company. Entrepreneurship was not in my bloodline, and most of the people we knew in France would never think of starting up their own business,” he said.

“When I told my parents I had left Google and it would take about a year to get my own company off the ground, my dad emailed me a scan of the Fortune magazine cover. People were climbing over each other to work there, and I was walking away.”

It didn’t matter, because Erlich had what he jokingly refers to as a sickness. There was a problem he knew he needed to solve, and the idea kept interrupting his other thoughts. “Entrepreneurship is like an illness, and the only way to cure it is to dive into it,” he said.

Erlich learned to evaluate and follow his impulses early. In elementary school, he quickly tired of standard computer games, so he began writing code to build his own projects. By middle school, he had already decided CS would be his college major.

“I wasn’t crafty with my hands in areas like woodworking. But with computer science, I could quickly turn my ideas into real things. The first time I created something that actually worked, I realized CS was the best drug; I got addicted and wanted to keep doing it.”

After graduating from Rice with a double major (CS and electrical engineering), he went to work for Microsoft for three years. His instincts led him to the MBA program at Stanford University, then to Google where he worked as a product manager.

One of his Stanford professors shared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s quote about committing to an idea or project. In summary, von Goethe encourages his reader to commit to their idea and promises positive forces will come to bear once the first step is taken.

The quote ends with, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” Essentially, if you have a startup idea, just start. That’s the best way. “It was a fascinating lesson, and I watched it happen over and over again,” said Erlich.

Although his MBA drove the lesson home, Erlich said he first experienced these unexpected lines of support for a new venture at Rice. As a senior, he enrolled in an interdisciplinary course in the Jones Graduate School for Business.

“As part of the course, our professors encouraged us to start our own companies,” he said. “I began exploring an idea for a business and that was the first time I realized I could actually do it. Even though that company ultimately didn’t get off the ground, all sorts of people offered assistance: venture capitalists, researchers, and people who just wanted to work on the project all approached us with unsolicited offers to help.

“Then at Stanford, I heard the von Goethe quote and it brought it all home. I realized the best thing I could do, if I was passionate about an idea, was to take the first step and be committed to it.”

While working for Google, Erlich had his first burning idea. He approached a friend who worked for a different company and was an expert in scalable systems and artificial intelligence.

“We talked and decided this solution actually deserved to be built. The next week, we both quit our jobs. That’s when my dad sent me the Fortune article. I knew I had to burn all the bridges, so I could focus on nothing else.

“We started brainstorming and our first investor approached us in a coffee shop. He had overheard our conversation, walked up to us, and asked about investing. Once you commit, tell everyone about your idea as the most unexpected people may end up helping you the most. They’ll want to invest, work on it with you, or introduce you to other people who do.”

That first startup, the first instant messenger service and client for social networks was sold within a year to iSkoot, which was then acquired by a Qualcomm subsidiary. Erlich’s second startup streamlined vendor selection and management with a web-based service and was purchased by LinkedIn.

“My third business was just a half-baked idea,” said Erlich with a smile. “I was talking with an investor, not really even making a pitch. But the investor said, ‘I’ll write you a half-million dollar check to go flesh this out right now.’ If you have an idea, don’t overthink it. With enough time, you can talk yourself out of any idea. But if you think the world needs your project, just start.”

Erlich mused that help is drawn to startups like friends and family members are drawn to an incomplete jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table. He said once the first corner is laid out and the owner is working on some of the pieces, other people walk by the dining room table and notice other connections.

“They say, ‘Oho! You are working on a puzzle, let me see how to help,’ and even if they don’t have time to sit down, they’ll probably bring in someone who does or introduce you to someone with a certain skill or resource. They will also tell you if your idea is nuts. That is valuable, too, because if an entrepreneur fights the market, the market always wins. So it’s good to have devil’s advocates to force you to sharpen your ideas.”

The path to entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Working for an established company is more reliably lucrative and a less stressful way to live. “If you don’t need to start up a company, then don’t. Most entrepreneurs are stressed and give up a lot of personal time and family life in order to build up their companies. Most startups fail. It’s hard work with the small chance of a rainbow at the end.”

“But if you do have the illness, then build out your solution and get it off the ground. Don’t over-plan, because step two only reveals itself when you are in step one. It’s like climbing a ladder in the dark with a flashlight. You can’t see the top of the ladder, only the next rung or two. And you won’t see the next rungs until you’ve climbed the closest ones.”

Erlich has mastered the art of solving the immediate problem. At age three, he blew up his father’s computer by sliding a credit card into the BIN slot. Six year later, his parents gave him his own computer. A year later, he was using Logo, Basic and C to build his own projects. When he explored universities, he looked for those where he would have the most interaction with CS professors.

“I originally thought I’d end up as a CS professor myself, so I wanted schools that provided the most real professor exposure and Rice really stood out there. All my instructors were CS professors, not grad students, and I joined a research team as an undergraduate. Even though I later decided academia was not for me, Rice was exactly right for me.

“Whether you are struggling with a course, grad school or career decisions, or starting up your own company, focus on the problems of today today and the problems of tomorrow tomorrow. Success is 5% having a long-term vision and 95% repeatedly knocking down the immediate obstacles that stand in your way.”