Rico Meinl joined On Deck First 50 after finding his experience as an engineer in a large retail company tedious. Through Lean Hire, a curated contract-to-hire platform, Rico rekindled his interest in biotech as he joined Talus as their Lead Machine Learning Engineer.
My experience in Startups
My first experience with the startup ecosystem was when I dropped out of university to start Dresswell, a company in the fashion tech realm.
Specifically, the app tackled the problem of unique sizing guides for different clothing brands, which leads to a lot of wasted resources because clothes that don’t fit need to be returned and re-delivered in the correct size. Dresswell used machine learning, computer vision, and the iPhone’s True Depth camera to solve this by measuring people’s fit via their phone to recommend the perfect-fitting clothes.
In April 2019, my co-founder and I moved to Amsterdam to collaborate with two jean brands there in implementing our product as a plugin to their online operations. In August that year, we moved to Los Angeles, as that was the location of all the major jean brands, in an attempt to gain further adoption of our product.
We struggled to find product market fit and after several pivots our direction had diverged substantially from the initial vision my co-founder and I shared. Shortly after, we decided to shut down the company. Leaving this project behind, after having invested so much time, as well as emotional and financial resources was not an easy call but there were tons of learnings and experiences that I took with me.
By the time the company had shut down, I had moved to London and was working at a job with one of the UK’s biggest retailers. Going from a small startup to a big corporation was a big change and after six months, I realized how much I missed the excitement and urgency of building something new. I wanted to spend my 20s taking bold bets and building startups instead of working in a safe environment.
Finding On Deck
I was contacted by Entrepreneur First (EF), a 3-month startup accelerator that aimed to help you find your co-founder and turn your idea into a product. I decided to apply and got accepted to join the London cohort in the fall of 2020.
During the program I met an amazing co-founder and got traction with a project, though we eventually decided to not take it further and split ways at the end of the program. I had first discovered the On Deck Founders Fellowship during EF, while we were looking into founder programs that were US-based. After EF had ended, I saw that On Deck was now offering a fellowship for the first 50 hires in a startup, called OD50 and the inaugural cohort started in January. I began researching the program: reading blog posts, browsing Twitter and asking others about their experience. Ultimately I came across Anthony’s [Nardini] podcast.
I still remember the tagline that struck me, “On Deck First 50 is the program for people looking at what’s next.” Unsure where I wanted to go, I knew that this was the program for me.
On Deck Is A House Party, Not A Club
If I had to describe OD50 with a metaphor, I would describe it as a house party. At a house party, there are different groups of people: people that are next to the pool having fun outside, people that are hanging out talking on the couch, people that just want to have food. There’s more than one thing to do and you can drift from one group to another throughout the evening.
And that was what OD50 felt like, it didn't feel cliquey because you could pivot between study groups for Software Engineering interviews, interest groups on De-Fi and Crypto and Talent Demo Days depending on what suited you.
The one thing that you can’t expect at a house party is to show up and expect other people to make it a good time for you. You have to “make your own evening”, talking to people, and making the initiative to socialize. OD50 was similar: you are going to have to put in what you are looking to get out of the program.
The most impactful session for me was Erik Torenberg’s session on asymmetric bets. It was a huge driver that got me thinking about what I wanted to do next. “Asymmetric opportunities usually have meaningful upside in a success case, and meaningful learning or development in a downside case.”
At the time, I was spending a lot of my time reading into crypto and decentralized platforms and I realized that working on a decentralized internet is a perfectly asymmetric bet for me: it’s a career pivot and a big bet against the status quo but if it works there is tremendous upside. I started connecting with other fellows who were interested in this space, built some side projects to learn about the technologies (one of them during the On Deck Hackathon) and got in touch with companies. Everything could have gone perfectly linear from here but that’s rarely the case, right?
Because I expected that catching up on the necessary skills and interviewing would take a good amount of time and I wanted to stay open to exploring other avenues, I started looking into Lean Hire, a contract-to-hire platform.
The main parameters I used to evaluate a project on Lean Hire was if there was significant scope to the project. I would rather continually work on something for 2 months so that what I delivered really solved a problem for the company.
Through Lean Hire, I got in touch with Talus Bioscience, an early stage biotech developing a cutting edge platform for a new generation of drugs targeting gene regulators. I was already familiar with biotech through my work at Entrepreneur First and this project was in search of AWS and data engineering skills which is right up my alley. I got to meet with the CEO and CTO and learn about what they were building, why they were building it and their future vision. They got to see who I was, what I was interested in and how I worked to see if it would be a good fit into the company.
After I had completed the first project, we continued working together. Soon it became clear that the working relationship was strong and the negotiation process started.
I remember going through a session led by Hari Raghavan, the co-founder of AbstractOps, a seed stage startup that automated the back office for other early stage startups, on “Understanding Startup Compensation” that helped me deepen my understanding of the key discussion points for a startup negotiating process.
However, there were still many questions I wanted answers to. I was in Europe, the company was based in Seattle, would that affect my work? What should I be looking for given my experience and capabilities? I got on a call with the Program Director for On Deck First 50 and voiced all these concerns. As we spent time talking through my experience working with Talus, it put everything into perspective and helped me make my final decision.
On the 22nd of March I joined Talus as the Lead Machine Learning Engineer.