Building for the Diamond Age
I was born in a small city in northern China, famous for its fragrant black vinegar and crab “fat” 小笼包. One afternoon when I was 5, my mom showed up at my preschool and asked me to say goodbye to my classmates. Unbeknownst to me, we would soon be jumping on my first flight over the Pacific to meet my dad in the U.S. and begin our new lives in Saint Louis, Missouri.
The years after immigration turned out to be a lot harder than either of my parents expected. With no intuition for western culture and little to no English, they had to start from scratch. My mom waitressed during the days and studied English in the evenings while my dad became a truck driver despite having a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
Despite our circumstances, my parents prioritized my education and moved to a tiny apartment in one of the area’s best public school districts. Growing up, my days were split between quiet chop-stick-clicking chinese takeout dinners and loud classmates who drove to school in Jeep Wranglers.
My childhood experience with assimilation made me resonate with "Diamond Age," a post-cyberpunk novel written by Neil Stephenson that follows the coming of age journey of a girl named Nell. One day, she finds a nanotech book that teaches her everything from the ABCs to physics to self-defense. The book responds to her physical world and feelings, guiding her through relevant lessons that give her the confidence and skills to eventually save the world.
Today, I’m on a mission to create the playbook for socioeconomic mobility. My mantra is “building for the diamond age.”
A Transformative Gap year
I should have taken my obsession with science fiction as a sign that I would eventually work in tech. When I first set foot on Stanford's campus in 2016, I was convinced that I would pursue my passion in classical music. However, I soon drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid and worked my first software engineering internship at a YC-backed startup in Kuala Lumpur.
The experience abroad prompted me to reflect on the different pathways to a meaningful life. I realized that I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do and that I was on an institutional escalator taking me who knows where. By the time I got back to campus, I knew I needed a gap year to explore my options and see myself clearly. So I pressed pause on school.
During the gap year, I spent time studying human-computer interaction at Oxford Internet Institute, worked as an au pair while rediscovering my childhood roots in Guangzhou, China and built an app to destigmatize mental illness in India while working at Microsoft Research in Bangalore.
During my gap year, I saw that talent is distributed around the world, but economic opportunity is not. At the time, I was building an e-commerce shop and was inundated with tasks across social media and product research. While browsing online job boards looking for help, I met a woman named Camille based in the Philippines. We clicked immediately. As Camille and I began building the business together, she taught me about the outsourcing industry. I learned about the typical work environment: inflexible and taxing roles, toxic work culture, and lack of career mobility. The system was broken and I deeply wanted to fix it.
I began working on a project to help women like Camille learn the skills they need to build their own businesses, access meaningful work, and connect with a community of peers who could support them on the journey. We began serving other businesses, completing time-consuming tasks, and giving more women opportunities to upskill and earn income. A year and many lessons later, we began developing robotic process automation to support our team members.
I’m building Pareto, a human API that helps small and medium-sized businesses (SMB's) and startups delegate time consuming business tasks, on-demand. Entrepreneurs can ask us, “I need more customers, can you help me find more leads”, and their dedicated Pareto Project Manager will launch tailored workflows combining human quality assurance with software automation to deliver the qualified sales leads or data they need.
A Community of Catalysts
As a solo founder, there were probably half a dozen times when I was about ready to give up. Oftentimes, I would begin doubting myself after speaking to potential investors. Many people pointed out the complexity of the problem I was tackling: training and systematizing human workers alongside robotic process automation.
The stress was at times unbearable, but I found ways to deal with it by falling back on a strong community of friends, team members and advisors who believed in me and what I was trying to accomplish.
On Deck Catalyst was a search to 1) find friends and strengthen that community of support 2) discover useful insights to improve Pareto and 3) discover new strategic partnerships. Only 6 weeks into the Catalyst programming, I was able to achieve all 3 of my goals.
In my 5th week of the program, I had a 1-on-1 with Vivek Pandit, the founder of We Are Gen Z and we immediately found alignment. Vivek is currently creating the largest database of Gen Z founded companies & non profits, think of it like Crunchbase with a Gen Z twist. Since then, we recorded an episode for his podcast, joined a platform he is building featuring 50 Gen-Z founders, and will be supporting a new project he is working on focused on connecting high-schoolers with startups. Given that it all started with a random, off-chance Slack message where I introduced myself, this is an example of the serendipity a community like ODC provides.
In my 3rd week of the program, I joined a feedback session for startup founders and was paired with Edgar Brown, the Startups Growth Lead at On Deck. In 15 minutes, Edgar helped us redesign and rewrite the above-the-fold section of our landing page. It was insane to learn from his user-centered insights and masterful growth strategies and we’ve since used the copy he helped us create across all of Pareto’s marketing channels.
Most recently, I hosted a workshop for the over 60 women working at Pareto with Vidit Goyal, an ODC fellow and a Product Manager at PetDx. Vidit shared his decision making frameworks and mental models for prioritization and the session has been extremely transformative for how we now train our team members, helping our project managers more effectively problem solve.
What's next for Pareto
The current north star for Pareto is reaching Product-Market Fit. In the past year, we’ve raised our first VC round, built an incredible team, and honed in on our product offering.
When I started Pareto, I had no idea what kinds of tools or best practices existed for building a business. I didn’t understand how to conduct market research, find potential customers, reach out to them persuasively, or run controlled experiments. I knew nothing and I was too overwhelmed to learn how to select and use existing software tools or vet and hire expert freelancers. Entrepreneurs need a tool that combines the quality and care of a real person with the efficiency and consistency of machine automation. Pareto is building just that.
We’re always looking to get to know more potential partners. If you’re interested in getting to know us, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This is part of a series where we talk to On Deck Founders alumni about the companies they’re building and what it will take to propel them to the next level. Consider joining our incredible community of founders who have launched over 1000 companies worth over $9B. Apply here.