Seattle entrepreneur Brian Ma says you must have irrational optimism

Maureen Francisco December 19, 2013 0

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“That’s never going to work.”

“You’re wasting your time.”

That kind of feedback would leave Brian Ma unscathed. Instead, the Hong Kong native would say “you’re wrong.”

Today, the 28-year-old can now add successful acquisition to his portfolio. As the co-founder of Decide.com, a price-alert tool that tells you when to buy, his company has now been acquired by eBay. It wasn’t too long ago though when Ma lived at his parents’ house, didn’t take on a salary for two years, and snuck away to eat samples at Costco as a way to save money.

Now, the successful business owner, who never got his high school diploma but double majored in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering with a minor in Math from the University of Washington, is often asked to give advice to other entrepreneurs. The International Examiner caught up with Ma for the inside scoop.

International Examiner: Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Brian Ma: Yes, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to someday dream big and convince a bunch of people to dream big with me in order to make a massive impact on the world. I didn’t know what that meant, what it was even called, or how it would all work out back in high school, but I’m glad there’s a legitimate career path out there that helped me achieve that.

IE: How did Decide.com come to be?

Ma: Decide.com grew out of a series of fortunate serendipitous “aha” moments. At one point in our hack-all-day-in-basement adventure, I was sitting next to my girlfriend (now wife) Jessica and was completely perplexed at why she had a hundred bookmarks at various clothing retailers. It turns out she checks them every single day to catch sales on items she wanted. Being the geek I was, I decided to bring the problem up to my founding team and within a weekend, we built a site to save her all that work.

IE: When did you realize that you had created something “special” with your company?

Ma: A couple things came together all around the same time that helped us realize we were onto something:

1. Our price alert tool we built over a weekend was growing completely organically—people would use it, tell their friends, and within a couple weeks, we were tracking thousands of products. We were also really surprised with how many of our users immediately purchased the products after receiving their price drop emails.

2. After graphing all the price changes, we were shocked at how many times prices change per day (up to 20 times on sites like Amazon). You could literally save hundreds of dollars by waiting 15 minutes. With our data crunching background and a couple more months, we developed an algorithm to predict these prices, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate.

IE: Before starting Decide.com, you were part of the start-up team at Zillow.com, which was a no name at that time. When Zillow grew to 250 people, that’s when you realized it was the right time to launch your own entrepreneurial journey.

Ma: Eggsprout was the first concept that came out of that—data-mining resumes to help people figure out the next step in their careers. That failed after two years of furiously working non-stop, unpaid in the basement with some of the brightest guys I know, and we made a massive pivot to what eventually became Decide.com.

IE: You’ve always known you were going to be an entrepreneur. How do you know if you have what it takes to be one?

Ma: 1) You think you can take on and disrupt entire industries even though everyone says you’re out of your mind.

2) You’re ok with working without a paycheck and crazy long for years just because you believe so much in your idea. Vacations and dinner with friends cause you anxiety because you’re not working.

3) You can pick yourself back up after an investor backs out, your cofounders leave you, your traffic flat-lines for months, your competitors overtake you, you need to fire a friend, and all the other horrible things that happen 80 percent of the time in the typical startup day-to-day.

IE: With that said, you also believe every single person has the ability to be an entrepreneur.

Ma: Most just haven’t developed that muscle yet. The first step is to step into the gym, pick that dumbbell up, realize how not fit you are and how sore you get, then come back again the next day … and the day after that.

IE: Today, you are often approached with pitches and ideas. What gets you excited?

Ma: I personally like really big consumer plays that preferably have something to do with analyzing a bunch of data. If you like video games, ride motorcycles, or play boardgames, that helps too. I also really like cheap Chinese food. Haha.

Ma will be speaking at an Ascend event on January 16, about “How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur.” The event is at the Bellevue Marriott located at 11010 NE 8th Street.

The fireside chat is free for Ascend Members and $30 for Non-Ascend members, which includes light appetizers, drinks, and parking (if available). Registration begins at 5:30 p.m. and the event ends at 8:00 p.m. To register, visit http://goo.gl/pikPB2.

 

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