Tag Archives: Entrepreneurship

This Is How Vlad Tenev Built Robinhood

“You can break down Robinhood into a series of small steps, the first one being start Robinhood, and every subsequent one being some variant of don’t stop and keep going, right, and you end up where we are today. “

In his mid-20’s, Vladimir Tenev lived in New York City. His apartment was tiny and spare. All his time went into his high frequency trading startup. Then mom came to visit.

When she saw his shabby surroundings, she began to cry. She told him she had a friend who worked at Macy’s. Maybe, she could get him a job there.

It must’ve taken great fortitude for Tenev to push ahead with his own business, despite few signs of success and the anguish it caused his family. But push ahead he did. Today, the company he built, Robinhood, has over 13 million users and plans to IPO soon at a valuation of around $40 billion. Tenev’s net worth exceeds $1 billion.

Tenev came to the United States as a child from Bulgaria and attended the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which US News ranks the best public high school in the entire country. What would’ve become of Tenev if he had stayed in Bulgaria? He might have had a very normal life. But giving this smart kid a superb education and access to a great entrepreneurial ecosystem turned him into a billionaire executive.

Tenev didn’t stop learning when he finished school. He taught himself to write iOS apps by watching free Stanford courses online while commuting on the Caltrain. It really shows you what a person can accomplish learning on one’s own for nothing now that knowledge is much more freely available.

Robinhood faced numerous obstacles along the way, but Tenev and co-founder Baiju Bhatt blasted through them. It took two full years of constant work to build their product. Venture capitalists were highly skeptical of their business. How could they make money without charging commissions? How could they beat giant competitors like Etrade and Charles Schwab? And could a couple of math guys make a beautiful consumer product?

But they kept pitching, and ultimately raised $250,000 from Google Ventures. Tenev couldn’t even get a job interview at Google 4 years prior. What if he had let that discourage him from ever approaching Google for an investment?

Just days before a meeting to approve a critical license Robinhood needed to operate, they were still $500,000 short of the required capital. Only the birth of an executive’s baby saved them by providing an excuse to postpone. By the new date, Tenev had raised the money.

A key lesson for startups: Robinhood didn’t worry about monetization until it achieved a large user base. It was confident that, like Instagram, winning enough users would give them all the opportunities for revenue they’d need. And they couldn’t put the cart before the horse.

What sticks out to me most about the Robinhood story is Tenev’s perseverance. At first, his business looked laughable. Later, it gained a bit of traction but faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in fundraising.

But he just keep pushing, day after day. Now, 11 years after he started his first company, he sits at the helm of one of the hottest startups in the world.

For more on startups, check out these posts:

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Photo: “File:TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016 – Day 2 (26902081436) (2).jpg” by TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Top 5 Things That Changed When I Started Working for Myself

For fourteen years, four months and eleven days, I worked in software. My job was like a lot of jobs: conducted in a cubicle or sometimes remotely, during regular business hours, and almost every week of the year.

In July of 2019, I left that job to make my investment business full time. I still remember the feeling when I walked out of the office for the last time into a hot, sunny summer’s day…”Wow, this is it, I’m really gone”.

Looking back on the past 21 months, I decided to write down a few of the biggest changes in my life since leaving the world of corporate employment:

1) Your time is your own. When I wake up in the morning, I eat breakfast and do a little journaling. I can plan out a day focusing on whatever I want. The ability to design your own day is a huge difference from working at a company, where you’re crossing off items on someone else’s to-do list.

2) You find yourself suddenly immersed in new areas on a regular basis. In the last couple of months, I’ve done deep dives into COVID, vaccines, meme stocks, and startups. Some for business purposes, some just because I’m interested. When your time is your own, you find yourself delving into new topics a lot more frequently.

3) It’s harder to decide what success means. At a job success means not getting fired, getting a raise every year, and maybe a promotion. How do you define success in your own business? That’s a lot more subjective, and I tend to move the goalposts further whenever I reach a goal. This can put you on something of a treadmill. It’s important to get off sometimes and smell the roses.

4) You have more energy. Even though I almost never use an alarm clock anymore, I wake up earlier and am more energetic in general. Being able to do what I want with my time gives me energy. Doing what someone else wanted all day tended to drain it.

If you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

5) The sky is the limit. My investments this past year made far more than I ever made working, and new investments I’m planning in early stage startups could blow away all previous earnings if things go right. (Or go to zero if they go wrong!)

If you work for a company, your raises usually come yearly and they’re only so much. There’s a limit to how much an employer will pay for an hour of your labor in most fields. What’s more, you only have at most 24 hours a day to sell! But if you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it!

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it! If you can’t, build up a side business over time and eventually you’ll be ready!

For more on improving your life, check out these posts:

Photo: “The Workaholic NSA” by herval is licensed under CC BY 2.0