6 Questions with Justin Chen

By Mike Maddaloni on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 04:00 AM with 6 comments

6 Questions logo1 - Who are you, and what are you doing here?

My name is Justin Chen and I'm an entrepreneur and co-founder of Menuism and The Wedding Lens. I got my computer science degree at UC Berkeley and then did the big company thing at HP for a few years before deciding that it was time to forge my own path and co-founded Two-Bit Operation LLC back in Feb 2006. Menuism was our first project and since we've been able to build that into a profitable business, we decided to add to our portfolio with The Wedding Lens. Menuism is the place to go for dish reviews of restaurants and all the restaurant menus (we aggregate menu links from AllMenus, MenuPages, GrubHub and the restaurant's own website). The Wedding Lens helps couples get all the full resolution digital photos from their wedding guests in a single album so they can download them from one place. Our goal is to solve simple problems while running a business that affords us the lifestyle flexibility that we've come to enjoy with self-funded entrepreneurship. I recently moved to Los Angeles, but my life as an entrepreneur started in Chicago, where I met a lot of great people and got help from the close-knit startup community there.

photo of Justin Chen2 - You talk about a balance between work and life; do you find other entrepreneurs who share that goal, or focus more on their ventures?

Yeah, there are plenty of them, you just don't read about them as much in the press. The publicity usually goes to those that aim really big and make a lot of noise. Books like the "4-hour work week" have taught us all how to be more productive with our time and how to enjoy life as we work. I've done the shoot big 80-hour startup thing in the past and all I got out of it was burn-out, some worthless options and few t-shirts. I'm enjoying this route much more. Maybe I'm just getting old smile

3 - We're all getting old, but I digress. Can you describe how you interact and work with your team?

Now that there's 3 of us in 3 different cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle) we do most of our interaction over Skype, unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes, and IM. We use Google docs & spreadsheets for all of our project planning, coordination and tracking and Assembla for our bug tracking.

The week starts with a team phone meeting where we discuss the status of our projects, any issues that may have arisen, and the plans going forward. From that point on, everyone works on their assigned areas and we do daily morning SCRUM emails to stay in sync with each other. Of course there's occasional IM chats and phone calls throughout the day for real-time updates or to bounce ideas of each other. Any contract workers or interns that we have also work virtually and are typically managed by a weekly call with one of us (just depends on who owns the area they're working on). It's very much a divide & conquer approach to moving things forward, but we'll still try to get together in the same place when we know that we're going to be doing heavy planning or development to make things more efficient (usually every couple months).

4 - Though you are in regular communication, you are still working alone. How do you stay motivated?

Day-to-day motivation and productivity definitely becomes difficult with isolation. We try to combat it by breaking all our initiatives down into bite-size tasks that we can individually tackle relatively quickly. When you have smaller tasks it feels like you're making progress by continually checking things off the to-do list. The daily scrum reports and weekly meetings provide the primary framework for accountability, but the burden still falls on the individual to stay productive and also keep the others on task as well (this is where nagging IMs and emails come in handy). We keep the team humming to the same tune through frequent re-centering meetings and a project dashboard (in google docs) that keeps our eyes on the goals and statuses of all our current efforts.

5 - Despite this, you have created some great sites, such as The Wedding Lens. Can you describe the creative effort that led to it?

So far, our projects have come out of quickly building solutions for our own needs and then rapidly evolving them, with Menuism solving our desire to know the best dishes to order at a restaurant. In the case of The Wedding Lens, the need stemmed from my wedding last July when we tried to find a way to consolidate all the high resolution photos in one place for everyone to download. Since we didn't want to be bombarded with tons of links to Picasa and Snapfish to view disparate albums, my business partner John whipped up a prototype the day after the wedding and asked our friends to upload their photos to it. Great feedback from our friends spurred us to give some serious thought about the business opportunity. We did some market research, identified our niche, solidified the product vision and within the next month we had version 1 ready for other couples to try out. After a few months of pilot testing by friends of friends and a redesign, we have TheWeddingLens.com as it stands today. We're pretty happy with the response from our customers and we're seeing an average of 600 photos per album, with some albums receiving over 1000 photos from their wedding guests.

6 - What is one question I did not ask, and what is its answer?

What advice would you give an entrepreneur that's just getting started?

1) Get out and talk to people: There are plenty of ways (local meet-ups, networking events, friends of friends, emailing bloggers, etc.) to meet people around you for coffee or drinks and you never know who you'll end up meeting. You'll also be surprised how receptive most people are to meeting with you if you just reach out to them and tell your story. When you're small, the free advice and potential partnerships you garner through these relationship building efforts are invaluable. Plus, once you've told everyone what you're planning to do, you have some public accountability to keep yourself on track.

2) Target a niche that you feel you can own: Not every company has to try to take over the world or even their industry. Scale your ambitions to your capabilities and how big you want to grow your business. By aiming to solve a particular need in an industry, you'll set yourself up nicely to partner with other players in the space.

3) Be efficient with your marketing dollars: Focus on efforts you can measure so you can improve your conversion rates, whether it's page views, signups, or sales. If it's a web venture, definitely spend some time learning about search engine optimization and social media marketing. The key is to find ways for your venture to keep marketing itself without continued direct effort from yourself.

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