I founded OMGPOP, a video game company, that developed Draw Something, and ultimately sold to Zynga. I have lived in a few great places: Chicago, Tokyo, Seoul, and New York City. Gawker has called me the most interesting new millionaire playboy in tech. In reality, I’m not all that slick with the ladies and whether or not I am interesting, is debatable. I am currently the founder and CEO of Picturelife, my most important work to date.
I grew up in Chicago. I loved 2 things: computers and video games. When I was 7, I taught myself basic on an Apple IIe at our school computer lab. I bought an Atari 2600 and 12 games for $20 at a garage sale. When the Nintendo came out, I had to have it. I had to mow a lot of lawns to buy it. Duck Tales and Super Mario Brothers 3 were my favorite games. My first computer was a 486DX. Not soon after, I got a 2400 baud modem. I got a list of phone numbers for BBSs. I spent a ton of time on BBSs downloading files and designing ANSI art. I ended up designing my own BBS.
In 1994, I was accepted into a program created by the American Library Association to allow kids dial-up access to the internet. I downloaded Mosaic. I taught myself to write HTML. I saw the potential in the web. However, I thought the activity and community on BBSs was still way more interesting. In 1995, I built graphical user interface on top of a BBS system I ran at my high school. It was similar to AOL at the time. It was nice because most people didn’t have dial-up internet at that time, so a website would have been useless.
Around the same time, I became very interested in video game development as well as the demo scene. The demo scene was a community of amazing graphics programmers that pushed computers to the absolute limits. The first demo I saw was Future Crew’s Second Reality. The music was amazing, the graphics were amazing. I downloaded just about every demo I could. This was the point were I really started getting serious about game development.
Not long after Nintendo 64 came out, a home-brew hardware development interface was sold out of China. In reality, it was used to play downloaded roms of N64 games. It was funny to me, because most N64 games were so bad, it wasn’t worth the download time to play them. Anyways, I downloaded the PSYQ N64 devkit from someone on IRC and I started hacking away, making 3D models that I designed in 3DS Max rotate on my TV screen. I thought this was pretty awesome.
From there, I bought a flash rom kit for the Gameboy, and I started working on a platformer game.
I really loved video game development, and I’m sure I would have become a professional video game developer.. however, the video game industry didn’t pay very well at all. Furthermore, the internet was booming at the same time. Even though it was much, much less interesting, I started making web pages, doing web site design, and writing Perl, for $60 an hour.
New media was the term people used around the internet. New media also included making CDROM applications for marketing, education, and simple video games. Macromind Director was the tool of choice. There was a simple programming language called Lingo. I actually liked it a lot because of its loose typing, similarity to basic, and relatively fast speed.
Macromind became Macromedia, and they released a plug-in for Netscape that would run Director files called Shockwave. Like most things on the internet at that time, Shockwave content was mostly garbage.
For the first time, I saw the opportunity to do some interesting things on the internet. I basically just took concepts I learned from the demo scene and game development and made some nice visual / tech demos. I post my demos regularly on my website, setpixel.com.
Some of my demos included: particle effects, 3d depth of field, NES tilemap viewer / map editor, marble madness clone, volumetric lighting. The demos were all open source, and I wrote articles with each one.
I wrote an IRC client in Shockwave and embedded it on the home screen of setpixel. I would just hang out and talk to people on my site. One day, I was chatting with some anonymous person.. “Hey where are you from? I’m from Chicago too! Let’s hang out!” That anonymous person was actually two people, Jake and Jacob. We hung out and became friends.
Jake had just won an online t-shirt design competition and thought it would be cool if people could win t-shirt design competitions all the time. So Jake and Jacob built Threadless. At the time, they were working at a small consulting agency. I convinced them that they should quit their jobs and we should get an office in Ravenswood. Interested in design, we built a design community forum called YayHooray. Worked on various other web projects, and I built my tech demos, and worked on video games.
Having spent my whole life in Chicago, I really didn’t know anything different, and I was painfully aware of that. I really wanted to live somewhere completely different. Almost immediately, I decided to move to Tokyo. Tokyo was at that time, the mecca, and in hindsight, at its apex for video games and cell phone technology. I had never had a cell phone before, and on my second day, I had one with a color screen, a camera, and it was connected to the internet. It also cost 1 yen.
I was really interested in the fact that you could easily take pictures with your mobile phone and post them to the internet immediately. I wrote a lot of photography software while I was in Japan, and even built a service I called Kpix. I met some really great people in Japan. I attended an event called The First Annual Moblogging Conference. There was a guy there named Joi Ito. Everyone seemed to really be crazy about him. He had just invested in something called TypePad a hosted blogging platform. I remember talking to a bunch of people at the conference about how I wanted to create a mobile blogging service where people could take pictures and post them live to a personal online gallery. They told me that it would cost a lot of money to run the service and that with someone like Joi Ito investing in TypePad, there was no point. Despite having fully built the service, I chose not to pursue it.
Despite some really cool things happening in Japan, I couldn’t help but notice that everything being built around the internet was intrinsically lame. The design was bad, the user interaction was bad, every website looked like 1995. I remember thinking that the weekend web projects Jake and Jacob would hack together would be infinitely more interesting than I saw in Japan.
I had heard about a social network in Korea called CyWorld. I took a trip to Korea to try it out. It was honestly the most amazing thing I had seen on the internet. As interactive as Facebook is today, Cyworld was in 2002. The most interesting thing was that you could buy virtual items to decorate your profile for real money, which really blew my mind.. 1) that people would pay for it and 2) that everyone was paying for it. They were making tons of money.
Furthermore, the video game industry was even more interesting. Piracy was so rampant that no games were imported legally, and Korean game developers couldn’t make money off selling games. So they developed games and gave them away for free. Because Korea was highly networked, almost all the popular games were realtime-multiplayer. The game companies made money by selling items in the game that would allow you to look better, and do better.
While in Korea, I met with Yahoo and told them that I wanted to take this amazing model and bring it to the US. They asked me how much I would need to build it. I told them 100k. They laughed at me.
After 2 years in Korea, I decided to move to NYC. I wanted to build something real, without battling language barriers and homogeneous markets.
Dan Albritton, a guy I knew from Japan, was moving to NYC on the same day to attend NYU’s ITP. We decided to become roommates. Dan had an idea for a SMS based application platform. One day, Dan told me that he was applying to a program where instead of college kids getting a summer job, they can hack away on a business idea, and they will give you $6,000 for a piece of your company. It was called Y Combinator. I thought, “Sounds dumb. Good luck with that.”
A week later, he told me that his application had made it to the second round, and that he had to go present his idea to the partners with his co-founder. Being without a co-founder, he asked me to go and help him pitch the idea, and that if he got in, he would would find a real co-founder to do the program with. I thought, “Free trip to California. Why not?”
We flew out.
We knew we only had 5 minutes with Paul Graham and the 3 other partners. We told them about the SMS platform. It was obvious that we were bombing. “Why would anyone ever want anything like this? This idea is shit and no one will ever give you money for this in a million years.” is what Paul said. Dan looked disappointed. I was fairly indifferent because it wasn’t my idea.
"BUT. You are smart guys, do you have any other ideas?"
When at parties in NYC, the topic of what you do is almost always the first thing to come up upon meeting people. I used to jokingly tell people that I ran an auction based dating site. At first, people would be disgusted. But I would explain to them that dating sites are nothing but spam, allowing men to send 1000s of messages to women creating 1000s of heartless unread, unreplied to messages in an overall useless system.
With an auction mechanic, the woman decides when she wants to be contacted, giving her total control, and as men are limited in their behavior by bidding a virtual currency she knows that the man is really interested in her, and she has her choice from the top bidders.
The more I told the story, the more people loved the idea.
So when I told Paul the story, he said, “Perfect. Would you like to work on that?” I said “YES!” Dan didn’t look so enthusiastic.
This was the third Y Combinator, and would take place in Cambridge Mass. over the summer. We moved to Cambridge and started working lightly. After exploring Cambridge for 1 hour, I realized that Cambridge is boring. If I was going to spend a summer in a leisurely fashion, I would rather spend it in NYC. So I decided that we were going to go at this full force and work our hardest. My objective was to win Y Combinator.
We started working on iminlikewithyou.
We learned rails in 1 week. I thought it was funny that rails was made by 37 signals. Jason Fried was a friend of mine way back in the day in Chicago. I talked to him on the phone and told him about what we were building.
"WHAT? You took money from VCs? You’re one of the smartest guys I know, and you just did one of the stupidest things. You just signed your life away."
He hung up on me.
I guess being a hypocrite also comes with being a dick.
Y Combinator was really great. Everyone in our class was super nice, super smart, and very helpful. I really look back at my time there fondly and I miss everyone in our group
Anyways, we built something pretty cool, that worked pretty well after 2 months. We gave a great presentation…
Please wait part 2. This is way too long for a single blog post.