Whether you’re an up-and-coming comic book artist or a big-name musician like Eminem or Ellie Goulding, chances are you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to sell your product directly to your audience. You’ve probably thought “Why is it so easy to share something for free on platforms like Facebook, but the minute I want to sell it, it becomes so difficult?”
Enter Gumroad, the startup for selling digital goods founded by Sahil Lavingia two years ago. When he left his job as the second employee and first designer of the wildly popular Pinterest to become the CEO at Gumroad, he was only 19. Last Thursday, Sahil came to Columbia and shared his experiences and thoughts on startups, leadership, and more.
Sahil’s journey began as a middle-schooler tinkering with tools like Photoshop in his spare time. He soon reasoned: why make a painting of a building when you could build the building yourself? Thus he took up coding, and passionately immersed himself in programming. He knew then that he wanted to become a software engineer, and perhaps start his own company too.
While studying computer science at the University of Southern California, he encountered Pinterest. Sahil attributes this first job as a fruit of personal branding and actively reaching out. “It’s very important to get good at talking about yourself,” and even if you have an awesome idea, “no one is going to talk about [it] on your behalf.” But he was soon to leave for other pursuits.
The idea of founding Gumroad came to him suddenly and spontaneously. One afternoon, Sahil spent four hours at home designing a realistic pencil icon in Photoshop. He realized the value in his product to many designers, including those who happened to follow his twitter, and sought ways to market and sell his product. However, he found that this was far from a painless process.
“There’s probably so much that gets this close to getting put out there, and then never does,” he lamented. To him, it just “felt wrong” that such a tool to sell digital goods hadn’t existed yet. So he built Gumroad the following weekend.
Since then, Gumroad has grown to a team of 10 with $8 million of funding. Sahil’s role has changed from working “on Gumroad” to working “at Gumroad”, as he manages the team and focuses on the long-term vision instead of writing code day to day. Sahil had a lot to share from his managing experiences, and here are some of his words of wisdom:
Topic 1: Starting A Business
• Do it for the right reasons. If you just want to build a product, you don’t always need a company. For Sahil, he realized that the best way to solve his problem was with a business. Ask yourself, what’s the best way to solve yours?
• Who are you building for first? Sahil always made sure to test his product on himself – thinking of himself as a first user.
• Wants turn into needs. You didn’t need your phone five years ago, but now the social context has changed so much that it has become a need. Sahil realized that people focus on problems that are “needs” and despise problems that seem like a “luxury.”
• Build something you know will exist in 10 years, and more important, something that you want to work on in 10 years. “If you really want something to exist, it’s a lot easier to stick with it”, Sahil said.
• Move to San Francisco. Sahil called this choice a “no-brainer.” One of the benefits, he recalled, to being a student at USC was the exposure to startups in the Bay Area. He currently lives in San Francisco, where he describes the multiplier effect on his career as “invaluable”.
Topic 2: Attitudes
• You are mostly correct, so trust your gut!
• Make a list of things that might stop you, and then prove them wrong.
• Get rid of all distractions. Sahil left Pinterest to start Gumroad, knowing that “you have to focus 100% on a problem to make it work.” Those who try to juggle too many things end up dropping both the balls. Like code, people should know their number one priorities.
Topic 3: Leadership
• Focus on hiring brains, not arms. Sahil’s goal is not to hire people to do the job faster, but to “figure out what the project to do is.” Ideally, he said, you shouldn’t have two people doing the same function in order to avoid redundancy. As he put it, “If you’re doing the same thing every Friday, find a way to automate it or get rid of it.”
• Pass on the credit, take on the blame.
• Say no, a lot. Sahil acknowledged this as something you have to do in software and product development all the time, and likewise, something you have to do in recruiting.
Sahil ended his talk on one last piece of advice: believe in yourself, and believe in your idea: “If [Mark Zuckerberg] said ‘I want to build Facebook, but first I’m going to convince a hundred people that they want it’… they’d be like, you’re an idiot.”
You can check out Gumroad, contact Sahil at email@example.com, or on twitter, @shl. Gumroad is currently hiring.
by James Xue, Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science, Class of 2017