How I taught myself to code at age 10 and sold my first startup at 14

“Well, you’re going to need a bank account” my mother said as she glanced at the stack of mail-order checks I’d accumulated.

It was the early 2000s and she was happy to continue to nurture the obsession that had kept me glued to the family PC for a few years. I’d created a website where kids my age could drag and drop outfits, hair styles, accessories and more to create tiny yet expressive avatars, then download and print them out to share with friends. The game generated about 100,000 unique users per month and I was 12 years old. I had taught myself what was considered full stack development then, including a mixture of JavaScript and PHP.

My journey into computer programming actually started at an earlier age. By the time I was 10 I had written my first lines of code after hacking the wildly popular “Petz” computer game from the late 90s. I learned how to modify my virtual pets into a rainbow of different colors and sizes. Fluffy neon kittens, and horse-sized poodles, all living on my Windows PC.

A few years later, while the sound of the dialup modem screeched throughout our house alerting everyone that the single phone line was now in use, I realized that an offline version of my drag and drop game would circumvent this uniquely 2000s problem in American households. And I might just be able to get away with charging for it if I shipped out physical CDs.

Off I went to Staples to begin printing labels after creating a branded design. I setup a single landing page advertising the price and address where children’s parents could send physical checks to purchase a copy of the game.

Despite this work, nothing prepared me for the utter thrill and even hints of confusion that someone was sending me $15 for a piece of plastic, graphics and some code I had developed. And not just someone; I ended up selling about 150 CDs before I received a curious email one afternoon about a year later.

The email read, “hey, you have a great website, can we buy it for $[a-sum-any-teenager-would-take].” I gave the offer 10 very serious minutes of thought before immediately saying yes.

I was 14 and had just sold my first startup.

Pictured: My sister (right) and I (left) on an early autumn afternoon.

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Ruthless prioritization & the unimportant

An ability to maintain laser focus, quickly realizing what’s important and what is not, is a super power for an entrepreneur. It requires rapid, ruthless prioritization of the objectives and precise resources needed to execute anything successfully.

Realizing what is unimportant is almost more crucial than realizing what’s essential. Sometimes what’s needed to ship a product, meet the needs of customers, or solve a large, blocking problem is incredibly obvious. But what’s not always so obvious are the tasks and obstacles your team is focusing too much time on and what is bogging them down. Removing this type of fluff is a crucial yet difficult skill to achieve.

Having led and worked with a variety of different engineering and technology teams over many years, I’ve found that those who are most successful and happy are those who are able to immediately eject non-objectives or requirements from the team’s purview. Teams who are less successful tend to agonize over unimportant details, driving motivation down, stress up, and execution sideways.

Time is the most valuable currency in the startup world. You cannot waste it. And more teams outside the world of technology startups would benefit from applying more ruthless prioritization, especially those attempting to achieve rapid growth.

Ruthless prioritization requires an ability to actually know what’s important. In software execution and product development, this requires extensive practice in:

  • Listening to customer or client needs
  • Trust in your team coupled with strong leadership
  • An ability to iterate quickly, learning from mistakes
  • Preparation that’s neither overly extensive nor particularly sparse (a fine balance of moving rapidly with the best knowledge available to you at any given moment)
  • Conviction in what you’re building
  • An ability to push back against groupthink and common thought (don’t move with the herd in identifying the best decision)

In future posts, I’ll dive further into my past experience building these skills.

I also try to use this type prioritization in my personal life. I focus on what is most important to me according to my values, and how I’d like to improve my life and the lives of those I care about as a result.

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