[quote style=”boxed”]I think the best thing any entrepreneur can do is dive into an industry he or she is passionate about, find a tiny loophole, build a great product for a small set of users and then move on from there.[/quote]
Jan is a German entrepreneur dedicated to transforming the way people use mobile photography to capture and share their adventures. Jan’s passion for photography started when he was a teenager living in Tokyo, where he immediately became immersed in the Japanese, photo-taking culture.
As an undergraduate, Jan developed an interest in entrepreneurship while interning at several startups, including the German incubator Betafabrik, where he went on to work as a product manager. Later, Jan left for London to complete his master’s degree in technology entrepreneurship at University College London (UCL). While at UCL, Jan began looking for ways to combine his entrepreneurial skills with his passion for photography. While completing his studies at UCL, Jan and a few friends began working on the company that would eventually evolve into Popset.
After spending six months refining prototypes, testing assumptions and developing early betas, Jan and his team applied and were accepted to the YCombinator Winter 2012 batch, where they had the opportunity to hone their product design with some of the most talented leaders in tech. Nowadays, Jan and the rest of the Popset team are based in San Francisco, where they continue to improve and grow Popset.
What are you working on right now?
Popset is where photos live. It’s an app that lets users manage all their photos directly from their smartphones. Users can create or import photos from other sites like Instagram, organize their photos into shareable albums called sets, and access them on any device at any time. That means you’ll never have to worry about making backups or hunting for your photos across multiple sites ever again. With Popset, you’ll spend less time organizing photos and more time making them. We’re the first German startup to get funded by YCombinator, and we’ve already got a lot of great fans, including Will Smith!
Where did the idea for Popset come from?
I’ve been really interested in photography since I studied abroad in Japan at the age of 16. I was immediately pulled into the photography culture in Japan, where taking and sharing photos is always a social activity. It’s actually sort of an icebreaker—you get to know people through their photos. When I got back to Germany, I had a stack of 25 different photo albums, each one telling its own little story.
Today, smartphones have made us all into photographers. The problem is, most photo apps are only focused on taking single photographs. But one photo is just a fraction of an experience. I wanted to make something that would tell the whole story. That’s Popset. We’ve organized everything around albums, because that’s how life works—people go on weekend trips, to parties, to weddings, etc. So our goal is to build these great features that make it easy to upload, share and organize all your photos. We want Popset to be the place for your photos on all devices and platforms. Think of us as a combination of iPhoto, Flickr and Dropbox.
What does your typical day look like?
There is no typical day for me. Being a startup founder is as much a lifestyle as a job, and part of that lifestyle is that you don’t have a very reliable schedule. I work during the day, and in the afternoons, I try to go for a run or workout or take care of errands like grocery shopping. Afterwards, I’ll go home and continue to work through the evening, but if there’s a problem that absolutely has to get fixed, I could be working on it until the early morning. My real time off mostly happens on Friday or Saturday evenings, when I meet friends for drinks at a bar or party.
Unfortunately, as a startup founder, you have to spend a lot of time taking care of administrative work like finding office space or a house for your team to live in, doing legal work (currently our visa applications) or dealing with investors. But these are things I try to just get done so I can focus on what I like doing most: building products. In my case, that mostly involves doing concept and design work, talking to users, validating assumptions by running tests and doing some web development.
How do you bring ideas to life?
No matter what, I have to work in a space I like. It doesn’t make any sense to go into a market you’re not passionate about just because it’s attractive to other people. Once I’ve found a space I like, I start with a simple problem. I try to fix the problem in the simplest way possible, and then I see what happens.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Definitely photography. Smartphones have made us all photographers, and the volume of photos on the internet is only going to keep growing. Despite the tons of startups and products out there, this space is still humungous. There is so much room for new startups to do cool things here.
Another trend is education. I love that people are taking digital learning more and more seriously. I think we’re going to start seeing more startups and initiatives in the vein of Coursera or Codeacademy applied across more and more industries.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
During my first year as an undergrad, I worked for an agency that bought huge lists of addresses and had dozens of agents (like me) cold call people to sell them lottery tickets. Most agents hated it, but it did teach me how to make an effective pitch using the right tone and phrasing, as those are the only tools you have on the phone. It’s been a valuable asset in all my subsequent endeavors.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would iterate even more quickly, and use even more aggressive means to validate our assumptions. We knew from the beginning that it was important to iterate, but over the past year we learned how to learn even faster. I’d also avoid dealing with anyone but users–I’d eliminate most of the pointless meetings with investors (which we were too early for, anyway), and would focus more on building a good product.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Exercise. It helps clear the head and lets you take a more distant look at what you’re doing. I’ve always liked running because it’s a great opportunity to reflect on your work and get rid of nervous energy. My team and I have also started playing basketball a couple of times per week. Even though we never really played in Germany, we’ve found that it’s really important to have something that gets us away from our computers and allows us to let off steam. That’s especially important when your co-workers are also your friends—you can’t let your relationships be only about the work.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Believe it or not, I don’t really believe that there are big business ideas just waiting to get executed. You probably would have laughed at me if I’d told you the idea for Pinterest just three years ago. Even great ideas like Twitter need both great entrepreneurs and the right social and market conditions to succeed. However, I do believe in markets and trends that are waiting to be disrupted by well-executed products. I think the best thing any entrepreneur can do is dive into an industry he or she is passionate about, find a tiny loophole, build a great product for a small set of users and then move on from there.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I would improve nutritional education. We grow up in a society where people simply do not know how important good nutrition is or how bad sugar is for our health. Kids need to grow up with a better understanding of what good food is and how they can prepare healthy meals that help their bodies and brains. I don’t have a solution off the top of my head, but this needs to be fixed.
Tell us a secret.
When I feel guilty or bad about something, I start cleaning. For instance, if I’ve gone out and partied too hard, I’ll come back and start cleaning my apartment or office until I feel better. It’s one of the most effective stress-relief strategies.
What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?
- Fantastical. Most calendar apps are awful, but this one gets it right. It’s fast and simple.
- Cloud App provides fast screenshots and file sharing. I can’t live without it anymore.
- Hackpad is good for collaborative notes online. It’s a great tool from our batchmates at YC.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
There are a ton of books I really like and appreciated reading, but the one that comes back to me over and over again is Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede. It’s a book that was introduced to me by a professor during my undergrad in Germany, and it has stuck with me ever since. Basically it organizes cultural differences along five different dimensions. The author uses statistical experiments to show how people across different cultures behave differently in very specific and detailed ways. Over the last few years, I’ve lived in Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., so I’ve always had to deal with different people. Reading this book made me pay more attention to my own behavior and understand the behavior of others better.
What’s on your playlist?
Depending on my mood, you’ll find a crazy mix of things like Metronomy, Modeselektor (a fantastic, German electronic band), Ace of Base, Wu Lyf, OMD, Michael Jackson, The Police or even Pat Benatar.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
I mostly follow friends on Twitter, but here are a few favorites:
- @david is an evangelist at Soundcloud and a great entrepreneur who knows how to drive a community.
- @pmoe, associate at Seedcamp (the leading microfund in Europe), always has great advice on startups, especially in Europe.
- @yukari77 is a tech writer from Japan and is one of our favorite users.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
This is difficult to recall, because I laugh out loud literally every day at the office with my team.
Who is your hero?
My heroes change a lot depending on where my mind is and what phase of life I’m in. In high school, my hero was Kenny Anderson, who is a skateboarder with the most beautiful style ever. Later, my heroes were photographers like Alex Gaidouk or Terry Richardson. What ties these people together is that they make their passions part of their daily lives and don’t just settle for corporate jobs at big companies. I admire people who have the guts to make the right decisions for themselves, even though it means taking huge risks–people who just go for it, who move to Los Angeles to become actors, etc. If you can make your passion into your occupation, you’ll always be happy about working, and you’ll be a lot better off than others who aren’t so passionate.
What comes after Popset?
At the moment I hope that Popset is going to be what we’ll be working on for the next few years. It’s been a long and exciting journey up and to the right so far. However, there will be a time after Popset, and I will most likely jump right into the next project when that time comes. I have an immense passion for film and photography, so maybe I’ll pursue it on a more professional level. The bottom line, however, is that I love creating new products and see them grow, and I don’t think this will ever stop.
What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make to be an entrepreneur?
Ironically, now that I’m running my own photography startup, I don’t have time to take my own photos very much anymore. I’ve always loved photo and video editing; at one point I even considered doing it as a career. But since I got into the world of startups, there’s just no time. I hope I’ll be able to pick up these things up again in the near future.