Steven Pu

Founder of of Taraxa and Marinate

Steven Pu is the founder and CEO of Taraxa and Marinate. He is a serial entrepreneur in IoT and mobile health, and a former associate partner in digital strategy at Monitor Deloitte. He holds a B.S. and M.S in EE from Stanford University.

Where did the idea for Taraxa come from?

Having consulted for many of the world’s Fortune 100 multinationals, I experienced first hand how a large, multilayered, centrally managed organization could fail to innovate and execute in today’s rapidly changing market environment. Driven by ever-advancing technology and globalization, our world will only change faster, and with our world economy increasingly driven by ever-bulging enterprises, we’re simply not adapting fast enough to the complexity.

This is what drove me to seek innovative solutions in how we could get the best of both worlds: the rapid innovative response rates of decentralized, autonomous units of production, and the focused coordination of a central governing body. Taraxa is the first piece of the puzzle, a technology that facilitates the trustless coordination between entities. To begin deploying this technology, we developed Marinate, a unique platform that enables users to easily capture business commitments between parties onto a tamper-proof audit log, all without leaving their familiar tools such as email or sms.

I see our products and technologies as taking part in the first step to help enterprises everywhere to scale up without losing their innovative agility. It is a very exciting time!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

We’re currently knee-deep in product development mode, so my days tend to be more output-driven.

My typical day involves writing requirements and mockups for our applications, editing articles with our marketing team, and doing primary and secondary research with potential customers to understand their pain points and get feedback on our current prototype. I also take meetings during the day with our blockchain infrastructure team, marketing teams in the US / Japan / China, and our application late at night (they’re based in Asia). I typically wake up at around noon and go to sleep at around 4am.

I also manage to spend time with my kids and manage to eat something throughout the day, which all have become pretty convenient now that we’re all working from home – one of the few perks of these crazy times.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I always start with a problem distilled from my life and work experiences, something that I have validated repeatedly to be real, endemic, and one that I personally can have an impact upon. Suffice to say very few problems survive this process.

The second step is to find others who also believe in and care about the problem. This is to find potential collaborators who join me in the journey to solve the problem, as large problems inevitably require innovation and hardwork, and definitely cannot be done alone.

If I’m lucky enough to find a few other talented people who also share my vision and commitment, then the third step to try and hash out potential solutions, and validate them through the simplest & cheapest possible ways to gauge whether or not we’re the right people to tackle the problem.

If the idea is small, bootstrap execute it, iterate and see what happens. If the idea is really big, I’ll think about if this is something I’m ready to dedicate a solid chunk of my life working on – giving up whatever I’m currently working on in the process, and then execute accordingly.

What’s one trend that excites you?

An increasingly decentralized workforce around the world.

While consistent macro forces such as globalization are driving this trend, two unique incidents in recent history accelerated it. The financial crisis in 2008 married contractual work and technology and gave a huge boost to the gig economy, an employment pattern which for the first time in history persisted even after the economy has recovered. We’re in the midst of the COVID-19 virus of 2019, which I believe will further structurally decentralize the workforce. These drivers will sharpen the need (and pains) of workers and enterprises to seek solutions that will enable them to scale in a decentralized manner, and create a new way to structure our economic activities.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Humility is of critical importance for the modern entrepreneur, a fact that I constantly remind myself. Founders are often used to making quick decisions that, often stochastically, have brought them to a semi-successful (or non-failing) state. This could often be mistaken for ingenuity or foresight, one that is extremely counterproductive when a project scales and becomes order of magnitudes more complex. To be productive and not stand in the way of good ideas from data, feedback, or other team member’s experience, I often start with the position that my first (and second, third maybe) instinct is wrong.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Talk less and listen more, you just might learn something!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Validate, validate, then validate again with hard data. Then constantly re-validate. The world is always more complex and changes faster than you expect, don’t get caught off guard with wrong or outdated assumptions.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Taking a few steps beyond observing customer behavior and really understanding the underlying drivers. This will help not only serve any given customers better, but it also helps to construct a foundation of generalized first principles, which often leads to new and better solutions.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In one of my earlier startups, I undertook a project simply because a fund gave us money to do it, without any semblance of a product-market fit. The lesson learned was that capital is not market validation. As to how I overcame it, please see the section on “how I bring ideas to life”.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I’m going to cheat a bit and say it’s a monthly $20 subscription for KiwiCo Kit, each comes with wonderfully designed projects that I can build along and talk about with my kids.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Trello. It is the “least painful” of collaboration tools.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by professor Ezra Vogel. It is a highly accurate (extremely rare among English publications) account and analysis of how China transformed itself from an impoverished third world country into the second largest economy in the world.

I am recommending this book because it is a rare glimpse into a macro-scale outlier event. As an entrepreneur, I am keenly aware that any successful startup is an outlier, and I’m therefore fascinated by similar outliers. Hopefully the community would enjoy it as well.

What is your favorite quote?

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Dunstable, it’s simply that I don’t trust you.” ― P. G. Wodehouse

Having developed decentralized systems for years has given me a new appreciation for the nature of trust, or rather, mistrust. It would seem that most mistrust arises not from ill repute, but from systematic complexity that defy comprehension. In a sense, mistrust is manufactured, and therefore technology can deconstruct it.

Key Learnings:

  • Draw ideas from your own experience and over-validate your assumptions
  • Capital is not validation
  • Be humble
  • Decentralized work is here to stay and we need better tools to help dealing with the complexity (and mistrust) that comes with it
  • Spend more time with your kids, for they see the world as the truly wondrous place that it is