Suzanne Xie, AB’06, steals the show at a tech talk.
Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian was energetic, personable, and polished during his presentation on an icy Wednesday in February. Sponsored by EnvisionDo, a business innovation RSO, Ohanian came to Chicago Booth as a stop on his tour to talk up Internet entrepreneurship and promote his book Without Their Permission. The talk was a bit of a spectacle (a T-shirt cannon was involved), but Suzanne Xie, AB’06, elicited the biggest laugh of the event. After his presentation, Ohanian invited Xie, cofounder of start-ups like Weardrobe, Lollihop, and Hullabalu (in which Ohanian is an investor), onstage. He started off by asking: “What was your favorite place to go drinking while you were here?” “The Reg,” Xie answered, to loud laughs from the crowd. She then had to explain to Ohanian that “The Reg” is not the name of a bar. Ohanian then interviewed Xie about her journey from UChicago to Silicon Valley, with the primary takeaways being: Small closets are the mother of invention: Xie got the idea for her first start-up, the fashion site Weardrobe, while living in Max Palevsky Residential Commons. “The closets are tiny in Max P. I’m really organized, so I had a spreadsheet of every single item in my closet organized by color and season and brand, and I used to do pivot tables by the thousand. I showed that to a couple of friends and they said, ‘Maybe other girls would want this.’” Use your old skills and connections: After graduation, Xie spent two years working for Goldman Sachs before quitting to make a go at tech entrepreneurship. “The good thing about finance is that you get really good at making [PowerPoint] decks. I was pitching my family with a 40-page deck. Eventually I reached out to my finance friends.” Her friends were generous, partially out of pity for Xie, who was couch surfing in Brooklyn at that point. “I started getting $10,000 chunks, and we ended up raising $80,000.” Trust your gut: Xie and her partner Richard Tong eventually started shopping the site around and were given a “really bad” offer from Like.com (which has since been acquired by Google.) That same week, she was invited to pitch Weardrobe at the South by Southwest tech conference. After asking Like.com if she and Tong could weigh their options, the company replied, “Nope. The offer holds for a week. If you go [to Austin], you’re making a mistake. Good luck.” Xie and Tong eventually won the conference’s Accelerator competition for start-ups. Five months later, Like.com “gave us a real offer and that time was the right time to sell the company. Looking back, it sounds like it makes sense and is linear but at the time we had no idea what we were doing.” Figure out what you really want: Xie is now working on the children’s storytelling app Hullabalu, which she says is doing well. “After launching products a couple of times, you ask what’s getting you up in the morning, what makes you want to put this product out there?” After observing the “really generic” characters for kids she saw in today’s media, Xie reflected on how much she loved and felt influenced by fictional characters from her childhood (Star Trek and Lord of the Rings being favorites). She thought, “There has to be something better.” What a CEO is for: “To take out the garbage.” The way Xie sees it, the CEO of a company is “in the service industry. It’s very much thinking about the product you’re creating, which everyone has their hands on. It’s impossible for me to be up top just managing things.” Starting now is better than starting later: “Thinking back on my college days, some of my best experiences were the really humble times. You can face a lot more rejection when you’re younger. It goes really quickly, since you get rejected a lot, and from every single rejection you can learn so much more.” What’s great about a start-up: “It’s kind of creating your own world. Once you get to that office, you’re the one who designed that office, and you get to work with people you picked to work with.”