When I walked onto the Princeton campus eight years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. It didn’t feel right to step inside the perfect Gothic architecture in my flip flops and shorts. On my application, I promised to major in molecular biology, but after sitting behind a microscope for year years in high school, cells and molecules were the last thing on my mind. I knew I wanted to empower others in some way and decided that I could figure it out over the next four years.
To put my story in perspective, I was born in Ukraine and moved to Louisiana when I was nine. I then spent time in Missouri, Texas, and Ohio before going off to Princeton. Growing up in America, I constantly felt lucky compared to my friends in Ukraine. In the summers, as I was dissecting smelly frogs or learning to play baseball, my best friend from first grade in Ukraine would be packing boxes at a factory. It seemed strange that although he was smarter than me, had grown up in my building, and went to the same school as me, I was the one getting access to cool opportunities. It felt unfair. And I couldn't solve this unfairness by sitting in a lab all day.
Since graduating from Princeton, my team at Piper and I have created a product and a company to inspire the next generation of inventors and creators. Our first product is a computer kit that kids build and program themselves through the game of Minecraft. We have shipped tens of thousands of units worldwide, attracted over $10 million in venture funding and gotten the endorsement of Steve Wozniak. Looking back, my time at Princeton helped me get to where I am today, but in looking back, three things in particular stand out as especially important. Whether you want to start a company or make an impact in a different way, I think keeping these learnings in mind will help.
1. Find your Champion
Freshman year, after missing the early Saturday bus to go to Six Flags with my friends, my consolation prize was to apply for a competitive journalism class. Somehow I got in and the class became my favorite during my time at Princeton. Professor Evan Thomas was the former editor of Newsweek and had spent his entire life as a journalist and biographer. As a well-known public figure, he was unexpectedly down-to-earth and supportive of my amateur writing. For reasons still unknown to me, he was enthralled by stories of my childhood in Ukraine, my disappointing Saturday night forays into The Tiger Inn, and a long exposé of my roommate’s transition from pious Christian to enlightened atheist. The best part of the class was our weekly check-ins. We would talk about class and writing, but most importantly I would tell him about my crazy side projects. One was a website for Princeton students to debate with professors and then go to dinner with them to continue the discussion offline. Endorsements for this idea from my roommates didn't feel very serious, and endorsements from my mom were nonexistent. So when Evan Thomas said he would be the first professor to participate on the platform, it was a huge vote of confidence that made me finally commit to building the site and launching it. I realized later that it was launching this first project that gave me the confidence to pursue more ambitious plans with Piper. It is critical to have someone you respect cheering and rooting for you.
2. Learn the right lessons
I met extraordinary people at Princeton. My best friend and freshman roommate Jared Griffin was a writer and poet. My roommate junior year, Shotaro ("Macky") Makisumi, held the world record for solving the Rubik’s cube. A hallmate, Eddie Choi, published several textbooks on economics while a sophomore. Finally, a grad student friend and mentor, Dima Krotov, was the youngest person to be admitted to the Institute for Advanced Study for his postdoc work. And there are many other acquaintances who were Olympic athletes, actors, singers, and experts in their fields. At first I was intimidated by the talent oozing out of every person I met. Later I became incensed that I didn’t have acapella and tennis training from the age of five. It just didn’t seem fair.
Looking back, I realized that it’s easy to think of talented people as “the other.” Yet all these friends were fundamentally no different from me. They had the same interests, fears, and wants, and what allowed them to be at the top of their fields was a deep interest in what they were doing. A contagious enthusiasm. They were so curious and obsessed with the idea they were pursuing that they ended up simply being the best. The lesson I learned was that in order to be the best, I should find the thing for which I had a deep enough interest that I would obsess over it and think about it endlessly. Your focus shouldn’t be on how successful others are, but on finding the object of your obsession. And a continued deep interest will yield world class results.
3. Expand your mental horizons
I traveled abroad three times during Princeton. On a Global Seminar in China I learned about why the economy accelerated so quickly in the last few decades and how manufacturing was driving China’s growth. I also became intimately familiar with the people, customs, and traditions of our Chinese professors and peers. All this knowledge later gave us an advantage when we decided to source components and manufacture our products in China.
During a semester abroad in Oxford, I experienced the individualized tutorial system that allowed for a more tailored approach to learning. By spending less time in the classroom, I spent more time doing projects, and met Mihran Vardanyan, an astrophysicist who helped me build some early prototypes of the pedal-powered game controller. Mihran joined us at Piper two years ago and has been instrumental in optimizing our sales and marketing processes using his expertise with big data and machine learning.
On a summer trip to Ghana I created a game-based curriculum to teach kids about malaria prevention. I was testing whether a game-based approach would allow the kids to better retain the information and remain engaged. Four weeks into the study I became deathly ill and had to be evacuated by plane from the rural village I was in. Recovering in an isolation ward in Paris made me realize that in order to have a more measurable impact, I would need to use technology. When I returned, I learned programming and this eventually led to the idea for Piper.
Looking back, these are the three ideas that helped shape my experience and thinking and eventually led me down the path I am on today. I believe that no matter your pursuit, having a supportive network, learning the right lessons to help you improve, and constantly improving your perspective and thinking on the situation will yield the best results.
Mark Pavlyukovskyy ’13 is the Founder of Piper Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.