How I Became A Founder: Datasaur.ai’s Ivan Lee

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Lee serves as the Founder and CEO of Datasaur.ai. Datasaur builds data labeling software for ML teams working on NLP. After graduating from Stanford with a Computer Science degree, he has spent his career working in the machine learning, search and gaming industries. Lee’s driven by building cohesive teams and crafting technological breakthroughs into meaningful user experiences.

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Datasaur founder Ivan Lee.

Frederick Daso: When did you first gain interest in being a founder?

Ivan Lee: When I attended Stanford, I attended a few talks by startup founders and VCs. What surprised me most about these fireside chats was that these founders weren’t much older or much different from myself. They were other folks who liked to tinker and work on projects they enjoyed; when they wanted to pursue it full-time, they found support from the environment surrounding them. I was inspired by their stories and realized that if I ever wanted to pursue my ideas, there was an established ecosystem of other founders, mentors, and startup capital here in the Bay Area.

Daso: What were the essential experiences that helped you be in the position you are today?

Lee: I attended a relatively new and somewhat experimental high school. This meant that there were a few student clubs and associations. If we wanted to do something, we had to start it ourselves. Being forced to find the resources and people to build something you want early on in life was a crucial lesson in building my startups. Even though I was an introvert at the time, when I joined these groups, I found myself in leadership positions, which required more extroverted skills. I found myself adapting to fill the needs of my organizations. Over time, this helped build the confidence and leadership skills it took to recruit and motivate a team and utilize different skill sets to pursue a cause.

Daso: How did you prepare for yourself to become a founder?

Lee: I wish I had done more! There’s not much more reading or tutorial-watching you can do to prepare yourself for startup life. I made many, many mistakes along the way. I take the most painful mistakes and study them to see how I could have handled the situation differently and try to grow along that axis in the future.

Daso: Who were the critical individuals or groups that contributed to your professional success, and why?

Lee: As mentioned above, there’s no true guidebook to startup life. Part of the appeal is that it’s so open-ended and each journey is different (for you gamers out there, it’s the most open-world game possible). So what it boils down to is — what is your personal compass? How do you handle difficult, unforeseen obstacles? How do you tackle moral challenges? These little decisions in highly unstructured environments are what led me to where I am today and what molds the ever-evolving culture at Datasaur. Therefore, I would say that my parents prepared me the most. In their own ways, they helped build the foundation and decision-making framework I now apply to every situation, no matter how unexpected.

Daso: Were there any particular clubs at school that were excellent resources for breaking into your current field?

Lee: In school, I joined a program called the Mayfield Fellowship. Led by two remarkable professors Tom Byers and Tina Seelig, it accepted 12 students with engineering backgrounds and gave us a crash course in entrepreneurship. These days, similar lessons can be obtained online through resources like YCombinator’s Startup School. Going through the Mayfield program taught me the fundamentals of starting a business. For example, I learned what it was like to come up with a hypothesis then iterate on it by getting out of the building and talking to users to validate our idea. While my time at Stanford was beneficial to my career, I’m optimistic that many of the most valuable resources can be made accessible virtually.

Daso: What do you think stops most people from becoming a founder?

Lee: I’ve spoken to many people for whom being a founder is simply not a career path they have ever considered. They think there’s some magical gene for those who pursue the mythical startup path. But I’ve spoken to founders of every flavor — humble introverts to bombastic braggarts. There’s no one personality trait or path to start your own company. It’s more of a life decision.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to note that this entrepreneurship is, more often than not, a remarkably privileged decision. I’m fortunate to have chosen to work in AI and engineering space where there is a “safety cushion” should things not pan out. I’m also incredibly lucky to have landed up here in the Bay Area with folks in my direct network who have chosen to believe in and fund my wacky ideas. “Entrepreneur” is a fancy term often bestowed about tech founders in California; meanwhile, starting your own business is the most common career path in many countries around the world. So I enjoy my “founder” life, but I would also say it is not as legendary as the media sometimes portrays.

Daso: Looking back, would you change anything about your professional path?

Lee: There have been high highs and (very) low lows, but I have the luxury of looking back and connecting the dots. No, I wouldn’t change anything.

I started my career by jumping headfirst into a startup. I had to try and figure out what worked for my team and me. When Yahoo acquired us, I had the opportunity to learn how “professionals” handle the same decisions and processes. I even went through the Associate Product Managers program as a professional course on how to be a product manager. I agreed with some methods, but I preferred my way of doing things for others. I enjoyed this dichotomy of “figuring things out for myself” vs. “learning from the experts.” I recently spent time at Apple to learn how the most successful company in the world does things, but now I’m back to happily forging my path.

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If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out my other work on LinkedIn and my personal website, frederickdaso.com. Follow me on Twitter @fredsoda, on Medium @fredsoda, and on Instagram @fred_soda.

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Forbes Under 30 Contributor, 2016 LinkedIn Top Voice, Venture Fellow at Rough Draft Ventures

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