Paul Katsen BSGE 2010, Finance Founder, Blockspring

Cristy Gillespie
10/7/2014

Recently, we spoke with Illinois Business Consulting alumnus Paul Katsen. His startup www.blockspring.com was accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator in the Silicon Valley.

We asked Paul about his time at Illinois and how he got to where he is today.

How did you decide on pursuing both engineering and finance?

There are two interesting stories here. One is how to pick a major without knowing the job you want. The other is how to get around red tape.

Majors are a bit weird. You can look at a major as a path to a job, or as a collection of topics you want to learn about. If you want to be a civil engineer, the path to that job is probably getting a civil engineering major. The sad truth is I spent all of college, and most of post-college, having no idea what job I really wanted. Accordingly, I looked at majors through the second lens, as a collection of topics I wanted to learn about.

For me, choosing a major was a breadth-first search for interesting topics. I liked math and physics going into college, so one obvious path was to go into engineering. I wasn’t much of a fan of a few other topics, so I quickly eliminated them (and their associated majors) from my search.

If you know you want to be a civil engineer, specialization is powerful. Since I had no idea what job I wanted, I knew I had to keep my options open. By the end of sophomore year I whittled my interests down to three majors: engineering, finance, and music. I knew given the hours requirements I could only do two out of the three, so I chose engineering and finance because they left the maximum amount of job opportunities open given the topics I enjoyed most. So I guess the lesson is if you know what job you want, finding a major is easy. If you don’t, explore a bunch of topics and focus on the ones that you enjoy and that leave doors open for jobs. Personally, I also think specialization too early is dangerous to how people develop, but that’s another topic.

Pursuing engineering and finance also came with a red tape problem. When I was in school, you weren’t allowed to be in the engineering and business colleges at once. Doing both majors was technically impossible. So I had to hack the system. And doing so taught me an extremely valuable lesson: always start without asking permission.

I struck a deal with an amazing engineering dean to let me continue taking engineering classes for my major even though I would officially transfer into the business college. The only reason he said yes is because I was already taking and succeeding with a full workload of engineering and business classes. I was already doing well on the path, so there was a high likelihood I would still graduate as an engineer. There was little risk for him to say yes.

It turns out this is an extremely powerful trick that works in the real world too. If you want to get promoted to manager, start doing the job of a manager as an analyst. If you want to sell software to a company, show them that their employees are already using it. Always start without permission.

How did you get involved with Illinois Business Consulting? Tell us about your experience.

Consulting sounded really intriguing—a job where you come with crazy ideas to solve other peoples’ problems? Sign me up. It also seemed to be a great mix of engineering and business. And finally, it seemed to be great opportunity to solve real problems and get real work experience. So I applied to IBC.

My first project was incredible. The team hit it off. The problem was interesting. And Ron Watkins was the man. I hadn’t done anything like it. Classes always provided structure and you knew there was a right answer; with IBC projects, we were given a blank slate. We had to identify the problem, create structure, and find a solution—all while learning how to work in teams and deal with clients.

IBC also gave me a plethora of experiences to use during interviews. It’s a lot easier to get a consulting job if you’re already succeeding in a *pseudo* consulting job. You learn the language, the thought process, and the basic skills. You get to start without permission.

But the truth is I highly recommend IBC for undergrad or grad students, regardless of whether or not they’ll end up doing consulting. It’s a unique experience that most schools don’t have. It preps you for the real world.

How did the concept for Blockspring originate?

One night, my co-founder and I came to a crazy revelation: no one cares about code.

How is that possible? Coders make a lot of money. Tech companies are worth a lot of money. It’s counterintuitive but true - no one cares about code. Code is just text. The only thing that really matters is what code does. It’s functionality.

There are many sites that let you share and discover raw code (like GitHub), but it takes effort to use the code you find. Imagine if a company came along and organized all the world’s code into easy to use functionality. That’s Blockspring! We let you share and discover powerful functions - visualizations, algorithms, working with databases, finding data, transforming data. It’s enormously exciting.

How did you make the connection and get accepted into Y Combinator?

Connections don’t work with YC. YC is in the business of helping entrepreneurs solve really big problems in the world. From my perspective, you need to do three things to get into YC: 1) work on a big problem, 2) find indicators that you’re making something people want as a solution to that problem, and 3) work really hard.

It’s easy to measure whether you’re working hard at a problem. The other two questions are non-trivial. The YC application is actually a very good way to self-reflect, so I advise everyone working on an idea, whether they want to do YC or not, to at least fill out the application (http://www.ycombinator.com/apply/).

What’s been the most exciting aspect of your time at Y Combinator?

This summer was easily been the most exciting summer of my life, for a few reasons:

· First, I got married. Best thing ever.
· Second, my good friend and former University of Illinois roommate joined us at Blockspring.
· And third, YC worked for us. In fact, it couldn’t have worked better.

Here’s why: The YC partners are the only people I’ve met who aren’t trapped in the present. Imagine you just finished writing the first page of a novel. If you ask someone for feedback, they’ll likely help you edit the grammar on that page or maybe even come up with an idea for the rest of the chapter. If you show that page to a YC partner, they’ll immediately start racing through all the possibilities for where the entire story could go. It’s unbridled optimism.

Now mix big problems, unique solutions, hard work, and that unbridled optimism, and you get YC. It’s super exciting—my only regret was not applying earlier. I should’ve applied every single semester of college.

What advice would you give students who are thinking about launching a startup?

This is a really important question. The first thing to realize is that a startup is simply a commercialized solution to a problem. You can solve problems without making them a business. And there are two types of problems to solve - someone else’s or your own.

Paul Graham tells students not to start startups in his post: http://paulgraham.com/before.html. He says you should explore the world, grow, and be exposed to more problems. Don’t search for problems you don’t understand solely to start a startup. You’ll always be able to do a startup when you’re older.

Generally that sounds right. But if you have problems in your life right now, solve them. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but you’d be surprised how many people just live with the problems they have.

Then it’s up to you whether you want to dedicate a few years of your life to making something a business. There are probably millions of people in this huge world with the exact same problem you have. The internet makes it pretty easy to find them. And if you can solve your problem in a scalable way – with technology – and the people you’re solving this problem for have money, a business might emerge. But it’s up to you whether or not to pursue.

The question is if you want to spend your 20’s solving problems when you could be exploring the world and having fun. You could be doing things that Mark Zuckerberg, even with his billions of dollars, can’t do because he’s stuck to Facebook. That’s a personal question for you.

Regardless, if your life is problem-free, bravo. If not, hack solutions to your own problems and apply to YC.

What was your favorite memory during your time at Illinois?

My 4 years at Illinois were perfect. But my favorite memory was meeting my wife at Joe’s.