Not all opportunities are created equal. Some opportunities will be great opportunities at bad times, and others are just terrible opportunities. For me, I was offered a founding engineering role at a breakout YC startup right after the acquisition of my company, and had to reject it because of my non-compete contracts. If you’re struggling with a tough decision or interested in hearing how I navigated through saying ‘no,’ feel free to read about my experience here: https://.calix.dev/blog/why-i-rejected-a-yc-startup
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Calix Huang.
Calix is a 16 year old software engineer with a passion for startups and consumer tech. He’s had 2 of his companies acquired, been featured on TechCrunch, Yahoo News, and Business Insider, and has built many other consumer startups from scratch. He is currently a product manager at Fiveable, has a variety of internships & fellowships in engineering, startups, and VC. He writes frequently for his blog sharing stories, insights, and experience.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I’ve grown up in a nice, supportive, and well-off family. Based in the Bay Area my whole life, I’ve always been surrounded by opportunities and resources, but taught with values to help me actually take advantage of them. Opportunities can present themselves, but they are fleeing, and don’t amount to anything unless you’re prepared to work hard and execute on them.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Trivalley CoderDojo is a nonprofit organization aiming to help teach kids aged 6–14 how to code through volunteering. I didn’t learn how to code from this club, but I participated as a mentor and a leader on behalf of a teen leadership council. It was really the platform I needed to grow my social and soft skills, and gave me opportunities to grow as a person. I was able to make presentations for each weekly session and teach all the students about a variety of hard and soft skills.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference is all about impact. Whether it’s 1 person or 1 million people, if you can positively change their life in any way, that’s making a difference. Mentors can create impact just as Fortune 500 CEOs can. My philosophy has stemmed from a passion for building things that people use and can draw value from, and I think that this holds true to how my work has made a difference.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I work in a cross-section between my startup Hours, and my acquiring company Fiveable. Though they’re different in many ways, they have a common goal: impacting as many students as we can in the best way possible. Hours aims to increase productivity, while Fiveable aims to create a social learning environment and community for high school students.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As a homeschooled student, I’ve seen the productivity rates of those switching to online school drop through the floor. Around mid-2020, I came across a super effective and under-used productivity technique, which I later used as significant inspiration to start Hours. It’s important that we help students acclimate to this new digital ecosystem, and our values at Hours strongly reflect that.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Discipline and hard work has been a value that my whole family has held as a standard. I’ve grown up in a family where it’s not uncommon to work on the weekends, and to go after what you want. I also competed in competitive sports for 8 years — junior olympics for swimming and national-level tennis. It’s normal to train for 4+ hours every day, and so chasing my dreams every day for 10+ hours was never uncommon.
While I personally had a different perspective with online schooling before the pandemic, having been homeschooled, I could see the challenges the transition presented to many students, particularly around staying disciplined and motivated. There’s a productivity technique already developed called Hours where students work one-on-one with an accountability partner for an hour-long interval. I used this as inspiration for developing the Hours platform and could see almost immediately that I was on to something. While the first version was quite scrappy, I eventually added a multiplayer study room option, a music feature, an editable tasks list, and a timer. Students just kept coming back — proving to me just how much a tool like this was needed. Hours ended up supporting more than 20,000 high school and college students across 130 countries before being acquired by Fiveable.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Learn by doing. Reference those who are smarter than you. I was in the same boat when I started my first company, and through many past failures and hardships, I took lessons from each and every single one of them to blossom into a smarter founder each time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One day while I was still working on Hours as a solo founder, I logged onto my live analytics platform and saw that there were 3x the normal amount of users online than usual. I was absolutely ecstatic and at the end of the day found out that the usage on Hours was 5x higher than normal. I found out the day after that Hours was organically featured on Morning Brew, the biggest email newsletter in the world with 2.5 million subscribers and owned by Business Insider.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When I was conducting a lot of personal cold emailing for Hours, I was often sent down long email chains. I was cold emailing high school teachers to see if they would be open to recommending Hours to their students as a tool to use with studying. One teacher referred me to another teacher, who referred me to the Head of Student Operations, who referred me to a teacher who ran student events, who referred me to the vice principal, who referred me to the principal, who ghosted me. It was less of a lesson, but more of a reminder that perseverance is a part of everyday life for a founder.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve had amazing mentors and advisors along the way. My mom has been a great supporter from start to finish, helping me with things I could never handle without prior experience or knowledge. I’ve had technical advisors, business-related advisors, and overall-life mentors to guide my journey in which I’m so thankful for.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
My mom has been my biggest supporter since day one. Specifically during the Hours-Fiveable acquisition, she helped me review every legal document and term involved with the transaction, advised me in crucial decisions, and negotiated on my behalf to make sure that the deal had a safe and positive outcome. Many things could’ve gone wrong without her guidance, and I’m so thankful for her help.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Education is meant to be a foundation for your career, and the booster you’ll need to develop on your path as a professional. The current school system is not optimized for this kind of career development, and though I could give a million examples of how it could be improved, the government will be very reluctant and slow to change for a variety of reasons. What modern students can do to compensate for this broken education system is to seek out alternative sources of knowledge like online courses and personal mentors. Only by looking outside of the default system can you produce extraordinary results.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Don’t get caught up in career hype, be genuine with your own interests. Great career paths come from great interests. Don’t shift your ventures to fit what field is popular, whether it’s AI, blockchain, etc. I wrote a blog post about this which I highly recommend reading to get more context: https://calix.dev/blog/career
- Your journey will not be a straight line. Different obstacles and events will pop up that will change the trajectory of your career path and you have to be willing to adapt. I never planned to get into entrepreneurship in general until I unintentionally started my first company Launch Tech LLC, and I took advantage of it the first moment I could.
- Be selective with your opportunities. Not all opportunities are created equal. Some opportunities will be great opportunities at bad times, and others are just terrible opportunities. For me, I was offered a founding engineering role at a breakout YC startup right after the acquisition of my company, and had to reject it because of my non-compete contracts. If you’re struggling with a tough decision or interested in hearing how I navigated through saying ‘no,’ feel free to read about my experience here: https://.calix.dev/blog/why-i-rejected-a-yc-startup
- It’s okay to feel lost in a career-sense. I’ve been feeling like this. Not having a specific goal and just exploring new fields and interests is completely normal. With the guidance of those around me, I’ve started to do more exploring into different opportunities and getting into new hobbies, which I’ve benefited from greatly.
- Be careful about burnout. It’s inevitable that when you spend a lot of time and energy on your work that you’ll get burnt out at some point. Being aware of when you’re burnt out and understanding how to recover from it is priceless.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Work hard. Stay patient. Be focused. Great things come with time and hard work. Consistent discipline to your craft along with the patience to see it through can blossom to spectacular outcomes, as long as you stay focused on that one thing.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a meal with Jeremy Lin. I’m no basketball player, but his story with Linsanity and all of his achievements prior and after has been such an inspiration for my work and journey.
How can our readers follow you online?
All of my important info is on my website at calix.dev, including my blog and my socials. My handle is @calixo888, and feel free to book a time to call with me! I’m always open to chat 🙂
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!