Carving One’s Own Path
Eytan Elbaz is a founding member of applied Semantics, the company that created AdSense. In 2003, the startup was sold to Google for $102 million and contributed technology towards Google AdSense. For the next five years, Elbaz stayed on at Google as head of Domain Channel, increasing its revenues to more than $600 million annually. Recently, Elbaz returned to the startup world, raising angel funding from companies like Windsor Media, Lerer Ventures, and TechStars, to put towards a his latest endeavor, a new company called Scopely. In parallel with his technical career, Elbaz also enjoys producing short films and comedy sketches. Elbaz lives in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s in Computer Science and Engineering in 1995.
You’ve had some great experience with starting your own company. I imagine it’s very hard work to get established. For students just starting off and hoping to take the start-up route, what are some things they should keep in mind?
It’s very important to keep an open mind about your business and not to get too attached to any single idea. Good ideas will come at you a couple times a week, but executing on any idea well takes an enormous amount of discipline. At Applied Semantics, we pivoted about four times in one year before we finally reached a business idea that could generate any significant revenue. Be nimble and act quickly and decisively in your pursuit of the customer.
Though starting a company presents a lot of risks and unknowns, what makes the challenge exciting to you?
We live in a very exciting time because the capital required to start a business is much less than it was just ten years ago, and significantly less than it required twenty years ago (inflation adjusted, of course). All you really need is an idea, some code, a shared server, and some bandwidth, and your can start distributing your application or Web site to millions of users. This great opportunity is what also increases the risks associated with what many intuitively view is stable. For example, Netflix destroyed Blockbuster in a matter of a few years because this economy allows for more disruption. Corporate jobs at Blockbuster felt stable at one point, but in reality, the new opportunities made these jobs much more risky. Challenging the norm, and disrupting industries is fun and has the potential to bring you more stability.
What was the hardest part about starting your own company?
The hardest part for me was the emotional toll the roller coaster ride took. Your own company is not just a job; it consumes your whole life. We were less than a month away from running out of money three separate times. We had to lay off a few of my friends, including a close classmate from UCLA. We had to deal with lawsuits. When I was 23, and working for a 10,000 person company, I didn’t lose sleep when we had several unprofitable quarters. That all changes when everything and everybody is depending on you and your partners.
I understand you have a new start-up called Scopely. What qualities do you look for in your work force? Beyond technical skills, what characteristics are important?
The two most important characteristics I look for are motivation and intelligence. I actually don’t consider experience to be too important. A hardworking, smart person can figure out any non-specialized job in any industry in just a few months. Team building is fun. You are putting together your family for the next three or four years.
I have read that you have a passion for film making. For those thinking of making a transition outside of engineering, what advice would you give them? Does the engineering degree or do engineering skills translate well to other types of careers?
Film making is a fun hobby for me. Actually, making films taught me something important about being an engineer, and that is, I actually like being a technical person working on technical problems. As I ventured into the films, it reminded me why I went into technology in the first place. From my point of view, it’s the most fascinating field, where all the most exciting innovation is happening.
Considering your education and experience at UCLA Engineering, how do you think it’s contributed to your
success? What about the things you’ve learned here has stayed with you in your career?
At college, I learned that you need to carve your own path, recognize your unique opportunities, and take
advantage of whatever tools and resources you can find. The degree is the minimum requirement; everything else that you figure out along the way is what will get you far. Learn to work well with others. As far as coursework, databases and statistics are things I still use today.