It turns out, you don’t have to drop out of school to join the most famous “startup school for dropouts” in the Valley, the Thiel Fellowship.
You just have to be young and exceptional.
Zachary Hamed is certainly that.
The Thiel Fellowship is a startup accelerator program founded by billionaire investor Peter Thiel that encourages brilliant kids to leave school and launch tech businesses instead.
But Hamed finished his computer science degree at Harvard before he did the Thiel Fellowship, graduating high school at age 17 and breezing through Harvard in three and a half years.
Hamed was part of the 2013 Thiel Fellowship class. And today, at the ripe age of 21, his NYC-based startup Bowery just landed its first venture investment $US1.5 million from Google Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, and others.
Hamed launched Bowery with two young co-founders David Byrd also 21, previously an intern at Medium, and Steve Kaliski, 24, a former engineer at Palantir via Palantir’s acquisition of Poptip.
Word on the street is that Bowery is on track to become “another Docker,” meaning a fast-growing startup that software developers love and bring into work.
Bowery makes a tool so obvious you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. It lets developers load all the tools they need to write and test software on any PC in about 30 seconds. It eliminates the huge amount of troubleshooting they typically have to do to get set up.
The idea came from the cofounders’ own experience.
“I tried to install Ruby on Rails [a software language] on my Mac like 18 times, and every time I tried, I wanted to throw my Mac out the window. It was incredibly frustrating,” Hamed tells us.
Other software engineers agree. The three young founders are already attracting some interesting talent to work with them. They just snared Mitch Pirtle.
Pirtle is best known as the creator of the open source project Joomla that has millions of users worldwide. Joomla is a website creation tool that competes with WordPress and Drupal and has a loyal band of developers. Pirtle was working for MongoDB before joining Bowery.
And Bowery also nabbed Francesca Krihely from Mongo, too, former community manager working with all of MongoDB’s developers.
This startup is worth watching for the tech itself.
But Hamed’s story is equally awesome.
How a college grad got a Thiel Fellowship
The Thiel Fellowship has become one of the most prestigious alternatives to going to college — in some cases, even to finishing high school. Each year 20 kids are accepted into the program, where they are mentored by some of the brightest minds in the Valley. Then they get $US100,000 to work on their own startups, and they’re off.
With only 20 young people accepted, all under 20 years old, competition to get in is incredibly fierce.
In Hamed’s case, he doesn’t fit the standard drop-out profile.
“The public face is that everyone’s a dropout and that’s the main goal of the program. But it isn’t. It allows anyone under 20 to continue education with/without college,” Hamed says.
He’s an advocate of college. “I took classes that formed my thinking around software development, design, education, around government, political science.”
He turned the fellowship’s heads for two reasons. He was the first freshman to win Harvard’s prestigious student business plan competition, he says.
That experience helped him get a summer’s internship at hedge fund Allen & Co, known for putting together the prestigious Sun Valley Conference. That’s an invite-only show where the Valley’s who-who descend on Idaho.
And that experience caused him to work with his friend at Harvard Peter Boyce. Boyce was setting up a venture capital fund for Harvard students called Rough Draft Ventures, an offshoot of venture firm General Catalyst Partners.
“I started that with a friend of mine in school. We eventually have done at least 30 investments and those companies have gone on raise hundreds of millions in investment,” he describes.
The idea was to get students seed money, from $US1,000 to $US25,000 to buy computers, or pay for other startup costs.
“We went to General Catalyst and said. ‘Boston is such a unique student ecosystem, no one is capitalising on that providing investments they need,'” he describes. General Catalyst agreed and the fund was launched.
The students are just advisors. They don’t get a stake in any of the companies they fund. But Hamed learned a lot about the venture world, which came in handy when raising a round for Bowery.
Rough Draft Ventures is still going strong today, with Boyce still involved and a new crop of students leading it.
The 10x engineer
Hamed was also helped by doing other internships in the Valley, including one working with Aza Raskin at Jawbone. Raskin has played a huge part in creating some of thecoolest stuff on the internet likebrowsers, streaming music, and health tech.
Raskin talked a lot about the “10x engineer,” those mythical engineers that are so talented and efficient, they are 10 times more productive than mere mortal engineers.
While in San Francisco working at Jawbone, Hamed met his co-founders and the three of them wanted to make all engineers into 10x-ers.
With Bowery, they are off to a good start.