What I hope to do – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 2 of 3)

What is the most amazing, delightful, life-changing product, service or experience you can think of?

Take your time…

Palouse Falls

The Life-Changing Product

I believe there is nothing more satisfying or delightful than to know the vast riches of God’s love for you. It heals wounds no hands or words can touch. It produces overflowing joy that never grows old. It brings peace that overcomes the darkest of fears and washes away all anxiety. It is a mouthwatering foretaste of the glory of God’s kingdom. Nothing can compare with it.

I came to this conviction following a childhood of relentless achievement and striving to impress others. The only way I knew to affirm my worth was to earn people’s admiration and affection by exceeding their expectations. Exhausted from living this way, I found myself in a double of life of outward excellence and inward emptiness. I turned to things like games and pornography to dull the pain and satisfy my craving to be loved, but ended up in a cycle of guilt, shame and worthlessness instead.

Then, amidst my helplessness, I experienced the power of God.

Out of the blue, a friend from middle school contacted me on AOL instant messenger sharing his struggles with addiction and how God set him free. He did not know what I was going through, but God used his vulnerability to give me hope and that evening I began to experience a season of grace and freedom like I had never known before.

This grace enabled me to come clean with my family and prepared me to understand how Jesus’ death in my place and resurrection had the power to transform my life.  Though I heard the message growing up, it was at a conference later that year when I finally experienced the truth that in spite of all I had done wrong, all I failed to do, all expectations I failed to meet and all the filth accumulated in my life God accepted me, loved me and gave his Son to die for me. I did not need to win his approval or impress him, but was simply and completely loved by him as demonstrated on the Cross and attested to by the Spirit.

This realization transformed my exhausted drivenness into immensely productive contentment. It healed my soul so that I no longer medicated pain with porn. It moved my heart to ceaseless praise. My self-absorbed personality turned outward in genuine love and generosity. This experience and others like it have led me to conclude that the knowledge of God’s love in Jesus Christ is the central need of all people. It is the most magical, revolutionary, life-changing “product” there is and it is one we need continually.

The Mission

So here is what I hope to do: I hope to help people experience the power of God’s love for them through technology entrepreneurship for the gospel.

  • Technology – Instead of accepting the status quo, we invent and simplify solutions to problems. We constantly discover new ways of doing things, cultivating the best ideas into real products and services.
  • Entrepreneurship – We take responsibility for delivering value to real people in a sustainable and profitable manner. We iterate, learn, risk and suffer whatever it takes to fulfill the mission.
  • Gospel – We measure ourselves by the values of God’s kingdom and shape what we create accordingly. We know the solutions we deliver cannot substitute for God, but trust that all good things we make can help people hope in, enjoy and obey Him.

Let me share two specific examples of pursuing this mission.

First, in Scripture, we see people praying that others would have the strength to know the greatness of God’s love towards them. We also see examples of sharing the gospel with others. Unfortunately, many of us are so busy with our own lives and problems there is little temporal or mental capacity for praying for others and cultivating relationships outside of our existing circle. Both we and others miss out on the joy. Ceaseless is an initial attempt to solve this problem by bringing to remembrance people to pray for.

Second, preaching and teaching are common means God uses to help people experience his love–but what if people cannot hear the message in their language? Or what if churches are so segregated by language or ethnicity that the experience is incongruous with the message? The Synchronous Presentation Framework is a prototype solution for this problem used each week at my church.

Admittedly, technology is no substitute for the work of God in people’s hearts, but it should be employed where it can make a difference.

The Vision

The happiest investor is one who sees a great return on investment not only for himself, but for everyone served by his capital. The happiest laborer is one who is rewarded for the fruit of his labor and is satisfied that it made a difference. The happiest customer is the one whose greatest needs and desires have been met beyond what they ever imagined. I hope the interests of all three can be aligned in the service of God’s kingdom.

I dream of a day when you can visit any church and hear the gospel in your heart language and experience it’s power lived out in the community. I dream of a day when every person on earth is personally prayed for by Christians and experiences the difference it makes. I dream of a movement of investors, laborers and customers who together know the riches of God’s love and thereby bless the world at large with the products of their just and fruitful collaboration.

I suppose I dream of the kingdom of God. What’s your dream?

venture calvinist
definitions
  1. someone compelled by the love of God to embark on risky adventures for the sake of the gospel because he/she loves others and trusts in God’s sovereign grace.
  2. a “speculator” who makes themselves and all they possess available for innovative projects that magnify the supreme worth of Christ and bless the world at large because they trust in God’s sovereign grace.
  3. a silly pun on venture capitalism which allocates money to high risk/high reward opportunities frequently in the technology industry.

See also: Why I Left Amazon – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 1 of 3)

Next: The Journey of Faith (Part 3).

Why I left Amazon – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 1 of 3)

In his commencement speech at Princeton renowned entrepreneur Jeff Bezos challenged the graduating students:

  • How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
  • Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
  • Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
  • Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

These were convicting questions after working for three years at Amazon (affiliate link). Before joining, I wanted to start a company based on my research in automatic language translation. I competed in business plan competitions, vigorously working to turn ideas into products that could help people, but as my degree came to a close, so did the doors of opportunity.

Dejected, I submitted resumes to recruiters at career fairs and despite interviews and offers found myself in deep depression. Through my parents’ comfort and counsel I eventually came to terms with the death of my dream and changed my ambition to simply serve God faithfully where ever he sent me.

That place turned out to be Amazon and it was an incredible blessing.

What I learned at Amazon

Working closely with world-class engineers motivated me to become skillful enough to scale up and productionize any idea. I learned that things take time. I learned the importance of figuring out the right thing to build instead of building as an end in itself (balanced with a bias for action). I learned how to recruit and how to work with and lead a team. I gained a treasured community of Christians at Amazon, and organized events to discuss the Theology of Technology and to compare Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. I loved my team and enjoyed a comfortable income with which I could bless others.

But on a lonely May Friday night, everything changed. The dream came back.

The Adventure Begins

Exhausted after working late, I plopped on my bed and tried to take a nap. But instead of dozing off, I felt wide awake and it seemed like the Lord said to me:

“Chris, I want you to leave your job and devote your attention to the purpose to which I have called you and trust me to provide for you”.

I wasn’t sure. So I talked with family and friends who expressed concerns for my welfare, but nothing that led me to doubt the call. It seemed in line with Scripture since it was calling me to trust in God and to holiness.  After a period of discernment, I told my manager of my intention to leave and agreed to stay until the completion of the big project my team was working on.

In the ensuing months, my heart sank like a teabag in an eco cup. Self-doubt, fear of failure, attachment to my team, my salary and my identity as an Amazonian, fear of being alone, of being put to shame and looking crazy for doing this without being “ready” or because “God told me to”, hearing about competition, hearing cautions about making money in the faith+tech space, and innumerable other anxieties plagued me.

The Lingering Question

Some of the hardest conversations were with people who recommended that I do things on the side until I had something solid. It was common sense, but I felt speechless because I believed God called me to leave my job. So during a weekend at Cannon Beach, I pondered the question:

“What can you do after you quit that you could not do before?”

There had to be something more than just giving time and attention to my dream. While praying on the serene shores of the Oregon coast, I arrived at an answer:

“By leaving you can witness to the supreme worth of Jesus Christ”

I could show that He is more valuable than money and more desirable than a life of comfort. I could show that following him is more secure than a successful career. If minimizing regret and the promise of independence, riches, fame, adventure and changing the world are enough to motivate people to entrepreneurship, how much more should God’s call compel me to go? How could I joyfully invite others to trust in my Savior, if I would not trust him in this matter?

And so it was settled. Despite all of the pros and cons, I had to leave Amazon in obedience to God’s call. I wanted to show by my actions that Jesus Christ is more precious than anything else I desire in life. So when the project wound down, I submitted my letter of resignation, celebrated with my colleagues and began a new adventure.

In my next post, I want to get you excited about the vision :).

Call to Action

If you’re a Christian, is God calling you to do something challenging? Does it help to know that this is an opportunity for him to show his trustworthiness in your life?

If you’re not a follower of Jesus, do you believe there is some other person or cause that you can unreservedly devote your passion, affection, intellect and energy to? I believe there is no greater pleasure than giving unmitigated love to Christ because he is worthy of it all. And though I still have far to go, this is the joy I would like to invite you to as well.

Please share your comments below!

3 lessons learned from AngelHack Seattle

Team MoodMeme

I recently did a hack-a-thon: nearly 24 hours of intense coding to transform a nascent idea into something useful that can wow judges and attract investment.

It all began when my friend David (read his thoughts here) told me he really, really wanted to go to AngelHack this year. He ran his idea by me and asked me to help code it up and pitch to the judges. This is when I learned my first lesson.

Lesson #1: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Growing up I was basically a self-centered achiever. My mind has always bubbled with ideas that I wish other people would help to make a reality. I’m sure many of you have felt the same way, especially in group projects–you want your ideas to be heard, appreciated and implemented.

This time though, likely due to what I’ve been learning about servant leadership, I felt a strong desire to fully support David in the ideas he wanted to work on–to do whatever it took to help him succeed. Surprisingly, a few days after I agreed he changed his mind and asked me what I wanted to do instead. I don’t think this is the point of lesson #1, but I was delighted to get support for my idea after all. We ended up building a prototype of MoodMeme, an app that helps you track your mood and notifies your friends when you’re down so they can help (go ahead and enter your mood–there’s a little surprise :-)).

Are there ideas you want others to help you accomplish? How can you do for them, what you would want them to do for you?

Lesson #2: God’s grace makes all the difference

On the day of the hack-a-thon we had a team of four. Gary built the Android app that prompts you for your mood while Sean mocked up the experience. David built the web app, and I was responsible for visualizing mood data with D3. By the end we had a working prototype and a pitch that together got us into the final round of judging.MoodMeme ScreenShot

We were exhausted, living on adrenaline and Red Bull. After a first round of judging, the emcee announced the six finalists who were to pitch to the full panel of judges. We were to go third. My anxiety made it hard to focus on the first two presentations.

“Next up, we have MoodMeme.”

Sean connected his laptop to the projector while I opened my transcript.

I began:

“MoodMeme helps you track your mood over time and connects you with your friends when you’re feeling down…”

The emcee’s buzzer went off two minutes later just as I finished:

“MoodMeme can be that scalable, affordable way to a healthier nation.”

There was great applause. Several of the judges, engaged me with insightful questions and everyone seemed satisfied by the end. The demo and pitch were a success.

Half an hour later, the judges re-appeared and announced the winners, beginning with the honorable mention. Then the prizes from sponsors were distributed. Then they awarded second place.

My mind raced through the pros and cons of each of the 6 pitches. I felt like MoodMeme was the most polished, although the second place winner had a more impressive product. Could it be? Could we have won first place?

“And first place goes to … TruBalance

We didn’t win. We didn’t even place.

Thus I relearned lesson #2: God’s grace makes all the difference.

The Scriptures are replete with texts like: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).

But what about our merits? Aren’t a group of people coding away at 5am, chugging Red Bull what it takes to win? Isn’t it the preparation and mad skills of these rockstar hackers that matters?

Yes, merits matter. You have to build, watch and plan. But God’s purpose determines the outcome and to take it a step further, our merits themselves are a grace from God, as Paul proclaimed: “Rather, [God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25b). Merit is grace.

Three grumpy guys harmoniously working together at 5am is a gift from God. Writing a compelling pitch in less than an hour is a gift from God. Everything “just working” and being more productive than ever before is a gift from God. Getting psychology papers on moods from UW Professor Christopher Barnes at a serendipitous meeting far in advance of the hack-a-thon is a gift from God. Everything, from our abilities to the generosity of the AngelHack sponsors and volunteers to the judges’ final decision, are from God (Proverbs 21:1, James 1:17).

What will you do with the grace God has given you?

Lesson #3: Gospel-driven ideas are not niche. They are widely applicable and desirable

Even though we didn’t win, I was amazed at the response after the event. Several people approached me and told me they hoped we kept working on the product since they felt like it was much needed. One woman suggested that it could help doctors finely tune treatments for patients struggling with depression. One man suggested that we incorporate weather since many Seattleites suffer from seasonal affective disorder due to the lack of sunlight. What set MoodMeme apart from other mood tracking apps is that we wanted to proactively address negative moods–it was more about mood management than simple tracking. Some of the ways we do this might be a bit gimmicky (you know what I mean if you entered your mood earlier), but the heart of the application is that it helps you love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:31). When you know how your neighbor feels, you’re better able to serve them and do good to them.

What if technology could help you obey these words?

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble (1 Peter 3:8)

That’s the dream.

Check out MoodMeme here. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

If you want to be part of movement that creates, promotes and uses technology to help people fulfill the commands of Jesus, please like this, tweet, +1, pin,  comment, etc.


P.S. Here’s a 2-minute video of the initial pitch (sorry for the poor quality of the video):

What I learned from Urbana 2012

urbana_plenaryThe antiphonal hallelujahs crescendoed to blazing lights which I thought would explode from the joyous singing. It was the last night of Urbana and we ushered in the new year with a 16,000 strong multilingual, multicultural worship service. It was incredible.

I attended the missions conference with my sister (who wrote about her experience here) and met friends like MIT Media Lab RA Nate Matias (who posted his track notes here) and speaker Christopher Yuan who led packed sessions on the topic of “A Christian Response to Homosexuality“. The sessions were good (I wept for joy when Ram Sridharan preached the gospel from Luke 15), but I particularly thank God for connecting me with believers who share my passion for technology entrepreneurship for the gospel (direct message me if you’d like to join the group).

Who I Met

Urbana was organized into four tracks: Urban Poverty, Pastoral Leadership, International Students and Business Changing the World. In the business track I got to meet professionals, entrepreneurs and investors who created companies and products that advance the gospel in the marketplace:

I came away refreshed by my conversations with these people and many others. It’s invigorating to be part of a community creating technology and doing business to advance the gospel in word and deed.

What I Learned

Here were some of my key takeaways from the conference:

Faith First: I went not knowing what to expect and left overjoyed by many serendipitous connections. I usually try to figure out the cost/benefit of decisions and think everything through ahead of time, but I’m beginning to accept the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6; it seems that Jesus requires us to trust him first and think things through second. Like Abraham who left his homeland for a land God would show him, we must first believe that God is good and in believing we can respond and in responding we can think through where he is calling us to, how to get there, and what to do.

Cherish People: Being task oriented, I tend to view relationships in terms of my goals and responsibilities, but at Urbana I had the pleasure of simply enjoying people: hearing their stories, sharing mine and praying with them. Ram’s message reminded me that all my heart’s desires are met in Christ and that despite everything I’d like to do for God, the real satisfaction is being with Him. I hope this carries over to work where it’s easy to become so task focused that legitimate opportunities to deeply connect with people are neglected.

I’m Not Alone: I formerly felt like no one shared my passion for technology entrepreneurship for the gospel. Being at Urbana changed all that not only by giving me access to likeminded people, but also by renewing the joy of God’s invitation to all people to feast at his table. Instead of wallowing in isolation, I should seek out and cultivate diverse relationships with others since I’m not as different/alone as I might think.

Don’t Resist the Spirit: There were two occasions when I felt the Lord lead me to do something and I resisted. The first was an internal voice telling me to pray for a woman on crutches. I avoided her, walking deeper into the stadium ostensibly looking for my sister, but couldn’t resist. I walked back and asked, “Excuse me, but–could I pray for you?” She replied, “uhh–okay”. I was afraid it would be awkward. But when I asked, “what happened to your leg?” she shared that she had knee surgery and accidentally dislocated it afterwards. When I learned she would be on crutches another 8 months, my awkwardness was washed over with compassion and I joyfully prayed for her healing.

The second case was in the prayer ministry room where a woman next to me started weeping and I felt led to say, “God’s peace be with you, your sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus”. I questioned this inclination thinking, “Who am I to say such things? I don’t know her and what she is going through.” But I realized that God knew and if he wanted me to speak, who was I to resist? So I put my hand on her shoulder, whispered the words, and left the room.

Upon reflection, I’ve probably resisted the Spirit a lot, which may be why I’m reluctant to pray about certain things…I don’t really want to hear an answer. This experience may sound weird to some, but I am simply trying to honestly recount my experience. Testing these inclinations against Scripture, I find no reason to believe they were not from the Holy Spirit.

Don’t Wait for Perfect Motives, Wait for the Lord: During a Bible study session on Peter’s calling, I tweeted: “Feeling unworthy to try great things for God because I can’t handle the pressure of living up to people’s expectations”. Two InterVarsity staff members, Steve and Carrie, prayed with me on separate occasions when I shared my personal tension between being a witness for Christ at work and pursuing a vision of enabling multilingual churches to flourish and become the norm. Maybe I wanted to stay in place out of fear or maybe I wanted to pursue this idea out of selfish ambition. Steve said that I cannot wait for pure motives because we always have mixed motives and can only continually repent of the wrong ones and cultivate the right ones. Carrie reminded me that waiting on the Lord is not passivity, but faithfulness and that I need not rush to decide since the Lord would act in His time.

How About You?

I have reams of notes on what else transpired at the conference and many awesome experiences remain unrecorded, but I hope this taste has been enough to whet your appetite for what God has in store for you this year.

  • Are you procrastinating responding to God by overanalyzing instead of trusting Him?
  • Who can you listen to and love instead of merely transacting dialogue with?
  • Can you join/start a community that will stoke the flames of your passion?
  • In what areas of life are you resisting God’s leading?
  • Is there a desire you need to wait on the Lord for? Is there a God-given desire you need to act on instead of waiting for pure motives?

Business Changing the World at Urbana 2012

urbana2012_topper

This year my sister and I are attending the Urbana Conference put on by InterVarsity. I was initially reluctant to go because I’m no longer a student, but then I learned that they have a “Business Changing the World” track and one seminar in particular which dovetailed with my interests: “High Tech Entrepreneurship 101 for the Mission-Minded” led by Silicon Valley veteran Sonny Vu.

On the Facebook Group for the track, I found links like:

And I learned that one of the big backers of this track are from my own backyard at the Center for Integrity in Business of Seattle Pacific University!

I don’t know what God has in store for me these coming weeks, but I’m already excited to discover that there are many likeminded folks out there and that I’m going to get to meet some of them soon :-).

Interested in Technology Entrepreneurship for the Gospel?
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Thanks and happy Christmas Eve!