In our “KnerdCast” series, we meet with entrepreneurs in NYC who are doing awesome things with technology. This week: a company that’s using powerful new hardware to keep older computers running and relevant. Check out the video wrap-up we made using Prezi; full interview text is below.
Meet Jonathan Hefter. He’s the 25-year-old founder and CEO of Neverware.
Never heard of him? Neither had anyone else for the year he was living in his parents’ basement building the Juicebox, a hardware product that can hook up to a huge network of old computers and get them up and running the latest software at modern speeds. And, it’s all at a tiny fraction of the cost of replacing those old computers individually. Needless to say, schools and businesses are excited – and so are we!
Read on for his thoughts on entrepreneurship, the NYC startup scene, and his physical and circumstantial resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg.
Knewton: Who are you?
Jonathan Hefter: I am the founder of Neverware. In my free time I enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and I volunteer as a firefighter. I really would encourage anybody who wants to use their time constructively to do so. I think there’s a lot of team-building lessons that you can take away from that.
We tracked you down through Twitter; we were surprised to see that you only had 36 followers. You’re pretty new to this “tweety” thing.
I’ve never really quite got social media. In fact, Neverware is known as New York’s antisocial startup. I still have no idea how to tweet. I’ll still ask around the office, like, “Hey guys I wanna put an exclamation point after somebody’s handle, does that still work?”
So why did you join now?
Well I guess before Neverware, I didn’t have much to say. I was sitting in a basement hacking away. I didn’t really feel like telling people that I was blowing my nose and the back of my head was itchy. What I’m unfortunately discovering is that twitter is in fact an effective way of communicating with large groups of people that are kind of interested in, amazingly interested in, following what you’re doing.
How would you describe what your company does in a tweet?
Neverware eliminates the need to ever throw out old computers.
Where do you see your company making an impact?
I see it making a dent anywhere the status quo or the current model of computing persists. Specifically in education, where we have a solution right now: simply buying new PC’s. I think that if you can offer [schools] something that’s not as complex, something that takes care of all the drudge work, it allows them to focus on really implementing new innovative solutions.
So you built the thing. How did you go about telling other people about it?
[Customers] care at the end of the day of what it means for them. And I think that was a very important lesson to me because it wasn’t until I was able to put everything together and really say, “Forget about parallel computing. Forget about remote processing. Here’s a box that you put on your network, and all your computers go really fast, and don’t need to be replaced.” It wasn’t until I reached that point that people cared, because it wasn’t until that point that it was relevant to people. And I think that my crash course in being an entrepreneur has been that single question of “this is great, why does it matter?”. Part of my basement experience was discovering the difference between a technology and a product.
Can you tell us a bit more about your time in the basement?
That was my life. That was my existence. I woke up, worked, worked ‘til I got tired, took a few breaks for fire calls in my department, but that was my reason for existing. And when I got tired, I went to sleep. And I’m pretty sure I started keeping some pretty weird sleeping hours. May have gained a few pounds, but, actually that’s not true. I forget to eat when I work hard; I actually lost a few pounds.
Bill Gates: garage. Mark Zuckerberg: dorm room. Jonathan Hefter: basement. Your thoughts?
It’s funny because almost like paying your dues. For a while I was actually testing the system out at a university, and I slept in the seediest motel I could find, because it was the cheapest. I’m part of that tradition of entrepreneurship, where you look around yourself, and even a place like here, at General Assembly, you’re surrounded by others who have paid their dues by pushing it far past what’s considered safe or sane.
So given your age, your Ivy League pedigree…the comparisons to Zuckerberg have gotta be out there, right?
(Laughs) People say that a lot. I get that comparison way too much. And I’m starting to fear that it’s largely physical. Jewish kids from the Northeast. Maybe there’s some kind of personality similarity.
What did your parents think you were going to do when you grew up?
I think my parents thought I’d have some sort of impact or be institutionalized. Or possibly one of those events would be followed by the other. And I qualify that by saying they didn’t know if it would be in a good way or not.
Why did you decide to stay in New York?
Initially we considered going out to California for the tech talent, but I think it’s really fantastic being in New York. I think we really stand out because there are really quite few New York startups in enterprise. Outside of Boxee, we’re the only guys making hardware. And I think it really lets you foster a close relationship with the rest of the community, being part of that small, focused crowd of startups, as opposed to being in Silicon Valley, where you’re the rule, as opposed to the exception.
Do you have a relationship with any other startups in the NY tech scene?
I think there’s this shared bond amongst NY founders. I think as much as the industry has developed, it’s still quite small. It’s a great feeling, walk into a room and seeing the same faces, and knowing that hey, these guys have been at it with us for the past few months. And it makes you feel a lot less lonely. In particular, a lot of my fellow companies in Dogpatch, Joe Eisenfeld and Peter Margolis of Jibe are especially guys I look up to in management. The guys from Spinback coached me a lot on sales. And just around GA, guys like Carter Cleveland from Artsy, Josh Weinstein from YouAre.TV. They’re definitely guys that I just kind of really enjoy going through the journey with. And Textingly and Food 52 have been kind of Dogpatch companions.
So now that you’ve gotten a taste of being a CEO, can you ever see yourself working for someone else?
It’s funny that I’m focusing so much on helping schools because I’ve never been very good with authority, and I think that’s a recurring theme of many entrepreneurs. It wasn’t ever a matter of disrespect as much as just seeing the world in my own way and not wanting to take someone else’s vision of the world at face value. Rather than take my vision and try to push it onto others, you tend to seek out people who share that vision, and work together.
What was the hardest part of your job five years ago? Six months ago?
Five years ago, I was a wide-eyed, naïve freshman in college not studying computers. I was actually studying finance at Wharton, so I’m glad that I’m not using any of that (laughs).
Six months ago, the hardest part was loneliness. It was the hardest part, but I wouldn’t say it was an unnecessary part. It was one of, if not, the most powerful experiences of my life. Especially as a founder, you go through it once, and at least for me, somewhere deep down, the knowledge that I touched, and I was on some level responsible for, every single part of the core technology really instilled me with the confidence that I can deal with anything that may come up.
What about now?
The scariest part is team-building. We have amazing technology, we have an amazing product, now, what we need are more amazing people.
What about in six months?
I see the hardest, and also best problem to have, in six months is scaling. How do you turn a roomful of idealistic, bright-eyed people into a large sales organization? Because part of making a universal solution is being able to hopefully cope with universal demand.
How do you spend your typical day?
I’m kind of transitioning from the point where I was doing a lot of the product work to a point where I’m trying to build an organization that’s going to do a lot of the product work [for me]. So right now, during the daytime hours, from 9 to 5, or in the startup world probably 10 am to 9pm, is kind of non-stop meetings, phone calls, answering emails, and then, kind of a lot of the grunt work for me is done. When everyone goes home, it’s quiet between 9pm and 3 or 4am.
Knewton is an education company. What’s your message to all the educators out there who might read this?
I’d say that at the very base of things, schools have a mission. That mission is to educate kids. Without disrupting the entire school, I think it is important that there are avenues and areas where schools can test out new technologies, because the fact is that if you’re a school that’s not embracing positive change, well, you’re gonna be outshone by a number of schools that are. And as much as schools are a place for kids to learn, I think it’s a place for educators to hone their skill and really learn what new methodology’s out there. The scariest concept to me is kids going to school and schools being the one place where kids have the least exposure to technology, rather than the most. When I was a kid, that’s where our computer was. The first place I saw a computer was in my school. Nowadays, many times, kids go to school, they put away the smartphone, they put away the laptops, and they pretty much put away pretty much everything that’s driving growth in our world.
K: We have to ask. Are you single?
JH: No comment. (Laughs) I am in a relationship with my startup.
You’ve done a fair amount of press and conferences at this point. Have you been recognized on the street yet?
No. I have not yet had to beat away the throngs of screaming girls with a stick. But it’s an issue I’m looking forward to. My mother still sends me girls she’d like to set me up with.
And time for our favorite segment: Two-word Word Association. We say a two-word phrase, and you reply with your own two-word phrase.
Closes at 1.
To be fair, my only weakness is bullets.