Interview with Ben Casnocha

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/4/07]

My friend Ben Casnocha recently published his first book, My Start-up
Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon
Ben has an interesting story to tell. He first got involved in
the tech boom when he was 12, and by high school he was heading a
multi-million dollar company. What makes his book interesting,
however, is that it bypasses the rah-rah, self-congratulation common
among the young entrepreneur set, instead capturing, with remarkable
lucidity, the complexities of trying to balance being a teenager and
running a business. It also replaces the generic advice endemic to the
genre (“follow your dreams and it will all work out”) with practical
mediations on issues such as the role of luck in big successes and the
proper care and feeding of mentors. The overarching theme of My
Start-up Life is that many of the skills related to entrepreneurship
can be applied to any endeavor.

What makes Ben relevant to Study Hacks is that he is heading off to
college in the fall. I thought it would be interesting to interview
Ben regarding how his experiences will shape his path through higher
education. Our conversation is reproduced below. For more information
on Ben, his book, or his popular blog, check out

STUDY HACKS: Your book promotes the idea of being “CEO of your own
life.” What does that mean?

BEN: It means adopting the entrepreneurial world view in all that you do — not
just starting a business. It means thinking different, challenging the
status quo, striving for impact, and generally maintaining a commitment to
carve your own life path and not outsource that vital task to anyone else
like a parent or professor.

SH: You’re heading off to college in the fall. How do these ideas
apply to this new environment?

BEN: To be CEO of your college life means you will think about what you really
want to get out of it. You won’t just accept the default. You won’t just
sign up for random classes. You will talk to people, cold call professors,
sample widely, ask for exceptions, explore nooks and crannies; in short, you
will be entrepreneurial in how you create a four year experience.

SH: How does the social aspect of college integrate into this
framework? Or, in other, cruder words: is it possible to be CEO of
your own life and still get chicks?

BEN: Absolutely.

SH: But are you worried about not conforming to the typical behavior
of your fellow undergraduates? That is, downplaying work, and trying
to act uncaring. How do you think they will react to someone who is
following the beat of his own drummer?

BEN: I will conform a little. To be part of a group, we all need to give up a
little of our individuality. However, in general, I think college is the
time when most of us begin to extend ourselves in new directions, so I’m
expecting that “beating on your own drum” will be embraced more than in high

SH: Let’s get specific: name three things you plan to do in your first
year of college to help you get more out of the experience than the
average undergraduate.

BEN: 1. Reach out to 5-6 professors who won’t be teaching me but who sound
interesting anyways. Take them to lunch. 2. Engage in the ecosystem
AROUND the college. For me, this is Los Angeles and all that it
offers. 3. Talk to the Registrar and Dean about flexibility in my
schedule so I can ursue various extracurricular activities. In high school, I had great
success at persuading them to loosen the normal academic requirements and

SH: Give an example of an extracurricular activity that would require
a special course load.

BEN: Anything that’s both extensive and intensive. Extensive means it involves a
wide range of activities (starting a business certainly is extensive) and
you probably have to be in various locations. Intensive means it has to
consume a lot of energy to be done right.

SH: Another specific question: how does your experience as an
entrepreneur affect how you will tackle schoolwork?

BEN: I will strive to pass my classes but not over optimize. The reason most A+
students don’t make good entrepreneurs is because they don’t settle for good
enough. I pay close attention to diminishing returns. I want to get as much
as possible out of each class I take, and once I’ve reached that optimal
point, devote the rest of my time and energy to other activities. This may
mean that for some classes I spend little time if they don’t seem

[Ed: We’ll have to introduce Ben to STRAIGHT-A — with the right
strategies, there is little difference, in terms of effort, between
learning the material and scoring top grades.

SH: Let’s do a sample scenario. I’m an undergraduate. I’m not quite
sure what I want to do with my life, but I’m ambitious, and would like
to do something big and important before I graduate; I just don’t know
how. One thing I’m really interested in is clever technologies for
helping to reduce global warming. Give me a battle-plan for
jump-starting my life.

BEN: First, figure out if you’re really interested in clever technologies to
reduce global warming. Many people think they are interested in something,
but turn out not to be. This is because we tend to absorb the interests of
others as our own.

The best way to figure out what you’re interested in is to expose yourself
to as much random stuff as possible. Sure, go to a few green tech
conferences and do some research online, but also do other things. Explore
some secondary interests. Talk to a priest and then a workaholic tech
entrepreneur. Get varying perspectives. You’d be surprised how many people
respond graciously to a stranger who reaches out and asks for their

Then get going. If you do indeed decide to try to fight global warming,
start taking action, start doing things, and build your plan as you go.

SH: What’s the most frustrating misperception people tend to generate about you?

BEN: Hmm. Perhaps that I’ve figured out all the answers. I still have
much to learn. A little youthful success is far from total

SH: Do you feel like people expect you to do something amazing at
college? Do you expect this of yourself?

BEN: I think there is always pressure to one-up yourself at each new stage. I
feel that pressure, yes. But it’s not crippling. As for expectations, I
consider the expectations of others, but it’s subordinate to my own
expectations and desires. This is a key distinction. Fundamentally, the more
intrinsically motivated you are the better.

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