Zach Latta: If You Want to Make Lot of Money, Find Need People Have, Solve It

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The 7th International Forum “Open Innovations” is underway in Moscow. This year’s event focuses on issues arising from the spread of digital technologies and the impact they have on our lives. Radio Sputnik talked to Zach Latta, founder and executive director of the Hack Club project, who is among Forbes’ List “30 Under 30” (Law and Policy 2017).

Sputnik: Could you tell in more detail about the Hack Club project? It’s very interesting as it’s a high priority nowadays.

Zach Latta: We are an after school program that takes place in high schools, ages 14 to 18. About 20 to 25 students get together every week and learn how to program together. By the end of the first club meeting, every single student has their own website online, and by the end of the year everyone has built dozens of projects using real-world technology and has started to attend regional competitions that happen. We launched 2.5 years ago; we’re currently in 280 schools across 35 states in the United States, which is our main region. We also started our international presence – we’re in almost 20 countries. And we’re also doubling in size every school year.

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Sputnik: What does this project help do?

Zach Latta: It teaches lots of young people how to code. More importantly than that, it teaches you how to think, because when you learn to code not only you get exposed to everything that is happening on the Internet, you kind of go through a transformation from being a consumer to being a creator; you have this realization that the world around us is made by people just like you and me and if only put in the time you can contribute to it too. So, we’re creating a generation of young people that believe in that; and we think that our students are not only going to go on and become really important technologists, but are going to go on and start to do things like work in politics, be in other industries and be the thought leaders of tomorrow.

Sputnik: How did you get the idea of this project?

Zach Latta: A lot of it comes from my own personal experience. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and for some reason, as a kid, I could never pull myself away from computers. I built my first website when I was seven and from then on I was hooked. For me it all just came down to [that] I really struggled to find support in my community. My interest wasn’t supported by my parents; I went to school districts in the US and they didn’t offer any computer science classes. As a teenager I felt very lost and isolated and ended up dropping out after my first year of high school. In many ways Hack Club is a program that I wish I had when I was a student because I just so desperately wanted that community and I felt like I had to move hundreds miles away from home to find it.

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Sputnik: If I have an idea for a startup, what key points should I take into account?

Zach Latta: I think the biggest and the most important thing to do when you’re thinking of making anything that people want is to actually get it in the hands of the people that will be using it, whether this is an app or a program. I think that the right way to start a company is to simplify what the absolute core thing that you’re providing is. For us it’s a number of students in clubs. You also have to figure out how to optimize for that one single simplified metric. When we started Hack Club, the question that we kept asking ourselves was how we can get one school; once we had one school, the question was how we can get one more school. Rather than trying to ask big strategic questions, we just kept it super simple and we measured success based on how many schools we were in and how many students we were reaching. I think that if you want to start a company, really simplify your goals and think super short term; ask how to get one user, after you have that, ask how to get two and go from there. Do things that don’t scale.

Sputnik: If you have a small sum of money to invest but want to have a good reward, what communication strategy should you choose while entering the market?

Zach Latta: To be honest, I’m definitely not someone to share investment advice. A lot of my personal investments come from the knowledge that I have of areas that I get excited about. I think it’s important to understand that the world is a very complex place and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Because quite frankly, if someone knows the three tips to become a millionaire, everyone is going to do it and they aren’t going to be the three tips anymore. So, I think if you want to make a lot of money, find a need that people have and figure out how to solve that need and how to monetize it. I think a lot of people argue for thinking big and thinking about what the world should look like in 10, 20 or 30 years from now, but I’m a big fan of thinking small – what is a small problem that lots of people or you run into is and how you can fix that?

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Sputnik: What problems could large companies and corporations face in the field of innovative development?

Zach Latta: There is a very interesting concept, the “innovator’s dilemma,” which is if you see a problem and you build a solution for it, you’re going to build all this infrastructure while building a solution for it – there’re going to be employees and an org chart; your company is going to get complicated. What’s eventually going to happen is you’re going to have almost a system or a machine set up to solve the problems you have identified; but problems change, the world is constantly changing around us. If you built a business in the pre-smartphone era that dealt with software and then smartphones came along, everything changed. And if you don’t change, you’re going to be put out of business. There’s a question of if you have all this operational complexity, how can you take the next step and innovate when you already have so much going on – so much skin in the game and so many systems set up? I think a lot of this needs to be contextualized, because different companies work differently. I think a lot of companies try to do things like have internal startups inside their org chart; for example, you might have your regular business, but you find a small team of 20 people and the idea behind them is like a consulting firm that solves problems for the company and they’re trying to do business inside your company. I don’t think that works, and I think the reason that doesn’t work is because it’s not directly tied to your company’s revenue. If you’re a large company and you’re trying to figure how to innovate, I think you have to start from the top but you also need to understand that your operations from the very core level need a change as well. You can’t keep building the same system and expect it to solve new problems.

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Sputnik: How can one become a millionaire under 30?

Zach Latta: I have no idea how to do that. From my personal experience, I’ve never been someone to think big. Honestly, if you’re asking a question “How do I get on the Forbes list?” I think you should, probably, start in a different position. I think that awards are not motivating because they incentivize short term thinking. When you do get awards, often they don’t actually correlate to your success. I’ve been in really terrible spots and gotten public validation despite knowing that there are very real core problems with companies that I’ve been involved in. I’m a very big fan of identifying small problems that people have and building small solutions and keep asking the question “How do you get one more user?” Make something people want, get it in the hands of right people and as long as you do that you’re going to be successful.

The views expressed in this article are those of the speaker, and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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