Under35CEO Interviews Ben Yu, Thiel Fellow and Co-founder, Sprayable Energy
21 year old Ben Yu was a student at Harvard before he took a semester off to pursue his dream. And since then, he hasn’t looked back. He was one of the twenty-four recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 grant that encourages people under 20 to drop out of school and pursue start-up companies.
Ben shares with Yinka Brand what inspired him to leave Harvard after a single semester to climb Kilimanjaro, start Sprayable Energy and more.
Could you please introduce yourself?
Hi – My name’s Ben Yu, and I’m a Thiel Fellow currently building Sprayable Energy.
What kind of kid were you in high school?
I got a bit of a late start – I was a shy, awkward kid up until the summer between freshman/sophomore year. Then, frustrated with my crappy life, I made a conscious effort to improve myself. I joined the Speech Team and Cross Country among other pursuits, and also started a micro-finance organization, which was my first foray into doing something of my own initiative.
Tell us about your journey into entrepreneurship.
I guess I got started with the micro-finance organization I founded in high school called Project: Human. From there, I became interested in seeing what more I could do, and at Harvard I attended a social innovation summit, where I learned about StartingBloc and Ashoka and a bunch of other social venture organizations.
It was mostly a mistaken belief that motivated me to move faster – I thought the three girls who had organized the summit were freshman (I think they were actually juniors), and was amazed that they were so ahead of the game so early in the year. I decided I had to move faster, and so that spiralled into finding out about the Thiel Fellowship, applying for it, and everything after that.
Why did you take a semester off as a freshman at Harvard?
A lot of factors induced this decision, but one of them was I just wasn’t happy with what I’d experienced thus far in my life. I felt I was lacking a lot of experience and I wanted to make up for lost time – so I decided to take a semester off to go and travel around the world. I only managed to really hit up Tanzania in Africa before I had to come back for the Thiel Fellowship, though.
Tell us about your company.
My current venture, Sprayable Energy (http://sprayableenergy.com), makes an energy spray that you spray on your neck just like cologne or perfume. It gives you the same energy that you would get from a cup of coffee or an energy drink, except you don’t get the energy all at once and you don’t crash afterwards. Instead, Sprayable Energy gives you smooth, steady energy that lasts over 6 hours, as the caffeine slowly enters the bloodstream through the skin at a steady rate.
It’s also super portable, and each bottle is a two-week supply (40 applications) of energy for $15 – way cheaper than buying 5 hour energy’s at $5 a pop. And you don’t have to deal with any nasty tastes or weird odors or stains – it’s tasteless, odorless, and colorless.
What is the one lesson you learned from the mentorship of Thiel and his network of entrepreneurs?
A co-founder is a huge boon. However, no co-founder is infinitely better than a bad co-founder. Actively be receptive to potential co-founders, but don’t try to force a relationship just because you think you need one – it must come naturally, and the two of you must be able to get along as friends.
Why did you decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro after dropping out of Harvard?
I wanted to travel and explore the world, and climbing the Seven Summits has always been on my list of things to do.
What would your plan have been if you had not applied to and received the Thiel fellowship?
I would have left college and pursued my plans anyway. This is, of course, easier said than done, and in honesty I have no idea how this would have turned out in the end.
What’s the scariest part of about working for yourself?
Knowing that I have complete responsibility for my success or failure, and not knowing if I’ll ultimately succeed or fail, and what that says about me.
Where do you hope to take your business in the next 5 years?
My dream is to see Sprayable Energy be the default way for anyone to get their energy. I want to see a world where Sprayable Energy is as common as coffee, and everyone has a bottle in their pocket or purse, and being tired is a thing of the past.
What’s your definition of success, and do you believe you’re achieved it yet?
There are varying definitions of success. I have two major milestones I want to hit. The first is financial independence for myself and my family, which I define as the point at which I’ve amassed enough net worth to be able to subsist off the passive income the net worth generates. The second is a major contribution back to society – my hope is to make a contribution in the field of anti-aging. My dream is to see a world where everyone is able to decide how long they want to live themselves, and we are not beholden to the capricious whims of death. I certainly don’t believe I’ve achieved success yet.
What do you do when fear hit you?
I sleep. Generally, if I’m feeling too stressed or I’m scared for the future or I’m feeling down, it’s because I haven’t gotten enough sleep. Taking some time out to relax, reflect, and rest is immensely helpful.
What motivates you to do what you do everyday?
It’s a need to do something meaningful with my life. I’ve been given such a fortunate opportunity of circumstance – to be born in America, to never have gone hungry, to have gotten a great education, to have had a loving, nurturing family, and to have been given opportunities others can only dream of like Harvard and the Thiel Fellowship – it would be an immense shame if I wasn’t able to make something of my life and make a positive contribution back to the world that has given me so much.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Aim for the long-term, not the short-term, and don’t let immediate setbacks here and there discourage you. Learn from them, and move forward. Also, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ
What book has inspired you the most?
Great question. I can’t actually think of one off the top of my head though it seems like there certainly must be one, but here’s one: Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. Also, my favorite movie of all time: Gattaca. Watch it.
What were you afraid of when you were starting out and how did you overcome them?
Strangely enough, I wasn’t afraid at all when starting out – I was far too idealistic and felt like I was on top of the world. It’s only over time that I’ve learned to be more cautious and tempered about the future.
Again – aim for the long-term, and don’t take shortcuts. If you’re trying to build a tech startup, I highly recommend, unless you have insanely good objective business skills backed up by significant past achievements, learn how to program and be able to build anything you want to build yourself. Don’t try to outsource that to others – it almost certainly won’t work.
What do you think about Under35CEO.co?
I like it a lot. I wasn’t considering doing the interview until I saw that Under35CEO is based in Nigeria and is heavily African centric. I have huge respect for African entrepreneurs, and it’s one of the places where innovation and entrepreneurship are needed the most. Anything that helps Africa innovate, I’m happy to support. Keep up the great work!
Are you a young entrepreneur under the age of 35 with an interesting story of success (or failure)? If yes, then the Under35CEO community has something to learn from you.
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