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Bruins Built This: Duffl

(Alex Yoo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Lexi Fleck and Isabella Lok

Oct. 29, 2022 9:11 p.m.

In this episode of “Bruins Built This,” a Daily Bruin podcast highlighting student and alumni entrepreneurs, Podcasts contributor Isabella Lok interviews David Lin of Duffl about how he created the quick delivery business for college students and what he has learned.

Isabella Lok: Hello and welcome to “Bruins Built This,” a Daily Bruin podcast about UCLA student and alumni entrepreneurs. My name is Isabella Lok, a podcast contributor, and I’m here for another episode of “Bruins Built This.” Today I’m interviewing David Lin of the brand Duffl. Duffl is a 10-minute delivery service business that delivers a variety of drinks, snacks and essentials using electric scooters. Duffl has been seen all over UCLA’s campus, and we’re excited to have its co-founder and CEO David Lin on the podcast today. Hello, David and welcome to “Bruins Built This.”

David Lin: Hi, it’s good to be here. Thank you for having me.

IL: So in a previous interview, you discussed how you took a philosophy class exploring the topic of existentialism. And from there, you eventually figured out that you want to be an entrepreneur. In what ways do you feel that your degree in philosophy has helped the way you built and now operate Duffl?

DL: Philosophy teaches you three core ideas: metaphysics, ethics and logic. It trains you to think rationally about all the different problems. So obviously, intuitively, that’s very helpful when building a startup where you’re confronted with all sorts of different obstacles from product design to engineering to hiring. And you have to make high-quality decisions, so having a good logical foundation is helpful. Metaphysics makes you very spiritual. I think spirituality is a constant, when it’s, when you’re faced with difficult challenges on a day to day and it anchors you in all things. And lastly, ethics teaches you how to live a virtuous life. And I think a startup’s culture is ultimately created by its founder, and to build a good culture you have to live a virtuous life. And philosophy gives you broad guidelines on how to do that.

IL: How did you balance your academic and social life with running a business all while being at UCLA?

DL: Yeah, so not much of a social life, I will admit. Academics has been tough. I literally am taking my last unit right now, and I’ve been running around campus from this, you know, counseling office to lecture to discussion section whilst taking investor meetings and cycle planning meetings. And it’s kind of craziness but it is what it is. You learn to balance it because you have to. Time management becomes a necessity, and so I’ve gotten relatively good at that.

IL: How did you convince other people to join your business?

DL: I think a CEO’s job can be boiled down into three things: It’s communicating the strategy and vision, it is hiring employees and it is raising money. And all three of those things require the same basic skill, which is selling and storytelling. And so your ability to hire, fundraise and, you know, give an all-hands speech is essentially dependent on how clearly you can communicate the vision that you see for the business, the product, the market, etc. And in order to communicate clearly, you have to first think clearly. Clarity of thought precedes clarity of language. So in order to think clearly, you have to reduce your information diet, so turning off Instagram and TikTok and meditating. And then, you know, making time for thoughts to occur, taking walks, being by yourself, rather than constantly stimulating yourself one thing after another.

IL: What is the process like getting back by Y Combinator and Volition Capital?

IL: YC has been absolutely life-changing. You know, the extent of my ambitions for this project was to get into Startup UCLA, and I would have called that a win. Never did I think in a million years we could get into YC. And when we did, it was really life-changing in the sense that it became very real. We were working with, you know, Michael Seibel, we see, like, Gustaf, we’ve met the founders of Airbnb, and it was just an extremely surreal experience in Silicon Valley. And we were also the COVID batch, so it was kind of a crazy time. But yeah, after YC, we had the pandemic and we lost all our customers. We lost all our employees. And it was just me and my co-founder, Brian, and we kind of had to reset and start all over again after a year. And we did, and we soldiered through and grew the business significantly during that time, about zero to 6 million over a year and raised 12 million from Volition Capital and others. And I think when we got the Series A term sheet, it was a sigh of relief. I had been working on that for six months, basically pulling 120-hour workweeks every single week. And what that piece of paper meant was we got to keep doing what we love. And it just meant a lot. Yeah.

IL: What was it like making million-dollar venture deals while you’re still in college?

DL: To be honest, it feels kind of normal after a while, where it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. Because I don’t typically go to or partake in traditional college activities like partying or drinking. So I, my college experience has been basically working and fundraising and sort of like having a full-time job. So very quickly I think the startup took over my life, and it became the full-time endeavor where school was a part-time hobby.

IL: You mentioned that Duffl lost his customers during COVID. Can you elaborate on how you overcame those challenges and how Duffl actually did better or worse?

DL: Yeah, I think right when the pandemic hit, it was extremely challenging keeping the team together. So we had quite a few conflicts internally and there were a lot of debates about pivoting the idea or moving on to doing something else. And my belief at the time was to double down to basically continue to build what we were building. And that was a controversial idea at the time. I said that we could have retail stores and have equipment, and it wasn’t kind of, it wasn’t a given at the time. But now in retrospect, that was the only possible path. So I had to kind of combat a lot of internal discord. And our customers being gone was a gift in a sense because it enabled us to really build out systems and software to sustain our scale. So we never had a demand problem. It was always being able to supply that demand. And the pandemic slowed things down just enough for us to, you know, catch up.

IL: Did you experience any backlash building your business? Did you have any hard moments that made you think maybe we should stop here? And how did you overcome these obstacles?

DL: Oh, so many of those. I think there’s a saying: “Starting a startup is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.” I would agree with that. It’s very painful. It’s really scary. You are always kind of an inch from death. And it’s definitely not for everybody. But yeah, I think you learn to— you grow your endurance more and more as you stay in the game. And the game is essentially as simple as staying in it. So if you have the grit, it’s a very fulfilling path.

IL: What’s the biggest piece of advice that has helped you create and maintain a successful startup?

DL: That’s a really difficult question because there’s so much advice out there. But if I would have to boil it all down to one, it would be Aristotle’s advice: You are what you repeatedly do.

IL: In terms of marketing, how do you use social media to promote your business?

DL: Yeah, so social media is an integral part of our marketing strategy because it’s where the eyeballs are at. We understand as college students that, you know, we’re not listening to the radio or watching TV. And honestly, a lot of the paid advertisement is pretty saturated. What we want to build is really a genuine and authentic picture of the communities that we’ve built. We believe that your brand and your culture are two sides of the same coin. So whatever gets shown on IG is simply a delayed reaction of the culture that we built at the store. So when you see people having fun, smiling, riding around in orange is because that’s a reflection of reality. And it’s a lagging indicator of the happy employees that we have.

IL: Were there or are there any companies that you look up to?

DL: I really look up to Tesla as a company, and the more I learn about the challenges of building a company and the team, the more and more impressed I become. A group of people who are truly changing the world for the better, of developing world-changing, innovative products that have the ability to transform entire industries. And all of that in one company is ridiculously impressive. And yeah, I think it’s largely the product of its leader, and I’m very excited to see where it goes.

IL: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to create a startup?

DL: The first thing I would say is to have a very clear “why.” The “why” behind your actions will be the deciding factor between giving up and succeeding. I think any idea with sufficient persistence can get to a good point, but it is very easy to give up. And there’s those tough times that having a powerful “why” will save you and the company. And companies take a long time to build. I don’t think I realized this, and I don’t think most people realize just how long startups take. The average is a decade. So if you’re starting after college, that means you’re going to be 31, 32 after you’re done. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re wasting a lot of your life. And that’s not great for obvious reasons. The second thing I say is, honestly, never stopping a student. Just because you leave college doesn’t mean you stop learning. As your island of knowledge grows, so do the shores of ignorance, and the moment you stop learning is the moment you will lose. And I think maintaining that growth mindset, always learning from others, always listening more than you speak. You know, organizations like Y Combinator and their Startup School are powerful, powerful resources. YouTube, I’ve learned more from YouTube than any schooling I’ve ever done. And books, you can get a direct line of connection to all the most brilliant minds that have ever lived.

IL: What kind of YouTube videos and what kind of books do you watch or read to continue learning?

DL: Yeah, so I never read a lot of growing up. But I certainly became a bookworm in recent years, and I think it wasn’t as much an academic pursuit, it was really looking for the cheat code. So you know, life is hard and starting a company is even harder. You don’t want to go about this game without reading the Wiki, right? And philosophy and books are kind of like the Wikis of life. And it’s kind of ignorant or naive of me or anyone to believe that we will be the first to discover the best way without first learning about what is already out there. I think that’s part of the mentality of being a student, is to learn what has come before you, and that’s what got me into books. So I read all sorts of productivity, self-help books, autobiographies. I’ve read, you know, the stories of Amazon and Zappos and Trader Joe’s that have inspired a lot of what I was doing. I read “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” “The Power of Now” and “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which are kind of pragmatic shifts in my personality type and productivity levels. And whole lots of others’ YouTube videos. I love to watch physics YouTube videos like Veritasium or Y Combinator Startup School videos, which teach you a lot about starting a company more than I could ever teach myself. So that’s a great resource.

IL: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself?

DL: I think something that has really resonated with me is the idea that all action leads to self-knowledge and that whatever we do in life ultimately serves one purpose, that is teaching us about ourselves. And I’ve learned a lot about myself, both my strengths and weaknesses. The fact that I love building amazing products, but really, really hate accounting and legal documentation. The fact that I am extremely OCD and organized, and I see things in a systematic way. But not everybody does. And other people need, you know, different styles of management. I’ve learned about myself as a manager and as a leader. So most importantly, I think this journey has taught me about my purpose and has clarified my “why,” and it continues to get more and more clear. And I think the central theme of that is that it’s not about me, it’s about helping others.

IL: How have you learned to work with people whose thinking processes are different from yours?

DL: There are three great habits from “7 Habits,” which is think, win, win. First, seek to understand, then to be understood and synergize. I think those three capture the bulk of the lessons I’ve learned, which is if you’ve hired someone to your company, it means that they’re better than you at something. So you don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. You hire smart people so that they tell you what to do. And in order for them to do that, you have to first put your ego aside and listen. I think I struggled with that early on and quickly learned how to do that. Second thing is learning to delegate and being able to let go and trusting others. I think with any kind of human relationship, the currency is trust. And when you’re making decisions as a leader or as a manager, it’s important to ask yourself, what would optimize trust? And do that thing. I think the big realization for me was not everybody sees the world the same way for a reason. It’s because when you synergize with those people, one plus one is three. The sum of the parts become bigger than the whole. And if you surround yourself with brilliant people who you respect, a good rule of thumb for knowing if this is the type of person who you want to be a co-founder or on your leadership executive team is, is this person an animal? So if you can think of this person, you think, wow, he’s an animal. He’s an animal at coding, he’s an animal at marketing – I think that’s a good rule of thumb. But if you surround yourself with these people, it becomes apparent how together you cover each other’s blind spots, and ideas you come up with as a group will far surpass ideas you come up with as an individual.

IL: What are your goals for Duffl and where do you see the brand going?

DL: Yeah, I think the goal for Duffl is very simple. We’re here to empower students to better serve each other. And the way we’re going to do that is by becoming a household name for colleges and to be the thing that the first tour guide tells you about their university – you should come to this university because we have Duffl, to create a world where you can boil water and then buy your pasta, to create a world where students can learn and earn at their workplace along with school. So I think the future of Duffl is very bright, and I see it basically in every university in America.

IL: Thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate hearing from you and your business, and I’m looking forward to see what’s in store for Duffl. “Bruins Built This” is brought to you by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. You can listen to this show and others by the Daily Bruin on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud, and a transcript of this show is available at dailybruin.com. Thank you, and we’ll see you next time.

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