DoorDash is an on-demand delivery services started in part by CEO Tony Xu while he was a college student at Stanford. Xu spoke to Morning Brew on his childhood as a second generation immigrant, how he got his start in business and the best career advice he learned from the job.
DoorDash was founded in 2013 by Tony Xu and three fellow Stanford students, the byproduct of a class project to support small businesses.
Since first launching as PaloAltoDelivery.com, the company has raised $186 million in funding (most recently at a $700 million valuation) from top tier VCs including Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins. DoorDash currently serves 42 markets, works with 40,000 local businesses, and has received over 10 million orders.
More fascinating than the story of DoorDash is the story of its Head Dasher…
DoorDash’s CEO wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. At the age of five, he and his parents emigrated from China to the United States with $200 to the family name. Tony’s dad had received an H-1B visa to work as a post-doc researcher at University of Illinois, prompting the family to move to Champaign. Growing up, Tony’s family relied on food stamps and welfare to get by, but the tech founder feels incredibly fortunate for his upbringing and his parents’ emphasis on education.
Here’s Tony to tell the rest of his story…
Morning Brew: Tony, tell us what you were like as a kid growing up in Champaign, IL
Tony Xu: In a word, my childhood was very simple. For me, that meant two things because I came to this country pretty young. One was teaching myself English and the second was playing basketball. And that’s pretty much my entire childhood.
MB: Wait, you taught yourself English…
TX: Yeah. I’ve been a very curious and obsessive individual from a very young age. When I get into something I really get into it. Take for example, the NASA program. My dad studied aeronautical engineering, which is how I got excited about rockets. Next thing I knew, I was producing my own documentaries about the Apollo program and that’s how I learned English.
MB: That curiosity clearly translated well to entrepreneurship
TX: Exactly. I started my first business at the age of nine. It was a lawn-mowing company. I went door-to-door asking if I could mow people’s lawns for ten dollars. I got pretty good after about a year because I would charge different amounts for different shapes. Typically I would make stripes, but the grandest shape I’ve made is the United States flag. That was my premium offering.
It was all because I wanted a Nintendo.
MB: You also worked as a dishwasher as a kid, right?
TX: Yea, I worked for my mom. She had three jobs, one of which was working at a restaurant. And what I learned from her is to never give up on your dreams. It’s crazy when you think about it. She was a trained doctor in China in Eastern Medicine and when she came here she had to redo all of her training. She didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t speak English, so medical school wasn’t an easy option.
MB: That’s really tough
TX: She ended up working these three jobs to put food on the table and save enough over 12 years to move from a waitress to a part-time owner. She was then able to sell back her stake and that’s what she used as angel money to start her medical clinic, which is in Eastern Medicine.
MB: Onto DoorDash…or should we say PaloAltoDelivery.com
TX: We did our first delivery January 12, 2013.
We built a site in 45 minutes, it was called PaloAltoDelivery.com because it was the simplest URL to guess. The product was eight PDF menus and a Google Voice number, which I owned. The number would dial the cell phones of the founders and whoever picked up first would take your order over the phone. We’d go and pick up the order for you and collect payment upon delivery. Believe it or not, with this pretty jenky system we received our first order 45 minutes after launch.
MB: Since the days of PaloAltoDelivery.com, DoorDash has grown into a $700 million mammoth. Has it been constant exponential growth?
TX: Not in the slightest. So for at least six months, and probably closer to nine months, it wasn’t clear that there was a real business here. I don’t think we knew we had something on our hands, and there wasn’t a clear reason we continued. Even through Y Combinator DoorDash was not doing a lot of volume.
MB: But you still continued…
TX: One of the biggest reasons we continued was the same reason why we started:
- We had heard this could be helpful to merchants.
- We really enjoyed working with each other.
MB: So what’s been the secret sauce to get DoorDash to this point?
TX: Go deep before you go broad. You really want to understand problems at the lowest level and in detail. And when you can do that you can control things a lot more easily.
Data wins arguments. We hired like-minded people who really care about data. At DoorDash we have a saying that “data wins arguments.” We don’t really care about where you studied, but the fact you care a lot about using data to make decisions is very important to how we operate.
Be humble. You won’t always know if something’s going to work or not. Start with the expectation that you don’t know everything and that you’re going to get it wrong more often than you’re going to get it right.
MB: What’s been most difficult for you as a first-time founder?
TX: Learning to deal with uncertainty. As your organization grows, the number of problems you encounter grow, the number of people you’re responsible for grows, the number of customers you serve grows, and therefore the uncertainty or the risks actually grow. You must learn to control your own psychology.
This article originally appeared on MorningBrew.com.