Articles, Blog

Cultivating Solution Driven Leaders – Adam Cue ’13

September 12, 2019

My name’s Adam Cue. I’m a Duke graduate of 2013, so relatively recently. When I was
at Duke, I helped launched a couple, a couple companies I’m going to be talking about today.
But more importantly, I’m going to be talking about how Duke has become the ideal incubator
for new and innovative ideas, and for the people that are moving those ideas forward.
For those of you involved in tech and those of you involved in finance in the crowd you
might know-be familiar with some of what I’m talking about, but I’m going to go into a
couple tech/investment truisms and how Duke actually proves these things very true, and
how Duke is making those things true today. The first one I want to talk about is this
idea, and it sounds simple, but it’s actually really hard to do, is if you’re investing
in an idea or investing in a product that solves a real problem. So it sounds simple,
but let me take you through an example of how this happens in the real world and why
that’s actually a big issue, and an issue that Duke’s gotten correct.
So say I’m a young college graduate like myself, I’m out walking my dog in the middle of the
night and I’m trying to think of this new-whatever new startup idea is going to make me rich
beyond my wildest dream. I’m trying to think about what’s-what’s that next thing that no
one’s thought of yet. I look down and I have this ah-ha moment. The lightbulb goes off.
I see this dog that I spend hundreds of bucks every week on its food and its shelter, and
people love their pets. People buy clothes for their pets. People do anything for their
pets. I’m-there’s-there’s a ton of money here. I’m going to make a social network for pets.
It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be Facebook for pets. [LAUGHTER] I’ll sign up.
I’ll get to meet other people with pets. We’ll get to share our love of pets and whatever
it is that I would do, and I haven’t thought that far ahead.
So I go, I go to, uh, well, a local Silicon Valley investor, VC firm on Sand Hill Road
and I say, “Hey, look. There’s $61 billion in the last year spent on pets alone in the
United States.” That’s huge. In my first year I’m just going to get a little of that [ph];
I’m going to get 1% of that. That’s $610 million in one year. This is going to be incredible.
You guys are crazy for not investing in me. [LAUGHTER]
They give me all the money in the world. I go get a team of smart software engineers
and marketers from Duke. I build an office in Silicon-in Silicon Valley. I go around
the world talking about this idea. And a few years later, it turns out that everything
I built didn’t matter because no one actually wants a Facebook for pets. This isn’t something
that people want. [LAUGHTER] This happens all the time. I-I guarantee every
single, again, investment firm in this area has done this, maybe not this quite as bad
of an example, but has done this before. Let me give you an example of how Duke solves
this. So when I was a sophomore at Duke, I got connected
with a professor in the Environment School who had a problem. He was teaching a few classes
and for each class there was not a perfect textbook for each of his classes, so he needed
his students-really, he wanted them to buy, like, three to four textbooks and they would
use a little bit of each of ’em. Any buying one textbook is already shitty enough for
students, so buying four is just out-out of the question.
And so I’m thinking, there’s got to be something better that we could do. And so we had a few
meetings, and it really collided on the fact that there’s, like-there, there are these
new tools that he could get his class to use, um, that would actually help solve his problem.
And so we decided, hey, let’s go build a textbook of ourselves. Let’s make it digital so you
can change whatever you want to change about it. You can bring in outside sources. You
make your own material. And see if the-see if people like using that.
So, summer session after my sophomore year we launched a-a textbook to one of his classes
just to see how they used it, see how-how they liked having all their homework readings,
how they liked having all of their lesson plans all in one place. They could take it
on the go. They could use it on the plane. They could use it during class. It was one
thing everywhere for them. The professor could go and make his own idealized lesson plans.
So this didn’t exist anywhere else. It made it easy for the class to combine this with
outside research and academic papers. Students, while they were using the app, could highlight
different sections, and take notes on sections, and talk with the class in real time about
what they thought about different parts of the lecture or different parts of the reading.
The professor could chime in at any point and they could answer questions that way.
And we-we found it to be pretty successful, so we use it for that summer. Our students
really enjoyed it. The professor loved it. It was a much better experience for him. They
got through a lot more material than they would have otherwise. We said in the fall,
“Hey. We’ll-we’ll make this bigger.” We’ll use this in a bunch of-a few of his different
classes at Duke, and we’ll put it on the app store and see what people do. And we-we couldn’t
even have imagined what, what really happened next, right?
So we put it on the app store. Classes, colleges, high schools, individuals all over the country
started following along with the class. Teachers started using the app to teach their own classes
because it ended up being a better textbook for other people as well. People even took
the framework that we built and started using it for physics classes and math classes and
things that weren’t even related to marine megafauna, which is what this class is about.
It was really, really astounding for us. The important part to mention about this class
also is that I was initially connected with Professor Johnston through a Duke computer
science class. So we had met through this class. He knew he had a problem that he needed
someone to be able to solve, and we synced up through that class, and then ended up having,
ended up having this happen, which is a pattern that happens consistently at Duke in classes
in entrepreneurship groups of Duke using Duke students to solve Duke problems.
It was a really powerful thing because, like I said before, A, you’re guaranteed that it’s
a real problem. It’s not pet space. But the second thing-the second example I wanted to
poke at was that last part, that Duke problems piece. Because it turns out that Duke problems
are pretty rarely only confined to Duke. There’s actually a lot of places around the world
where if you were to solve a Duke problem you’re solving a problem there, as well.
The example that I would-I would use there, uh, in, in the real world, in the investing
world, is Facebook. Right? So Facebook launched at Harvard and existed in Harvard for a good
period of time until it became the-the skeleton of what we know as Facebook today. And during
that time they were able to change things. They were able to get feedback based [ph]
because they had a thousand users instead of a billion users. After they had a model
that worked at Harvard, it turns out students at Duke also wanted to talk to their friends
in the same way that students at Harvard did. Their parents wanted to, and it turns out
everyone in the world actually wants to communicate that way.
This textbook example was actually a pretty good example of Duke doing that same thing.
We didn’t know we were doing that at the time. But when we started we only made it for one
summer session, one class at one school. We solved the problems for that particular class
and school. So, for example, when we launched, we didn’t realize that people would actually
want to use the app when they weren’t connected to the internet. So students would go on a
plane and then all their readings were gone, and so then we knew we had to fix that. And
it was better fixing that for 30 people than for 30,000 people.
Once we had solved this problem for this one class we would say, “Okay, we solved it”-maybe
solved it for a few other classes. And it turned out we solve it for educators all around
the world. It’s an example of the power of this phrase of Duke students solving Duke
problems, and Duke really understands the power of this phrase, which is why they’ve
invested so much in Duke Forward, which is why they’ve invested so much in entrepreneurship
groups. That’s really what I want you guys to take
away from today, is that this happening and these, these examples of innovation happening
at Duke that you’re hearing today are not just happening. They’re very actively happening
by contributions from Duke. Duke is very aware of the opportunity and the-the ability that
it has to change what secondary education means in the 21st century, and so they’re
actively doing it, like I said. That’s-that’s why we’re all here today. That’s why this
event exists, is because Duke very much understands that this is something they can play an active
role in. In a world where I can take a math curriculum
online on YouTube for free, what is the value of-of secondary education? Duke gets that
one of the ways that that happens is that you’re going to meet with world-class faculty
like you’ve seen today. You’re going to meet with intelligent students. Duke is going to
be the place where the next big ideas are coming from. Duke is going to be the place
where the people that are creating the next big companies or changing the current great
companies from within-if Duke’s the place where those people are coming from, that’s
why you go to school in, in the 21st century. That’s why you go and go to Duke even when
you can take a Duke class online. And that’s just something that we learn with the digital
textbook, but it’s something that Duke has espoused and Duke has made sure, uh, like
I said, that’s-that’s why we’re all here. The reason I believe in this so fully, also,
is because I lived out that experience at Duke. I lived that experience of what the
ideal 21st century education system is going to mean for-for higher education. And so my
sophomore year when I was working on that textbook, I had also moved out here to Palo
Alto for the summer, and I was working at a startup called Mailbox, which we eventually
launched an app my senior year of college. Uh, it was an email application. And then
we got acquired by-by Dropbox, who’s out here also. And so we made that email app for a
couple reasons. One was we made it because we knew it solved
a real problem. Everyone in this room uses email. There was no guar-like, if we made
something of value, it was actually going to be of value. Uh, we had a small group of
people from our previous product that we could test with. If you notice, those are two things
that I learned directly from working on Cachalot, working on that digital textbook at Duke.
My experience at Duke would have been totally different without this. My post-graduate career
wouldn’t have been possible without these Duke experiences that Duke Forward has helped
fund, and you guys have all helped funded. So I-I personally want to thank you all for
being here and for supporting Duke and supporting Duke Forward, and continuing to do so in the
future because it’s-these are the type of things that have exponential effects as they
go on. So thank you guy again for coming out and
I’ll be in the back by the-the food and the bar if you have any questions at the end.

1 Comment

  • Reply Yuying Qian October 23, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Yah I like that ideology: Duke students solve duke problem

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