Like most med school students, Adeel Yang and Ron Robertson found it difficult to remember everything they needed to know for their University of Arizona studies. Instead of cramming for exams simply by memorizing through repetition, the friends created colorful, visual stories – pictorial mnemonics – to help them learn.
Their method was so effective, the duo took a leave of absence to found Picmonic, a now-16-person company that’s made $1 million in revenue in the past year. With Picmonic going strong, Yang, a 27-year-old Chandler resident, is back at U of A this semester to finish up med school before coming back to focus on Picmonic. He talked about what it’s been like to start such a successful business so quickly, as well as named his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley, below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I grew up in Taiwan, and when I was 14, I came to the States by myself, attending high school at Glendale, California.. It was tough at first because I didn’t speak English, but I stayed there for a year, and then my mom joined me.
We moved to Arizona when I was 15, and I went to Chandler High School. I have Bachelor’s degrees in economics and molecular and cellular biology from University of Arizona, and I’m currently in between my third and fourth year of medical school at University of Arizona. I’ll start my rotations in January and have about seven months of school left.
How did Picmonic come about?
When my Picmonic co-founder Ron (Robertson) and I were in school, we were study buddies. Med school has such small class sizes, you really get to know each other, and Ron and I would go to the gym and quiz each other on what we were studying.
At the end of our second year, we had to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, a really big, heavy-duty exam, where your score basically determines your medical career. It was really difficult to study because there was so much information, and it was out of that desperation Ron and I were thinking of creative ways to learn.
We started creating stories and mnemonics, and they worked for ourselves and our friends. After the licensing exam, we decided to try to make it more professional and help other medical students. We started engaging professional artists and software engineers, and slowly but surely, Picmonic was born. Ron also took a leave of absence for Picmonic.
What got you interested in starting your own business?
Since college, I’ve wanted to do something creative and build a business from scratch. The company I worked for after college, Research Corporation Technologies, helps provide scientists and engineers who have great ideas and business plans early stage funding to commercialize their technology. They fund a lot of startups, and through that experience, I thought I could do something similar.
What have been the biggest challenges and benefits to owning your own business?
There are a lot of challenges. I totally underestimated the difficulty of starting an idea from the ground up. Some of the challenges are fundraising, constantly learning new ways to improve my own thinking, and the challenges of any startup – managing a team of people, being able to deliver and execute focused strategy, marketing, building a team that can grow and scale with the idea, figuring out what more we can do to better the company’s operations.
The rewards are a lot greater. I think I’ve learned more about myself in the past two years since I’ve started this company than I ever would have in school, that real-life experience of solving problems no one is going to hold your hand during.
Also, learning how to build a culture was really rewarding. I read startup books all the time, but until you actually do it, you don’t really understand. Now I can appreciate the importance of culture, of finding the right balance for the company, the importance of networking.
What do you look for in team members, and what’s the vision for your culture?
We look for integrity, people who are honest and whom we can trust, people who are committed and willing to work hard and enjoy having a good time, who are creative, innovative and humble, but are willing to step up to the plate. These are the values we uphold in this company. We start with the values, then the attitude, then the skill set, and then the experience.
What are your goals for yourself and for the company?
Our collective goal is to achieve our mission, which is to lead and inspire a new era of visual learning. A lot of people say education is broken or outdated, and there are a lot of challenges students face. We’ve found a very unique way to solve those challenges, and that’s through creative stories, pictures and technology.
I think people have a challenging time with the traditional way of learning, through text and reading books, sitting through lectures, and listening to the professor. Sometimes the brain doesn’t absorb the information that well, but when you give students a creative outlet to create and share pictures with friends, it turns that boring learning environment into something creative and fun.
We started in medicine because that’s what Ron and I know best, and we have more than 22,000 medical students around the world using this platform. We want to globally influence the medical education community, then move on to college, then more and more students. Hopefully, every student in this world will have Picmonic available to them.
Personally, I want to continue to be entrepreneurial, and I think I’m good about taking an idea and really seeing it through. I want to help Picmonic succeed and build other ventures that will help the world.
Do you see yourself practicing medicine?
Not full-time. It’s very hard to decide right now, because I have a passion for medicine. Seeing patients was one of the most rewarding experiences I had, so I don’t want to give up that opportunity to give back, but I don’t think I’ll practice full-time. My passion is building companies now.
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs?
One of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurs is when to take that leap. I’ve met a lot of people with a lot of great ideas, but they never took that first step to make it happen. It takes courage, but I think the key is believing up-front and having the determination to see that through.
People should know building a company is not as easy as it seems and is, at times, a stressful experience. You don’t see the rewards right away. People have to understand themselves and what motivates them. Maybe they’re more risk-adverse and prefer stability.
I think the most important thing to do is to ask yourself tough questions, to figure out if you’re the right person for the commitment, and not underestimating the commitment, which can be at least three to five years or lasting as long as a lifetime.
Sometimes people get really protective over their great ideas, but being overprotective of your idea can make you miss out on a lot of opportunities. Find advisers and experienced entrepreneurs early on, and don’t be afraid to share the idea. There are a lot of people out there who are eager to help.
Also, you never stop fundraising. Always keep that in mind when you’re out there networking.
What fundraising tips do you have?
Do your homework. Find out what industry players might be interested in your space. Don’t just talk to anyone – strategically position yourself, and start with your values. Look for investors who want to help you succeed, and not just give you money.
How would you characterize the Arizona technology scene?
It’s up-and-coming. I don’t think it’s quite comparable to places like San Francisco or tech hubs like Austin, but we’re really fortunate the ed tech community is growing quickly here in Arizona.