We chat with Chinedu Echeruo, who built the popular transportation app, HopStop. Echeruo had no expertise in computer science when he set out to build the service, but he was a whiz at Excel. With a little help from Upwork and some paper maps, he built a business that was eventually acquired by Apple.
Echeruo's new venture is called Love and Magic, a startup studio that helps companies of all sizes maximize their ability to innovate.
For anyone that has an idea they have been hoping to turn into a startup, Echeruo and his collaborators just introduced the Startup School of Alchemy. It's being taught at WeWork and Princeton University. It offers a six-week curriculum designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs find product-market fit.Apply with the code "stackoverflow" and you get $1000 off the course, a 40% discount.
Echeruo says his time working in finance and with Microsoft Excel was what gave him the ability to think of how data from maps could be optimized by an algorithm and built into a useful mobile app.
For those who don't know, our co-founder and Chairmam, Joel Spolsky, was part of the team at Microsoft that built Excel. Here is legendary 2015 talk, You Suck at Excel, where he organizes a spreadsheet to keep track of what he pays his Pokemon, ahem,I mean, uh, employees.
You can take a deeper dive into the backstory of how Chinedu built HopStop below, related in his own words.
I've always had difficulty with directions. When I grew up in Nigeria, I remember getting lost in my own house. It wasn’t like it was a mansion, it was a four-bedroom house.
So you can imagine how I felt when I got to NYC and had to get around with the subway and bus system! I remember walking up once to one of those blown up maps in the subway station. My nose was a feet away from the dust laden map. The subway lines looked like tangled noodles. Complexity galore!
New Yorkers used to walk around with these pocket guides—Hagstrom maps. I was going on a date in the Lower East Side. It doesn’t have the grid like the rest of the city. I got lost and was very late getting to the bar.I can't remember how, the date went but I remember what I did first thing next morning. I walked over to the subway station, grabbed a subway MAP and laid it on the floor and tried to figure it out. There’s driving directions. But there weren’t subway directions. So I was solving my own problems.
I was looking for the complete directions—leave your house, turn left, go into this particular entrance, get on this train, get off at this station, use this exit. Because I was, in a lot of ways, the ultimate user, we ended up building a product that solved the complete problem—get me from where I am now to where I need to be.
I was non-technical, I worked for a hedge fund. I may have been thinking algorithmically, I knew that this was computationally possible. But I didn’t know how to make it a reality. In conceiving the problem, I threw all the data into spreadsheets. I interned at this company when I was in college, where I learned about spreadsheets. I found the work very tedious, but I learned how to think about data, to think in tables. It allowed me to conceptualize complexity.
To conceptualize the first subway data as a spreadsheet, I started by staring at the subway map laid on the wood floor of my apartment. The most obvious features were colors, lines, and stops. So those are the tables I typed into Excel first. Then I realized the lines also represented two train directions so I redid the spreadsheet. Then I realized the stops served multiple subway lines, so I redid the spreadsheet. Then I realized some of the stops would only be active during certain periods, so I redid the spreadsheet. We kept on learning and adjusting. It took us a long time before we had a data model that robustly described NYC's subway system. We even figured out how to automatically account for the frequent weekend NYC subway diversions.
To build the first version of the app, I went to eLance, described to these computer scientists the data set in Excel, routes, stops, exits, entrances, and I sent it in. This developer in Siberia, Russia, emailed me, came up with a solution. But he turned out to be a complete genius, he built the core of the first version of Hopstop. Here I was, a Nigerian, sitting in my apartment using messenger, email, on a laptop. And I never met Alex for four years. We built Hopstop over four years without ever meeting each other.
We ran very lean. Alex did all the coding. I did the subway data and user experience. I'd have to ride to different subway stations to note each subway entrance and exit, etc. When we added the bus system, Rajeev and his data team in India helped input the bus stops and schedules. And four years later, we were purchased by Apple, so quite the ride.
The Stack Overflow Podcast - Transcript - Chinedu Echeruo
00:00 Chinedu Echeruo: You have a hard time talking about our problems. So you see it's obviously in like in personal relationships. For example, where it's this wall of communications...
00:09 Paul Ford: I'm fine. I'm fine. Everything's fine.
00:11 [INTRO SONG]
00:42 BP: Hey. Hello everybody. Welcome back to the stack overflow podcast. We have a great guest on with us today, Chinedu Echeruo. Did I get that right?
00:51 CE: Yes.
00:51 BP: So Chinedu, I know you created an app that was for awhile, pretty revolutionary here in New York city called HopStop.
00:58 CE: Correct.
00:59 BP: Tell us about the genesis of that app. What inspires you to make it and how did you build it?
01:04 CE: Well first thank you for inviting me on the podcast. So this was a long time ago. This is the time where new yorkers used to walk around with these pocket guides that you know, they'll literally give you this different subway and...
01:18 PF: Hagstrom maps.
01:19 CE: Yeah, yeah. So I remember going on a date on the lower East side, you know, it's lower East side doesn't have the app...
01:26 Sara Chipps: Great date spot.
01:27 CE: [Laughs] ...but also doesn't have the streets and the...
01:30 SC: The grid, yeah.
01:30 EC: Yeah, the grid. So for me, who's spatially challenged [laughs]
01:34 SC: Same.
01:34 EC: I just thought it was terror and I remember getting lost, but I remember what I did the next day is I went to the subway, picked up a subway map, laid it on the floor of the apartment I lived in and said, look, I have to figure out this problem. Like there's driving directions. Why aren't there subway directions? And so it was really solving my own problem.
01:57 PF: And this is, I always, I, I literally can't remember how I saw friends before mobile phones. Like I think you'd call, you go over to their house and then you'd go somewhere like it was impossible.
02:08 SC: You stood by a phone for a while it was and called you.
02:11 PF: Or you just go to a bar and wait there for an hour and a half reading something on paper. Like out like a wild creature.
02:18 BP: Yeah, and if they didn't show up you'd just figure it out for the rest of the night.
02:22 PF: Oh, you go home and they'd be like, Aw, I'm really sorry. Yeah, that's true. I will say flaking was much more like couldn't flake because if you flaked it meant that you blew up somebody's entire night. It wasn't like 15 minutes. She's flaked again, but I'm going to go do it. She told me so now I'm going to do my own thing. Just sit there and wait.
02:39 BP: So you're looking at this subway map and what are the problems that you're trying to solve? Like how do I find the nearest subway or where do I get in? Like what was the problem that you were trying to solve?
02:49 CE: The complete solutions. Just let me tell you how bad it was. So I grew up in Nigeria and I remember getting lost even in our own house. It's not that we were, had this huge mansion though. It was like a regular house. So what I really wanted was a complete solution. I wanted something to walk me from, literally leave your apartment and make a left and then go down the street and make a right. Then make another left, then go into this particular subway entrance and good down into the subway and wait for this particular train and get out. And you know, it's literally step by step by step direction. So in so many ways, because I was almost like the ultimate user, I think, uh, we, we ended up building a product that actually solve the complete problem, which is get me from where I am now to where I need to be.
03:37 PF: And for people who aren't new yorkers, it was a just a very nice solution. I remember it really well, just like, Oh, okay.
03:44 CE: Thank you.
03:44 PF: No, you're welcome. So what happened with HopStop? It got sold, right?
03:48 CE: Yes. It got purchased by Apple in 2013.
03:52 PF: A little company to sort of roll in stuff up. That's nice.
03:53 SC: I've heard of it.
03:55 CE: Well, the backstory was that HopSpot's number one competitor was Google. But in so many ways, I think it, it may have set up the company as well for the acquisition because in many ways I think Apple was going through its own transformation in terms of its mapping product, et cetera. And I think transit was a, was a space I think we had excelled in.
04:19 PF: Okay. So 2013 went to Apple for a while, I'm guessing.
04:24 CE: No, actually didn't.
04:26 PF: So cause you got lost along the way.
04:27 CE: No, actually we, we had to hired a new CEO for HopStop. So four years before the acquisition. So I was the original founder. Then four years into HopStops live, we brought in a new CEO who did a marvelous job of really scaling the business up. And so he joined Apple and after the acquisition I was just the chairman and a shareholder.
04:52 PF: Alright. So what about today? Fast forward a little bit.
04:54 CE: Yeah. So after the acquisitions, I think a unique opportunity to sit back and really think about what else I'll do with my life. And I think I was also going through my own personal challenges at that time. I really thinking of what's the purpose of life? You know, in almost a very existential way,
05:10 PF: This is real. When you have a business, you can really kind of think about the business and defer all of that thinking. And then suddenly you have a moment and you're like, wait a minute, why am I here?
05:18 CE: Yes. But I would also argue that we would probably have much more all those choices every single day, right? But I think when you actually have some time, I made actually a wonderful time to, to do so. And so what's really kept on coming to my mind is what's the constraints, right? In terms of what's possible. And what I really ended up on was Love and Magic Company, which is a company I co-founded right now, which is how can we take this power of imagination and potential and turn it into a thin, right? So almost like how do you solve problems at scale? Right? And so that's what we do now,
05:55 PF: Right, so Love and Magic. First of all, I hear a company with that and I'm like, well can I buy Love and Magic?
06:00 SC: It sounds amazing.
06:00 PF: Yeah, I could buy, I could use some magic. What's a problem then? What is the thing that you're trying to say.
06:06 BP: Yeah I mean without giving away the secret sauce or something a customer would want.
06:09 PF: Well we could give away some secret sauce.
06:11 CE: It's great to give away lots of secret sauce. I think much of the learnings we've had have been things we've learned from YouTube. So I love the first of all, the whole Stack Overflow community in terms of being able to share knowledge. There's so much information available and I remember when I started HopStop and I came from the hedge fund world and all I could use was Excel. That was sort of thing my core competency right? But I gathered so much information just from Google and in fact the very first algorithm HopStop used was something I researched and found. So there's a modification of textures show this path algorithm that I actually found. I may have actually found it on Stack Overflow, who knows? But I was really thinking about like how would I solve a problem in being non technical? The ability to ask the question and have resources to tell you an answer. It's something that I think many people underestimate. But I think part of our jobs as human beings is to share knowledge in a very practical way with other people. So I don't mind, I can go into as much detail in terms of our process, but, so okay, what is the nature of a problem?
07:18 PF: Let me, let me be a, let me be a client or a or a somebody coming to you. Like what? Give me a sense of the kinds of problems, then we'll make up a good one.
07:27 CE: So okay, so most people are looking for innovation.
07:29 PF: Okay?
07:30 CE: So most companies are challenged like how do I innovate? Right? But it's also clear that a bunch of men and women go into a room and over the next couple of weeks or months, they come up with something amazing, right? So what we've tried to do is, okay, let's understand the first principles of that process so that we can replicate it. So the first place we start is the nature of your customer. Obviously we see the words beloved customer because what we're trying to do is to instill in our client's mind the importance of empathy so that you can only solve a problem. Innovation is really you delivering a product that actually moves the needle in a significant way in your customer's life in some some way. Right? So the communities be able to access information to go from I am a novice coder and then create transformation because you've given them a community and content now lets them upgrade their skills. That's transformation. So that's what we do. We start off with with a customer.
08:33 PF: I have a hold on it. I sell services for a living. This is how they come in. They come in and they say, our light bulb division, everybody's doing smart bulbs. I don't, what are we? I gotta. I need innovation.
08:43 CE: Yes.
08:43 PF: Okay. Then I just sent you that email, received that email. Correct. Now you have to turn me into someone who's actually thinking about things in a calm, rational way. Right? Where do you start?
08:54 CE: You are bulb companies. Is that it?
08:55 PF: Yeah. I've got these light bulbs and everyone's doing this smart bulbs.
08:58 SC: I only have dumb bulbs.
09:00 PF: Yeah. I only have, I can't hire a bunch of hardware engine.
09:03 CE: Yeah. Well look even if it's smart or because maybe you've already started defining the problems. So it's not about the bulb, it's about your customer. So customer Jane lives in Brooklyn, she has a brownstone and she's on a fixed income. So she needs a bulb that lasts very long time. That could be, that could be on, but there are different types of Janes. There is a Jane that could potentially want a light that has a self timer in it so she doesn't even have to worry about tech. She wants to literally just plug that bulb in and it does all the sensing itself. Right. So that's one. But so all innovation starts with what is the story that your beloved customer wants to make?
09:49 PF: Jane doesn't want to worry about light bulbs, right. She wants beautiful light in her beautiful brownstone.
09:52 CE: Yeah, maybe it's different tones of...
09:56 PF: Okay.
09:56 CE: Maybe it's blue and red cause no one does that. Maybe she needs mood lighting for her bedroom. And that's a whole new category of bulb lights. Maybe she needs, they're all kinds of needs. But innovation is only innovation. In fact, innovation would only work if it's in line with the natural tendencies of your customers, like real things that your customers are...
10:19 PF: So Love and Magic phase one, we're going to go learn about people.
10:21 CE: You have to learn about your customers, right? So okay, I'm going to get a little technical.
10:26 SC: Yeah no I think that's great.
10:27 CE: So this is a concept as we looked at how to think about product development from a first principles perspective. So we took it. What's the first principles of product development? So that journey took us down a very interesting rabbit hole and it really took us down to the rabbit hole of the free energy principle. So if you remember from your physics or chemistry in school, free energy is really defined by the anthropy within the system, minus the entropy in other formulations in biological life, that has been generalized to the observation that all life from single cells to mod like complex systems, all life tends to want to maximize value and reduce surprise. Okay. So that's it biologically. From a product development and entrepreneurship perspective, those concepts translate to a story of fantasy, a self-generated belief minus the friction I'm doing it. So really product development from a first principles perspective is the alignment of a product experience to an aspiration of your customer. I'm just saying that is like based on a fundamental law of nature, right? So that's the paradigm and that's our framework in terms of how we think about product development. If you truly understand your customer's story, if you truly understand their aspirations, you can then build a product that can transform and make those stories come true. So that's the kind of the framework we bring to our client engagement. So you want to solve a problem okay, let's understand that. Now let's then build a product that creates that transformation that makes those stories come true.
12:14 SC: Do a lot of your clients, are they surprised by the things they learned for their customers?
12:19 CE: Yes, yes. So a client right now, as it's been around for a few decades, so we started talking to the CEO about how customers and the assumptions she had around her customer base. And only at that point is she have the kind of, obviously she has done very well, but she had this new interpretation of what her customers wanted and and how she could show up in their lives has really allowed innovation to really bubble because now there's something that's really tangible that her employees can really rally around, which is the very human interest on the customers or the people she's serving.
12:57 SC: Yeah!
12:57 CE: So it goes away from something being theoretical and just being something that you do in a PowerPoint and it becomes very human. They know her clients are facing these issues, so what can we do as a company to make those stories come true? It just allows to have almost the requirements from an engineering perspective flow very naturally out of an understanding of the stories.
13:25 PF: help us get there, right? Because you're talking at an abstract level about customer needs and I've been the recipient of many deliverable that describes the personas and the and the things that they need the jobs to be done, things like that. Right now I've got to turn that into something actionable. And this is where consulting to actual product delivery there tends to be a relatively vast gap.
13:46 CE: So here's... Okay, I'll give you a practical example of, so, so let's take the case of Uber. So the practical way of making the story come true in terms of what you're trying to do as friction comes up in three primary ways. So when someone says, I have a story, you have three ways to impact it. First you make those stories come true faster. So speed, the second is deduction of the dispersion of risk or probability or uncertainty of those stories come true. And the third way is to reduce or change some input output relationship. Like I want to have more for the same price, I want to have the same for less. So that's a way to turn to go from customer needs and directly flow into requirements that an engineer could understand.
14:39 PF: If you give me those three I can write you a product requirement.
14:41 CE: Exactly. So it's just a wonderful way. So again, it took us two years to really try to go back and really think about what creation is, what innovation is, what entrepreneurship. So what I'm sharing now is kind of the way we're viewing from a first principles perspective, how to think about product development.
14:57 PF: What were the three again? They were good.
14:58 CE: Sure. So I'll use Uber as a practical example. So Uber before I would have to have got down into the streets of New York with a cab down so much like the, so the speed of that second usually get an Uber in five minutes. So there's reduction of speed now, no uncertainty. Okay, well where is the Uber? Is it going to come? How long will it take to get there? Those are all the risk minimization things that Uber does within the app experience. And the third one, price, which I'm not 100% sure they've done this, but, and it's reduced the price of that trip, of that story of going from point A to point B, at least relative to, um, a yellow taxi or whatever, you know. So that just gives you a way of thinking about how do you take a story and then, because now if you tell an engineering team, our customer's story is to be able to go from point A to point B, how do we minimize that time becomes something that engineers and product developers can sit down and posits difference.
15:57 SC: Yeah we love problems. So when you have a big company like Uber and that's their original problem, I imagine that over time the problem they're trying to solve changes just because the paradigm has shifted so much.
16:09 CE: Yes. So the way we always think about it is empathy has ROI, right? Empathy has ROI. So your ability to track, and as it says, we use the word beloved customers for reason because we want, we want our clients really think about is if I truly understood what you wanted, if I truly understood what your hierarchy of of stories are, if I truly understood that I would build a product that you would have no choice but to buy. What we have is we don't have the understanding of what those stories are. And so it really starts off with empathy. So as you build the first version of your MVP, there's going to be this market share potentially of how else could you show up in their lives, like what additional products or services would help your customer go on the journey on the story they've intended, they've chosen to go on. So I think that's where you have to build a system of really understanding and having empathy for your customers, but then keep that loop going and checking back in, how's it going and how it could be improved or was there friction? Then well let me remove that friction. Oh, what else would you love to do? Right? So it takes a holistic view of your customer and product development, innovation, growth is the ability to track that empathy and understand what those, obviously there's some, um, some use cases you won't be able to solve. But I love the fact that you mentioned the job to be done framework. I think it's a wonderful framework to think about product development cycles. But essentially what you want to do is have a share of wallet strategy around the job to be done. Just as you penetrating your beachhead into the use case, which is probably going to be your MVP, then you'd, so it's a market share of the job to be done. And obviously the ultimate job to be done is existential transformation, life transformation, but between your MVP and that point in that people need to save money, get there faster, reduce risk on all manner of jobs.
18:10 SC: We have a lot of engineers that listen to this show, both in leadership and also individual contributors. What would you say to them if they're looking for ways to better understand the people that they're building for.
18:21 CE: Talks to them.
18:23 SC: Yeah, that's a big one.
18:25 CE: Yeah. Talk to them.
18:27 PF: The company doesn't always make it easy. I advocate for the same thing. Right. And it's actually hard to make the connection between the engineers and the customers.
18:33 SC: Yeah. Yeah.
18:37 CE: But it's so necessary because we all have that frustration. Right? You know there's things you use, right? But imagine if the the engineer was just next to you or heard you, how much you cringed when you had to press that extra button or do that irritates him.
18:54 PF: That's the only way to go actually. Yeah. The only way to build product that's real where people, the thing I've noticed as, unless the people you're building for, whether it's customers or inside of an organization become advocates for the product. The people building are never adequate advocates. It has to be the users. Right? And so if you sit with them and you see their frustrations, you resolve them, then they will go out and they will tell everyone, my God, they solved it.
19:17 CE: Yeah and it's so clearly true but the question is why don't we do that? Right?
19:21 BP: I think there's something about that where it requires you to deal with a little bit of ego, right? If you've worked really hard on something, you came up with the ideas for how you think it should be built. You brainstormed with a bunch of your colleagues and then you say, let's invite some strangers in here. And they tell you, well, obviously it shouldn't be like that. You know? That's pretty, that can be a painful experience. And you're like, well, how does this person know better than, I mean, I've thought about this for six months. They've only used it for 10 minutes, but obviously that's incredible feedback that you should use, right? Like that's what every customer is going to feel when they pick it up.
19:51 PF: My personal motto is that life is one huge lesson in humility. That's part of it, right? They're just going to tell you. If you listen, that's a gift. But it's very hard because they are criticizing you. They're criticizing your thing. It's going to hurt. You can externalize some of it, but you have to just let that be.
20:05 BP: When you were building it all by yourself, was it the MVP, just you, you said you sort of laid out a map and you started searching for different algorithms online. Did you have a team or did you build the first version of yourself?
20:16 CE: Yeah it was just, okay. So the story was, I was nontechnical as I mentioned, I worked for a hedge fund and uh...
20:21 PF: Pretty technical though. That's actually like you were thinking algorithmically, logically and strategically.
20:27 CE: Yeah.
20:27 PF: Computers aren't that hard, right?
20:30 CE: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean obviously I knew though as a solution, I knew this was computationally possible. Yeah. So what I did was I went to Elance, so I used again, Oh, I could use with Excel. Right. So I lead that. I'm like, okay, how would they describe to a computer scientist the dataset? Right? And I said, okay, I'll use, that's what I could use. I said, okay, well there's a roots. Okay. The notion of stops maybe exits. So I created this, this matrix, this Excel spreadsheet, and I sent it to the, put it on a site called Elance and Elance has then, it's now called Upwork. Then this developer in Siberia, Russia emailed me back, submitted a solution and I hired him. But he ended up being an absolute genius and he single handedly built the core algorithm for HopStop.
21:20 PF: Just a wonderful stroke of luck. Yeah, that's great.
21:23 CE: Yeah. I was just in the fact that I was on a marketplace like Upwork or Elance find talents. So here I was, Nigerian, in my apartments with my, just my laptop using Hotmail messenger and email and they I met Alex for four years. So we literally built HopStop literally with message, a messenger message, email for the full four years without having met him at all. So yeah.
21:52 BP: How did you import the data? Like is there something that you can look at that you know in a sort of numerical way will pull in the stops and the space between there. Did you have to like go out and walk...
22:02 CE: So one of the things I interned that a company called Agora, which is now bankrupt, but what it did was teach me about spreadsheets. And so it's just so funny how it's an experience you don't think matters really is. But what it did, and this was in college, it allowed me to have this almost this familiar relationship with data. I just thought of tables. But I think what that allowed me to do is be able to frame complexity. If you can describe things in a numeric way, it allows you to bridge the problem space. Right. And, and bridge the problem space. Some algorithmic or computational solution.
22:41 PF: I always say this to engineers and they never want to hear it, but it's like tech is a $1 trillion industry or more, but the actual, the many, many trillions of dollars are being organized, structured and decisions are being made in Excel. That is the most powerful in terms of economic impact programming language in the world. Yeah. Excel re-programming.
23:00 SC: So true. Do they like hearing that?
23:01 PF: No.
23:02 SC: Yeah I didn't think.
23:03 PF: But it does is it says like all the power is elsewhere in a tool that you really don't get to control. But like we have a, I have a client in insurance and like the CEO of that company, huge databases, enormous analytical models and they feed into Excel for his world and he runs his company in that way and it's very normal. Like that's how they control and understand and see their world. It's a, it's a way of perceiving the world. So yeah.
23:25 CE: Yeah. And it's so important cause that's allows us to transfer information in a robust way. So because of my experience with Excel and some early stuff databases, I could see how you could describe it in a sufficient manner, right. For an algorithm to then work on it. So I think, uh, I think that helped.
23:46 BP: So Chinedu it was great to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for coming by. It's an amazing story about the first company you built and the one you're working on now. And I think a lot of really interesting ideas about, you know, you use that word magic, but like what is the germ, you know, what is the seed that you can find that in that process of getting to innovation. So if people want to find you online, if they want to check out your company, where should they look?
24:08 CE: So first of all, I love, this is great, great first experience. So people can find more about our work at loveandmagic.com and we're also launching a Startup School of Alchemy at startupschoolofalchemy.com where we will be teaching a master class on how to turn ideas into a startup. That's on startupschoolofalchemy.com . You can also reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
24:40 BP: Okay. Alright. If you have an idea that you want to turn into a startup through Alchemy, Love and Magic, reach out.
24:45 CE:Thank you.
24:47 PF: Yeah, go get started.
24:48 BP: Folks who want to find us online and chit chat with us? I am @BenPopper on Twitter, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow.
24:53 SC: I'm Sara Chipps. I help run the community here at Stack Overflow and I'm @SaraJChipps at Twitter.com. And I'm Paul Ford, I'm the cofounder of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City and a good friend of Stack Overflow, or at least I try to be. You can see me @FTrain on Twitter.
25:10 [OUTRO SONG]