on Jan 30, 16

How A Big Fall Led To A Bigger Start — The Story of Pencil

use pencil

Written by Sydney Liu, co-founder of Pencil

TLDR: Shutting down a startup was really really hard…but it’s led to something that feels right. A side project that we built because we wanted it ourselves so badly, where everything we’ve learned, everything we’re good at, all of it is coming together.

Pencil, our new storytelling website, feels meant to be. We’re excited to announce that we launched into beta today. Go check it out: http://usepencil.com

The Feelings

If you’re a founder, you know how I felt. All day, every day, thinking about your startup. In the back of my mind, the biggest questions about our future always loomed. And, oh yes, there were always questions. “Why are the recruiters not liking the candidates we’re sending them? How can improve the quality of the candidates we’re reaching? What is our value proposition for really strong job candidates who likely have a network?”

We had a vision to change the recruiting process. To make recruiting easier. Something my awesome co-founder, Ryan Choi, and I felt super passionate about. Our startup was called TalentTrail, it was eHarmony for jobs (and the co-founder of eHarmony was our adviser). We took candidates and matched them to the best fit companies.


Jumping over brick walls, solving hard problems, and trying to realize our vision were things that I LOVED about startup life. It was grueling, but I loved the feeling of making things work and doing what I thought was impossible.

I loved thinking about our startup like a chess game. Where we would make the best moves possible to put ourselves in the best position to succeed.Whether it’d be a winning move or losing move, we couldn’t know. But that is the beauty of building a startup. Just as it is the beauty of chess.

Ryan and I talking TalentTrail

TalentTrail was almost everything to me. The first question people would ask me when they saw me was always, “How is TalentTrail going?” The first thing people would hear when they asked if I was free to hangout was: “Working on TalentTrail.” I don’t think it surprised anybody when I left USC to focus on TalentTrail.

Pitching Mark Cuban

It was a huge part of my identity.

But then….we hit THE brick wall.

A wall that we could have jumped over. A wall that probably would have a whole new adventure behind it. The details of our shutdown and the reasons/lessons for it are outlined in this post so I won’t dive into too much detail on the shutdown. Instead, I’ll focus on the mentality.

The hardest part was knowing that we could probably solve the problems that were ahead. It’s just not the path we believed in. We crafted a hypothesis that our job matching process would streamline recruiting and delight both candidates and employers. Turns out….people didn’t like the matching process. We tweaked things and found a way that was growing organically and quickly, but it was not a business that we felt would make a meaningful impact or truly innovate on the space. We had built just another job board.

Users didn’t love us. They loved the companies on our site.

And that wasn’t a fun thing to realize.

It sucked because we knew the problems of recruiting still existed.

It sucked because we knew we would never again feel the joy when we knew somebody landed a great internship.

It sucked because we let the people who believed in us down.

We were so lucky. All the opportunities we got. All the people who helped us. We didn’t deserve the support and help that we got. And we still couldn’t make it work.

It sucked because it initially made me wonder: “Is it possible that I’m not meant to be a founder?”

The Final Test

Before shutting down, we decided to do one last test of user love. We emailed some of our users telling them we shut down. If they responded, weeping about how they loved us, then, perhaps, we missed something. But if our conclusions were correct, that they loved the companies and marketplace, not us, then our users wouldn’t care.

We didn’t want to just sit and refresh our inboxes all day. I knew it would drive me insane. We decided to build something for fun. A project that wouldn’t take long to build, but something we would use.

We got no replies. No sob stories, no love. This was it.

Then… one day….TalentTrail’s twitter account stopped tweeting inspirational quotes and job advice….(P.S. shameless plug, follow @usepencil on twitter if you want some pure awesomeness). 

That was how Pencil was born.

I had a lot of ideas to write about stuffed into Evernote, but never had the time to write about them. I wanted an easy and fun way to share those thoughts. We decided to hack together something that would allow us to share ideas quickly in a way where our friends would love it. 24 hours later, I made the first post and shared it to Facebook: 

The story is here: https://usepencil.com/play/sydney/My-First-Startup-Flippr 

We started seeing people sign up. People seemed to like the interaction. We saw people make their first creations.

Everything kind of just lined up

The sales process I designed for TalentTrail is the process I used to reach out to influencers. The tactics I used to promote job listings are similar to the ways we promoted the early content. The network of founders we’d met to help find interns are now great people to share their story on Pencil. Everything seemed to line up perfectly.

But more importantly…..Pencil has been so fun to work on. From the people I’ve met to the community we’ve grown. I love using the product.

What started as a small project has grown into my entire life. We think that this can be the style and storytelling platform of the future with its simplicity and digestible nature. Our alpha testing has been exciting and today, we are excited to announce:

Pencil is now in beta! Come check out a story and share your thoughts!

As our community has started to grow, we’ve realized that the opportunity is so much bigger than the little project we made. In a generation of shorter attention spans (I’m guilty of this, probably why I love Pencil so much), we believe we can pioneer THE millennial blogging platform. Visual, simple, and fun.

I look forward to seeing you on Pencil :) Say hello to me on Pencil, just tag “@sydney” in the comments or a post.

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  • awesome product, keep it up pencil!

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