Spiritual Life

Silicon Valley entrepreneur shares successes and struggles

Entrepreneurs dream about the day when their product is a success. And when their company is acquired or goes public, that dream feels fully realized. For Jerry Shen, success came early.

Shen’s product – Bignoggins, a fantasy sports app – became the No. 1 app on iTunes two years after its release. Yahoo acquired Bignoggins in 2013, four years after Shen developed the app as a graduate student at Santa Clara University.

Bignoggins had only one employee and shareholder, and the company never raised any outside capital. Shen, 31 at the time, said Yahoo paid more for his company than he could ever imagine.

Shen discovered that success is not only temporal, but also poses other challenges.

Entrepreneurial seeds

Shen immigrated to Ohio from China with his family when he was 4 years old. As the only Asian child in his neighborhood and school, he said he felt like the “odd man out.” He developed defiant behavior as a way of coping.

“I always went against the grain,” he said, noting that as the class clown, he was kicked out of school twice.

Relief came in eighth grade, when his family moved to the Bay Area. He basked in the Silicon Valley’s Asian population and technological and entrepreneurial environment.

He promised himself that he would start his own tech company someday. He set aside his quest while he worked at Lockheed-Martin. A pivotal moment came in 2007, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. Shen recognized that mobile devices would be big, and he wanted to be part of that future. He took a graduate class in iOS at Santa Clara in 2009.

Shen joined a fantasy basketball league to keep in touch with friends. There were no apps available, so he developed a fantasy app, released in May 2010. Sales were slow at first, but then the app surged to No. 1 in the sports category on the iPhone. He quit his job to start Bignoggins.

During the next three years, Shen experienced the challenges of entrepreneurship: long periods of loneliness and boredom, punctuated by shorts bursts of terror.

When Yahoo called, serious negotiations began. An engineer with no negotiation experience, Shen described it as “another moment of sheer terror.”

“I took it to God in prayer,” he said. “God supernaturally put people in my life who gave me wise counsel.”

Struggles follow success

After the acquisition, Shen accepted a leadership position on Yahoo’s mobile fantasy team, working to deliver the fantasy football app. His world came crashing down, however, when the app crashed. The Yahoo executive team was upset. It took a week to fix.

Shen fell into a depression. Slowly, he realized that he had allowed his validation to come from worldly success rather than God. As a follower of Christ, he knew his sense of worth came from God’s love for him, but success had distracted him.

The second struggle Shen experienced was with generosity. He knew God expected him to be generous, but after his once-in-a-lifetime windfall, he began to obsess over money and ask, “What is the stock price?” and “What happens if I lose it all?” He forgot how God wanted him to view money.

His third struggle involved focus and his assertive personality. His ability to focus intensely and give opinions helps his work, but it causes problems with his wife. That struggle is still very much a work in progress.

Another struggle, Shen said, is his lack of respect for authority. Although perhaps not an unusual trait in entrepreneurs, it has gotten him into trouble.

Dealing with challenges

How does Shen handle the hassles? While he has no definitive answers, he said, he is making progress. He takes solace in knowing that many people in the Bible faced similar challenges, including Peter, who denied Christ; Paul, who struggled with holiness; and even Jesus, who questioned his destiny while in Gethsemane.

He offered the following suggestions.

• Don’t run away. Don’t retreat from struggles, move forward and fight them. Having a group of people helping is essential. Shen meets regularly with other Christians to pray and share advice.

• Don’t play church. Too many Christians are content with simply attending church.

“I think to have a breakthrough in your spiritual life, you have to surrender everything,” Shen said. “God calls us … to take up the cross.”

• Be aware of spiritual warfare. Shen said Satan attacks people, especially those with influence. He believes that his depression and other struggles are examples of spiritual warfare. Prayer and a small group to share struggles with help blunt such attacks.

Skip Vaccarello is a longtime Los Altos resident.

For more information, visit findinggodinsiliconvalley.com.

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