American Dreamers: Andy Fang, Co-Founder & CTO Of DoorDash, On Turning A School Project Into Feeding America
Jul 31, 2022
Joanne Chen is a General Partner at Foundation Capital. New!Follow this author to improve your content experience. Got it! American Dreamers is a series of conversations with leading Asian American entrepreneurs and business leaders in which they open up about everything from their startup stories and company building to confronting racism and making it in America. Andy Fang is the chief technology officer and one of the co-founders of DoorDash, everyone’s favorite food delivery app. Andy and his co-founders, Tony Xu and Stanley Tang, started the company in 2013 while they were students at Stanford. Eight years later, DoorDash is the largest local logistics company in the U.S., servicing hundreds of thousands of merchants and tens of millions of consumers, with over $3 billion in revenues in 2021. DoorDash went public in 2020, making Andy, who’s not yet 30, a billionaire. Not bad for his first job out of college! In these edited excerpts from my conversation with Andy, he tells me about his upbringing, how he and his co-founders started DoorDash, good and bad surprises that he encountered along the way from idea to IPO, and some of the challenges he faced with scaling the tech stack and himself as the company grew. We also discuss his reactions to issues of bias that Asian Americans face in Silicon Valley and the country more broadly, and Andy tells me what the American Dream means to him. Let’s start with where your family’s from and where you grew up. Both my parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. They met and had me here. I’m the youngest of four, born and raised near San Jose. I went to Stanford and we started DoorDash here, so I guess I never really left the Bay Area. When did you get into technology? Growing up in Silicon Valley, I was exposed to computer science very early on. One summer, when I was in elementary school, my mom didn’t want me to just sit around the house. So she made me and my brother take a summer class in basic coding. I learned how to write up some IF statements and for-loops in Java, interesting things like that. Java was actually my first language, too. And how did that summer coding class eventually lead to DoorDash? Well, I met one of my co-founders Stanley [Tang, DoorDash CPO] my freshman year at Stanford. We were in the same dorm and we would tinker and build a lot of stuff on the side. We built a social calendar app with group messaging, back in the day, which we tried to convince our friends to use. We were just exploring web and mobile technologies, but nothing really came of it. MORE FOR YOU
Then we took a joint engineering-and-business-school course called “Startup Garage.” And that's actually where we met Tony [Xu, DoorDash CEO and co-founder]. Tony’s mom was a small-business proprietor and the three of us bonded over our interest in using technology to help local businesses. We ended up talking to hundreds of local businesses in the Bay Area and we realized that delivery was a pain point, which was interesting because you might’ve thought that delivery was something that had already been solved for — pizza delivery has been around forever — but when you tried to get food delivered in Palo Alto, back in 2013, it was really only Domino's and the local Chinese restaurant. So we started out with testing an idea called PaloAltoDelivery.com. And that’s where the DoorDash story began. Tony was an MBA student at the time and you guys were undergrads. How did your relationship and roles evolve? We actually got along really well. I think one of the things that made our founding team special is that we all respected what the others brought to the table. Tony was the business guy and had previous relationships with some investors. He respected our expertise, which was technology for me and, for Stanley, it was more the product design side of things. Was it clear back then that you were going to focus on engineering and Stanley was going to focus on product? Yeah, I think it was obvious from the beginning. I had a more extensive background in computer science and Stanley really got into it because he wanted to build things. So that part of it was very easy for Stanley and me to delineate. And Tony was hitting the streets, talking to merchants, while we were coding. The roles naturally kind of fell into place. But we still had a lot of fun founding stories of just getting the product off the ground where none of the official roles mattered. Could you share? Well, we did the first couple of hundred deliveries ourselves, and we were still in school at the time, so we would take turns. One of us would play the dispatcher while the others went out and fulfilled deliveries. I would be on the phone, and Tony's calling me, telling me which orders to pick up and in what order, and I’m trying to write it all down on a scratchpad while also trying to find parking. And then the customer wants to pay with a credit card, Oh wait, Did I remember the Square card reader? And because we were in school, we were initially only open on the weekdays, from five to eight, whereas our early customers, who were mostly Stanford students, mostly wanted delivery over the weekend. It was frantic. When did you guys decide this could be more than a school project? It was in the spring of 2013. Stanley and I had internships at various tech companies lined up for the summer. Tony was graduating from the [Stanford Graduate School of Business]. So, it was a real decision point for us, and we decided, okay, let's go all in. That summer was when we rebranded the company as DoorDash and really committed to seeing what we could make of it. And now, just eight years later, look at what DoorDash has become. What surprised you along the way? It happened a lot faster than I would've thought. In some ways it's unreal to think about the journey we've been on. There's been a lot of luck that's gotten us to this point, in terms of our timing in the market and the types of people we were able to convince to join our company. For myself, especially — a new college graduate without a network to recruit from — it was tough back then to convince engineers to take the leap of faith with you. What we had to do was bet on people before they became credible in the industry, because those were the ones we could afford. And those are the people who generally are willing to take those risks, especially when they’re really young. A philosophy we had in the early days was investing in “slope over y-intercept” — believing in people's potential and hiring for that. And I think that is very applicable to us even today. As a result, we were able to build a really strong team. Many of the pleasant surprises we've had, when I think about the last eight years, are the people who've been able to step up and scale with us. Were there any unpleasant surprises? Even though our company was growing really well and our internal metrics were great, we had trouble raising funding in 2016 and through 2018. It was a bear cycle within the investor community. It forced us to buckle down, be fiscally responsible, and grow profitably. It was a pretty tough time for the company, though. We saw a fair amount of attrition across many different departments during that period, but we also had a lot of people who stayed through it. I expect that we’ll go through difficult times again. It's inevitable. But I think the DNA we've built — the perseverance, focus on the customers, and operating at the lowest level of detail — that core DNA is embedded in our leadership and the people who've endured with us. And I feel really confident that the next time we face obstacles or challenges, we'll be able to work through them. As you know, Asian Americans, especially East Asians, are underrepresented at the executive level. And one reason, many people believe, is the perception that East Asians lack what people here call leadership skills or executive presence. I know your professional path is atypical and you’re in some ways still early in your career, but have you felt or witnessed that bias? That’s something I've heard, but given the fact that our founding team had such strong East Asian representation, I don't think we felt it much. Whatever the perception, it’s not the reality at DoorDash. And hopefully, the position that I’m in shows other people who come from a similar background that there's nothing stopping them from being able to accomplish great things as an entrepreneur or executive. As the technical co-founder, what was the hardest technical challenge you faced both in the beginning when it was basically just you and then as you scaled up? In the beginning, I would say the hardest technical challenge was just trying to get things out faster, because that was the most important thing to hitting our next milestone. There were so many products we had to build for customers, for Dashers, for merchants, internal support tools, tools for our operators, launching and managing regions and new markets. There's a huge breadth of products that you have to build when you're starting from scratch. And there was a lot of pressure to get the bare minimum products across the board to support all our various audiences, external and internal. As we've gotten bigger, the challenge is finding the balance of maintaining or increasing that velocity, while making sure your systems can scale appropriately. We had some challenges with scaling our architecture and it was a humbling experience for me, because I’d never overseen large-scale distributed systems. So we had to bring in engineers from the outside who did have that experience, to come in and make decisions on where to take our technology stack. And it was crucial for me to let go of a lot of those decisions for us to be able to get to that next level. Eight years ago, you guys dreamt of starting this company and it's grown up much faster than you ever expected. What are you dreaming up now? There are a couple of things we're really excited about at DoorDash. Delivery is obviously something that we’ll continue to support, but we want to broaden the offerings we have on DoorDash beyond restaurants. We've seen a lot of promise in the convenience and alcohol and grocery spaces. And I think there are a lot of other opportunities to help customers connect with restaurants and engage more with merchants than just through delivery, whether that’s ordering pickup or browsing merchants on the app. There are also some interesting verticals that we want to experiment with and explore over the next couple of years. One other dimension that is also really interesting for us is becoming a more truly global company. We launched in Australia and Canada a couple of years ago, and in Japan and Germany this year. So we have our sights set on continuing to broaden our geographic footprint. You and a number of other Asian American business leaders signed an open letter a few months ago condemning the recent spate of anti-Asian racism and violence. Can you share any thoughts about this period of heightened anti-Asian animosity? I distinctly remember watching a clip of president Biden calling out the wave of racism against Asian Americans, which was interesting to me because, growing up in this country, I don’t recall a previous instance of a president specifically speaking about the Asian American community. So, I thought the fact that we were being recognized was a sign of progress. At the same time, I think there's more work to be done. And as business leaders from the Asian American community, I think we have a responsibility to spread awareness about and condemn hate targeting our community. I’m an immigrant, your parents are immigrants, you’re a child of immigrants. We're all relatively new Americans. What do you love about America? One thing that I've come to appreciate, especially over the past few years, is how America protects the idea of individualism and creating your own livelihood. As a son of immigrants, I appreciate that I’ve been able to chase my dream of entrepreneurship and see it flourish. I think the pursuit of happiness and freedom of opportunity are very American ideals. And the chance to dream and make those dreams a reality is very special and what I love about this country. We started with talking about your family. Why don’t we end there as well. What role did your family play as you went through this crazy journey? They've been very supportive throughout all of it. They're always in my corner and that's been crucial to me staying grounded. As a founder, it can sometimes feel like the world’s crashing down on you. I’m grateful that I had my family there to support me through all the highs and lows. What lessons or values have your parents passed down to you that you think have been most essential for your success? My parents taught me a kind of courage — that it was possible for me to do great things. Taking the first step of starting a company is usually the hardest step for a lot of people. But I always felt like it was something that I wanted to do and felt like I could do. And I think that not being afraid to take leaps of faith and putting myself in uncomfortable positions — that came from my parents. I’m grateful to them for that, too, because being outside of your comfort zone is often when you grow the most. Thanks, Andy, I loved learning more about you. And thank you for building DoorDash. It’s how I get fed every day!