This article is part of our September 2015 special report on startups, which highlights IEEE’s efforts to attract more entrepreneurial types to the organization.
Devon Ryan says that running a company is part of his nature. He met his business partner, Fabio Gomez, in a programming class where the two pursued bachelor’s degrees in engineering at the University of Texas, San Antonio. In 2013 the two IEEE members decided to team up and form Lion Mobile, a software development company. The company is based is based in Austin, Texas, and currently has eight employees.
The first product the pair developed was “unWine,” a mobile app that educates users about wines and encourages them to post reviews of ones they’ve tasted. It was featured in “Meet the IEEE Members Behind Five of Today’s Hottest Startups,” part of our September special issue on startups.
In addition to running a business, Ryan represents the IEEE Young Professionals group on the IEEE-USA Board of Directors. He writes regular career advice columns for IEEE-USA InSight. Ryan is also a model, an actor, and a frequent speaker at career guidance and networking events. The Institute recently caught up with Ryan to talk about what motivated him to be his own boss, what he’s learned along the way, and what IEEE can do to better serve members who are just starting their careers.
What inspired you and your partner to start Lion Mobile?
Entrepreneurship runs in my family. My grandfather was an engineer and physicist, and he started several successful companies in Silicon Valley. He definitely had an influence on me growing up.
The tipping point for me, however, was in college. My family was poor. I was constantly struggling to make ends meet while trying to pursue an intensive degree in engineering. I started my own math tutoring business, and I remember how great it felt to be my own boss and help people at the same time. Then, I met my future business partner in a programming class. We were both reading the book, The Greatest Salesman in the World, which would profoundly impact us. We realized that everyone around us was pursuing the same piece of paper—a degree. And for the most part, we were all going to take this same piece of paper and compete for jobs. We wanted to stand out. That’s when we decided to start our first business together.
How did you come up with the idea for unWine?
I remember standing in the wine section and staring at a wall of bottles. I had no clue where to start, and it was daunting. I asked a “wine expert” who worked there to please advise me. He began explaining all the different options, but it sounded like he was speaking a different language. He threw all these obscure wine terms at me and made me feel even more overwhelmed. I thought to myself, “Why does wine have to be so complicated? Why so serious? I just wanted to unwind.”
Often, the wineries or wine stores market themselves to an older crowd, creating a stigma that you need to be knowledgeable, serious, or sophisticated to drink wine. That’s where unWine comes in. It’s a social platform that enhances wine experiences and provides you with an escape by making wine fun.
What are some things you've learned from starting your own business?
Embrace uncertainty. There is no linear path to success. You create your own path.
With that being said, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help you on your journey. You will eventually hit a wall or you will reach a plateau. If you want to get past these obstacles, you have to be able to embrace and leverage three things: people, time, and technology.
I’ve also learned that starting your own company will enable and accelerate your development. Even if your company doesn’t generate six- or seven-figure profits in a fiscal year, you will still benefit from the challenge alone. Starting something from nothing is a huge endeavor that will force you to reach deep inside and bring out both the best and the worst out of yourself. Everyone struggles but in my opinion, struggle increases your creativity.
How did you first get involved with IEEE? How has your volunteer work benefitted your career?
I began volunteering while I was attending college. I started out as the president of the IEEE student branch at my university, and the rest is history.
The organization has helped me in three ways; leadership, networking, and providing me with a variety of challenging situations. I could have just joined a company after graduating and met the challenges my employer presented me. Instead, I joined an organization like IEEE, which introduced a number of leadership challenges that gave me more insight into life and how to think critically with a group of people to accomplish a common goal—an essential skill for starting a business.
IEEE Young Professionals changed its name last year and continues to look for ways to resonate with engineers who are just starting out. What are some changes you’ve noticed since the rebranding? What else can YP do to benefit its members?
Sometimes it really just comes down to effective messaging. Previously, it was called Graduates of the Last Decade, or GOLD, which was not explicit enough. It didn’t resonate with young engineers. I believe YP can continue to refine its messaging and demonstrate its unique value to recent graduates.
Creating an environment where young engineers can discover themselves and network would be my suggestion. I believe young professionals are not done discovering themselves after college. In fact, they are really just are getting started. This is a huge untapped opportunity for IEEE.
How do you organize your time? Do you have any tips?
People can do far more than they realize with small changes in their lifestyle and schedule. For more context on this topic, read my article in IEEE-USA InSight on using your time wisely.
Personally, if I have spare time, something isn’t right. I embrace the fact that I do not have spare time. It’s an indicator that I am challenging myself constantly. Everything I do has intention, even when I just go surfing. To me, life is like having the unique opportunity to go to an amusement park. Are you there just to ride one ride? Or are you there to make the most of everything the park has to offer?