About

About me, told in chronological order, starting with my…

Pre-High School Years

In seventh grade, I stumbled across a video from IBM about how a student rebuilt a mainframe and then landed a job there.

Seeing this, I decided to try my own luck. Scouring eBay, I landed the sole bid of a dusty, 12-year-old Dell PowerEdge 2950 almost as old as myself. Whereas my computer had DDR4 RAM, this machine had DDR2 RAM. At only $6, though, it gave my then 13-year-old self something to experiment with.

I always thought the insides of a server look cooler than just a plain metal box 🙂

Soon, I began hosting customer websites from my basement on my new hosting platform, ISODME.com. Originally, I’d develop websites for others and host it for $2 per month. Then, customers began emailing me code. After realizing this couldn’t scale, I learned PHP, Bash scripting, and Git version control to build my own website hosting platform. Within a year, I evolved from a wide-eyed student who needed a GUI to use Linux into a more experienced, website hosting geek operating three servers with two friends.

A middle-school self playing around with used Dell Optiplex / HP Compaq desktops

Web hosting has its limits, though, and after two years, I lost interest. I began selling virtual servers to customers, even creating my own Proxmox plugin to automatically provision virtual machines.

I valued my time (and two other friends’ time) at $0, so I offered customers cheap servers that we scoured eBay auctions for. Often, we’d purchase broken components and hack together a barely-working (and often, unstable) system that we’d then try to sell.

Shocks, scrapes, cuts, etc. became the norm — even at 4 AM. We’ve popped our homes’ circuit breakers countless times.

That’s when I met FluidStack, an UK-based startup looking to become a cloud GPU reseller. I scraped together all the funds I could and purchased an NVIDIA Tesla V100 for $2k as its only bidder (worth $10k at the time). Then, I rented it to FluidStack at $400/month, not knowing how likely it’d be for them to actually pay me.

An NVIDIA Tesla V100 GPU in an HPE DL380 Gen9 server. Powerful, sleek, cool, and oh so expensive!

Fun fact: their website about page says that “Following a 2:00am conversation on Reddit with a data center owner, FluidStack finally got access to their first HPC servers in Boston, US.” Before I left, I actually asked one of the co-founders if this was me. They never responded, but I’m guessing it was.

Hardware hardware hardware!

9 & 10 grade, COVID

After one month, FluidStack still hadn’t paid me, so I became increasingly anxious. Eventually, they responded to my email and sent me my payout, but by then, I had lost all confidence in them. As a COVID lockdown’d 9th-grade student, I did the logical thing: I cold emailed them and asked for a job to see if I could view their financials — and I got it.

Around the same time, I picked up some volunteer work helping Professor Yiling Chen develop research tools. With PhD candidate Juntao Wang, we analyzed the replicability of studies. We’ve finalized a paper for publication and open-sourced the data.

To inspire fellow students during the pandemic, I also helped start Hack3, a global online hackathon for high school students. We reached 275 students in 2020, but we’d later surpass that with 350 students in 2021 and 375 students in 2022, making us the largest 24-hour hackathon for high school students. We’re sponsored by the likes of Amazon, Postman, NetApp, Xylem, Github, Slack, Adtran, Stickermule, Domain.com, Digi-Key, Mathworks, and the list goes on…

Hack3 organizing team, c. 2021

I also picked up an internship working at Antagen Biosciences with their CEO and CIO building out a cross-platform app to automate the data collection process.

10th & 11th grade

I continued building out my home basement servers, and my job at FluidStack, which originally entailed being an “associate” aka an assistant to the co-founders, evolved into becoming their Head of Engineering. With a team of 4, I helped build out their console for ordering dedicated servers (databases and APIs processing transactions totaling millions worth of revenue), as well as an integration with a major supplier to sell on-demand virtual machines. (I vividly remember coding most of the front-end of during a flight from Albuquerque to Chicago following a 100-mile Boy Scout trek… hence the jankiness!)

In my own basement, I grew my server presence and had a dozen servers by the time I bought out my friends.

More home servers!

By the end of 2021, I became disillusioned with startup life at FluidStack. Working at a startup had been a dream of mine, and for over a year, the company had struggled. Now that the company finally succeeded, I felt I wasn’t sharing in the success, though.

I had joined at the very beginning and had helped the company land a $1m+ deal, yet I as a high school “contractor” / “intern,” I was compensated an hourly rate of somewhere between $20/hour and $50/hour. We had grown 30x, and I had 3-4 full-time direct reports at one point, but I felt the amount I earned, even if it was above market rate for degreeless high school students, didn’t match my contributions. I thought that I should get at least a 30% cut of the profits I directly help generate, leaving 70% for others and investors — not a 3% cut.

(Later, the $1m+ deal turned out to be a fraud. I’m still glad I left; it’s more about the mentality feeling valued at work, not the actual compensation numbers).

I brainstormed all of the things I wanted to fix about the GPU cloud market but couldn’t due to lack of resources/focus at FluidStack and created TensorDock, my own GPU cloud startup, with a few focuses and a radically-different solution:

  • Focus on hosts: as a host myself, we want to pay hosting providers fair market rates. As a result, we also expect world-class quality and respect from hosts.
  • Focus on fairness: all company metrics, cash, etc. are published monthly in our Slack. Everyone knows where we are and where we need to go. I hold a tight grip on engineering quality, so there’s very little to dispute — I won’t approve bad code, and we foster an environment where everyone who succeeds does well, but also where everyone who doesn’t still has an opportunity to upskill. We’re a huge group of friends.
  • Focus on tech: I want to build a company that makes differentiating technology, not a sales company. I think that given time, the tech will sell itself — and so far, this has proven itself to a degree. (Do you see Google salespeople selling Google Ad spots? No. Open-market bidding generated 3x the sales for Google, and we’re keeping tech-focused at TensorDock to not be distracted)
  • Focus on culture: Even when TensorDock was just getting started and not making any money, I made sure to host movie nights, video calls, etc. We’re a family here to create game-changing products, not mercenaries profiting and stealing from each other.

2022: TensorDock

I created the basic platform over Christmas break. Initially, I was disappointed in sales ($5 in the first week) and wished I had kept my $50/hr job at FluidStack, but over time, growth compounded. In January, I added on Eric Sun, a longtime friend from FIRST Robotics and FluidStack. In February, I added on Mark Hu, a friend from an overnight camp in China pre-pandemic.

In April, we added on three more friends of Eric and quickly got to work pushing out more features for our console.

Eric, Nithish, Riya, Suyash, Mark, and me!
TensorDock server hardware 😛
Colocating our hardware at data centers! Image courtesy of Wai Hung, our Singapore contractor
Out at a company-sponsored dinner, c. April 2022

Over the summer, our team exploded to 18. We began developing our marketplace, which allows any host to monetize their hardware by running our hypervisor and listing it on our platform.

This is a fundamental rethink of how cloud works, and in doing so, we’re able to slash end user costs by 90% while maintaining performance parity with the largest cloud providers.

We launched our marketplace in September, and usage has been consistently growing. As with everything about a startup, though, it feels like it’ll collapse at any given moment, and it actually almost has countless times.

Our two dozen hosts come from all walks of life, from London to Los Angeles to Lagos, and I can’t be more thankful to work with such a reliable crew as we build out a marketplace together. They’ve added a combined $200k worth of hardware onto our marketplace — an insane investment for a high school student’s project.

Another company-sponsored dinner + movie night, c. August 2022

In November, we landed a larger customer and made a series of mistakes that we learned a lot from… including a near-death experience running out of cash that forced me to raise another $50k at a $2m valuation from Silicon-Valley angel investors after purchasing hardware and not getting it in time to generate revenue.

November NVIDIA A6000s… powerful but a huge headache to work with; I’ll have a blog post eventually

In 2022, TensorDock has far surpassed 6-figures in revenue, making it a quite a success in my book. We’ve paid suppliers 6-figures as well, and sometimes I think of all the jobs we help sustain and the families we help support.

It’s very hard at times (headaches, nightmares, jitters, etc), but I’ve learned a lot, and the grass is greener on the other side. Our internal turnaround goals are set for next March, so hopefully by then, we’ll be quite profitable and on track to make significant investments yet again.

We’ve received interest from institutional investors as well (ballpark $6m valuation, with the condition that I focus on TensorDock), so I’m excited to see where we can take this next year and beyond with institutional backing. Combined with college applications and school, the past year has been immensely stressful, and I’m looking forwards to focusing more on exercising and relaxing in 2023.

Few Notes

Before I end this write-up, though, I wanted to make a few notes:

  • I didn’t write about my experience getting ISODME.com acquired, developing an online learning platform SteamSplash for my FIRST Robotics team, creating a database for a local nonprofit for my Boy Scout project, hackathon attendee experience at Assemble, etc. There’s a whole lot more to my life than just what’s already on this page, as if it wasn’t enough. I think that just demonstrates how busy high school students are nowadays: on top of balancing grades, top students do this much (and for some, a whole lot more) to stay competitive. (Nobody forced me to do this though. It’s just that I feel like I have to stress myself to the limit like every other top student to truly demonstrate my true caliber)
  • Sometimes, I lie down after a week of 5-hour nights and ask myself who I’m doing this for. A girlfriend I don’t have? Future kids 10+ years out? I’ve come to realize that I do it for my customers. After I created ISODME.com, I couldn’t come to grips with moving on, even when I wanted to work on TensorDock more. We were serving hundreds of customers ranging from local businesses to Nepali nonprofits, and our services costed them an order of magnitude less than competing services. I couldn’t accept letting these customers down. Eventually, I sold it to ServaRica, who agreed to honor all previous pricing, but it was quite hard coming to that decision. Even today, I can’t stop working on TensorDock, Hack3, etc. because we serve real people, and the thousands I’ve met through email, video calls, and in-person meetings depend on me to not let them down.
  • Each of “my” accomplishments was done with a team. Coding is lonely, and I couldn’t be more proud to have such a competent team supporting everything I dream up. We win together, and we lose together. I wouldn’t be here without them.

Until next time,

Jonathan