When Wayne got fired from Applebees for a new hand tattoo, he didn’t know that less than a decade later he’d be naming a new part of the brain. In Part I of our two part series with the founder of Statespace we hear about why being obsessed with video games and training as an MMA fighter prepared him to start a video game analytics company as a young Neuroscience postdoc at NYU.
Wayne’s story starts in high school where he taught himself how to code for fun, but the rest of his path to being a tech founder is anything but usual. Growing up in a small town in Ohio he originally didn’t set his eyes on college, instead working various jobs in sales, customer service, and management. By the time he went back to school towards his 30s, starting with ITT Tech and a community college, he realized he could capitalize on his computer science knowledge.
This episode details how he went from that small community college to getting a PhD in neuroscience at NYU, and how he came up with the idea for his startup, a product that uses neuroscience to help people get better at video games. In Part II, we’ll discuss how he raised capital and grew his business to hundreds of thousands of users in his first year.
0:50 Sergei: Wayne, tell us a bit about your upbringing because it wasn’t at all obvious that you would end up building a company in NYC after completing a PhD in Neuroscience.
0:54 Wayne: No no, if my teachers heard that I became a PhD in Neuroscience they wouldn’t believe it. They thought I’d be in jail or something by now.
1:21 I’m originally from Youngstown, OH, a big steel town that went into economic depression in the 80s. Most of the jobs there are factory and manufacturing jobs.
2:18 Back in my grandfathers day in HS he was making more money than the teachers by working in manufacturing, and he was all set with a job for life. Not like what people have there now.
2:38 But one thing my home town gave me is the grinder and hustler mentality. That you have to work hard to get anything.
3:00 Youngstown is not known for much except that we had the highest concentration of homicides per capita recently, and highest level of poverty in the US.
3:17 So when I was growing up, college wasn’t really something I considered. No one in my family had. But I really loved video games, probably more than I should have.
3:40 And in High school I was terrible and barely graduated.
3:43 Vadim: Even though you had a hard workers mentality, it sounds like High school wasn’t for you. Why did your teachers think you’d end up in jail?
3:47 Wayne: it was just boring for me. I was the disruptive kid in class. I just didn’t see the purpose. At the time I thought math and science were useless, and I didn’t care about the things I was being taught.
4:56 Math textbooks aren’t very good at showing you the use of the information you’re learning. So I just didn’t care.
5:05 Because I loved video games I thought I could make my own games, so I started teaching myself how to code in 8th/9th grade. That’s what I became obsessed with through high school. The idea that I could write some code and it would do something was awesome to me.
5:50 Vadim: How did you become exposed to it at such a young age? Was it normal to have a computer at home at that time?
5:56 Wayne: I didn’t have a computer until high school, but what really drove me was my excitement for gaming. I had a lot of ideas for how to make games better.
7:00 I used to do a little hacking which was mostly just to push the limits of what I could do.
8:00 A computer taught me that some of the limits of things I didn’t know that I could do, I could actually do. Eventually this made me more confident that I could even consider college or something other than a factory job.
8:40 But that took some time. After graduating high school I just went to work since that’s what everyone else did. Lots of random jobs, but the one I did the longest, 11 years, is sales management. Car sales, retail sales , call centers etc.
9:42 I got my first management job in a call center just because the turnover was so high. That was my first taste for management and helping people in teams solve problems, and I loved that.
10:00 That’s definitely one thing that helped prepare for my future life as a founder
11:00 Sergei: What was the turning point for you? You had all these jobs you were doing and all the while you had this sleeper skill set of engineering that could have probably made you more money. When did you make the connection that engineering can be a career path for you?
11:25 Wayne: I think I ended up being driven by spite actually. It was a powerful motivator.
11:40 I’m covered in tattoos and I used to have long hair, and I remember being rejected from jobs for it. I got fired from Olive Garden for getting tattoos on my hands.
13:00 I felt like I was pretty hard working and smart and I didn’t deserve to lose my jobs for these stupid reasons.
13:22 A lot of it was frustration of going from sales job to sales job in retail.
14:10 Even though I didn’t think college was something I had access to, when I worked with people who went to college, I didn’t think they were so different.
14:35 In the meantime I was doing Mixed Martial Arts on the side for fun, and that also taught me about going beyond the limitations you put on yourself in your head. Even physical limitations can be overcome.
15:05 It was a culmination of all these little examples over 10-15 years that made me question, why can’t I do these things?
15:24 So when I was 26 I started going college. At first I enrolled in ITT Tech for 1 semester
15:44 It was terrible so I then went to Kent State University.
16:00 Eventually they kicked me out even though I had a 4.0 GPA because I couldn’t get my ITT Tech credits transferred.
16:15 But I did have a professor there that I think helped transform my life because even though they still kicked me out, he stuck up for me, which told me I could do more.
17:10 That helped me believe in myself, and I went on to a community college in Columbus, OH where I studied Computer Science.
17:27 While there I was working full time to support myself and was promoted to a job in Philadelphia and I transferred to Temple University.
17:56 While working in retail on the side, I took my first neuroscience class at Temple, to just check it out, and I immediately fell in love and ended up changing my major to neuroscience.
18:25 As a coder, it felt like the brain was the ultimate computer.
19:30 I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I applied to a bunch of grad school programs. I got into 5 of the 7 schools that I applied to.
20:38 In my grad school interviews they were clear about the fact that I was there was because of my coding background.
20:40 Sergei: With that skill set, why did you never see yourself as a professional engineer before that point?
20:57 Wayne: I wanted to do more than just code. Treating the brain like a computer was really interesting to me. Like being and engineer and scientist at the same time, which felt more rewarding.
21:52 I love that we still know nothing about the brain, we’re in the dark ages and that felt like I could really contribute here.
22:18 Like during my PhD I was able to discover and name a new part of a brain, which I never thought I’d be able to do before.
22:31 But at that point I thought of myself as more of a professor and academic rather than an entrepreneur.
22:47 But even getting your PhD you have to be pretty entrepreneurial because you have to work a lot independently.
22:55 So both having my retail management background, and having the scientific and data driven approach to problem solving during my PhD, both really prepared me to start my own business.
23:13 The idea of listening to users to understand their problems and come up with a solution does not seem foreign to me
23:50 It was also an adjustment from my hometown, where you’re taught to jump through any opportunity, whereas in NYC I was drowning in opportunities.
24:30 Sergei: So with all of this opportunity around you, how did you land on starting Statespace and choosing to focus on that over anything else?
24:53 Wayne: I had a productive time at NYU. I finished it in 4 years and in that time got married and had 2 kids.
25:47 I was doing a postdoc at NYU, and making about $40k as an academic, meanwhile my friends were getting into data science jobs and making $120-140k, so that got me thinking about what else can I be doing.
26:27 I was also always doing small entrepreneurial things on the side, so it was a part of me. And I started thinking about how gaming had been changing in recent years. I was starting to see how gaming was becoming like a professional sport.
27:00 I started hearing about professional team coaches talking about problems they had in measuring what made someone good at video games, and to me it was a clear neuroscience solution. Gaming is all about hand eye coordination, decision making, cognition etc.
27:31 But I sat on the idea for 2 years since I was on this professor track, and I didn’t know others would think this is a good idea.
28:03 I applied to a startup competition at NYU on a whim and ended up building a prototype to show people I had the skills to do it, and we won that competition.
29:33 To Be Continued