Shawn Wilkinson is the 26-year-old Founder of Storj. Well known for a Token Sale that raised $30M in 7 days and a vision to disrupt cloud storage and some of the biggest players in the tech industry, what you may not know is that Shawn’s very first startup was a pillow business.
That’s right, at eight years old this native Atlantan started his entrepreneurial journey with pillows. In elementary school, Shawn decided pillows looked easy to make and he could sell them. So he got his mom to take him to Walmart, she helped buy the supplies, taught him how to sew, and Shawn’s very first startup was born. He continued to make and sell those pillows until he had about $200. In his words, “That’s Lambo money for a kid!” So when asked what special item he did all that work for, you may be surprised to learn that he didn’t buy anything. Shawn saved every penny of that first profit.
His First Computer
Growing up in Marietta, GA Shawn had two hard working and very supportive parents. His Dad was in HR and his Mom was a nurse. An only child, Shawn was just 6 years old when his Dad got him his first computer. This early indoctrination into tech began as a convenience (Shawn kept wanting to use his Dad’s computer to play Tonka Truck), but it quickly grew into a passion.
Shawn taught himself how to tinker, build, and fix things on that computer and moved from pillow making to website development by the 6th grade. His first ever URL was nerd-it.com where he created a tutorial on how to build websites. But Shawn says 7th grade was when he REALLY got started in tech.
Shawn attended Westminster, a private school in Atlanta that trains leaders and encourages creative thinking. It was here that he befriended a group of students who were making games, programming calculators, and coding in Visual Basic. He was hooked and quickly picked it up, eventually adding 3D development and design. This opened up an even bigger world for Shawn’s middle school entrepreneurial activities and he started having people pay him for web designs.
By high school Shawn was teaching online tutorials on his own youtube channel about how to build websites. His online persona of super3boy garnered around 3-4 million total views and Shawn used this popularity to build an active forum community for teaching. This platform run by a high schooler was turning a nice profit in advertising. In Shawn’s words, “getting a check in the mail for a few hundred bucks each month was pretty good for a kid my age.”
As forward thinking as his school was, they still only offered an intro to Computer Science class, and Shawn passed that level years ago. So he took a look at the resources available to him and decided to make friends with the adults working in the school’s IT department. This was where he got his real education. On his breaks Shawn would go talk with them and they offered to teach him what they knew. It was here, and not in any classroom where Shawn learned how to install servers and build cat 5 cables. In his words, “They were so nice and helpful. I learned a lot. And since they were always upgrading the campus, I would get all the old discards. Those guys had a real big impact on me. They were always available to talk and help. I was a nerd for sure, but I owned it. I was very comfortable with my identity. My true passion was and still is tech.”
The Idea That Stuck
Shawn continued freelance and development work through college where where he majored in Computer Science on a full scholarship at Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was here that Shawn learned about bitcoin, and… he fell in love. In his words, “I felt like it was the coolest thing ever, and could be so impactful. I read the whitepaper and loved the concept. There were so many things that could be built and so much to explore. It was all new and interesting.”
The idea of generating money at the click of a program was groundbreaking. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but all of a sudden Shawn had a money making machine. He was all in.
The idea for his current startup, Storj, was born when he attended a Texas Bitcoin Hackathon in 2014 as a Morehouse student. The idea he worked on? Disrupting cloud storage using bitcoin’s blockchain technology. This ended up being the idea that stuck.
As Shawn says, “I was naive. I thought building it would be easy, but I quickly learned that it was much harder than I thought. I iterated and built, over and over and over again. It sure was a crappy version in the beginning. But I raised some funding and worked hard to build a community around it. I was lucky that I already had the experience of building an online community around an idea. It helped me to do that again with Storj.”
Today, the Storj community has tens of thousands of people, and it has become more than a community. It has become a movement.
Storj’s first token sale was in 2014 and they raised half a million dollars. Then they did a traditional raise between 2015-2017 and raised another $3M. This enabled them to launch the second iteration of their product. But that raise wasn’t easy. According to Shawn, being young and African American made an already difficult task that much more difficult to get funding early on. But that didn’t stop him. In Shawn’s words, “That is what is cool about the blockchain space. People are so hungry for fresh talent and ideas. It doesn’t have time to discriminate. This opens up new ways for diverse innovation and gives us more space to build cool stuff.”
So while the traditional Venture Capital space was (and is) dealing with diversity issues, Shawn launched their second token sale in 2017 with the intent to scale their platform even more. The success was incredible with a $30M raise in 6.5 days. That token sale ended up being the best way to get funded. It gave them more magnitude, more money, and more buy in from the community which fostered an intense focus for the Storj team on simply building and architecting to scale, without distractions.
In Shawn’s words, “I love being an entrepreneur. There is always some new challenge to overcome, and something interesting you hadn’t thought of. It’s been an exciting journey, but building a business is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I had to learn that things always move slower than you would hope and wish. That’s just the reality. You can’t make google overnight.”
And while passionate about diversity in tech, Shawn doesn’t love the spotlight or want people to rely on him as an example of success. In his words, “We need more people of diverse backgrounds who are excited about building new things. If you see a gap, don’t wait for someone else to be that example – embrace the opportunity to be the innovator in that space. There is a unique perspective you have that someone else won’t.”
What the Future Holds
Shawn won’t make a definitive prediction on bitcoin (I had to ask), but he will on cryptocurrency. He strongly believes it is a more efficient way of creating and using money and that it is making a big impact on our world and will continue to do so.
As for the future of Storj? Shawn hopes that in ten years the majority of the world will store their data on his platform. It’s a big vision, but it’s easy to see how broken today’s system is. Current providers are not being good stewards of our personal information. It’s being lost, hacked, and even sold. Based on records compiled by Hackmaggedon.com, there were 868 security breaches and/or cyber-attacks reported in the US in 2017 alone which affected the personal and user information of literally billions of internet users worldwide and cost trillions of dollars.This is not a future anyone should want, and Storj solves this problem by giving users more control, security, and privacy over their data.
In Shawn’s words, “Is it a big vision or is it just reasonable and the way the world should be?”
“Traditional clouds won’t cut it. There are simply too many privacy concerns today. The future is decentralizing and distributing. Just because someone stores our data, doesn’t mean they should be able to access it.”
And not being hacked? Shawn believes that shouldn’t be a feature, but an expectation. A lot of people and companies have lowered the bar. Our lives are online now, and the bar must be raised. We depend on security.
Shawn’s passion for building technology that can make real change in people’s lives is palpable. “I can’t imagine not being an entrepreneur. What is life without innovation?” (Shawn pauses and laughs) “Make that profitable innovation. We have literally built everything we have.”
And that’s Shawn as an entrepreneur – always curious, more seasoned, and ever hopeful for the future of cloud storage.
We are, too.
To learn more about Storj, check out their website here. To contact Shawn you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.