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Featured on Sep 01, 2011

Erin Tao

"I do things like get in a taxi and say, 'The library, and step on it.'"


I was born and raised in the Bay Area, studied political science and nonfiction at Columbia, and spent most of college absolutely convinced I'd be on the first flight back to San Francisco after graduation. (This was not the case.) Fast forward seven months of traveling, contemplating the law school track, and dabbling in the startup world: I'm the latest hire at Aviary working in BD and marketing, organizing events like Photo Hack Day, and raiding the company fridge on a daily basis. I can hold my own against the guys in basketball, soccer, and most real sports (you know, ones that require some degree of physical activity -- and yes, BD team, I am absolutely calling you out) but need serious help when it comes to FIFA. Also, my roommate and I are conspiring to take by storm with our disarmingly cute SC2 usernames. When we get really good, you'll know.

Needless to say, I'm a very lucky, happy, grateful nerd. 

  • Title: Biz Dev at Aviary
  • Age: 23
  • Location: Upper West Side
  • Contact: @etaooo, tumblr

How did you end up going from the potential law school track to doing business development at a startup?

I think a lot of people tend to allow the voice of risk-aversion to speak more loudly than the part of them that looks forward to taking chances.

In college, I was a typical, misguided political science major who somehow thought there was a correlation between studying American politics and getting into law school. Deep down I was wildly in love with narrative and everything about creative nonfiction, and went from dabbling in creative writing classes to double-majoring behind my parents' back. (Disclaimer: my parents are awesome, and despite my initial fears, I didn't have to wait to tell them that I had a change of heart after my diploma was printed. Hi Mom and Dad!)

That completely changed the way I approached my job search. I didn't seriously consider startups until I was halfway through an internship at a civil rights law firm whose mission I absolutely, positively believed in, but found personally unsustainable. Law and politics are burdened by a perpetually frustrating sh*tstorm of bureaucratic red tape, and that was always a huge gripe for me; naturally, the nimble, adaptable nature of a creative startup really stood out.

I remember being on the fence until I read a blog post by Skillshare's Mike Karnjanaprakorn that talked about embracing the virtue of "[failing] faster" to waste less time and (ultimately) succeed sooner, which -- for someone from a super-structured background -- was a complete eyeopener. The rest was the combination of timing, luck, and having awesome people at Aviary who were willing to take a chance on a new grad who really wanted to learn as much about BD as possible. Thanks Avi. Thanks Maya.

Photo Hack Day was a definite success.  What was your favorite hack from the weekend?  Favorite memory from the event?

Favorite hack: That's tough. I was immediately drawn to Protestr the second Chris pitched his idea. I laughed hardest at Honey Badger, Instagirl, and Photobombr (and that counts for a lot), but at the end of the day Emotional Breakdown was my favorite. It's simple, streamlined, and adds a completely new dimension to the way you approach photo sets and websites.

Favorite memory: Despite my OCD-like desire to make sure that every single element of the hackathon was executed perfectly, Alex warned me (repeatedly) that "shit will happen." A friend mentioned that she had issues with the coffee percolators at General Assembly, but thought I had it down after Adrian showed me how to use it -- it seemed simple enough at the time. On Saturday morning I had the percolators set up an hour before doors opened, figuring it would be enough time to let coffee brew, but the boiling water never really reached the tray of grinds. The coffee was absolutely watered-down and foul. When you've dragged 200+ sleepy developers out of bed at 9 AM (on a Saturday, to boot!), the one thing you don't want to have to tell them is that there's a shortage -- let alone a complete unavailability -- of caffeine.

Just my luck. I had to get on the mic and announce that. I think I was actually shaking when I said those fateful words: "We're having difficulty with the coffee brewer. Please don't drink out of it."

Within a minute I had ten people huddled around the coffee makers, trying to figure out how to get the damn things to do something other than spew dirty water. In typical nerd fashion, there were guys with their laptops looking up the exact make of the percolator, pulling PDFs of the instruction sheets off the internet, and someone even offered to come up with makeshift containers in which we could submerge the grinds... but after half an hour, we still could not get it to work. It was like a bad joke: how many developers does it take to brew one 100-cup percolator of coffee? I'm still not sure if the rush to assist me was fueled by how clearly panicked I was, or out of a desperate need for caffeine. I wouldn't judge the guys either way.

Can you tell us something about yourself that we can’t find on the Internet?

My first boyfriend won me over with his binder full of immaculately drawn, homemade Pokemon cards. That was all it took before the start of our year-and-a-half foray into the world of middle school dating, during which we would hug once a month and make virtual versions of ourselves in The Sims to symbolize our dedication to each other. I'm pretty sure that my standards have changed since then, but part of my heart still fancies the same things it did in 2001.

Business Development