Interview: Meet Young Web Entrepreneur, Stephen Ou

Developers can be some of the most impressive people, as they just sit down and create the things they think of, rather than waiting around for someone else to invent them. Stephen Ou, a high school student in his junior year, is definitely one of those type of people. I had the privilege to work with him last year, writing documentation for his then-new Artsy Editor WordPress plugin, and have since been impressed with the many web projects he’s launched.

Just this week, he’s launched a new app, NeedNumbers, that makes it easy to collect phone numbers from your Facebook friends and import them to your phone. Let’s see his thoughts on web development, mobile versus the web, and the dangers of products adding the features you built as add-ons.

Thanks for taking the time to do an interview with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you Matt! Glad to be here. My name is Stephen Ou. I’m still very young but I’ve done tremendous amount of work online. I had made 5 online products and done freelance work for various well-known clients.

You’ve already shipped an incredible number of products: iTunes Instant, Artsy Editor, TwtRoulette, OhBoard, and more. How do you get ideas for your projects, and do you have more ideas you’re itching to get started on?

It’s a simple 3-step process.

  1. Pay close attention and find problems that annoy you.
  2. Create the best solution to solve that problem.
  3. Look for people with the same problem and promote it to them.

In fact, I have tons of things that I love to solve to make my life easier. Readers, feel like to take my idea and build a product on top of it. Not only I won’t sue you, I will probably invest in it. :]

  1. A way to video-chat with customers on an commerce store. I am sure a store will save a lot more if they have face-to-face experience when selling something online.
  2. A book/class/tutorial titled “Marketing for Developers”. I’d love to have something like that.
  3. This one is kind of meta: a place where people submit their problems with technology and developers can create solutions on top of those problems.

Of all your projects, which is your favorite, and why?

iTunes Instant gets the victory by a huge margin. For those who don’t know, iTunes Instant is a web-based search engine for iTunes. I made it in 3 hours, and it took off immediately on the blogosphere. The reason I love it so much is the fact that a simple solution can solve a huge problem. is really slow and cluttered, and I made an alternative that lets users get results instantly on a clean design. Even two years after the initial launch, there are still thousands of people coming back every month because how easy and useful it is. I am really looking forward to build more small apps like that. And of course, it’s great that I got a lot of recognition and connections through the app too.

iTunes Instant in action

Everything you’ve shipped so far has been a web app. Why do you focus on the web?

The web is what I know. Of course, I could’ve spend months to learn Objective-C and build an iOS app. But I believe it’s better to be the best at one particular thing than being mediocre at a lot of things. I’ve already got the knowledge in web development, and I want to continue to get better on web development through building different apps. (A little shameless promotion, I am teaching web programming to young people like me at Next Programming Star)

What’s your favorite web development tools?

Coda from Panic! I’ve been using it since my first day of programming. They have the best integrated tool for coding and FTP-ing. And the latest 2.0 release added MySQL management too. Highly recommended.

Besides that, here are some other tools I use: Soulver for calculation, Kaleidoscope for file comparison, Concentrate for keeping myself from procrastination, 1Password for keeping all my secrets together, and of course, TextExpander for saving me many keystrokes.

Artsy Editor shipped only a short time before WordPress added a built-in clean writing mode. Was it frustrating to have WordPress itself competing with your product, and do your think that hurt its sales?

You can look at it in two different ways. It’s certainly easy to look at it and say, “Look, no one is going to use Artsy Editor since WP has it for free and already included automatically”. But how I look at it is that WP’s full-screen mode exposed this writing environment to a lot of people. Since Artsy Editor is more advanced than WP’s full-screen editor (it does image handling and have more formatting options), more people will find out about Artsy Editor. In fact, I think sales-wise this is actually helping me – because from the emails I got, no one complains about pricing. That means the people who want full-screen mode before WP had theirs wouldn’t have bought it anyways.

Artsy Editor

Are you worried about upcoming changes to Twitter’s API and developer relations, after shipping TwtRoulette?

I’ve heard many stories about applications getting shut down because of the rule change, and I think Twitter is not making the wrong move by tightening up the restrictions, they just needed to communicate better and earlier. So even now, I am not particularly worried because we aren’t doing anything that will harm Twitter’s business. (A side note: Twitter actually implemented the home timeline roulette feature to the official website, which I thought was really nice!)

Creating OhBoard as a paid Chrome Web Store app is quite an accomplishment. What’s your opinion on the Chrome Web Store and the future of Chrome OS?

It’s hard to have a successful app store on the web because there are so many factors involved to make it successful. Google’s vision is great without a adopt, but until the exclusivity of a web app store starts to come, it will be hard for the web store to succeed. For example, there is only one way to get app to the iOS device, it’s through the App Store. But there are many more ways to get it on a browser, most particularly, typing in a URL. People are already used to that, and it’s hard to force them to use something in the web app store instead.


With mobile and tablets all the rage these days, will you consider making mobile apps as well? Or are web apps the future, in your opinion?

I will say a product with web app with a complementary mobile app will be the best way to go. Most people are still at their computers most of the time, but adding a mobile application allow them to be on the service even more.

Thanks, Stephen!

We’d like to extend a special Thank You to Stephen for taking the time from his busy schedule to do this interview with us. He’s one busy young person, working to make web apps that scratch his own itches and make the web a bit nicer for the rest of us. If you’ve got some questions for Stephen, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer!