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How I built a deep tech startup at 18 years old.


Jack O'Regan Kenny


Sep 18th, 2022

This is an interview between Jack O'Regan Kenny and Will DePue. You can watch the video version of this conversation on the Human Colossus Youtube channel. Edited for clarity and conciseness.

Who is Jack?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I'm Jeff O'Regan Kenny. I'm a guy who builds things and puts 'em on the internet sometimes.

Will DePue

Can you gimme a quick blurb on some of the things you've done so far?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I've built hardware startups with Mirr, which is like a touchscreen smart mirror. So I've seen a lot of the idea to manufacture stage on that. I worked for the NDRC, which is Ireland's national accelerator. So I help facilitate the growth of companies, we invest a 100k into them. I also help run Patch, which is a youth accelerator for students between 16 and 21.

Basically, we lock them all in a room and say, Hey, come up with things and allow that for six weeks, facilitate that whatever way we can and see what comes out at the end with a demo day.. That's what I'm doing at the moment I built software hardware, put lots of things online.

You should Google me. That's about it.

My backstory

Will DePue

Where are you from? What's your background?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I was born in ireland. I lived in Mullingar when I was younger, went to a Catholic primary school as everyone here does. Then pretty similar secondary school, like nothing exemplary became like a competition kid. Like one of those really annoying ones who was like doing like BT Young Scientist and stuff like that.

I had moderate success with that. I got really into programming because I wanted to make Minecraft mods when I was about 10. So that kind of fed into , oh, I've learned all these kind of things.

How do I apply them? Oh, competitions and it gets me outta class. The second one was actually really strong, motivator, more so than building at the time. But as I discovered hardware and had the facilities to build physical things I really quickly fell love at it. I was also plumbing with my dad.

Just that kind of tactility around making things I love I went into projects like my first big one was called EyeSpy. It was an oCR model that basically monitored what kids did on their devices.

So instead of being reported to at the end of the day that your kid looked up like how to make bread and stupid things. It would actually just use this model to only log like when a kid is doing something bad and then report that to parents, like immediately, that was pretty cool. Totally

Will DePue

screwing over your friends at that moment, but OK.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

It was to replace the one they actually had. Because if they got it and I built it, I can show them the workarounds.,

Will DePue

Oh I see.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah. I just had to build a better product, so they'd actually switch to it.

First big project

Yeah. So I think that was my first big project. I was about 13 at the time, moved on to hardware at 14, built a thing called alert buoy, the migrant crisis was really big at the time. Loads of people were dying because they were taking like these unseaworthy ships across the Mediterranean and like falling off or the ship.

So we built a thing that's basically a big button that attaches to existing navigational boys uses their power and calls coast guard. Basically just big red button. These are like, fairly common structures in the sea. If you crashed, you'd go swimming and more than likely find one.

We got recognized by like the various coast guards, the EU commission, stuff like that through one of these competitions. Took a break from competitions. Did self-driving cars and convolutional neural networks for... actually I say, take a break from competitions.

I won a competition, but a CNN for a car design for autonomous car for Murgon who do like the interiors of Teslas and then started doing a bit of work with them. Built for myself for a year so it was like stupid stuff like websites that just, weird animations and crap like that. I don't think anything outstanding.

Will DePue

Those are fun. Those are the fun ones.

Deep Tech Startup and Setbacks

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah. Yeah. It was like a year of the kind of stuff, like, but like way less nuanced in the humor, it was just like it was just like very obvious jokes or a site that's just Rick Asley, constantly and stupid stuff. And just trying to get it out there. And then I hit what was my biggest project was Mirror and basically saw my mom following a makeup tutorial. She had a phone and one hand the pallet and the other and the brush. And she. Try and do that and look in the mirror at the same time and follow along. And I was like, okay, that sucks. Let's put screen behind the mirror. That was fine. That's been done. And I was like, okay, this still sucks. Touch screen mirrors have gotten big sense, but at the time when I was like 16, there was nothing there. So I started playing around with IR sensors and I was like, oh, I'm gonna make this touch screen. I went through a really bad resistive one which worked. I developed an IR touch screen, managed to get the Irish patent on it by myself and then I won a national competition for the best commercial project and from there, I just snowballed into a startup.

We won a lot of awards. It did really well now it died primarily because of chip shortages and COVID, and the fact that like me and my co-founder were 19 at the latest stage of it.

Will DePue

Yeah. That's hard.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

It was it was the fact that the chip shortage just drew it out and we didn't have like much money to go and order 2 million euros worth of chips. So other people beat us to market and we still have it. , it was a really fun experience.

I actually had a very cool spin out from it called VC hunt, which got acquired by a Canadian company. Yeah. Which was basically, I got fed up of talking to people and them saying they don't invest in hardware. So I built basically language model, scrapes and classifies VCs, and it compares what they invest in to what they say they invest in.

So they don't invest in female founders. They say this, but they don't. And then it tweeted it.. Yeah. Yeah. I see it. It basically called them out on Twitter and then we got like a cease and desist.

Will DePue

What happened with the VC hunt? Got acquired.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Canadian firm. It got very hectic. So I took a day off of Mirr cause I was doing like a hundred hour weeks, so I was doing like 16 hour days that was like a six month run. So when that ended, I was like, okay, I'm gonna build something, took a day off. And I was like, okay, I'm from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Product Hunt launch at 5:00 PM. That's it. So I built that the web scraper ran for about four hours and then it was like, I'm done.

I was like, oh, what do I do? So I built crowdsourcing on top of it. So I like hand verified like reviews. I built this, launched it, no traction for about three weeks and I forgot about. And then all of a sudden I got like a ping and it's you've exceeded your daily visitors. And I was like, what?

I'm not paying for anything. . And then all of a sudden I had 13k concurrent viewers, that was that peak. I was like, okay. Something happened. Yeah. Basically got a load of traction. People kept calling out like this partner invested in our startup and then had an affair with my wife. And it's like he, and some really close things. So we started pulling a few of them and we got our cease and desist and that's when we started like actually tweeting the content and yeah, got very juice very quick. And some firms wanted to shut us up and we said, no this, they were the initial acquisition offers and then a very charitable organization trying to do good by founders gave us an offer. So we took that. That's awesome.

Came out nowhere. It was like a day project. I'd say I've six hours of work. And then you compare mirror, which is like a hundred plus hours a week.

Will DePue

Sometimes it's like that. That's what I recommend people to do is just spend a lot more time on the idea than you spend on the project. If I'm gonna spend one hour or eight hours but I'm gonna spend 10,000 working on it. You need a higher ratio.

The feedback loop

I have a question for, a lot of the people out there who are just getting started or maybe learning a bit of coding, but don't know where to go next. Can you name some experiences that you felt helped you make that next step from beginning to intermediate to successful?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I didn't find this myself, but I think if I had access to it now, it would be very useful.

Third party feedback. So set yourself goals and have someone else hold you accountable for them. Especially with learning, especially if you're not learning programming, cuz programming has a pretty clear feedback loop, it works or it doesn't you get the output you expect or you don't.

If you're learning something like maths, you don't necessarily get that. Like you can't really know if your answer is right, unless you're following like a set curriculum. That applies to mechanical engineering, which would be my home

No matter what you're doing, hold yourself accountable, especially if you're doing something, not programming. I know most people I talk to are developers, so this doesn't really apply, but like getting onto things like Pioneer, where you're like submitting weekly reports on what you're working on and getting direct feedback from like equally competent people who are building and in the same space.

Like is a pain in the ass to do like the weekly reports and stuff. It takes so much time. Yeah. But the value you get? We did it with Mirr. We were top of the global leaderboards for god knows how long, never won it, but we got the hats. That's all we needed. For someone like starting projects and stuff, it's a great way to get like feedback and recommendations on how to do things differently. come on,

Why we're building Colossus

Will DePue

Depending on when you listen to this, we might have already launched on Colossus. The part of our service. It's very similar to, it lets you publish your projects or get reception from them and share it with the community.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yes Colossus is awesome. Been like showing the thesis around on my phone to people in Patch, cuz I think there's probably a strong overlap and yeah, everyone has just been like I'm in

it's been great. Just even the fact that I can like, just hand someone on my phone and know they'll probably get it. You've really good copy.

Will DePue

Yeah, I think the copy, has been quite good. Yeah. We're quite proud of it.

We have a big collective of builders and we're just gonna experiment and figure out what works and how we can help the previous version of ourselves. What is the thing we wished we had? And what did I wish I had when I got started?

Figuring out how to start is something really hard. Like now that we're older, it's very easy to learn things cause we know how to get unstuck. And that's actually the thing that you don't have when you're kid, you don't know what websites to go to. For me, I discovered like local host was a thing two years too late. If I knew that I could host websites on my computer. Yeah. I would learn so much more. It took me so long to understand you'd do that in HTML and JS.

Is there any safer area for people to experiment. Something you would say go do this first. You can't shoot yourself in the foot very easily. Do you have any ideas around a project like that?

How to start building in hardware

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I always find like a great one that's hard to mess up, you're not gonna cause any damage, is like, buy one of the Arduino kits that come in like these boxes. Yeah. It's just like a range of sensors and an Arduino all low power stuff? I think that's great because you get a couple of layers to it. So you can be like web apps and have that interface with low level like you can almost get a full stack. Especially with hardware where it's finicky and you learn these like un-intuitive problem solving methods where it's this thing was working and it has stopped. Nothing has moved, but maybe a wire is loose.

I think those kind of projects are fun because you can like, just build something arbitrary, like a trash can that opens when you throw trash at it. Or like something stupid, build something stupid. That's like harmless that you can show your friends and get them excited about building.

Yeah. That has an knock on effect where you're like, oh, let's build together. You can just do live data logging if you're like into the data science end. It's a great way to number one, get you a bit like hardware competent which is always great to have, but then also expand out into the, oh, turns out I'm making this data thing.

Let me go down the data science route and build a weather station outta this one little tiny kit or, I'm reading into encryption, how quickly can I get this process to encrypt?

Will DePue

There's so much depth in that space, every direction you go, there's more things to explore.

It's fun. And what gets you excited? And I think, Miguel always says, like debug your way into learning, which is go do a project that doesn't really matter what it is, but make sure it involves something new that you're gonna learn or something you're gonna explore.

And so I really wanna build this stupid website, but it forces me to like mess around with an Arduino or, use an IR sensor. And then because of that, you're end up learning and then you get have that experience.

Sharing your progress

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Seemingly I give okay advice. Yeah. Learn how to give advice as well. Yeah. Because second you build cool stuff people will ask you for it and you won't know how I'm still at that stage.

Will DePue

Yeah. I think sharing exporting your ideas is definitely very hard. That's one skill that a lot of builders never learn because they're like too focused on the engineering and then forget about the person side. Selling and marketing and talking and giving advice is so important as well..

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah. I find builders lately have either gone into one of two categories. Like I've seen these people, I've worked with, they've gone into like heads down building, or they're gone into writing Twitter threads and sharing like their Roam network graphs. Not a fan of either. There's some people I meet in the middle who like document their projects really well.

Will DePue

I think blogs are great like just write it up and Hey, here's my process. Here's how I started. Here's why I messed up and broke my Arduino here's where I ordered another one. And then here's how I succeeded. Write that up and send it. And you don't know, maybe, as you said with your kind of project, like maybe a month on the line, Tons of people like it. I launched a chess engines website and turns out I got like 2 million hits over a month.

And I was like, I didn't even know too had the same experience. I was like, wait, why is like my Vercel charging me? That was basically that I wanted to build a chess engine and I gave myself two weeks to finish. And at the end it sucked. Honestly, it was not that good, but I was like, you know what? I wanna have something that finishes. And if it's not like good, at least I can make a blog post and now it could be its own point where I can quit.

Also being genuine and interested in things is how everyone succeeds, right? If you look at who's like a successful entrepreneur or, knowledgeable in a space, every single one of them did it because they were interested.

Oh, 100%. Like most of the people online I'm fans of are like, I forget, oh, I can't remember the VC firm, but they have a page for like their portfolio and their page for like their, what ifs. And it's everyone they passed on who blew up.

And it's we've missed more unicorns than we've had and stuff it was really funny, but it felt really honest. It gives an honesty to it.

And even like with builders who you go onto like their CV? This guy, he had projects on his CV and then abandoned projects. Honestly from a potentially " Hey, do you wanna work with me perspective?"

I was way more interested or I had way more fun going through like the abandoned projects. Yes. And being like, trying to figure out like, why'd you stop them and then ping them being like, Hey, what happened here? And he was like I think they got called for dinner and like never came back. yeah.

It was like, oh, okay. Or what was it? Oh I like my computer crashed and I gave up on the project.

Do the hard things

I love that. So imagine you had to restart right now, so you're back to before you ever got started building, you could give yourself advice on the perfect life path, or building path to get to. where you would want to be. What would that path be like now?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah, I started with Lua rather than HTML or anything like that. I was like, oh, Lua, cuz I think it was Garry's Mod was what I was aiming to develop for at the time. I'd probably tell myself to keep going with that. And one thing I made a mistake in was I went like very quickly into HTML and Scratch and I probably spent about two years in that when I shouldn't have I got very comfy. And stop trying things. So I would've probably advised myself to like never pick up scratch.

Cause it was too easy to pump out things that got just enough praise that, got my catharsis and would just do it again. So I probably force myself into C cause that's what I like find myself using.

I'd probably add myself into like harder things, a lot sooner. Harder things, yeah. Because when mirror rolled around and it was like, oh crap, I have to write firmware from the ground up.

And I'd never really done any like solid hardware or full stack project. Like we built our own OCR model, like word detection model for the cyber bullying app, the child monitoring was fairly cookie cutter.

Finding harder projects

Will DePue

I was talking to my friend recently and he's been teaching himself, web scraping and doing all this kind of fun, like starter projects on Python.

And he was like "The problem Will is the fact that every single YouTube video on Python only covers the same five minutes". Every HTML guide does the same dumb project.

Is there any like advice you have to finding harder projects or maybe even example of the harder projects you might pursue?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

So in terms of finding harder projects, I think you kind hit the nail on the head there, like software, it's oh, how do I, where do I go next?

You kinda need to be guided or at least have documentation. Whereas coming back to the comparison between to mechanical engineering, you can infer the next steps as in make it smoother, whatever, like you, there's a precision there that like software can very easily hit that precision, whereas mechanically it's super hard to do, which means you can always chase something more, yeah, a very visible next step where like software's a lot more open ended.

I think for finding harder projects . Find out things you think about and see if you have solutions to them. So for me right now, and if someone wants to build this, do please for me I'll beta test, whatever. I hate email as a whole thing, and I'm gonna build like an email client in react. And I have a problem. So even though it's like my problem, I'll just build a one off solution for me.

I won't think about making a product, I'll just solve my issues and that's it. And when I say from the ground up, that just means you go down to the base of the problem. How can you solve the problem at every stage for yourself?

Will DePue

I love that. I think building for yourself is also, I'd say the best advice. There's always so much to do for yourself, right? I love the point about mechanical engineering, how there's always a next step.

The "hello world" of hardware

Is there a great hello world project for mechanical engineering that you're gonna end up having infinite expansion.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

My recommendation is always build a 3d printer. because, oh, interesting. Yeah. Number one, it teaches you about, software, sensing, moving motors, dealing with power conversion. It's a really good full stack. I hate to use the word again, but it, you like your embedded computer to, managing the heat and learning about materials and stress testing, making sure things are rigid.

Then when you're done, you'll print a few things and you go this could be better. And you will spend hundreds of hours on printers.

Reaching out to Jack

Will DePue

Can anyone reach out to you? If people who are watching this have any questions. Yeah,

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Twitter or my email is


I'm pretty diligent about getting back to people. Which actually, that's why I want to fix email.

I want email and CRM in one and I wanted. Not cost what Superhuman does.

Will DePue

Just clone superhuman people. That's the other advice I have which is just go find a startup that you like, and then just build, do a better. Yeah. And also people misunderstand how fast big companies move and that they move surprisingly slow.

You also forget that humans are scared of competition more than anything. And so you might be in your mom's basement, coding a Superhuman client, but it might be that the Superhuman COO is like freaking out like, oh no, we have another competitor on our hands.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

So a company I have a stake in they found out about competitor and they were like panicking. They're like "We'll have to pivot, we'll have to leave". Dude, you've paying clients.

They launched two days ago. And it's one guy, I'm sure it's like a side project, he has his own startup. "But still it's competition", I'm like you're fine, at worst case scenario, you hire him.

Will DePue

Yeah. And also to be clear, this is everyone like the corporate world is not immune to this they're they have this almost even worse.

And so the whole point is if you're, if you're young realize that you can just totally screw with the top startups in the world, just by making a really good looking website, or even just building a product. If you build a Superhuman client, you bet that's gonna be sitting in the Superhuman slack and they're gonna be talking about you. That's awesome.

Master your tools

Jack O'Regan Kenny

That's a good way to get hired. Another thing I'd actually recommend... Great way to hired. Yeah. One thing I would really recommend and it has come in super useful for me on a lot of occasions is get really good with a load of base tools. So spend 24 hours in Photoshop and in Figma, cause I was hired as like a tech guy and a marketing guy dropped out where I was working. And I ended up doing a load of decks and mockups and stuff like that, because I had the background. Most of the good things are free. You can use PhotoPea instead of Photoshop, you can use Blender for 3d models. If you go to my website, you'll see like a lot of renders of houses.

It's just practice. It's oh, I wonder to get really good at product renderers, but I didn't have any cool products. I drew houses. Cause I enjoy doing that. It's relaxing to me and I just rendered them as if they were like products.

Will DePue

I could not agree with this more. Some of my biggest issues with a lot of people I've met is that they're very self limiting. They're like, I'm not technical. I'm like why would you ever say you're not technical?

Guys, we're technical. I don't do design. You can say, you're probably not a good designer, but you still can learn Figma. Realize that like you can force all these skills. There's nothing you can't learn. There might be things that you don't have natural skill at, but it doesn't matter.

I can now move at two times the speed of anyone else cause I can design and I can code. And suddenly you're a two times builder. And then learn like marketing and social media promotion and run communities as well.

And then suddenly you don't need permission from anyone. You can go from like zero to full startup in like a day, because you're so fast. Just don't self limit, especially with mechanical. I think a lot of software guys say "Oh, I'm not mechanical".

I'm like, why not? Like you can just go buy the Arduinos and you can start right now and just believe in yourself.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

You have built Ikea furniture that's probably more difficult than most mechanical you're gonna do. I'd happily build or do graphic design because I know I'm okay at it and I'd like to get really good at it.

That's probably why I got done so quick, because I had the copy done. I had like front end drawn up and stuff. All the copy was written because I'd gone oh, I'm gonna learn how to write copy . It's... just do stuff. Especially, if you're like young, before you have to work a job and feed yourself.

I'd say there's definitely no reason not to oh I need a logo for this project. Give it a go. Do it yourself. Give it a shot. Like even if you just go on like brand mark and download a logo and then try and improve on it.

Yes. Play around.

Will DePue

Once you can steal the foundation and then improve on it, it's a great way to get started. You don't have to build from scratch. And I would actually recommend people don't build from scratch as much as you ever can.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah, that's pretty solid advice. Also being familiar in software, cuz if you ever ask someone who's really good at it for help, you won't frustrate them. That's probably the main thing.

Cause learn off other people when you can people can condense knowledge and an experience into one and deliver it lot quicker to you. If you can become familiar before you need their help it can make it a lot easier for them to give you their knowledge and probably makes them want to give it more because you have this competency and they're not waiting on you to move a button.

Bias for learning.

Will DePue

Yeah. It's like bias for learning in some sense,

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah. Also it shows initiative to me, it's oh, this guy actually wants to learn. I think a lot of learning is just especially learning off other people. It's just like being nice to them in like civil ways. Thank yous don't mean too much. Yeah.

Will DePue

Just don't forget the fact that even though you're working online, you're doing, a job that now is very modern. Like these are your tools, right? I know a lot of people who have learned Google Docs, at a really high level, where they make like really good looking docs. Whether that's Google Docs or Excel or Figma or your coding languages. I think a lot of people get to that point where " I learned it enough where I can do my job". But I think deep study of the things you're doing are so important. Learning shortcuts or small details or learning the extra tiny little features makes all the difference and it doesn't take that much work.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

Yeah. Google Docs. I'll second. People won't be looking at your code all the time. Whereas if you're presenting, being able to do that quickly, effectively, it's probably more valuable than any of your hard skills.

You have to be able to sell yourself and if you're really comfortable with the basics and people can see that then it's a lot easier for them to believe that you're adept at other things.

It's selling yourself like everyone's a sales person.

Release your unfinished ideas

Will DePue

Is there any final comments you wanna leave?

Jack O'Regan Kenny

There's a piece of advice I'm trying to take myself, which is don't be afraid to put things out there I was talking to this guy he is building this really cool thing for like habit tracking, he's building it for himself.

Once he put stuff out there, he found it a lot easier and a lot more rewarding because he's getting customers through this, he's building it for himself and it's made it more fun.

Yeah. So I think don't be afraid to show off about the failures . It's something I'm really bad at. So do, as I say, not as I do.

Will DePue

That's the best advice. We all give advice that we wish we had taken ourselves or trying to take right now.

Jack O'Regan Kenny

I'm trying to try to ingest that. If you beat me to it, fairplay.

Will DePue

We'll kinda end the conversation here for people listening. Thank you so much for talking to me Jack.

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