Andrew Brown ’11 was interested in technology from an early age, taking basic programming classes in middle school and fixing his family and friends’ computers. But it took him a few years at Duke to realize he wanted to be a computer science major.

Brown started out as a political science and economics double major because he was interested in business.

But during his freshman year, the iPhone was released, and it changed his perspective on technology. The iPhone came with incredible apps that solved problems, and Brown realized he wanted to be building these apps.

It wasn’t the actual technology that fascinated him so much, Brown said, but the products that came out of the technology.

“I got into tech because I wanted to make things for people,” he said.

He took an introductory computer science to begin learning things that would help him build products, and at the beginning of his junior year, he switched his economics major to computer science.

While still at Duke, he helped build DU Track, an app that provided real-time bus tracking on campus, as well as a prototype for a mobile app for the Chronicle.

But his first real foray into the tech sector was helped along by serendipity.

While waiting in a line at a career fair, Brown struck up a conversation with the guy in front of him. That guy had interned at Microsoft, and he said he thought Brown would be good for the program and that he would recommend him.

Brown didn’t think much of it at the time, but he received an invitation to interview at Microsoft before even submitting a resume.

Brown did “crash-course studying” on his own to prepare for the interview, and the summer after his junior year, he interned with Microsoft.

During his senior year, Brown moved to New York, where he felt like he really started his entrepreneurial journey.

“I saw a lot of apps that should exist and no one else seemed to be creating them,” he said. “So I thought that would be a fun thing to do.”

Even though he knew he wanted to be entrepreneurial, he still wanted to line up a job. He got into the highly competitive assistant product manager program at Google.

While in New York, Brown met his future co-founder, fellow Duke alumnus Eric Stromberg. As Brown started his job at Google, the two continued to meet and talk about ideas.
Then they had the idea that would become Oyster.

Brown was in the middle of a two-year program with Google, but quit between the first and second year, giving up a chance to travel around the world to meet with tech leaders in other countries.

“We were inspired by the rise of access models in media,” Brown said. “Like with Spotify – I’d never been a big music listener, but Spotify changed my relationship with music.”

On the other hand, Brown said, he was a big reader, but felt that technology was negatively affecting his relationship with reading.

With Oyster, he merged the two. In 2012, e-books were on the rise. Brown and Stromberg saw an interesting product opportunity combined with a growing market, and they teamed up with a third-cofounder to create Oyster, described as a “Netflix-for-books service.”

Stromberg’s ties to the investment community helped the startup raise $3 million. They quickly grew from a team of three to a team of 25, and from there it was all about making deals with publishers to make their books available on the app.

The founders agreed that Oyster wouldn’t launch without at least one of the five major publishers on board. They spent the summer negotiating with Harper Collins, and once Harper Collins was on board, Oyster launched.

Once they saw the user signup rates and read through the feedback, Brown knew “we had something special on our hands,” he said. “It wasn’t a novel idea to do a book subscription service, but it had never been done before.”

Oyster spent the next year and a half making deals for more books and trying to keep up with demand. By that time, the company was well known in the tech industry as well as the publishing industry, and several companies were courting Oyster for an acquisition – including Google.

It was a partnership that interested Oyster – Google had the scale they wanted, while Oyster had the industry ties and a passionate team. Oyster was officially acquired by Google in 2015, bringing Brown full circle as he came back to work at Google.

Brown has spent the last year bringing pieces of Oyster into Google Play’s Books app. His goal is to make the experience more curated – for example, a “Discover” function featuring book news and book reviews recently launched.

Brown said his day-to-day has been drastically different since the acquisition.

“Basically, all the most stressful parts are now the parts I don’t have to deal with,” he joked, adding that he still gets to focus on implementing the technology and fitting it into Google’s mission.

There are pros and cons to both sides, Brown said. Now that he works for a huge company instead of for a startup, things move more slowly and he can’t iterate as quickly. But once something does get finished, he said, it’s used immediately by many more people.

The most helpful resource Brown found at Duke, he said, was the other people. He delved into tech by talking to other students, and it was at a DukeGEN Startup Showcase event that he initially met his co-founder Stromberg.

“My biggest piece of advice to students is keep going,” he said. “You’re new to the field; there’s no way you’re going to learn everything on Day 1.”

To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.

By Katie Jansen