Writer Doug Stienstra arrived in Austin in November 2011.
“I loved many things about Austin,” the native Iowan, 27, says. “The self-starter culture of entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. And there’s so much to do. So many ways to meet people. … Austin is place of discovery for me. I’m discovering what I’m going to do with my life and what I enjoy the most.”
I met Stienstra at a BookPeople signing for “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories.” He expressed interest in local lore, so I invited him to join seven other history buffs one morning as we searched for the entry and exit points of the Chisholm Trail fords on the Colorado River. Next, we sat down over coffee and tea at Seventh Flag Coffee, partly to talk about whether he should attend graduate school to study journalism.
Since he currently holds down a good job at Facebook and already has worked for Apple, I advised him to stay employed. Avoid all student debt. Instead, I’m exchanging a structured weekly course in journalism for his help in creating an eBook version of “Indelible Austin” with geo-locating links. One of his past projects was working on the ground for Apple Maps. Just another boost to the “sharing economy.”
Our first writing exercise: I profile him; he profiles me.
Stienstra was born in Estherville, Iowa, about three hours from Des Moines. He grew up in Orange City, Iowa, about 90 minutes southeast of his birthplace. “It’s known for its Dutch heritage,” he says. “There’s a tulip festival and most people have names like mine that you can’t pronounce.”
Both his parents descended from Dutch immigrants, though for a while, his maternal grandfather claimed some German heritage as well. Turned out, he’s 100 percent Dutch.
“I went to the town of Steins, Netherlands, where we came from,” he says. “The ‘stra’ means ‘from.’ and ‘stien’ is probably Old Dutch for ‘stone,’ though I’m not exactly sure.”
Did he feel at home in Stiens? “Yes, there were lots of tall, skinny, blue-eyed people there.”
Did his mother have her hands full with four Dutch-American sons? “You have no idea.”
As a child, Stienstra was curious, shy, always outside exploring.
“I was obsessed with snakes!” he says. “I read a lot about them. Snakes were my life at the time. It was weird. I emailed a herpetologist and went out looking for rattlesnakes when I was in seventh or eighth grade.”
He learned to play drums and piano and joined a high school band. Yes, he went through a heavy metal phase. Now he’s mostly a music fan, another reason to love Austin.
Stienstra didn’t jump on the education train until college, where he majored in international studies with emphases in anthropology, entrepreneurism and a dab of philosophy. He’s fluent in Portuguese and German. He lived in Switzerland as an exchange student in high school, then spent two years studying abroad in Brazil before finishing his degree at the University of Iowa.
A Brazilian former girlfriend inspired his first start-up, FlashPals, which were essentially stuffed-animal flash drives.
“I looked around and found a cheap teddy bear online,” he recalls. “I was pretty sure I could make something better than this. So I gathered up material: Finger puppets and flash drives for the first version. It was adorable.”
And young women, especially, loved them.
“When you see a clear demand, you are onto something,” he says. “When I came back to the States, I worked some more on it and launched in 2011. The local paper ran a short profile, which led to a bigger city paper, then Entrepreneur magazine. That’s when I decided to take it really seriously.”
At first, he assembled the fuzzy drives by hand in his living room while watching movies, then he worked out a mass supply chain in China after visiting a trade expo in Hong Kong. He found, however, no real mass market for FlashPals.
Stienstra moved to Austin when his now-fiancee, Texas-born Monica Castillo, landed a job here. Before Facebook, he worked under contract for Apple Maps, researching locations and correcting them. He then transferred to the “ground truth team” after a call went out for Portuguese and Spanish speakers who were willing to travel up to 70 percent of the year.
Stienstra: “An easy choice for me!” He worked in Australia, Singapore, France, Germany, Brazil and, of course, the U.S.It was during his travels that Stienstra starting writing the blog, Life on a Planet.
“It was mostly a way to digest what I was experiencing,” he says. “I was meeting so many interesting people and encountering fascinating cultures. It was mostly for myself, but also for others to see what I was up to.”
Now he’s on a mission to make that impulse into something much more.