The Pain Of Progress
How I helped grow a successful startup into a multimillion dollar company and what I gained by leaving
If you line up on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, around sunset, the night of the Rose Parade, you’ll be treated to a kind of locals-only-after-parade. All those floats have to go somewhere, and they make their way back to wherever floats go around dusk, down Orange Grove, after all the TV cameras and crowds have gone home, the flower petals wilt and the crushed walnut shells and other strangely magical float ingredients have begun to fall off.
The year that we found ourselves enjoying this private Rose Parade on the edge of LA, at the base of the San Gabriel mountains, was one year after we had made the trek from Northern California down the central valley, over the Grapevine, descending into the thick, strangely tinged smog cloud that awaits travelers as they come into Santa Clarita. That year was 2008. The dollar was growling like an angry bear and the iPhone was almost a year old.
We’d been living up in NorCal for the last five years, getting ourselves together, staging up for the next move. You know how it is, in the angst of your late twenties it seemed, at least for us, that everything was out in front, that the world was a treasure waiting for us to unearth, just as soon as we could find the map.
My wife and I have always been dreamers. We met in Honolulu at the age of twenty-two, got married and then spent the next year circling the island, hanging out on beaches all weekend long, hunting for the next best local place to grab a bite, working only to fuel our desire to just take things in. That year in Hawaii is etched in my mind like a tray that almost everything else sits on. Over the years I’ve even found myself literally dreaming at night that I’m still getting rolled in those balmy waves, opening my eyes and looking around at the underwater beauty, greedily absorbing everything I can until my eyes burn too much to take anymore.
I wasn’t as lucky as my wife. She got to grow up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California, only an hour from Yosemite National Park. I, on the other hand, grew up in a mostly forgotten former automotive town on I-94 between Chicago and Detroit, in the bottom-middle portion of the “hand”. If you’re from Michigan you’ll know what I mean, because you hold up your hand and point to where you are from. The only good thing about any town like that is the people. Otherwise there are basically not many opportunities for young dreamers.
After we left Hawaii, we spent the next eight years in motion, moving to Denver, finishing our degrees, and then back out to Northern California. In the process I was blessed with so much natural beauty that the gray and the seasonal affective disorder, the depression and the pills that came with it, all got drowned in the sunlight and majesty of these two wonderful patches of planet earth. Sometimes you can be healed, though not entirely, by changing your location. I’ve witnessed that first hand.
And so fast forward to Pasadena. We’d been living and working in the small town where my wife grew up in Northern CA for around five years. By this time we had two small bundles of joy riding with us on our journeys. Through many twists and turns we knew that it was time to give up the service business that I had started successfully in the small town. It was a hard decision, not only because the business had brought so much encouragement to me personally, getting to interact with wonderfully kind, small-town people on a daily basis, but also because we were making a huge leap into a new career path. And moving to LA. From a small town. With kids.
As with any story, you really need a montage to get from one place to another. And since I can’t do a proper montage here with no music, no video, heck, really none of the things that you would need for something like that… here goes the text-based version.
Insert whatever soundtrack you like. Moving into apartment that was much darker and so much closer to a super busy street than we’d thought possible. Then going to classes and realizing that I’d probably made the biggest mistake of my life moving from IT work into the field of academics. And then also realizing that 3000 pages per quarter is sooo much more than you can actually read. And lot’s of anxiety. And loans. And exploring LA. Making friends. Having some really fun times, having some really dark times, eating lots of ice-cream and making homemade pizza. Watching movies on the wall outside at night with other families. Then getting the hang of things. Then maybe liking things. Then graduating, then starting a new business with two people very close to you, a few days after graduating.
Ok, phew. If you’re still with me, and I understand if you’re not, this is the point in time that matters most for this story. I graduated with my M.A. on a Friday, and began working on a startup company the next Monday.
A few months before my graduation, some people very close to me had come to visit and showed off a simple invention that they were thinking of turning into a viable product. Having a background in IT infrastructure, I decided I would lend a hand and began pouring every spare moment into the project. Soon enough we had a working website, a backend connection to a warehouse, a manufacturer and some orders rolling in.
Just getting to that point was a gargantuan amount of work. But the payoff seemed so large due to the simplicity and demand for the product, along with the size of the market we were targeting. As I worked toward our official launch date, my grades began to slip a little, putting scholarships and future work in some jeopardy, but I reasoned that the opportunity in front of me was worth all of the effort and some of the negatives that came with it.
I continued working late into the night and early hours of the morning for months. I was working on twenty-five page papers due the next day and our website and infrastructure at the same time. Our launch date came and went. We gathered more and more steam. Orders started coming in from large vendors. We were truly on our way.
I got the first Google phone called the G1. It had a slide out physical keyboard and ran Android 1.0! Business was picking up so fast and I had so much work to do that this phone was a huge help in managing it all. I was commenting on threads in forums, managing our Twitter and other social accounts, placing orders, taking phone calls, setting up even more systems for tracking customers, linking them together and generally working myself to the bone. But business was rolling in. And our future seemed bright.
Only it wasn’t exactly a direct line to success. Even as I watched the money roll in, I had increasingly more trouble convincing the other cofounders to raise my salary so that I could survive. We were living on credit cards and our student loan debt was so ominous that it seemed we would need to make at least 250k a year just to climb out. But the company was growing at a pace that made that look like a true reality. So I soldiered on.
A few years into the project we hit our first million dollars in revenue. Our growth curve was strong, we started getting bigger and bigger contracts. Nothing would stop us. Up until that point I’d been mostly linking out-of-the-box software together, building up networks of systems out of cloud-based offerings. But then one of the cofounders asked me if I could track a particular metric on customer retention. I tried to do this using our existing software, but wasn’t able to make it happen. I’d always wanted to become a developer, so I rolled up my sleeves and learned how to code.
I’ll never forget the first day I started coding. We were living in San Deigo by then, still not making ends meet by any means, but just barely scraping things together in the best neighborhood we could afford. Because of this we didn’t have enough room in the rental house for an office, so I worked in the garage. I put a small desk in the garage and cracked the roll door open about six inches so some sunlight would come in and help with the small bare bulb on the ceiling.
Strings, arrays, iterators — these were all mostly new concepts to me. I’d tried picking up programming a few years before, but never made any traction since I was so busy I didn’t have the hours to really dedicate to digging in. But this time would be different. I made my own schedule as a cofounder of the company, and any improvements I could make to the company by learning to code would come (mostly) straight back to me. All of my excuses were gone, and the timing was right.
I labored and labored, watching YouTube videos, getting books on my Kindle, reading, typing things into my terminal late into the night and early hours of the morning while my wife and kids were sleeping. Finally, eventually, it all began to sink in. I was making progress! I could perform some basic tasks using the code I had written. I went back and tackled the question with the customer’s retention metrics. I had real numbers to report. I began to look around for things that I could improve with my new skills.
I also began to integrate into the APIs that we used. I downloaded our company sales data, stuffed it into databases, played around with it, analyzed it, moved it from here to there. I knew this was powerful stuff. I discovered that I could now understand other languages using the basics I’d already learned. So I branched into learning more systems and languages that were more suited to the problems at hand. Soon I had a working website that was for internal use and visually tracked daily sales and other metrics in real-time.
The amount of work that I could accomplish with my newfound skills seemed endless. It felt like I had acquired superpowers. And in many ways I had. From that point I began to write our own internal code for handling things that sorely needed fixing. I developed code for reporting, tracking and analyzing sales, but also to create a new autoship program where we could sign up users and have them auto-magically get our product in the mail every month. Of course there are a bunch of systems that do this now, but at the time in 2012, there weren’t any affordable systems that would do this with physical products. So I found a cloud-based recurring billing system and wrote the code to bridge the gap between the online payments and the shipping of physical products in our ecommerce store.
This proved to be very successful. In short order we went from a handful of autoship customers to over a thousand. This was reflected positively in our revenue. And I continued to write more software. I developed this system further from a bunch of scripts that ran on a schedule to a full-blown, highly-available microservice architecture. I switched languages yet again, and by this time I could write proficiently in four different programming languages. The world was my oyster.
But the problem of my salary kept growing more ominous like a dark cloud on the horizon that you hope is going the other direction, but fear is headed straight for you. By this time we had moved from San Diego to Denver and bought our first home! It didn’t seem like we would ever be able to afford a home in San Diego. So we began to look online at prices in the Denver market, a place that we had lived before and knew well. Sure enough, at the time there were plentiful homes in our price range. We loaded up the family vehicle and head to the Front Range of the Rocky mountains and began looking around with our amazing real estate agent that we found on Zillow.
Our agent was and is one of the top in the Denver market. And somehow we stumbled into getting him to help us, even though he had a waiting list. One thing led to another and were were under contract for a nice little family home on the edge of Denver, in a great little neighborhood with a cul-de-sac. Things were beginning to take shape and the nomadic lifestyle of our younger years was being replaced by schedules and school events and yard work. We were becoming the dream.
And yet, as mentioned just a moment ago, my salary hadn’t been keeping pace. Every raise up until then was only won after long fights with the other two cofounders. It was always something. What would the other investors think? How would this reflect on our current lawsuit? Because by this point we had people copying our patent and were in litigation over this. There were always reasons why my raise couldn’t happen, and when it did it was always less than expected and farther in between since the last one. Though I was setting my own schedule, working at home in my backyard, coding and training our growing team in Michigan, a kind of depression began to settle over me.
At first I thought maybe it was something that would eventually work it’s way out. But then there were the fights with the other two cofounders. Initially the cofounder that became the CEO had joked about this status. He would say “I’m the CEO, you’d better do this or that…haha” and it was funny because the company had just started and we were all on the same playing field. But as the years and more importantly the stakes began to add up, it seemed as if the attitude around being CEO was changing for the worse. Eventually he would yell and confront myself and others, letting us know that he was “The CEO” and that we would need to listen to him or else. But then he would back down and apologize.
The yo-yo of fights and apologies kept happening and intensifying along the way. And during this time my wife and I began to think about the fact that we should probably have shares in the company that I had built. The company that I had nurtured like a baby bird, with all of my strength and so much sacrifice. But we had never thought about shares before. Since the other two cofounders were so close to us and we didn’t have a background in business, we hadn’t given it much thought. In the beginning there was always talk about the finances being available for everyone. But as time went on, there were fancy RV’s and diamond rings and business trips and expensive steak dinners for the other cofounders, while for me it was basically continuing to code and work more than ten hours a day, in a bedroom, in my new house, because we couldn’t afford one with a proper office.
But there were also always reasons for this activity. The RV was for a legitimate marketing program, the ring was so that one of the cofounders could look nice in public at corporate events and the dinners were for potential customers. Yes, this all made sense. And it still makes sense in a certain way. Businesses need legitimate expenses for the things that businesses do. And we even went through a lawsuit where one of the investors accused the other cofounders of misusing funds. The suit was eventually settled and all of the claims were proved wrong. But there was this nagging, growing issue of how my family was going to benefit from this company that I’d poured so much into.
My wife and I began to have a number of heart-to-heart meetings with the other two cofounders. We told them how we felt that we needed to see some shares of the company so that our hard work could get locked in. So that we wouldn’t lose out, not that we were saying we would, but that just in case, so we could get some of our sweat, tears and years back. We would need this to pay off our growing student loan and credit card debt. The student loan debt had ballooned to the size of a house payment between the two of us, since we’d kept them on forbearance for so long. We were always hoping the salary would catch up and we could start to pay them down.
There were a series of these meetings, talking about shares, stretching over a couple of years. And each time the tone became more and more intense an accusatory. At one point, in one of the last meetings, I was told by one of the other cofounders that “when the grain pile gets big enough the rats come out to get it…” And my wife and I stood up, and we yelled, and they yelled, we all fought, and it ended very tenuously with those kinds of apologies that you know are just there so you can make it out the door with some dignity intact.
About a year ago we got a great new office in the Golden, CO area. It had amazing views of the mountains right out my window and it was our place so I could bring my Great Dane puppy with me to work. I felt like I was finally getting to where I’d worked so hard to be all these years. Except my salary and ownership in the company. I had finally convinced the other cofounders to raise my salary to at least within the fiftieth percentile for my type of work in the Denver area. Again we were making just enough, but we were also finally starting to just barely claw our way forward.
And then there was another one of our routine fights. We would go on a kind of rollercoaster of fights every two months or so, the CEO getting into some kind of persecutory mood, ordering me around, acting irrational, followed by the inevitable apology. Rinse and repeat. But this time it was a little different. The CEO had a habit of calling all of the people around me when he couldn’t get in touch with me. And this day I was taking a little time off, something I was entitled to do after all the years as a cofounder of the company. On that day he called, and was talking fast and manic about some perceived problem. But I had begun to fight back. It had become more common for me to voice my opinion more openly, rather than taking a back seat and acting like the “peacemaker”, in my usual way.
I told him in no uncertain terms that next time he needed to get in touch with me, he wouldn’t be allowed to call my wife in a panic. To this he replied “I can call anyone I want, anytime I want. I’m the CEO!” And he hung up.
And then three days later, a couple days before Thanksgiving of this year, I got a letter from these two, formerly very close people in my life, that said I would need to sign off on a long list of, frankly irrational do’s and dont’s regarding my relationship with the CEO or they would be laying me off in four days. Four days! No calling to ask if maybe we could get some dinner or coffee and talk about things, nothing human like that. Just four days and you’re out.
Of course I contacted a lawyer and began to gear up for a fight. I figured that my family and my legacy was now on the line. The situation had deteriorated so bad over the years that now, I was being told in confidence, that whenever the other cofounders were out in public they would not refer to me as a cofounder of the company. In fact, there was no mention of me. It was all about how they had started the company. The story had slowly, insidiously changed over the years. They had successfully rewritten history into the version that they wanted.
Of course, I was never aware that this was the world that I was walking into, all those years ago, nine to be exact, when I left LA, wide-eyed, ready for something new. I never would have dreamed in a million years that these two people, would ever turn out this way. But now I am older. Now I am not twenty-two, but forty-two. I have an upcoming twenty-year anniversary, three kids, an almost full-grown Great Dane puppy, some gray hair, a mortgage that keeps coming back month after month like mortgages do, and a more importantly no salary. But I’m also happy.
You see, I decided that rather than fight in court, I would give everything up and wash my hands clean of the whole mess. And this took a few weeks of agonizing and deliberating, talking with my wife and with friends for hours. And we eventually came to the conclusion that we would not be letting this rob us of our life and our joy. I’ve been through a handful of lawsuits now, and I can say it’s not pretty. It’s probably closest thing to a war without actual bullets or blood. But the damage is still very real. No. We would not be going that direction.
I had my lawyer draft a letter that basically, voluntarily gave up any rights I may have had to sue them for fraud and a number of other things. And I can honestly say that’s the best decision I’ve ever made. The amount of peace that came over me the moment I sent that signed letter is not something that can be bought with money. And this is not the kind of thing that I would have ever done when I was younger.
And now, here I am at the present. I must be honest. We are still struggling. We still don’t know how we are going to pay the mortgage. I am looking for jobs. But I am also very disillusioned. I feel as if I’ve been taking the hot showers at Alcatraz for the past nine years, and now I’ve been dumped into the icy bay. It’s almost as if the muscles of my very personality are freezing up under the weight of it all. I feel shameful. I feel stupid at having lost this business that I used to tell people and friends about with a twinkle in my eye. “That’s an amazing story!” they would say. “Wow, what’s it like to make your own schedule and work at home and hang out with your kids whenever you want?” I would say that it felt amazing. I would say that we were incredibly blessed.
But in the back of my mind I always felt a little black cloud was hanging around. It was the specter of the fact that my salary was never keeping up. The fact that I had to fight so hard for every little inch. That something always seemed off. On the surface the story felt so hopeful, so shiny and bright and the kind of thing that makes you feel good about yourself. There was the added bonus that we were selling a product that really helps people with dire problems. There were a lot of testimonials.
And yet I always felt like Cinderella. Scrubbing floors in the background, working out of bedrooms, keeping things running at 1am when everyone else was sleeping. Then I would tell my story at a kid’s sporting event. And I would listen to myself talking and think “What a great story!” and the little black cloud would get pushed back for a little bit more time. But of course, I could never outrun that little black cloud. It turned into a monstrous, seething storm and then dumped its fury on me.
And now, I’m still in one of my bedrooms, working on my resume, trying to piece together my life. The problem is that I feel so raw, so worn down by the experience of the last decade that it’s like having lost your skin in a salt-water rainstorm. The bills are piling up. My wife is wondering what I’m going to do.
In the end, I ask myself, would I do it again? Am I happy with my choice to walk away and start over? ABSOLUTELY! The thought of going back to that environment, with the constant spin cycle, is so much worse than anything I am facing now. I know there will be hardship going forward. I am feeling that pain right now as I type. But it’s a different kind of pain. It’s different than depression and apathy. It feels like the kind of pain that let’s you know that you are alive! I swear I can hear and smell better, life is a little more sharp and engaging. And I know that this momentary discomfort will turn out to be the best direction I’ve ever gone. Here’s to being uncomfortable! And making the hard decisions! And conquering your fears! And finally, living.