Putting on my Big Girl panties.

Yesterday I was at a conference in Melbourne, Australia, where I heard an amazing woman give a talk. Her name is Avis, and she’s my new role model. She was up there on stage, in front of hundreds of people, but she was talking to me.

She told me about her quarter-million-dollar job. She had 200 pairs of shoes. She had two houses and a handsome husband. I found myself feeling envious. As an entrepreneur in a perpetually underfunded startup, my husband/partner and I are in a constant struggle to make payroll. It makes me sick. I’d love to be at a point where that’s just not a problem anymore. Until then, we don’t take a paycheck, we don’t buy a lot of extras for the family, and I worry about my team.

I was envious because profligate wealth (like a closet large enough to hold 200 pairs of shoes) would mean I had made something that matters: That I’d made a team, which had made a thing, which had become so meaningful that customers bought it, and stuck around, and told their friends. Such wealth would mean that I’d made something that matters.

Avis went on to tell us that she one day figured out that her husband was a “cock” (her word). She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her. She quit her job, and moved to africa. She told me that she has a disease in her guts and thinks about shit a lot (the name of her talk was “Talking Shit”). So she started a company that’s all about shit and toilet paper. And it’s not just another rich white girl helping the poor black people. But that’s another story. She’s amazing.

So how do I live up to her example?

Her story wasn’t about quitting mainstream life and becoming a social entrepreneur (though she’d love it if we’d all do that). Her story was about being the most courageous, bold, powerful version of myself that I can be. Her story was about doing work that matters.

Does our work matter? Yes.

Entrepreneurs aren’t getting the help that they need and we have an important role to play. By listening to them, carefully and empathetically, we can help many people who are trying themselves to do courageous things.

I don’t care about the “brogrammers” who are “living the dream”, too cool to go looking for help. They don’t need my company. I care about the people who are putting it all on the line, just like me. Who are a little uncertain sometimes about the right thing to do. If I can help 100 entrepreneurs make things that matter and survive long enough to succeed, then we’ve accomplished something important.

Our work matters, and it can only continue if we have the team. Therefore, I have to make an environment where my team can be fully committed. Which means they have to get paid. Only then can we all work to the peak of our abilities and with clear, focused purpose.

So how do we proceed?

  1. With full conviction
  2. With data
  3. With the courage to make heroic asks of others in positions to help

It takes courage, because I fear that such boldness might threaten my ability to provide for my family. I have no backup — there’s no wealthy relative, no trust fund, no “fuck you”-size bank account. No closet with 200 pairs of shoes. If my reputation is damaged, will I be able to make a living?

These are the thoughts that hold back first-world entrepreneurs. We have options. We can choose the salary and the shoe closet. So I have to ask my self, is it worth it? And there’s what makes Avis’s example so difficult to live up to. Every day, we have the be fully committed, while openly evaluating the risk. And so far, every day, I’ve decided Yes. It’s worth the risk.

So here I go, putting on my big girl panties. Making big asks of bigger people on behalf of my customers, my team, and Avis. 

My Seriously Messed Up History, In an Nutshell

Preface 

The other day, I told 3 Million people that my fucked up family history made me a better entrepreneur. I’m paraphrasing a bit. I was in a recording booth in a San Francisco sound studio being interviewed by the publisher of Success Magazine for a CD insert that goes into every one of the millions of copies of that publication. We were talking about failure, which I’ve (unfortunately?) become known for, in part because I’m not afraid to talk about it.

Like, really not afraid.

And he wanted to know why — why would I do it. Why would I talk about failure? Why would I keep going as an entrepreneur if failure sucks so much? And the answer is that I’m resilient. And I became resilient because I come from a seriously fucked up family.

I’ve been prompted to tell my family story several times this year. I usually tell a short, sketchy version, because I’m afraid that it will embarrass the person hearing it, or cause them heartache. Since it’s out there, it may as well be out, Here, too.

The Story
(Warning: Might be upsetting.)

My father had bipolar disorder. He died of complications due to obesity, which is basically saying that he died from his untreated mood disorder. My mother is a now-recovering alcoholic who was profoundly depressed when I was born.

My middle sister had her first schizophrenic break when I was a freshman in high school. She drove off from our Ohio home one night, abandoned the car hundreds of miles away and caught a bus to Binghamton, NY. She found her way into a judge’s chambers there, claiming to have “FBI buzzwords” and that she had to get to Washington, D.C.. The judge had her committed to a state mental hospital, where she stayed, drugged up on Haldol, for 3 months.

She has lived the worst life an American can, more on the streets than off. During her bouts with homelessness her abuser/boyfriend/pimp/dealer’s name was Dax. I’ve heard that he had (has?) a wife and children. She once tried to light my mother’s hair on fire. She secretly moved into my college dorm, and loudly (in the dorm hallway) accused my father of raping me (not true). One of the several times she was institutionalized, my family found kitchen knives under the mattress in her apartment. She has had five pregnancies: three abortions and two children who grew up in foster care. She loved those kids and was her most stable during the few years they were with her. The state of Florida had her involuntarily “sterilized” after the last pregnancy.

My brother had narcissistic personality disorder and killed himself in 2008, the same week his older son was to graduate from high school. My brother always felt guilty for not rescuing my sister from Dax. He sincerely believed that he could have made her get better. But that’s not why he killed himself.

My mother (who was invited to join Mensa when she was at Purdue University, on a full scholarship, in the 1950s) left me (the youngest child) when I was a freshman in high school (only a few months before my sister had her mental break). It was 1980 when she quit her job as a computer programmer to be with her (literally) toothless boyfriend on a small, remote island off the coast of Florida, where she lived on a boat with no job or telephone (I lived in Ohio). She is surprised that this upsets me. That boyfriend eventually died of cirrhosis, homeless. Her next long-term boyfriend, (the then-ex-boyfriend of my healthy sister) died when he wrapped his car around a telephone pole as he was driving home (drunk) from the American Legion Hall. It was also 1980 when my father re-married, to another alcoholic, this one supposedly recovering. Her name is Janis. Though we lived as family for many years, we no longer talk.

Writing this down with the intention of publishing it makes me feel somewhat ill. I need you to know that there was good stuff too. Lots of it. But this is what has made me resilient. The specific day-to-day life of a child in such an environment has such extremes of emotion that there’s not much about regular life that can knock me over. It has left me with a profound drive to have a rich and meaningful life. I am intolerant of mediocre numbness.

I do have one healthy, beautiful, determined sister, whom I treasure. She teaches junior-high social studies (so you know she’s resilient, too!). She has two wonderful children who are becoming very interesting adults. My son, their cousin, will hopefully join them in a rich and meaningful life as he, too, grows toward an interesting and healthy adulthood.

Everyone else is kind of on their own. This pile of humanity, plus my absolutely cherished husband, is all I can handle for now.

7 things I did right with Emmet Labs

Every startup is a team effort, and that team can steer the company in a good direction or bad. Success and failure is a collective experience, and no one person can take credit for any of it.

Nonetheless, starting a company is also a very intense personal trial for the Entrepreneur—the person who lives and breathes it. I was the entrepreneur behind EmmetLabs.com, a company I founded in 2007. A year ago we laid off the staff and though the site is still out there, I feel that it’s time to take a look back at that personal experience. Here are some of the things I feel good about:

1. I aimed high.
I wanted to change the world. Emmet was something new and brilliant and never before done. For the right personality type, creating this network of the past is an addictive consumer activity—even after a year of inattention, we have users making literally hundreds of edits every week.

2. I had a clear product vision.
I knew what I wanted Emmet to be at its core, and we built that. And I was right—it’s very cool. The idea came to me fully formed at the TED conference three years ago; I ran back to my hotel room and wireframed the key interfaces. A few months later, I had a prototype built by Pivotal, and it was everything I wanted it to be.

3. I worked my network.
My professional network isn’t the biggest in the valley, but I have great relationships and I included all of them to make Emmet happen. I attracted fantastic investors and advisors, and made many new colleagues and friends. Every week I sent emails,  talked to people, had coffees and lunches. At every meeting and social outing I learned something — either about business, about Emmet, or about myself as an entrepreneur and leader. I had the courage to ask for whatever I happened to need at the time, and usually I got at least some portion of it.

4. I accepted help.
You’d be surprised how supportive the early-stage-startup community can be. I was offered (and accepted) office space, countless lunches, recruiting help, design services, consulting, etc, etc…and all of this came without a price tag. One of the best skills an entrepreneur can have is knowing how to get something for nothing. I pay it forward whenever I can.

5. I didn’t let anything stop me.
Sometimes things happen that are completely out of your control, and they make your job just that much harder. I get that. But this was over the top:

Really, Fate? Is that all you have to throw at me?

Really, Fate? Is that all you have to throw at me?

In 18 months, I was clobbered by a prolonged and mysterious illness, my dad died, my brother killed himself, the world economy exploded, and the funding window closed.

At one point a few months after my brother’s suicide, I was sitting alone in my glass-walled office. The sliding door was open and I looked up as Freada Klein walked by. My face must have shown the grief, because she stopped and asked if I was alright. The only thing I could say was “I don’t know how I’ll ever get past this.” It was a raw an honest moment.

Nonetheless, I persevered. I had lots of help from my husband and son, the Kapor/Kleins, and so many others. Perhaps continuing with the venture wasn’t right or necessary, but it’s just what you do, especially when you’ve taken people’s money and hired a staff. You don’t quit just because it’s hard—you keep going.

6. I turned down a bad term sheet.
As luck would have it, I was preparing to go out for series A in late 2008. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The world was melting down, the credit markets had seized up. I did a few exploratory meetings with investors in December, and by the first of January I had concluded that the window was closed tight.

The timing of our funding rounds couldn't have been worse.

The timing of our funding rounds couldn't have been worse.

Just then, during the first weeks of January 2009, in the worst possible economy, comes a Term Sheet! Unfortunately, it was a bad one. A really, really bad one that would have screwed all of my angels, changed control of the company, and still left us under-capitalized.

I’ve done bad deals before, and I believe this one would have meant a slow, acrimonious death march for the company and all participants therein. I had no idea what we were going to do as the money ran out, but this deal wasn’t the way forward.  I said No.

7. I turned down good money for the right reason.
With the funding window closed, we were either going to have to pull a rabbit out of our hat, or wind down the company. So I met with the investors, and to my great relief, one offered to give us a bit more capital. “I want to be helpful,” he said, and I liked that kind of help.

I could have taken the money, and initially I said Yes. But you don’t take money unless it will get you somewhere important. His contribution wouldn’t have changed the outcome, just delayed it. I called him the next day and told him not to make the wire transfer. It was the right thing to do, and that matters to me.

Bottom line — I’m very proud of Emmet, and I’m proud of what we accomplished as a team. Without ongoing financial support, it’s not taking the world by storm. But it’s still there chugging along, and it’s still very cool.