Category Archives: me

My Seriously Messed Up History, In an Nutshell


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, 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.

All religions believe this. Or should.

The world’s religious leaders came together this year to make a joint statement about what is common across all of them.

Their statement is the best (first? only?) representation of the collective values of the world’s population that I’ve seen. It’s a call to action and a statement of purpose. I commit myself to strive to live up to these as if they were commandments.

It’s called the Charter for Compassion:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~

  • to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion
  • to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate
  • to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures
  • to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity
  • to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Pavlov explains *everything*

I made this early in the year, when I was working to figure out why I do things that mess up relationships — why I didn’t want to see my dad at the end of his life, why I don’t call mom & friends enough, why my first marriage ended, why I sometimes recoil from certain kinds of commitment and need. If I can make my rational brain understand, perhaps I can override the poor conditioning.

[Update, 9/15/9: I considered calling this diagram “how crazy people fucked me up”, or “okay, bitches, you owe me for all of that therapy, cuz it’s your goddam fault!” but thought those might be a little too on-point.]


What am I?

I started this list over a year ago. It’s been sitting in my Drafts folder ever since. The most significant part of the list is the first item: Pollyanna. Despite everything I’ve done and seen, I’m idealistic, naive, a bit gullible, and optimistic. I hope I always will be. Now, here’s the list:

selectively irresponsible
quick with opinions
quick to anger
quick to let go
hard on myself
forgiving of others
cheap drunk
hard working