One of America’s greatest strengths is social mobility. There are several cases of an individual starting with nothing and persevering to become rich, powerful, and influential. Success stories of this kind have become an important part of American business mythology, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. They are strong motivators for individuals embarking on companies of their own.
For those of us who start companies, we see the company as a vehicle to creating something valuable and lasting for society, while also advancing our personal goals. This isn’t usually hubris or ego, though sometimes it may be. Instead, it’s usually an attempt to make your time worthwhile: to yourself, to those close to you, and — if you’re lucky and persistent enough — to the entire world.
The problem with social mobility is that not every individual begins at the same starting line. In fact, the range is huge. Those who start with an influential family or significant capital resources have a much easier time getting to the top. For those who don’t have this head start, things are a lot harder.
Though America is not entirely merit-based, it can reward individuals for hard work. I’ve experienced the benefit both of an advantageous starting point and hard work in my 26 years on this earth. I also believe that with each step and milestone in my life, my potential to create enduring value for society has increased significantly.
The inspiration for this essay was a comment I read online about a successful young businessman who was the son of a successful businessman. “I’d [like to] read a story about a 25-yo [who] made good on the same scale[,] who went to a state college, had screwed up parents who were too busy fighting with each other or gettiing drunk to even have a clue what he was doing, isn’t childhood friends with a celebrity… Just happened to be smart and hardworking and optimistic even despite all those factors. That would actually be an interesting story.”
My parents weren’t screwed up, but they did fight a lot — my Mom and Dad separated when I was in elementary school and divorced shortly after that. I’ve not been childhood friends with a celebrity and I don’t have a trust fund.
I’m not saying I came from a disadvantaged upbringing — in fact, quite the opposite. I went to public high school in New York. To a New Yorker, that may not sound like a huge step up in the world, but I recognize that public school in New York represents one of the top educations you can get.
I grew up in a nice house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I had good, encouraging teachers. My parents were liberal and a positive influence. I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth, but I also didn’t have any serious handicap in my upbringing. Probably my biggest step up in the world, given my current trajectory, was that when I was 10 or 11 years old, my Dad noticed an interest I had in computers. And so, he bought me a PC (running DOS / Windows 3.1) and set it up for me on Christmas Day. From that point forward, I was enchanted by the machine. And once I got a 28K modem and dial-up access to the web (on one of the first ISPs, The Pipeline), I became a citizen of the world before I had even hit puberty.
This I do know — though I had a head start, I also worked hard. I was a geek — as I got older, I built my own servers in my basement, taught myself to program, and discovered Linux and Free Software. But I also kept ahead in “the real world”. I did feel a little disconnected from my peers in my private pursuits; reflecting on my childhood, I realize I “grew up” a little more quickly than my peers.
My First “Startups”
At 15, I had built and launched somewhat popular websites for a couple of personal projects. Nothing you would remember — each one was related in some way to an interest I had in multiplayer online video games, an interest I aged out of a year later. Each website had between a few hundred and several thousand visitors a week.
But the sites looked nice. When I told my family friends and teachers in my local suburb that “I built websites”, they were all interested in having me work for them. Recognizing the opportunity, I turned this into a business.
At 16, I was approached by the editors of a technology publishing company called Friends of ED to write a couple chapters for a book of theirs called Flash 5 Dynamic Content Studio. They found me on the web — my first “digital introduction”, before the days of LinkedIn. On the weekends, I regularly answered people’s Actionscript programming questions in a listserv called flashpro. They liked that I had both a Flash and programming background, so they contacted me to contribute to their book — one of the first that discussed building backend systems and tying them to Flash frontends.
I corresponded with them entirely via e-mail. I wrote the chapters and edited about 80% of the book during my junior year of high school, while also prepping for SATs and acting as editor of my school newspaper. I probably got 3 hours of sleep a night. My friends thought I was crazy.
When the book finally went to press and started showing up on Amazon.com and in Barnes & Noble stores, it was one of my proudest moments in my early adulthood. I just thought about how the work I did was being seen and read by thousands of people across the world. Each of those individuals would go on and use that knowledge to build web applications for other individuals. There was seemingly no limit to the impact of my work. I may have been naive, but I thought, what could be better than this?
I still remember when the editors in the UK found out I was only 16 (it was while we were negotiating payment). They were shocked, they actually didn’t believe me. They had to check with lawyers to see if they could even pay me. Then they paid me the bunch of money they owed me for my hourly editing rate and IP rights, and I had all the savings I needed to live throughout my first couple college years without asking my parents for support.
By 16, I had some unique experiences. I created a market in my skills. I built working software for companies small and large. I contributed to a project that had global impact. I made some real money. And, in my junior and senior years of high school, I got a taste of the competing demands of personal and work life.
College: Creating Value for Myself
When I got into NYU on scholarship, I was thrilled. My grades in high school let me go to a good college without breaking the bank. I would be able to attend a top-tier school without the financial stress typically associated with private schools. I’d get to stay in New York, one of my true loves. I had also been rejected by just about every other top-tier university in the country. Come to think of it, the ups and downs of the college application process was good training for startup life — especially the rejections.
I worked my butt off in college. I really got into it. Not just the coursework, but also just pursuing my passions within the student body. I held talks that tried to stoke up my peers about technology, economics and open source software, all passions of mine. My friends rarely saw me because I was often working on these and other spare time projects.
College was interesting. I worked hard, but rarely got paid for my work. In some sense, working hard in college is good preparation for a startup lifestyle. You work hard because you believe in yourself and in your own potential, not because you have a paycheck coming.
It was also in college where I came to an important realization: I am a software engineer and computer scientist. Though there are many ways for me to add value, my preparation and passions make me especially well-suited to building software. And so, that’s where I should have an impact.
Internship: Creating Value for Others
I took an internship in summer of my sophomore year where I got paid a flat $3000 to build a web application for a NYC-based non-profit, The Unemployment Action Center of NY. I probably spent 750 hours on the thing (60 hours a week), not making it a very profitable proposition. My friends again thought I was crazy — lots of them had taken well-paying and prestigious internships at software companies and banks, but I didn’t even apply to those.
This was my first experience with building a real product that people actually used. I worked entirely from home. I used my own development environment and hosting environment. I gathered requirements directly from the end-users. I made all the technical decisions and implemented all the code. That was good experience for startup life. Built useful stuff, solved real problems. Made lots of little decisions.
The case management application I built is still running today, relatively bug-free, and has helped thousands of unemployed people get legal representation for free, so that they can get justice for wrongful termination and other cases. I’m really proud of that application. I didn’t care that I got paid $4/hour for it. Looking back, I would have done it for free. What a phenomenal organization and what a great cause to apply technology toward.
Post-College: Creating Value for Money
The rest of my story is told pretty well by this NY Observer article.
I worked at Morgan Stanley for a couple of years while living at home on Long Island to save money. Working at the bank was a huge change from the rest of my life. The primary focus of my job became my paycheck. Technology decisions were made for me, by external committees. I was expected to follow all sorts of processes and procedures. I was expected to become a conventional programmer. I found myself building products that had an unclear end-user.
I did learn things there, too. I learned what it was like to work with engineers on a daily basis. I learned a lot from my managers and colleagues, many of whom were just astoundingly intelligent individuals. I learned how big companies operated. But mostly, I learned a lot about myself.
I learned that work meant more to me than a paycheck. Work should be about solving problems, helping people, and creating enduring value. Money is important, but it wasn’t what attracted me to technology in the first place. And that’s why I knew I had to leave that firm.
Startup Life: Creating Lasting Value for Myself, for Others, and for Money
I accepted this compromise: I would work at the bank to save the money I needed to build my own company. I was “realistic”, and this seemed a fair compromise.
I anticipated that I’d need at least a $20K buffer to start my startup (it ended up being more than that). And in March of last year, I quit Morgan Stanley to embark on this path. My awesome, like-minded friend from NYU, Sachin Kamdar, quit his job too. Together, we tried to build something of value, even though we didn’t know what that would be initially. We worked out of cafes, brainstorming ideas and building prototypes. We consulted on the side — I, through the boutique software engineering firm I founded, Aleph Point. Early on, my girlfriend prophetically referred to my financial strategy in all this as “putting a bandaid on a hemorrhaging femoral artery”.
Our friends thought we were crazy. Chuck a steady paycheck to work on an ill-defined “startup”? For some reason, all we could think was, hell yes we would.
Our first stroke of luck was getting into DreamIt Ventures. NYC didn’t have seed programs like Tech Stars or Seed Start yet. We moved to Philadelphia for the summer, leaving our NYC apartment leases and girlfriends behind. They thought we were crazy. The $20K from DreamIt basically covered our living expenses in Philly, but it did lift some financial pressure for a few months. We came up with a $4/person/day diet — which we called “the startup diet” — that involved eating beans, soup, romaine lettuce, and veggie burgers basically every day. We lived in a “startup house” with the founders of SeatGeek and Tidal Labs. We worked in an office with the founders of Postling, NoteHall, and other fledgling companies. We started hacking on what would eventually become Parse.ly. And for the first time in our lives, we were surrounded by individuals who also felt that what one does is more important than how one benefits.
Our second stroke of luck was finding our exceptionally talented lead engineer, Didier Deshommes, who has been with us ever since we incubated Parse.ly in Philadelphia. Ever since DreamIt, we operate on this maxim: we got our share of luck — now, let’s make our own.
Creating Your Own Luck
Perhaps our startup founding story isn’t remarkable. But lately, reflecting on the last year — where we bootstrapped and self-financed this startup, overworking ourselves and straining our personal relationships — I’ve started to feel like it is pretty remarkable.
We made our own luck. And we’ve brought all our skills and experience to bear. I’ve been preparing for running Parse.ly since the age of 15. I’ve been preparing, basically, my whole life. And I’m so glad we did this together. With all the ups and downs, if I had done this on my own, I would have given up. But we just kept pushing each other. Every time we hit a roadblock, we just said, “we can still do this.” And we did.
I’m really proud of this company and our team. We’ve built a real, valuable technology of lasting value. We’ve learned so much. And we’ve done it all against the odds. We are a small NYC startup with two no-name founders. Neither of us have “prior exits” or “a solid track record”. Neither of us have built and launched startups before. But none of that matters. We discovered that people want their content filtered and prioritized and that online publishers want their content optimized, and we used elbow grease, hustle, and dedicated hacking to make the rest happen.
Our startup is three hard-working and optimistic guys who believe that we can change the world. We put it all on the line to create something from nothing. Our work is still in progress, and there are still challenges ahead. There are easier things we could be doing, but we don’t care. You may think we’re crazy, and you may be right.
But that’s the final lesson of startups, isn’t it? You have to be a little crazy.
Thanks to Sachin Kamdar for editing this essay. And thanks to our awesome friends, significant others, and families for still cheering us on even as they rightfully thought we were crazy.