How I Stopped Being a Founder

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We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings. We shall bear patiently the burdens that fate imposes on us. We shall work without rest for others, both now and when we are old. And when our final hour comes, we shall meet it humbly, and there beyond the grave, we shall say that we have known suffering and tears, that our life was bitter. And God will pity us. – Sonya from Uncle Vanya (Chehkov)

A recent post by Myles struck a cord in me.  For the last 7-years that I’ve been building, I’ve said to myself  “I am a founder”.  After reading that post I realized that I am a product creator, not a founder.

My Partner, Blanca and I started FriendsEAT in our living room.   We wanted to be the Tim and Nina Zagat of the digital age; or so we thought as we went live on May 2006.  We saw a plethora of restaurants and food based businesses with very little online penetration.   We saw pretty crappy information online, and a few bad experiences convinced me to code our 1.0 version of the site.  The issue was the passion for it wasn’t 100% there.  We had a secret passion, travel, and we really wanted our website to allow us to do it.

We ran our “Startup” from cafes in Florence to penthouses in Brooklyn.   All the time we were working.  We’d be working with some of our home-based developers who all were from different countries.   The goal was always to make the product better.  The big fact here is that we worked through ALL of our travels.

We got to see sites such as 2nd century Roman ruins in Croatia, and Venice during tourist season (terrible); but it was only during our lunch breaks.   At night it was a different story. We’d go to a dinner in some alleyway in a place like Cortona or a ruin pub with the Gypsies in Budapest (Thank you Bala and Erin), enjoy amazing wine and we’d talk about…work.   As a business couple who were traveling, work was paramount on our minds.  We should have been discussing the frescoes we had just seen the day before.  We should have been discussing the blooming sunflowers. Instead, we discussed the website.  Our relationship was the “Startup”.

To be fair we had to think about the “Startup” during the first 3-years.   It was fully financed by my savings and it bled money month over month.   Not only that, it didn’t work.  The site itself was half usable; and the usable half was slow.  We had constant site outages, crappy code and as a business a development team who didn’t care as long as the month payments came (thank you India).  I mean we had everything go wrong from horrible Business Development hires to employees cheating us.   We were so gun shy it felt everyday was a game of Russian Roulette.

Example:  A trip out to Sonoma for a 1 day winery tour.  I think it was a Sunday.   We passed Sausalito and my cell coverage goes off.  My heart begins to pound some.   “It’ll be fine.  My guys got it covered, just in case.” I tell myself.

We hit the first winery, Jacuzzi.   Plush fields of Chardonnay grapes are adorned with green hills as far as the eyes can see.   I hear dogs barking in the distances probably trying to catch a fox or a rabbit.  It’s serene until I look down at my cellphone and I get a Pingdom alert that FriendsEAT has been down for 2-hours.

Let me explain to you why this is a horror.  We had 1-million visitors a month.   On a given day that’s 25k – 40k unique visitors a day.   So we are talking about 5000 people who hit a dead page on our sites.   Let me explain this to my mother, “mom…we fucked up”.

So I ran to my rental car and called/texted the “team”.   I waited 15-minutes and nothing happened.   Did it again and nothing happened.  No one cared to come in and do some triage on the bug.   The guys responsible for coverage were asleep or at the bar.   No one cared.   It was startling but true.

It took me 2 hours to SSH via my phone into the server and debug the issue.   We got back online and I looked at Blanca and said I want to go back to the hotel because I have to “monitor this”.  Our first time trying “switch off” and “I failed”.  This what I felt and it wasn’t something I wanted to keep feeling.

In my mind I had built a startup.   I had “Ra Ra” sessions via skype.  Brought my team to meet and greets ($20k to fly everyone to one beach in middle of nowhere).  Had headshots made wearing our logo.  I had instilled a cult of passion in my team.  At least I thought I did.

From reading Founders at Work and hundreds of other books on the startup culture I assumed that was what I was creating.   Teams passionate enough to help build a vision.   My vision of a digital community of foodies.

So a few years since this incident I’m still learning to build the system.  We’ve been profitable and are still growing but I personally hadn’t learnt the lesson from that day in the vineyard.   I did yell at the team.  Trying to figure out where my process was messed up but the band aid I put on it was just that, a band aid.   I doubled down on work and focused on growth and training.   We jumped to 20 people and with that 20 peoples’ problems.  I had no time to figure out what my business was, all I had time for was building, fixing and praying.

The article did it for me.  I kept thinking during these years of struggle, “I am a founder”.   I am not.  I am a product designer.  I understand the customers needs and build stuff which meets those needs.  Conversely, I want to travel and see the world, but the idea of being a Founder doesn’t allow for that.   The words themselves are just a badge you wear on your business card.

So I’ve figured out that I am not that guy.  I am not the guru Founder type written about in Techcrunch or other industry rags.   I am trying to become a person who doesn’t “eat, drink, love my business”.    I take pleasure from work, but it’s not the work part I love but the creation part.   I am an artist that paints in PHP, Ruby, CSS on a canvas of cloud computing.

Myles’ piece showed me two sides of myself.   Who I think I am, and Who I really am.  I am going to spend next few weeks testing if I can not be the helicopter business guy and just be myself.   Let’s see how it goes.

UPDATE 1/26/2014: Total failure since this piece.   I had to double down on work.   We saw astronomical growth in our services side of the business so had to work on that.  Also started a reputation management company focused on local businesses.   I am not listening to my advice.   Overworking has become such the normal for me.    In last 90 days, I published an API, created an affiliate system (not a junky one), helped create a massive sales funnel and helped a team member buy her first house.   Oh in the last 120 days foreword of a newly published book on Monsanto.  It’s an addiction to keep creating stuff.  I can so I do?   There is nothing in technology today I can’t focus on and create.   I’m not trying to be hubris but kinda of the opposite it’s a “crutch”.  By being a polymath in the digital space the “brush” I am painting with is so wide/broad I am pull in so many directions.  I wish I had a positive/negative addition to this.  But working on it.


Founder of Socialdraft @FriendsEat, Entrepreneur, Traveler, Avid @Hackernews Contributor, Interested in Technology News, and a NYC Tour Guide in Disguise. You can find me on twitter @antonioevans

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