Building a Noah’s Ark Company and The Myth of the Unicorn

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‘Well, now we have seen each other,’ said the unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’ — Lewis Carroll

There’s been much talk in Silicon Valley lately of building Unicorn companies. Thanks to Aileen Lee’s 2013 “Unicorn Club” post in Techcrunch, the term Unicorn no longer means a mystical one-horned horse-like creature. It now means a Billion-dollar company, or to be more precise, “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors”. Everyone in Silicon Valley wants a Unicorn now. VCs want to find them and fund them. Founder/CEOs want to start them. Engineers want to build them. Service providers want to cater to them. We are in the golden age of Unicorns. Never in the history of software have more companies risen to a billion-dollar+ valuation as quickly as in the last 5 years. It took companies like Oscar and Zenefits only 2 years to reach Unicorn status, faster than even Uber, Facebook and AirBnB.

All this insanely rapid wealth creation is making Silicon Valley a weird place to live. There are dozens of billionaire founders and VCs within a stone’s throw of Sand Hill Road just down the street from me. There are more Teslas per capita within a 10 mile radius except for maybe downtown Las Vegas thanks to Tony Hsieh. Whether all this wealth creation is actually doing good for humanity remains to be seen. Sure, Uber is keeping thousands of drivers gainfully ’employed’. AirBnB lets normal people make money by hosting guests at their dwellings. Facebook is keeping the world more open and connected. They are all touching billions of lives.

And yet is market valuation and money the most noble and important metric for measuring ‘value’ to humanity and society? Who wins when companies are worth billions? Founders and early investors. Maybe some lucky early employees, as with Google, Facebook, Paypal…Perhaps those hard-working and lucky individuals will go on to found and fund even greater companies that impact millions and billions of lives in a positive way. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll just buy more Teslas and houses and private planes and hang out on billionaire row at Burning Man. Fewer than a dozen Silicon Valley billionaires have joined Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge. Not Sergey nor Larry nor Eric Schmidt, nor Travis nor the dozens of Google, PayPal, Twitter, Apple and Facebook billionaires (except for Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg – Mazel tov!).

What about the billions of people on the planet who aren’t so fortunate to share in these spoils? Isn’t there some better measure and higher ideal that we as entrepreneurs and company-builders can aspire to that isn’t solely measured by the dollar signs? Where are all the companies committed to enhancing the value of human life? Ones focused on optimizing lifespan, solving for premature death, curing unnecessary disease, unlocking our personal DNAmapping how we’re all connected, or improving the state of humanity in some large way? Do we really need another social network or gaming company or hookup app? Why is this work left to foundations like The Gates Foundation? Where are all the brilliant minds solving the big, important human-saving problems?

Among the thousands of paired creatures saved on the Ark, there was the Unicorn. Apparently the Unicorn did not make it on the Ark due to hubris. Let’s not make that same mistake with the companies we create.unicornnextone

One of my favorite poems and songs by Shel Silverstein recounts this story of the unicorn literally missing the boat because he was too busy playing silly games. Oops, I digress…

A long time ago when the earth was green,
There were more kinds of animals than you’d ever seen.
They’d run around free when the world was bring born,
But the loveliest of them all was the Unicorn.

There were green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants, But sure as you’re born
The loveliest of them all was the Unicorn.

Now God seen some sinning and it gave him pain.
And he says, “Stand back, I’m gonna make it rain.”
He says, “Hey Brother Noah, I’ll tell you what to do,
Build me a floating zoo.

And take some of them green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants, But sure as you’re born,
Don’t you forget my Unicorn.”

Old Noah was there to answer the call.
He finished up making the ark just as the rain started falling.
He marched in the animals, two by two
And he called out as they went through.

“Hey Lord, I got your green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants,
But Lord, I’m so forlorn, I just can’t see no Unicorns.”

Then, Noah looked out through the driving rain,
Them Unicorns were hiding, playing silly games,
Kicking and splashing while the rain was pouring.
Oh, them silly Unicorns.

There were green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Noah cried, “Close the door cause the rain is pouring,
And we just can’t wait for those Unicorns”

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tides.
Them Unicorns looked up from their rocks and they cried,
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away.
And, that’s why you’ve never seen a Unicorn to this very day.

You’ll see green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants,
But sure as you’re born,
You’re never gonna see a Unicorn.

– Shel Silverstein

I propose adding a new breed of company to the lexicon of Silicon Valley: the Noah’s Ark company. Removing the religious teaching of the Ark story for a moment, let’s just focus on the parable: The Ark saved humanity from the flood. Whether you believe the Great Flood happened or not, history is rife with flood myths. The Ark lifted humanity to a greater state of existence – apparently the human race had become so wicked, evil, violent and corrupt that it was not fit to go on living. Does this sound a little bit like the sad state of affairs in the world today? Where is the compassion that inspires smart entrepreneurs to solve for humanity’s greatest problems? Not the ones that affect the 1%, those that touch the 99% — poverty, hunger, disease, death, lack of education, lack of access to water, basic healthcare and proper nutrition. The list goes on…

A Noah’s Ark company can be a not-for-profit like Internet.org, which aims to connect the two-thirds of the people on the planet that don’t have Internet access. Or a company that crowdfunds healthcare to people around the world who could not otherwise afford it. Or companies that give humans access to clean drinking water, the vital ingredient that sustains life.

waterorg

Most all of these companies focus on some aspect of human health and quality of life improvement. These are noble, humanitarian-focused, life-enhancing companies with the power to improve billions of lives and impact the next several generations. Looks at Theranos, which aims to empower every human with access to their own personalized health data to enable the detection and prevention of disease. Or Counsyl, which gives everyone access to know their own personal DNA. These are Noah’s Ark companies.

If you are an entrepreneur, a technologist, a consumer, an investor — I implore you to devote your time and your dollars to help build the Noah’s Ark companies of the future. Being a unicorn and a Noah’s Ark aren’t mutually exclusive – but how about let’s aim to build Noah’s Arks before unicorns.

My aim is to build both, then to join The Giving Pledge to give it all back to humanity and pay it forward to the next generation. Mine happens to focus on the health of mothers and children (maternal-child health), because as a mother I believe there is no thing more important to a parent than your child’s health. If you want to improve the health of humanity and the health of future generations, I believe we should start with the beginning of life – at conception, birth and the first thousand days. When your health fails or the health of a loved one fails, you want a Noah’s Ark to help you through it.

In the end, on your deathbed, when you perform your life review before those you are leaving behind, will it really matter how many zeroes are at the end of your bank account? Will your kids be better humans because you left billions behind for them? Do you truly believe that she who dies with the most money “wins”? I don’t. Those with the most toys when they die, still die. Money can only solve for certain things and enhance your quality of life so much beyond the basics. Ultimately, money doesn’t buy happiness. It also won’t save humanity from itself. But just maybe if a few hundred of us build a few hundred more Ark companies, we can lift the tide for all of humanity by the billions.

From a Ukranian Folktale:

All of the beasts obeyed Noah when he admitted them into the ark. All but the unicorn. Confident of his strength he boasted ‘I shall swim!’. For fourty days and fourty nights the rains poured down and the oceans boiled as in a pot and all the heights were flooded. The birds of the air clung onto the ark and when the ark pitched they were all engulfed. But the unicorn kept on swimming. When, however, the birds emerged again they perched on his horn and he went under — and that’s why there are no more unicorns now.’

yearoftheunicorn

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Clarity Brings Compassion

thewaytheyperceivetheworld
I recently experienced what I will call an ‘awakened moment of clarity’ a few weeks ago. It is the closest thing to an enlightened state of being that I have had in my lifetime. It hit me out of nowhere, completely unexpectedly. I was literally standing on my balcony looking out at the trees in our backyard. In an instant, I felt an expansion in my heart and a flood of great joy. The feeling reminded me of the first time I saw my babies after giving birth. It was unconditional love. However, this love was directed at no particular person or thing. Those of you who are mothers and fathers might relate to this feeling. Until you welcome your own children into the world, you have no idea of your capacity to love so immensely, to feel so deeply connected to something or someone. It all changes in an instant, and life is never quite the same again.
There’s a saying that having children is “deciding forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” That’s how I felt in that moment. Although I have meditated for nearly fifteen years, this was unlike any meditation experience. I felt hyper aware of my surroundings, my bodily sensations, my breathing and the lack of thoughts in my mind. It was, for the first time in many months, extremely quiet in my head. I was at peace. I felt connected to everything and could viscerally sense the interconnectedness of all living things. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being alive and a simultaneous awareness of my own mortality. I felt very raw and vulnerable. I still do.
When I next saw my children, I saw them not as my children, but as a part of our collective future and humanity. Our children. As their mother, I’ve been entrusted to nurture them, keep them healthy and safe, help them mature into the best possible humans. I have always enjoyed helping people grow to their full potential. I’ve been blessed with boy-girl twins, which makes the experience of motherhood doubly joyful. I realize now how precious and limited my time with them is. As the saying goes, the days with children are long but the years are short. It’s over in the blink of an eye. Ask any grandparent. longshort That Saturday I felt as though I had fresh eyes on the world, like I was seeing the world and the people in it with the unbiased and innocent eyes of a child. I turned on the news (bad idea when one is feeling vulnerable and open-hearted) and felt at once the pain, suffering and anger in the world. People dying, children starving, humans killing each other over beliefs of the mind that may or may not be true. We now have the power to destroy each other, our species along with all the other species on the planet, thanks to the evolution of our technology. Our technology evolution has far outpaced the evolution of our own humanity. We are now the most dangerous animals on Earth. And although we have the technology, human capital, financial capital, and intellectual capital to eradicate poverty, ensure no person dies of hunger, or preventable disease….where is the collective motivation from those who can help to do so?
Consider these statistics:

  • There are 842 million malnourished people in the world; 1 in 9 people on the planet remain hungry every day
  • Every four seconds, a human dies of hunger — usually a child
  • Millions of children live in poverty, affecting their long-term health, development, and economic future
  • There are over 200 million child laborers in the world. Many of them produce the goods you and I consume every day, from toys to clothes to carpets to sports equipment. More than half of the World’s 200 million working children are working under hazardous conditions.
  • More than 702 million people have no access to a safe source of drinking water
  • More than 2 million children under the age of 5 will die this year, over 3 million are undernourished
  • More than 300,000 mothers will die in childbirth this year
  • More than 10 million women will suffer injury, infection or disease from childbirth this year
  • Over 140 million girls and women suffer from female genital mutilation, a barbaric, preventable, medically unnecessary procedure
  • Over 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy lack access to safe and affordable birth control, contributing to a cycle of poverty among young girls who get pregnant too soon, die in childbirth, and leave school before getting a full education.  Most of these women live in the 69 poorest countries on earth. Why can’t we give them free contraceptives?

Now consider the fact that a handful of our population (1%) controls more than HALF the wealth in the world. Let me repeat, 1% of the world’s population owns more wealth than the other 99%. The wealthiest 80 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as more than 3.5 billion people.  Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 9.38.29 AM I realized the gross inequity and income disparity in our world today with a lens of awareness I had not held before. There is no lack of resources, whether human, capital or technological that could be applied to solve these problems. The billions in wealth from dozens of “unicorn” companies here in Silicon Valley could immediately make a dent in these problems. Yet why are all these talented minds trying to build the next hook-up app, or gaming distraction, or disappearing social messaging tool….as though these are the most pressing societal problems to solve? Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.26.08 AMI live in the wealthiest bubble of Silicon Valley, five minutes from Sand Hill Road — the Land of the Midas List. There are no fewer than ten billionaires living within a one mile radius of my home. I am not yet one of them. If ever that happens, I will swiftly join Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge to give all of it away. A la Warren Buffet, Tim Cook, Bill & Melinda Gates. Kudos to Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest to pledge so far. Because seriously, who cannot live, love and be happy with a mere half-billion dollars or a few hundred million? What could you possibly buy with that much unproductive wealth? How much do you really want to spoil your children and your grandchildren, and would they be better human beings from it (or rotten?). How many humans could you feed, vaccinate, educate, empower with technology tools to create economic engines to alleviate the problems above and below? There is so much hard work to be done, with so many brilliant minds in our backyard who could hack solutions for these eight problems…maybe not in a weekend, but perhaps over a year’s time with only 10% of their time devoted to it during working hours. Give your money, give your time, give both. givingpledgeOne startup near and dear to my heart called Watsi, built out of Y Combinator just a couple of years ago. I was one of their first donors because they crowdfund donations for medical treatments for underserved people all over the world. My $100 donation helped a seventeen-year-old mother from Kenya receive maternal healthcare to ensure a safe delivery. After a smooth delivery with no complications, she and her new baby did well. She was comforted by having a skilled attendant by her side during the birth and is grateful to have delivered in a hospital. Most women in the developing world are not so fortune. Many women walk miles to a hospital during labor to deliver their babies. This woman received maternity care for $100, the price of a nice meal out with my husband. It puts things into sobering perspective. I can never look at a hundred dollars in the same way again. Could you spare some of your money to fund life-saving, life enhancing treatments for those who cannot afford it? My heart broke open over and over and over…

For the entire Sunday morning, I wept like I have never wept before in my life. It was as though the floodgates of grief and suffering experienced by these billions of people…the women, children, elderly, war-torn, displaced, underserved and forgotten…came pouring through me.  And I felt all alone. My husband tried but could not empathize. “How deeply you must feel compared to the rest of us,” he said. If he only knew the magnitude of this truth. I returned to work the next Monday with a renewed sense of perspective on my calling in the world. I remembered the quote by Mark Twain, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I had re-discovered and re-affirmed my “why”. Why am I here? I will never look at the world the same way again, nor my part in it. I believe we get one, limited lifetime on this planet Earth. No do-overs, no “try again next time” second chances… ONE shot. Better make it count. What will I do with the precious time I have left on this planet? Come back and visit for what happens next… P.S. Why are you here? What is your calling? Have you found it or lost it along the way? I did, but got it back. Would love to hear from you. You’re not alone.

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On Being a Woman, Wife, Mother, Founder, CEO and Woman in Tech

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It’s been nearly two years since I gave this blog any attention. I’ve been running full speed as cofounder and CEO of my digital health startup, EmbraceHer Health. I’ve raised seed money after bootstrapping for over a year, started generating revenues through sheer sweat and sales hustle, and hired an awesome team of women to help me get it done.

I’ve faced many of the same challenges most entrepreneurs face and it’s been a lonely and hard road. It’s hard to admit this to non-entrepreneurs who can’t quite relate to the 24/7-ness of it all. I’m a mom of twins – the work is not double, especially when they are babies – it’s exponentially harder than having one child. My husband is a tech CEO who makes the best possible startup partner, but despite all the Lean In advice to split household duties 50/50 I am still CEO of our household (which means hiring and managing all the amazing people who make it possible for us to work in our respective startups). We devote much of our waking hours to running our companies while still remaining devoted to each other and our children. It’s something that most women entrepreneurs rarely discuss or complain about because let’s face it, we have enough female bias to deal with without being labeled complainers about our home life.

There is a working mothers’ dilemma that many dads do not face, namely who is going to run the caring for the children when someone else is helping to care for them (e.g. daycare, nanny, au pair, babysitter network, grandparents, etcetera)? It sounds nice in theory to ‘divvy up the home work 50/50’, but we didn’t even attempt that because practically speaking, your nanny or childcare person just cannot answer to two bosses (just like have co-CEO’s is generally not a good idea). There needs to be the one ‘Person Clearly In Charge’ and that default setting is assigned to moms.

In our household the running of the house and minding of the children is my second full-time job (e.g., CEO of Our Home). To do this job well means outsourcing housework and childcare to trustworthy experts, but first and foremost it means being able to (1) Hire exceptional people and be able to manage them well, and (2) Let go of control and trust others with your children and your home.  If you cannot imagine saying yes! to #2, you will not be able to scale yourself successfully. Believe me when I say it truly takes a village to raise a child, a family, and grow a business. You cannot and should not do it all alone.

Note that I have one of the most loving, involved husbands in the co-parenting journey, which makes the added household responsibility somewhat workable for me. He’s home before tuck-in time, super attentive on weekends, and (lucky for me) isn’t addicted to distraction on social media or his iPhone. He prefers old school communications like (gasp!) picking up the phone to talk to people. So when he’s with our children, he is 100% fully present. As studies have shown, quality of presence with your children is much more important and impactful than quantity of time spent. Working mothers, take note! One more reason to feel less guilty for working while someone else cares for your kids. While I don’t agree with 100% of the advice Sheryl Sandberg shares in Lean In, I do agree that whom you choose to partner with in life will impact your success at home, at work, and in life. This fact cannot be overlooked any longer: the man (or woman) you choose will affect your professional success. Make sure you choose someone who will support your decisions when it comes to having children (if, how many, and when?), maternity choices (how long to leave work, will you return to work, full-time or part-time or stay-at-home?), paternity choices (will dad help? if so how long and how much?), and working while raising children (who “minds the children” or the childcare for the children?)….etcetera.

Then there’s Mommy Guilt. I have not met a working mother who hasn’t felt pangs of mommy guilt. Beginning with the first day back at work from maternity leave to the sometimes heart-wrenching ‘drop off’ at daycare we are constantly reminded that our choices come with tradeoffs. It’s not the same for working dads. First of all, there is no such phrase as a ‘working dad’. There is no battle of ‘stay at home dads’ vs. ‘working dads’. The default setting of traditional parenting is mom stays home and dad earns the income. Or both parents work but mom is still in charge of the caretaking in addition to her job. I know dozens of women who wish this were different. Many of my friends would opt to work part-time if there were more flex-time options for women with children. Sadly, there are few. Especially in tech startups where everyone is expected to work more than 45 hour weeks (mine are typically 60 hour weeks) and not leave the office for a 2:30pm school pickup. So what are we women to do if we want to ‘lean in’, make an impact at work, create something fabulous with our time outside of children, flex the creative parts of ourselves that have nothing to do with caregiving, give something back to the world, or create something for ourselves?

I’m speaking at the Girls in Tech conference on this very topic. How can you create a life that doesn’t entail choosing one path or the other? How can we bring our whole selves to the world so we are not forced into a ‘default setting’ because society and employers expect us to play by their rules? How do we create meaningful partnerships, marriages, friendships, support groups, mentor networks and collaborative workplaces that enable women like us to work, play, mother, love, create, care, and bring our true gifts to the world?

One of the reasons I started a company after working at nearly a dozen companies (mostly startups) is because I wanted to set my own terms for how my work and family life could support and enhance each other. I also wanted to create a culture that was proactively supportive of women of all ages and career aspirations. I am tired of working for men who don’t quite get what it’s like to be a woman in tech, who can’t empathize with the extra BS we have to deal with that we silently ignore or shrug off as the ‘default setting’ for behavior in the workplace. You won’t believe the number of times I’ve said exactly the same thing as a male colleague only to have it repeated in a different (and often louder) way to greater accolades from other men.

Then there are the interruptions. Has this ever happened to you? First of all, breathe. Count to 3. Repeat after me: “Stop interrupting me. I just said that. No explanation needed.” Repeat again, in case he didn’t hear you.

I am no longer the only female in my company (it was a lonely two years!). My cofounder is an amazing doctor, but he is not my full-time co-pilot and while he has often been called a ‘midwife in obstetric scrubs’, he is also not a woman in tech. So I’ve hired an amazing director of engineering and product who has been yearning to work with a female CEO. My Chief of Staff is a fellow mom at my children’s school who happens to be a pediatric nurse. I have a team of amazing interns who are all our target audience, which is great for customer empathy (we build health products for women). We offer flex-time schedules, remote work along with co-working a few days a week. Our ease of communication, collaboration and ability to get shit done is unlike anything I’ve experienced in any of my ten other startups (all led by male CEOs with predominantly male teams). Let me just brag here – it is AWESOME. #GirlBrag  By the way, I’m hiring awesome people. Please spread the word.

I’m using my startup as a real-life experiment for what a women-centric workplace and female-oriented company culture can achieve and inspire. As my good friend Tony Hsieh has written, building a great company culture is essential to creating a great company, period, “There are companies that focus on work-life separation or work-life balance and at Zappos we really focus on work-life integration and at the end of the day it’s just life.” I believe this with all my heart, because achieving work-life balance is the Great Myth that keeps us dissatisfied. There is no such thing as balance or “having it all”.  Everything comes with tough tradeoffs and work-life integration will look different for everyone. But if you think you can split your work from the rest of your life you will eventually be disappointed with either your work or your life. If you want to separate your work from your life in the first place, you probably aren’t loving your work so much. So make sure you’re doing something you love, something that you truly believe is worth doing with your entire being. Because it will probably take up a large part of your life, emotionally and mentally — consciously or not.

I’ll be back with more thoughts to share on my journey through startups and tech while being a woman and then a mother, and my experience of motherhood while being a woman in tech. I have some work-life lessons I’ve been yearning to share with other women, especially millennials and younger GenXers who are reading books like Lean In, are blessed with more family planning options like egg freezing, and are still being told by everyone that they can ‘have it all’.

The path I chose definitely hasn’t been easy. Oftentimes it’s been quite lonely. Sometimes I’m amazed I’ve made it this far. But now that there are more of us talking about this, here is our chance to band together and collaborate in making the world, starting with our work, the way we want it to be: female friendly.

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The Me Retreat: Unplug, unwind, turn down the noise

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Before I had kids, after taking a brief three-year hiatus from tech startups, I learned how to meditate. Every Monday night I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Spirit Rock, a meditation center in Marin where Jack Kornfield has held group meditation teachings (known as ‘Monday Night Sitting‘) every week for over twenty-seven years. I’d sit in a roomful of strangers as Jack would guide the group through vipassana meditation, or mindful awareness of breath, body, and whatever is arising in the moment. Cultivating awareness and quieting the chatter of the mind is (still) one of the most challenging internal battles one can take on. Try to quiet your mind for even five minutes, and you’ll hear what I mean.

Now that I’m back in the world of startups and immersed in an industry full of 24×7 social media and mobile chatter, the challenge of quieting the mind and the external noise is even greater. While I meditate for a few minutes every day, there is nothing quite as gratifying or soul-soothing as a forty-eight hour vacation from all external inputs. That includes a full-fledged media fast: no cellphone, email, Internet, Twitter or Facebook (gasp!). The one luxury I allow myself is a phone call goodnight to my husband and kids, my lifeline to human connection while I disconnect from the rest of the world.

My system has been on overdrive lately, and I can feel it in every cell of my body – a result of too many months of too much caffeine, working late nights, sleep deprivation, one too many work conferences and not enough moments of ‘just saying no’. Juggling startup life, two young kids, and a full social and family life can feel like a double full-time job. And as my dear friend likes to say, “when mom is not taking good care of herself, no one else gets taken care of well.” True!

I’m signing off for a few days to unplug, unwind and turn down the noise to take off on my annual ‘Me Retreat’. I’ll indulge in a good book, eat decadent lunches and dinners by myself, maybe get a massage or two. Perhaps I’ll get to sleep in one morning and work away at that sleep deficit I’ve built up. I know the world will go on without me, and that I’ll be just fine without needing to constantly ‘check in’ to the non-stop feed and frenzy. I know my husband will hold down the fort and appreciate my presence in my absence. I know my kids will miss me but be in good hands, since I’ve scaled myself well (hiring and training competent childcare). And I will be at peace. Even for just a short while.

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The Day I Turned Down Napster

It was the summer of 1999 and the last product I launched was the LinkExchange Store, the e-commerce site that enabled web site owners to buy ads on Yahoo!, Excite and LinkExchange with as little as $25 and a credit card. Since I loved throwing myself into the most pressing startup problems, I switched roles from product manager to ad sales lead to help monetize our ad network to agencies and branded advertisers. I closed one of our largest ad deals with Microsoft, who became my top advertising client and later acquired LinkExchange for $180M at the height of the Internet bubble. Predictably, the startup culture post-acquisition quickly disappeared with most of the early team members moving on to their next startup. Tony Hsieh, who recruited me to leave my job in Seattle and join LinkExchange as a lead product manager had quickly moved on to start Venture Frogs with Alfred Lin. All my favorite people were leaving en masse to their next startup, and there I was selling display ads and brokering partnership deals for Microsoft.  I was itching to get back into a product-focused role and actually build something, so I started searching for the next great startup idea and team.

It was at this time that my  brother, an undergrad at UVA, introduced me to Napster, the peer-to-peer music sharing service going viral at college campuses across the world. Although we were worlds and miles apart (me doing startups in San Francisco, he living in Charlottesville having a college experience), we quickly bonded over our music collections, which included a lot of Dave Matthews Band, U2, Coldplay, and Sarah McLachlan. I fell in love with the Napster product and found myself connecting with music fans all over the world and trading tips with my bro on what music to discover.

Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning had just moved to Silicon Valley and were working out of Napster’s office in downtown San Mateo. Shawn’s uncle, John was closely involved with the company and had recently brought on CEO Ilene Richardson to help the company scale. After a lucky run-in with my entrepreneur friend Bill Bales who was an early angel investor in Napster, I got connected to Ilene, John, Sean and Shawn to interview for the first product manager position and help them scale through the next phase of viral growth. I remember thinking just how young Sean and Shawn seemed to me, and while they asked intelligent questions during the interview, it was mostly Ilene and John who talked.

Napster seemed like the ideal startup to work for, as Sean and Shawn were young, smart hackers and co-founders (just like Tony and Sanjay from LinkExchange) and the company clearly had a viral loop and a product that could (hopefully) scale to millions of users. Millions of users meant millions in potential revenues, if only the legality of the software and music rights did not pose such a huge liability. I had a good feeling that I had nailed the interview and felt a strong rapport with the young co-founders, but I also had nagging doubts about the ‘grown up supervision’ to whom I would ultimately report, and whether the team could find a path to success from user growth alone, and despite the legal landmines and the lack of revenue stream.

I got the call from the CEO the next day who seemed thrilled to offer me the position of product manager at Napster. I think she was truly perplexed when I turned down the offer, almost immediately. Although a huge part of me wanted to join ‘the next big thing’ in music technology, I couldn’t silence the voice in my head and the magnetic pull in my gut that said the Napster path would be full of heartache and headache as a product manager and early employee.  That was the day I turned down Napster, and surely an exhilarating and wild close-up ride on the roller coaster story that we know now.

At SXSW last week, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker appeared on a panel with director Alex Winter to discuss the documentary created by Winter called ‘Downloaded’ on the story of Napster. I caught up with Shawn after the talk who asked me how I felt about not joining Napster back in 1999, “it looks as though everything turned out okay,” he said jokingly. It would have been an amazing experience to work with Sean and Shawn, even with Napster failing who knows what startups could have materialized after that experience. I told him my reasons for not joining, the legal mess being one of them. “It was probably the right choice from a product management perspective,” he said, “we did not innovate on the product AT ALL, you would have been very frustrated and not gotten anything accomplished.” That sounds like the ultimate hell as a product manager, watching a product you love not progress one single line of code  beyond where you started – not because users didn’t LOVE it, or that there weren’t so many areas to innovate on, but because your hands were tied up in a titanic legal mess of David vs. Goliath proportions.

Either way, it’s an amazing story of what shall remain for the history books as one of the most disruptive forces in the music industry ever. Napster paved the way for products like iTunes and Spotify, and respect goes to the original creators of the first music sharing service for our generation. Can’t wait to see Downloaded on the big screen! If you want to join me for the San Francisco release, ping me on Twitter or below. It’s nice to reminisce sometimes.

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Filed under Denise Terry, Disruption, Startups

#ShesTheReason I Went to Smith College

I had never planned to attend a women’s college. Far from it. I wanted to join the big boys at Georgetown and pursue a diplomatic career getting my bass-ackwards country back into shape. I never realized that women’s colleges existed until I approached my AP English teacher Mrs. Timoney for recommendation letters. “I am extremely disappointed that you have not considered Smith College,” she said in her most dignified and disappointed voice. “Huh? Where is that?” I asked. [Look of utter shock from my most respected teacher!] Ooops. Wrong response. “Please, tell me more, I’m interested!” I said.

“It is a most impressive academic institution, and you would be doing yourself a disservice not to consider it,” she told me. She told me of her own daughter who had graduated Smith and more recently, Harvard Law School. She raved about the class size, the focus on academics and teaching over publishing, and the women who were “simply brilliant”. She talked about the amazing network of successful women who would act as lifelong mentors and advocates for my professional success. Who were these magical women and how could I be like them?  It all sounded so amazing. I applied that same week and was accepted a few months later, in no small thanks to the glowing recommendation Mrs. Timoney wrote me (I saved it for sentimental reasons, and it still makes me tear up more than 20 years later).

After spending a weekend on campus during my round of college visits, I realized that I owed Mrs. Timoney a great deal of gratitude for pointing me down a path I never would have considered otherwise. For many reasons, Smith was the right choice for me. I probably wouldn’t have pursued economics or graduated early or entered the mostly male-dominated field of technology and startups, had it not been for my Smith education.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I thought I would take a moment to thank my first true mentor Mrs. Rosemary Timoney. She helped shape my life in the most meaningful way, she’s the reason I went to Smith College and why I’m so passionate about supporting women on their journey to success.

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Be Thankful for Your Startup Partner

Startups aren’t for the faint-hearted, as anyone who has survived more than one will tell you. Startup life can be crazy, lonely, exhausting, and even heart-breaking at times — while also being exhilarating and fulfilling in the same day! Startup stress accumulated from long hours, all-nighters and ‘always on’ work pressures can challenge even the most solid relationships with family, friends and loved ones. Unless you’re actually in a relationship with your co-founder (like Eventbrite co-founders and husband/wife team Kevin and Julia Hartz) or with someone who is also in a startup or has been before, you may feel like your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/lover/spouse just doesn’t understand you. If you’re lucky enough to be with someone who ‘gets’ you and your startup life, be thankful and be sure to let them know how much you appreciate them.

Before I met my husband (thank you founders of Match.com), I had already been through the ups and downs of five startups. Some successful, several failures. He was a serial entrepreneur who had also founded several startups, had succeeded and failed and understood my passion for launching ideas that could disrupt the world. We found a kindred spirit in each other, someone who could empathize with the other’s passion while also providing emotional camaraderie after a hard week’s work in the startup grind. Neither of us ever felt neglected when we pulled an all-nighter or jumped out of bed at 2 in the morning to put out a work fire. That’s just what you do when you’re committed to making your startup successful.

Perhaps the craziest test of our relationship came when we decided to launch our family (and give birth to twins!) in the same year my husband became a startup CEO. We are lucky that we can both function on very little sleep, as we barely got any for two years. Our motto back then?: “Sleep is for the weak”. We survived that rough stretch with a lot of help from grandparents, hired helpers and our own resolve to keep our marriage together, no matter what work or babies threw (up) our way.

Our weekly date nights saved us from being too baby- or startup-focused and gave us at least a couple of hours each week to reconnect.  If there’s one non-negotiable to keep your romantic relationship from flaming out while you’re in startup mode — keep your date nights sacred and make time for connecting one-on-one, just like you would with your co-founder, investors or team mates. After all, your team mate on your life journey is probably (and hopefully) more important than any of the people you’re working with, with greater impact on your lifelong happiness than whether your startup is successful – read Clayton Christensen’s How to Measure Your Life for more insights.

Our twins are now five years old and my husband and I have both been through three startups each since they were born. We couldn’t have tackled the challenge without a whole lot of empathy for each other’s passion, plus collaborative team work to manage our household, childcare and taking care of ourselves as well as our kids as true partners.

On this Valentine’s Day, I’m feeling most grateful that my life partner is also my greatest startup partner and supporter of my professional dreams.

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