Over the course of my years doing all this startup stuff, I've been fortunate to have gotten exposure to a very wide spectrum of startups and founders - across sectors/spaces, across geographies (primarily India and the US), and across life-cycles (super early stage to pre-IPO). I myself have been through an interesting spectrum of experiences as a founder: from creating one of India's most iconic internet brands in burrp!, to flat out failing to grow a children's flash sales platform in hopscout, to being parachuted into an existing early-stage startup by both the investors and founders in a wholesale turnaround and growth effort in FreeCharge. Across all of these experiences, the thematic patterns that emerge from discussions with other founders are more or less known to you, the reader: the (in)ability to find great product designers, the doldrums of raising capital, customer acquisition/growth (at the right cost), implementing a lasting culture, and so on.
But the talking point I want to laser in on, while none of the above, is one that I perhaps hear most often, and easily the most romanticized: and it's this notion of the starving founder, this image of a struggling individual, laying it all on the line, against all odds, she against the world, with at best a brittle support system and Costco quantities of ramen to help prop her up day in, day out to fight the good fight.
Now don't get me wrong. Part of what makes startups at any stage so fucking difficult are the myriad headwinds a founder faces. In no way am I trying to diminish the force of that, nor am I speaking for other founders. Every experience is unique. But I can talk about my experience, especially around the help and support I had as a founder, and how it helped me not starve, not be preoccupied with the daily grind of life, and ultimately stay focused at building a world-class product and business.
I come from a blue collar background. I grew up lower-middle class, although in the beautiful town of Sausalito, CA. After a handful of failed entrepreneurial stints, my father settled into a job of being a waiter and an accountant for a popular restaurant. My mother worked the kitchen in a local pizza joint for many years. My brother and I both attended a substandard segregated public school before going off to an amazing private high school. Through those years, my parents mustered up the courage and the money to start their own restaurant business, which after much blood, sweat and tears, is a thriving chain of businesses today.
When I started burrp! in 2005 with Anand Jain, I had just left a lucrative private equity job to move to India to build a Yelp clone in a market that I didn't know very much about. So yeah, there go those headwinds. They're real. But what a lot of people don't know is that the first seed money we raised for burrp! was a $100,000 check, $50,000 of which came from my mom. The other $50,000 came from my father's best friend. It's not necessarily sexy to talk about how I got help from my mother in the form of a $50,000 check to help stand up burrp!, but that's the honest truth. Without that capital, which we got without a deck, or POCs, or prototypes, or customer traction, burrp! would not have existed. Without burrp!, Anand and I, nor the burrp! mafia would be the people we are today. A lot of folks that were at burrp! continue to create jobs and do amazing things to this day.
When my wife and I started hopscout, I had moved back to the US with her and we had just delivered our first little ball of all that is good with the world. There go them headwinds again - starting up with a newborn in tow. But during the entire time we ran hopscout, we were able to live in our family house in Sausalito and eat our meals at any of the family's restaurant locations (a benefit we enjoy to this day - yum!). This meant not worrying about rent/mortgage, utilities and food. In a way, that was an indirect investment into hopscout, and while we were eventually unsuccessful with that venture, it was not a ramen diet that doomed us.
I have to credit my good friend Brandon Bouier for arousing within me the interest to write about this. We were talking the other day, and he asked me a very simple question (paraphrasing): "So if I think I have an idea that I want to work on, how do I just quit and work on it? How do I make do while building v1?" And when I attempted to answer his question, it made me acknowledge the help that made it possible for me to take those risks. I was honest with him in my answer. His response: "My mom can't write me a $50,000 check." And if mine hadn't, I wouldn't have the capabilities I have today.
I believe a lot of us, perhaps most of us have a lot of help that we may not necessarily acknowledge, realize or think about when we're in the throes of building our companies. This type of help is usually invisible, unsexy to talk about, and antithetical to the mythology of the founder and her impossible journey. In a way, a founder is probably hardwired to create her own reality about her circumstances to help her remain resilient and impervious, and that's probably a good thing. The help I've gotten over time has enabled me to be a founder, and by acknowledging it, I hope that folks like my friend Brandon will be in a better position to navigate how to build a company within their own set of constraints and enablers.
Good luck. And when that help is available, know just how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to take that crazy risk.