Matt Sanford

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My life in the start up arc

I've been working for a pretty early stage and popular start up for a few years now and I've learned some things. None of what I've learned is news to people who have been through the start up mania, and I bet there are better posts out there on the internet. These are my personal ramblings about my experience and might not reflect anyone else's experience. Having said that, when I was making my decision to join a start up I wanted an informal description of this arc and all I found where venture capitalists and people yearning for the bygone '90's bubble. I'm neither of those. I'm just a guy who likes to play with badly formed analogies.

Start up life is complicated so no one analogy really explains it all. Instead I've opted to break it into three phases, all alike in dignity. It's not like there is a day where you switch from one phase to the next … and I'm not even sure I could spot these again if I were in the middle of them. This is a hindsight look at the last two years. The craziest and possibly best years I've known.

It All Starts with Prometheus

When Prometheus stole fire from the gods he didn't sell it to his neighbor. He didn't barter with it or tell the person next to him about "the exciting investment opportunities in state-of-the-art home heating and illumination". No, he gave it to humanity. I joined a start-up when it was still very small and making no money at all. At the same time we were becoming quite popular and busily working to stay online. I'm not saying we brought something as critical as fire to man, but what I am saying is that we didn't show up looking like P.T. Barnum and trying to bilk the suckers. We showed up with what we could muster and gave it up for people to use as they like. And boy did they use it … and in ways we never imagined. Looking back on it the Prometheus myth would be more fitting if he was burned badly while delivering fire to man, but that's another story.

To me the point is that it starts with an idea, yearning to spread, and making that idea available for free is a good start. Selfishly: you are more free to experiment when money isn't your biggest worry. Pragmatically: Building a product people love will result in more people spending time with your product and becoming the people to whom you market your money-making idea. Bring the fire for free now and when you see they use it to see in the dark start making oil lamps to sell (or stoves to cook).

On to the Industrial Revolution

It's hard to think of the Industrial Revolution without thinking of profit and loss, especially after the "free fire" talk above but that's what I need to ask you to do. Trust me, we're still in the free period of the start up product but the Industrial Revolution has a good lesson. This phase of the arc is about the accumulation of "technical debt".

During the Industrial Revolution the skies were filled with black smoke from coal fires. Those coal fires were powering some of the greatest inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries and altered the lives of the people living in those times, and the history of the world in some cases. The focus of all manufacturers was getting their product out to the people, often ignoring any consequences. Start ups are less reckless and unlike Industrial Revolution factories they don't endanger workers' lives or the environment, but they leave a wake of refuse all the same. That refuse is called "technical debt" and is sometimes the code left over by late-night, under-fire fixes but more often than not it is the design work done when the product was being use differently that it would end up being used in the end.

This filling of your office sky with coal smoke is a good thing, actually. While there will be a time when you look back on it and realize you were rash, I would argue you could never have made it to that vantage point without a little rash action.

Renewable Energy: The Promised Land

I'll tie the second and third phases of this arc together, since they're very related. In the real worlds there came a point where we started to talk about "peak oil" and "climate change" and ever since then we've looked back on the Industrial Revolution like a youthful indiscretion. Something we would do better if we had it to do again. We've more or less painted ourselves into a corner when it comes to energy and environmental issues and now we're trying to fix it. Start ups are no different in my experience.

During the "Industrial Revolution" phase of the start up there was furious design and implementation work. We didn't completely know where we were headed but we knew we wanted to get there and find out. Now that we've reached a point where we can see what the product is we can look back over the scorched earth behind us and wonder what we were thinking. Well, if we were busy wondering back then we wouldn't be able to think about how to fix it, we would have failed, so I'm glad we did what we need to survive.

So we're in search of the promised land of renewable energy, but unlike the real world we can cleanup all of the mess we've made. We want something that does not pollute our experience (or code base) but can sustain itself. This means fixing the things we've created in haste, turning a good product into a sustainable business, and continuing to do what made us a success: focusing on users. We have a group of great people evaluating a bevy of great options and I believe we'll manage a balance we can be proud of. Maybe in the future I'll add a fourth phase about utopia … or the after life. My bet is on utopia but life can be unpredictable.

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