I’ve worked my entire career in startups. I love it. But the work barely compares to being a member of a startup family. My entire life has been lived, literally from the day I was born, in the ecosystem of families that make startups come to life.
I was “in it” from conception and all my success and traumas are in some way tied back to that luck. And I became a startup founder and eventually a startup wife. This post is about what it’s like to live in perpetual uncertainty of creation with the occasional bout of life changing money.
For everyone that has a payday that changed their lives forever, chances are they have spent decades in the shadow of that system of building, scaling, and selling companies. The paydays are sporadic, completely dependent on luck and often extremely unfair. Most of the time the early team sees nothing. I’ve personally had an exit where I got nothing. I’ve had an exit where I couldn’t afford to exercise my options so when the company that bought mine exited I didn’t see a dime. So I know how fundamentally random startup life can be. How unfair it can feel. Because today it is our turn to be the beneficiary of the unwarranted success.
My husband Alex’s long time home Stack Overflow, sold for 1.8B dollars today. And yes we are one of the 61 families that will see more than a million dollars from it. But it’s not all joyful excitement in our house. Because it’s not about not just about money. It never has been. In my family it’s always been about belief. And it’s really hard to reconcile the many competing emotions that come with a liquidity event. It’s the culmination of much work and time from everyone.
My father proudly reminds me that when I was born, he didn’t have a job as he was pitching an education startup. What a blessing to have the energy of one’s life be aligned with risk from the start. And also what a curse. My family had incredible boom years where money wasn’t a concern coupled with devastating financial and emotional ruin as companies went to zero and markets crashed. My father sacrificed so much for his dreams. He saw the value of software and took his wife and children to the promised land of Silicon Valley. And oh it was glorious. And oh how it hurt.
I have fond memories of Comdex, elaborate company cruises and board meetings during “take your daughter to work day.” I also remember my father not being there for birthdays, for dinner, for milestones because he was busy building the future. I don’t remember my parents getting divorced, because I suppressed the memories. Family trauma can be like that. The good and the bad exist at the same time. When my father went bankrupt in the Web 1 crash, I was so angry at him for not being more careful, I didn’t speak to him for years. And then I made the choice to become a founder myself. Despite my fury and sadness and hurt I too decided to live my father’s path. And then I married a man who walks it too. I guess the Bojack Horseman joke got it right.
You inherit your parents’ trauma but will never fully understand it. Haha the cop is a cat.
The day you get news you made life changing money is bittersweet because all the trauma of being a startup family member catch’s you to you. You remember the sacrifice of your whole family going back years. The long nights and missed time together. The choices to prioritize the company over your family. In our case 10 years but of course for me it’s been my entire life.
The entirety of my marriage with Alex and my entire relationship with him before was spent at Stack Overflow. I’ve seen the hard work and the pride. I’ve also seen the exhaustion and the agony when something went badly wrong. The hurt when teammates left and the fear of leaving yourself eventually. People grow up together at startups. Other more practical logistics show that not everyone wins. The hard decisions you make when it’s time to leave and you cannot afford to exercise your options are a unique pain. We just three weeks ago sold something in secondaries to afford the taxes to exercise ours. That’s timing and dumb luck. Almost absurdly so. We could easily not be in the position we are. Exits are the end goal and yet not everyone gets to make it despite equal sacrifices. It’s all random and no one deserves any of it. But it changes your life if it does happen.