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Cancer and Startups

20 May 2013

About a year and a half ago, my mother's partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than six months to live. Since then it has been treatments, pain, and truly miraculous victories - but the word "terminal" is pretty clear; at some point you will lose. I flew home as soon as things started to take a turn for the worse and since then I have had to do things I could never have imagined. I've watched a 45 year old person shrink to nothingness. I've picked my family up off the floor and tried to get them back on their feet (figuratively and at times literally). I've talked with lawyers, and social workers, and nurses, and... But the truth is that there's nothing I can really do. This kind, compassionate, and strong person who means the world to my family is going to die. And yet there is one thing among all the tragedies that never ceases to amaze me. Every time the doctor or the nurses say there's only a couple days left, she finds a way to prove them wrong.

I've never met a stronger person. She has lasted through doses of poison that would've easily killed any one of us "healthy" people, and she has done so with a degree of poise that is truly unfathomable. In our little startup world, the words tenacity and perseverance are thrown around a lot, but in that context they seem hollow and largely meaningless. Tenacity is far more than simply making it through tough times, and it's not just a matter of finding a way "back to good." Kristie has shown me that tenacity comes from living for a purpose, from believing in something so fully that it keeps you alive through six rounds of injecting drain cleaner into your veins. By that definition, I haven't seen much tenacity in the Silicon bubble many of us call home.

People ask me about startups all the time. They ask for tips, what I think of their idea, how to get people interested, how to raise money, how to get into YC, how to ___. In truth, I think there's a relatively simple test to determine whether or not someone could be a founder; when you're done talking to them, have they infected you? Is your head spinning with their idea? Regardless of how ridiculous what they just said seems, do you believe even just a little that they could actually do it? And are they out to make a company/name/product or are they on a mission? This last one is the most important, because tenacity is what will keep your startup alive and it's hard to imagine walking through hell for something you don't truly believe in. And you will walk through hell - it's something we don't talk enough about amidst all the glorifying of startups that we do.

These past few months have certainly tested my resolve. I spend days helping, cooking, cleaning, doing errands, trying desperately to keep things together, to then spend late into the night trying to build a company, community, and product. It's hard to wipe away your mother's tears and then once she's asleep, sit down and build an IDE, but that is what the circumstances require. There are definitely times I wonder if this is really worth it. I could certainly be doing something else. My cousin even pointed it out to me, by asking a simple and rather pertinent question the other day: "Why are you doing this company?" It's an insightful thing to ask and something I actually think about myself all the time. There are days, days like this one, where I wonder if I should have kept going and become a doctor, or a researcher, or at least done something other than pushing 1's and 0's around. I have talents and skills that I could directly apply to saving lives - shouldn't I be doing that? Isn't it my moral duty to do that? Could I have saved Kristie, or if not her, others like her? It's a scary line of questioning, the harbinger of "The Fear."

And this is the stark truth of startups: you are the last and only line of defense against doubt. There's no one else to give these questions to. They are yours to stew in. They are yours to try to answer, though they're unanswerable. They are yours to overcome. And the Fear that they represent is what keeps you up at night, what will make you wonder if this is really the "right" thing to do. I'm not sure anyone can truly explain what that kind of doubt is like and if they did it would likely only hint at the reality. But believe me that when people say startups are hard, they are woefully understating the truth. Yet I'm still doing one, and the reason why is rooted in the answer to the question my cousin asked. I'm doing this because I believe that this is the greatest contribution I can make.

I could've become a doctor. All signs pointed to me likely being a very good one. In doing so, I would have gone to work and done my best to save lives every day. In that context, how is some programming environment a greater contribution to the world? Truthfully, it wouldn't be if I just set out to build an IDE. But that's not what I did - Light Table is just a vehicle for the real goal. While an IDE probably won't directly save someone's life, the things people are able to build with it could do exactly that. My goal is to empower others, to give people the tools they need to shape our lives. Instead of becoming a doctor, I have an opportunity to improve an industry that is unquestionably a part of the future of all fields. Software is eating the world and analytical work is at the core of advances in medicine, hard science, hardware... Human innovation throughout history has been driven by new tools that enable us to see and interact with our mediums in a different way. I'm not building an IDE, I'm trying to provide a better foundation for improving the world.

This is my purpose, this is what keeps the Fear at bay, and this is what Kristie's lesson drives me toward. If you too decide to wade into the murk of your own startup, do something that matters and do it with purpose. Show some real tenacity - it's the only way to survive.