Keep calm & carry on: What you didn't know about the reddit story

Few people outside of friends & family knew about the following at the time it was going on; bringing it up now, long after I've left reddit, feels less self-serving and will hopefully be instructive. This came up briefly in a talk I gave at MIT, but this feels a lot more comfortable to write than to speak about.

Steve and I spent every waking hour (and some dreaming, no doubt) after graduation with reddit somewhere on our minds. The time we spent working on it together only reinforced the marriage metaphor everyone uses about cofounders.

My life -- and thus Steve's -- was dramatically changed during those startup months for reasons beyond my control. I've lived a ridiculously fortunate life, so I knew it was only a matter of time before something was going to knock things a bit off course; I just didn't think it'd happen like this.

Just a month after we started working on reddit, Steve and I were wrapping up a game of WoW around 4am. I'd only been asleep for an hour when my cellphone rang.

My girlfriend's mother was on the phone. Her daughter had been studying abroad in Germany, was due home in just a couple weeks, and was now in the hospital. She'd fallen out of her apartment window. Five stories.

I spent a good part of our YC summer in Germany beside her hospital bed. Her mother remained until December when she finally came home after months of coma, surgeries, recovery, and rehab.

(It's worth noting that German taxpayers kindly paid for every day of this world-class medical treatment. Danke.)

I can't stress what a tremendous recovery she's made. I had the honor of attending her graduation from the University of Virginia. Although we're no longer together, she remains someone who consistently inspires me.

Keep calm, carry on.

Little did I know, a couple months after my girlfriend's fall, I was due for another call.

My mom called me one Monday morning in September. She was distraught. Max, our family dog, had just died. Poor boy had been fighting Cushing's Syndrome for quite some time; my mom found him that morning in great distress and rushed him to our vet. There weren't very many options.

The most humane thing to do was euthanasia. I never got a chance to say goodbye to the good boy, but I take solace knowing he was with my mother, who doted on him like a son once I was out of the house.

It was hard on all of us, but it was hardest on my mom.

They were supposed to leave that evening for a trip to Norway. They'd planned it for months.

So I was surprised to get a call from my dad that evening (when am I going to learn to stop taking out-of-the-blue calls?).

He and mom were in the hospital. In hindsight, her anguish is possibly what triggered the seizure she had that afternoon, which led to the MRI that canceled their vacation.

My mother was diagnosed with a class IV Glioblastoma multiforme. Such an ugly name. I remember the first time I googled it, hoping I could search my way to a cure. But it basically meant terminal brain cancer. She was 51 when she was diagnosed.

I flew down to Maryland first thing the next morning. And you know the first thing she told me?

"I'm sorry. Sorry because I know how much you've already been through."

Keep calm, carry on.

During the next few years I spent a lot of time travelling between Boston (where reddit was based) and Maryland (where my parents lived). Every time I left her side, I was energized by her courage and unflagging spirit. She gave me all the inspiration I needed to wake up every morning and kick some ass, because that's what you have to believe as a startup founder.

If you've worked with the spineless, you know how frustrating it can be to deal with their poisonous helplessness -- something that's only heightened in a startup where the most important thing you can do is not give up. And you'd better fucking believe that when you come home to a mother battling brain cancer and a father spending every waking hour taking care of her and running his own business, you don't complain, you don't cower, and you most certainly don't quit.

She fought for far longer than any doctor expected and died on March 15, 2008. But I got to prove that her 25 years of wholeheartedly supporting me weren't in vain -- you can bet that had a lot to do with my feelings about selling reddit.

There were some dark months there, like living in the middle of an interminable fog. Upon reflection, I was probably suffering from depression for most of that startup. If you happened to meet me during that time, you probably wouldn't have known it.

But I got through it thanks to having a startup (and working with people like Steve & Chris):

  • Freedom to travel whenever and wherever (I must've explained my 3G modem to every single nurse at Hopkins & NIH).
  • It was something I could wholly invest myself in to keep my mind off everything else knowing that everything I was putting into it wasn't benefiting my boss.
  • Having partners like Steve Huffman and Chris Slowe who never questioned what I was doing with my time, were absolutely supportive, and could always be counted on for a game of Soul Caliber or round of beer when I needed it. I hope I was at least half of all those things in return.

(I also got a lot of therapy from doodling all those alien logos for random holidays and events -- it was something I knew she'd check every day. But that's certainly not for everyone. I started a photoblog for her to check regularly, too: OMGbabies. Cute baby animal photos are endorphin-tastic!)

Having been through all this, I can confidently say that starting a startup was the best thing that could've happened to me. Enduring all of that in an office job or law school would've been overwhelming.

Plenty of you reading this have no doubt been through the same or worse (and I wouldn't wish it on any of you who haven't) but know that under the right circumstances, having a startup could be extremely beneficial for your mental health.

As if you needed one more reason why you ought to start a startup.

 

Thank you, mom. I love you.