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.

59 responses
I remember asking you about that when I interviewed you. So glad I didn't push hard. It wasn't the right time. Thanks for talking about this publicly. It can't be easy, but it means a lot.
Thank you for this. Strength and beauty through tragedy.

I've been broken down by similar recent hard-ships. Now I have some perspective for regaining my self-control and determination.

Great post, Alexis. What is great is how you were able to handle it with grace, and are now able to look back on these events with no regrets.
You skipped the part about banning anyone that was cool on Digg and had the words "Social Media" in their profiles

Or the end of the story where 50% of Reddit's popular content comes from Imgur.

thanks for sharing this wih us, great post. The most valuable thing I've probably learn so far: never give up, keep fighting.
Thanks for sharing, a tough and inspiring story to read.
Thank you so much for sharing. It's heartfelt and inspirational.
Wow Alexis. This is a very inspiring story. Thanks for sharing.
Alexis, thanks so much for sharing that. Tough times, but you're clearly strong.
Super inspiring and encouraging to those going through tough times to know that you can get through it all stronger. Thanks for sharing your story!
Beautiful post. Inspiring and brave. Thank you for sharing.
Wow! Thanks Alexis. Incredibly moving and inspiring...

& tell your dad I'm looking forward to coming to Columbia and meeting him. He's clearly a lucky Guy!

inspiring story
Alexis, keep on keeping on, man. I'm sure your mom was and would be very proud of you.
I lost my Dad to brain cancer a few months after I had moved across the country and started a new job in Toronto. Fortunately my employers were very supportive and gave me all the time I needed to fly back and forth over the 3 months from the time he was diagnosed to the day he passed away. Having the support of the people around you and the company you work for is key, as is the distraction of having something to throw yourself into to stop your mind from thinking too much.
Great story, and great pic of you and your mom! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing this - very inspiring story. It was a remarkable thing to work through, and it sounds like you came out of it a lot stronger.
Really inspiring to read. I'm just launching a startup following 2 years of mental difficulties - I'm better, passionate and focussed - and when others who have been through it share their humanity, it helps make sense of it all.
Thank you for sharing this story. It's quite inspirational.
This is a hell of a story - very inspirational for me, I appreciate you telling it.
really inspiring story! compare to your pain... what ever I am going through is nothing... thanks again
Amazing. I never knew you were going through this the whole time.
Dear Alexis, My son, (also 25 and enterpreneur), sent me your link and story. Needless to say, I was more than a little impressed. Please visit "my" Posterous Blog
Going through same thing. Mom is down with Cancer and few key people in life moved away to faraway lands. Still trying to keep calm and continue building the company. Reading this helped a lot. Thanks.
(I had sent a comment earlier, but not sure it went, please just "delete" if you've seen.) My son,, sent me this link to read.... As a mom, I know just how very proud and happy your mother is of your unselfish, kind and caring achievements. Good luck and God Bless. And, if you have a moment, please visit my posterous blog: xo barbara

I'd like to leave you with a saying that I have given to each of my three sons.

“Prayer for a Son”

Build me a son, O Lord, who will be
Strong enough to know when he is weak
And brave enough to face himself
When he is afraid.
One who will be proud and unbending
In honest defeat and
Humble and gentle in victory.
Build me a son whose heart will be clear
Whose goals will be high. . .
A son who will master himself before
He seeks to master other men.
One who will reach into the future
Yet never forget the past.
And after all these things are his,
Add, I pray, enough sense of humor
So that he may always be serious,
Yet never take himself too seriously.
Give him humility so that
He may always remember
The simplicity of true greatness,
The open mind of true wisdom,
The meekness of true strength.
Then I, his parent, will dare to whisper. . .
“I have not lived in vain.”

General Douglas MacArthur

Thank you for sharing
Thank you for sharing this with us. It is incredible what strength you got from your family. I hope they continue to inspire you towards even greater things in your future!
you sir are a gentleman and a scholar
Reminds me of my answer when people ask: "How do you stay so strong?" Me: "Keep calm. Carry On." ...except you explained in detail why you are able to. Thanks for sharing.
That's a hard story but an incredible one. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for all the kind notes, everyone. I wasn't really up for commenting on this while it was making the rounds on the Intertubes, so I'll do it now. Thank you. I hope it was able to help in some way - even if only to convince you to start a startup :)
Sad and inspirational story. Thanks for sharing it.
Man, you're almost a hero ... Did you know that ? Only so self-disciplined guys can survive these conditions and keep their productivity ...
Just a lucky kid.
I got here randomly, but as someone who is a few months out from having her own Mom succumb to cancer, it was inspiring to see how you've kept optimistic. Thanks.
Thank you very much for the note. I'm sorry for your loss. But for what it's worth, it does get better, though it's never easy, hold on to your most vivid and fondest memories, write them down, and revisit them from time to time.
Hi there, I am writing to you from Australia. Oceans apart but paperthin difference in situations and I guess, emotions. I feel your thoughts you have typed onto this blog.

I hope there is peace, love and gratitude. And laughs. You can't have any of those without the laughs.

Alexis - I have even more respect for you now! And, it is obvious that your mom did an amazing job raising you. So glad to call you a friend!
This was so inspiring to read. This is a HUGE takeaway for me personally: "you don't complain, you don't cower, and you most certainly don't quit." Awesome.....
What an inspiring story! So sad to hear about your dark days.

I added your saying "wake up every morning and kick some ass, because that's what you have to believe as a startup founder" as a favorite quote on my Facebook profile!.

Why is someone cutting onions in my office?
Thank you for sharing. Thank you for reminding me why you can't quit.
I made it all the way through this article without crying. Then the picture of Alexis and his mom came up and I lost it. Thanks for sharing your story.
Alexis, you are a true human being if I ever knew one. Hanging out with you at the NY Angel dinner made the whole event awesome because of your enthusiasm and down-to-earth personality. My belief is that people who become successful quickly end up losing their humility, but you've gone through a lot of tough times to earn your place, that's the difference in my mind.
Keep doing what you do.Share. Inspire. It's what you're MEANT to do. Thanks for sharing a little bit of you with the rest of us. You just reminded me why I can't give up on my dreams. On what I'm meant to do. You really are an inspiration, and someone I strive to be more like.
Thank you very much :)
Brilliant article i should bookmarked this for future references. Anyone here is online gold buyers?
Thank you for sharing this part of your life story. It's very inspirational. I'm working on a startup now and what you shared helped and inspired me.
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