About a year ago, I emailed my investors and told them we were refocusing our company in a new direction… one reply really stood out.
“I have learned that acting from your heart and being bold about it sets the stage for greatness.” George Zachary
While pivots tend to have a negative association, our current company wasn't failing and by many measures it was very successful. COLOURlovers had more than 2 million registered users, was a 5x Webby Awards nominee for Best Community, doing $500k in annual revenue and had organic year over year growth…
But, I never intended to build COLOURlovers, it was a weekend project that didn't die when monday rolled around. Over the past 7 years it has connected with tens of thousands of people on a deep level… largely I believe because we made being creative super simple and accessible. I'm very passionate about the community we created and that empowerment of creativity we enabled, but if I'm honest, wearing the King of Color crown never fit right.
I've had the pleasure of being invited to speak at color conferences & workshops, but my talks are never directly about color and more about creativity. I run the worlds largest color website & community… and I'm not all that passionate about color. What I am and have always been passionate about is the creative process and using technology to enhance that process for millions of people. Again, if I'm honest, what we were doing was touching on my passion but I felt we could do more. I felt we could really make a dent in the universe.
What we are now building with Creative Market is by far a bolder vision that without being cliche, I believe can truly change an industry.
We launched the marketplace 6 months ago and the response has been awesome. Not just in the personal feedback we get from our sellers & buyers, but for our company too. We've had an evolution purpose internally and it's been rejuvenating. The revenue numbers help with inspiration too!
But what we've launched and the story we've told to date is just a piece of the bold vision we are pursuing. This week we announced our platform and along with it a big part of the rest of our story. CreativeMarket.com, in itself is doing things to improve, evolve and enhance the stock media & digital content market. We've simplified licensing for buyers, gave sellers the most fair cut of sales compared to our competitors and brought all the different types of content we buy under one roof and enjoyable experience. But, in an always-online world where every piece of creative software has an asset that can make somebody's life easier, what we are doing with a platform will change everything.
I try not to make bold predictions about the future, but I'm confident that not so long from now every app & creative software will have a living breathing marketplace built right into it… and we're working hard to cement ourselves into the foundation of this in-app commerce evolution. It's pretty crazy when you think about it; you fire up word or pages and the first thing you are presented with is an assortment of template types to help you get started… because starting with a blank canvas is always the hardest part. But those templates are limited and stagnant. You can import images & clipart into your work with a similarly stale library that was packaged and shipped with your app years ago.
As a designer, the broken creative process in Photoshop has always been very painful. You leave the app to go hunting across the web for images, fonts, actions, brushes, etc. often finding shady sources with unclear licenses. We asked 1,000+ members of Creative Market who use Creative Suite how much they spend each year on assets they use and on average they spend $150/yr. Multiply that by the 40M customers Adobe has and there is a big $6B annual opportunity without an App-Store equivalent. So we just launched it.
But the real story behind this extension launch isn't just what this means for Photoshop, but the platform that is powering this extension… the idea that this fluid in-app commerce can exist for all kinds of creative software.
Existing stock media companies are largely that, media companies that saw most of their technological evolution happen when they put their CDs online 10 years ago. Creative Market is a tech company in its DNA and we're revealing the beginnings of what is coming.
Making big changes & announcing your plans to the world can be a scary process, but I do believe George's words and am acting from the heart, being bold and chasing for greatness.
“I missed your talk, but caught the end… You're doing like suicide prevention for startup founders? Keep up the good work!” That wasn't what I intended when I spoke recently at FounderFables, an off the record event aimed at founders sharing stories in a private environment, but I took the feedback as validation that I should be talking about what I was sharing and not just to an off the record group.
What I was talking about isn't spoken about in our industry enough and it affects all of us deeply. Perhaps I'm willing to speak about this because I have a unique background.
I grew up as a rich kid, going to private schools, living in the only mansion in my town… I wore a non-rented Armani suit to my senior prom, and if that sounds pretentious, it's because I was. But under the veneer of the rich kid popular jock, I was self conscious, depressed and a little lost.
I was the youngest kid in a loving but busy home where I felt forgotten. I needed the approval of my father and he wasn't around. I wasn't a fat kid, but I was the fattest in my neighborhood and that was enough to leave me with body issues that I still deal with today. I cried in private, hoping that my cries might just be loud enough for somebody to hear. I hit myself, to create physical pain that might distract from the emotional. My mom was thankfully listening and I was taken to a therapist when I was around 10. Into high school, I still had way more going on internally then I would ever let out, but who wants to hear the popular jock complain about his life? Who'd believe that the kid who has everything is empty where it matters most. So at a young age I learned to bear a heavy burden, alone.
As I grew older, the large trust fund that was waiting for me in my twenties was traded in for a failed political campaign & restaurant by my father. I grew up tasting every meal from the end of a silver spoon and then when I turned 18 and went off on my own I was handed a plastic spork. Honestly though, I'm very appreciative of this and wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I tasted what life could be like and then was given the chance to make it for myself.
With the aftertaste of a life that could be, I've always been deeply driven to achieve success and wealth again. That drive has taken me across the US, to many cities, exploring offline & online businesses… that were largely met with failure. But I've also enjoyed incredible success. And now, I'm one of the happiest and most satisfied people I know, and that's largely because of how I think about and see wealth.
The above graph has done a lot to frame my thinking about personal wealth and it was shared with me by Chris Sacca. I need this framing because in our dreams of becoming Zuck rich, few of us really talk about what it means to have material wealth and the kind that 99.9% of us as entrepreneurs are ever likely to achieve. What this image is showing is the quality of life people have at different levels of financial security.
A person who is $50k in debt has a very hard life. They have no budget for luxuries or means to try and improve their life. They eat the cheapest foods and aren't able to travel. A person with $0 debt, but $0 savings has a quality of life worlds different. They may not have luxuries, but they have way more comfort and abilities to improve their life. Somebody with $50k in the bank is again dramatically better off than somebody with $0… And the quality of life dramatically increases again when you have something like $500k in the bank. That person is able to enjoy high quality foods, travel, live in luxurious comfort and use their capital to try and make their and those close to them lives better. A person with $5M does enjoy a higher quality of life, but not as dramatically better… they might fly in chartered planes vs first class, or drive a $120k car instead of a $70k car, but overall their quality of life is similar. And the increase in quality of life dramatically tapers off as you get to somewhere like $50M. I've personally experienced most of these levels of wealth, and while I haven't yet experienced the very top levels I've spoken to friends that are there and generally they agree.
So why is it important to talk about net worths? Because we never do. We report on acquisitions, successful founders exiting big… But never what that really means for their finances. We've put so much glory on the billionaires that we've made people with $1M in the bank feel self conscious about their “limited success.” We keep numbers quiet and hope people think our $50k is really $500k and our $5M is $50M. But it's not and its absolutely ridiculous to feel bad about any of these levels of wealth.
I've been rich. I've also been totally broke. My personal bank account & business accounts both overdrawn, tens of thousands of dollars in debt to family members and my credit cards maxed out or closed. I've had no cash in my pocket and a dwindling supply of food in the cabinet. I've seen both sides of the coin and through years of suffering as a struggling entrepreneur I've grown comfortable living small. Finding wealth in my relationships, in my good health, in the abilities I have… And now the the success of not being in either of the bottom two wealth classes.
With that all being said, I'm not out at $5M. My ambitions aren't pinned to where the marked improvement in quality of life starts to taper off… Because I'm not working this hard for myself. I'm the youngest of 7. I have an amazing wife and daughter… I don't view success as improving the quality of life for just myself, but for my family, my community and as much of the world as I can.
Even when we enjoy outward appearances of success, we can still bear heavy internal burdens. I probably have an unhealthy deep desire to make my father proud and to achieve accolades and success in his name. I know he loves me and I know he is proud, but the kid who wanted his dad to be at his soccer game is still watching the sidelines hoping he'll show up. I can't even write the last few sentences without stopping to cry.
We all have our internal struggles and in an industry driven by perception, struggles are a black cloud that no investor, partner or acquirer wants to stand under. So we're forced to weather our storms alone.
The truth is EVERYBODY is struggling. Even “successful” founders with millions in the bank are worried… about keeping their companies alive, finding an exit, not just being a lucky one hit wonder, keeping what wealth they've built up, etc.
When we all say we're killing it and everything is awesome. We make it that much harder for anybody to honestly say they're having a hard time. When a founder tweets that he's struggling to raise a round, or that he's worried about mistakes he's making, he might as well brand himself with the mark of the beast.
When I was raising my first round, it fell apart because an A-list investor who had given us a verbal commitment backed out. He did this because he had heard from his friend, who I went out for beers with, said that we were struggling and unsure of what we were doing. I don't blame the investor for backing out and I don't blame his friend for relating his honest opinion he took away from our conversation. But I will tell you that I now never share my struggles with anybody I think might be even remotely close to affecting my future opportunities. And in San Francisco, that pretty much means everybody.
As a founder, with a massive burden, and nobody to turn to it can be incredibly lonely. The truth is, you can't talk to normal people about your trouble. It's like how I felt as the depressed popular kid, it's really hard for a normal person to empathize with somebody who has a million dollars in their company bank account… Regardless if it's really theirs or not. We just operate in an alternate universe than the one most of the rest of the country lives in.
It's hard to talk to the people that love and care about you most, cause you'd scare the shit out of them. If they knew every up & down you went through, they'd probably hold an intervention to get you to switch careers. They don't want to see you suffer, and rare is the founder who hasn't suffered.
So most of us keep these struggles private, some of us are lucky to count fellow founders as close friends who we can confide in. Who we can talk to candidly in a circle of founder trust. If you're a founder and don't have this, make these friendships. They can save your life.
If you could have an honest conversation with every founder, you'd probably find that they either are or were very depressed at some point. Maybe there is some predisposition for emotionally unstable people to want to be founders, but most likely the high rate of depression is because this is fucking hard, it's stressful and there are huge risks.
I've also seen what life is like outside of the bubble in which our weird little tech world lives. During my quarter life crisis and while feeling lost in my ambitions smacked in the face with my first entrepreneurial failures. I ended up in Thailand a few weeks after the Asian Tsunami took the lives of thousands of people. I went there on a pilgrimage to help others and to find myself. That short trip turned into cofounding Hands.org and the next 2 years of working and living in disasters areas around the world… Thailand, Biloxi MS, Philippines & Peru. And spending time in places like a war torn Kabul, Afghanistan.
I left my problems behind and helped other people rebuild their lives, literally brick by brick. I met the families of hundreds of people who had long to do lists and plans for a tomorrow they never got to see. I came to appreciate every day I have in this life on a much deeper level and made a promise to never take it for granted. While I was in Thailand I got a dotted line tattooed across my wrist as a reminder of all those who didn't get another day, who all would I'm sure do anything to have just a little more time. I got the cut here line tattooed on my wrist to remind myself that if I ever don't fully appreciate the opportunity that I have and the life ahead of me, then I don't deserve it and it can easily be taken away. To me it's a very positive reminder, with a dark but real truth behind it.
Two very well known, respected and assumed “successful” founders took their own lives recently. I don't know what burden it was exactly that they felt was unbearable, but they felt something was impassable and that they were alone in carrying that burden. Nobody should ever feel that and nobody has ever truly been alone in that struggle, they just didn't feel like they could share it with anybody.
I haven't thought about killing myself in 20 years, but I've been there. So if you're ever so depressed and stressed out, and you think you're alone. You're not. I've been there. It can get better and i'll bear that burden with you. Send me an email with the subject, “I feel alone in this” and you'll be the next email I write or the call I make.
My friend's Jon Crawford and Matt Galligan both wrote about the topic of Work/Life balance this week and I thought I would continue their conversation with my perspective.
To call it a balance implies two sides of a scale where too much weight on one side, tips the other. To struggle for balance is to struggle for equal attention to things at odds with each other. How I choose to run my life is to strive not for balance, but for harmony. I embrace that my personal and work lives coexist in the same 24 hours of each day. My founder brain doesn't shut off and neither does my personal brain. When two things vibrate at opposing frequencies, their forces can be devastating. When they vibrate together, it's peaceful. When in harmony, both my personal and work lives are vibrating vigorously, but without fighting each other.
With mental perspectives in mind, I was struck most by this line from Jon's post:
You’re figuratively giving birth to something that didn’t exist before you created it. Giving birth is a process that entails intense pain and suffering.
Jon also has an amazing wife, and now a happy and healthy daughter. But if you asked me to describe giving birth I would use exactly the opposite words. I believe you manifest your destiny. There are woo-woo names for this like the power of the universe, or “The Secret”, etc. But simply, what you imagine to be true, often is true. When you believe that there are opportunities out there for you, you're more likely to see them when they present themselves. For my wife and I, birth was a peaceful, powerful, loving and elevating experience. Two people achieving the same thing (happy, healthy baby girls) in two very different ways.
And while I have a venture backed startup, 10+ employees, impending major product launches, an 8mo daughter, a wife, etc… I'm happy. I'm not stressed.
Change what you can change, and accept what you can't change. Don't worry. ~ Dalai Lama
Last year Mark Suster wrote a blog post that talked about the emotional rollercoaster that founders face. He had an image depicting the dramatic ups and downs we face over time. His image is below with my line added.
I too have ups and downs, just not nearly as dramatic as some. By freeing myself of worrying about things too much I can recover quicker. The trade off is that by not sinking so emotionally/mentally low, I might not experience the rebound as high… but my overall mental state remains high. But, I wasn't born this way. I suffered a lot to find my way to this place.
At one point COLOURlovers' servers were falling to their knees on a regular basis because of usage spikes, both my personal and my business checking account were overdrawn and I was waiting by the mailbox (literally) for a check from an advertiser to come so I could have some food money. I'd been consumed with work the weeks and months prior. Working as hard as I could to grow the community, develop partnerships, plan features, manage development… Every waking moment was spent working. And then I popped. After waiting at the mailbox on Friday and not having that check show up, I just got in my car and drove. I was going to drive a couple hundred miles anywhere else. I was quite literally trying to run away from my problems and then my check engine light came on. Even running from them wasn't going to work.
So I went home, I turned off my phone and went to bed at 2pm. And then I slept and did nothing for the next 2 days. No email, no phone calls. I didn't know if the servers were up or if I had important emails to respond to, I didn't care. And when I felt recovered I turned the internet back on… And everything was fine. Even if this site had been down for 2 days… things still would have been fine. I realized after that breakdown, that holding on too tight to the reigns will only wear out your grip and you'll fall off the horse.
I've also had some major events in my life that have shaped my perspective on the opportunities each day present us. I had cancer taken out of my face, I've spent 11 months living in disaster areas where thousands of people died with to-do lists full of things not yet done… And I married a woman who completes my circuit, and has given me a daughter that I adore. Having this deep appreciation for every moment of life I get doesn't make me want to work less though, it inspires me to work harder, to achieve greater things in the time that I have to leave behind more for those that I love.
The life of a startup founder is a very busy one. Even without a family, you will never have all the time you need to answer every email, design every feature, build every application or close every deal. It's the illusion that this is possible that I think breaks most founders.
The best CEO I can be for my company is to be the best Bubs I can be for myself. If I'm unhappy, tired or stressed, then the time I am giving to my company isn't as valuable as it can be, so while I'm putting in more hours… the end result might not be any greater output.
To overly simplify this, let's say that your mental, emotional, physical state is given a multiplier score. When you're burnt out or stressed you might be operating at a 5. When you're happy and energized, you're firing at a 9.
If you log a 12 hour day at a level 4, you're output for the day is 48 (12*4). But if you're operating at a 9, you can put in only 8 hours and still get a better output of 72. (8*9). Now these numbers don't really mean anything, but I think the concept holds true. Just cause you're at a desk, doesn't mean you're doing yourself or your company any good. Don't get misled by the hype of the hustler and mistake action for effectiveness.
From a practical side, the best thing you can do for yourself as a founder to reduce work stress is to surround yourself with supportive and positive people. I can't possibly get everything done alone and I have cofounders that are immensely important. When you can put total trust into others to get things done, you free yourself from a huge burden.
What you can get done, work hard to make it great. What you can't, let it go… Worrying about it won't change anything.
Somebody tweeted this the other day and it annoyed me. It's a horseshit personal empowerment line that comes on posters & placards for entrepreneurs. It's meant to inspire you to quit your job and begin the glamorous life of an entrepreneur that surely has you becoming super rich.
Two things specifically annoy me about this.
1. It's flat out wrong. Plenty of people got rich working for other people.
A very timeley example of this is Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo. She's worth an estimated $300 Million and potentially a whole lot more if she can successfully throw a hail mary. How did she become so wealthy? Working for Sergey Brin & Larry Page at Google.
Steve Ballmer. Worth Billions. Got it working for Bill Gates at Microsoft.
There are lots of rich people who got their wealth being early employees at startups that became huge successes. (Facebook just created a several hundred more.) I plan on making my employees big bucks. But this isn't the only opportunity for workers to strike it rich and this isn't exclusive to start ups.
Employees in all sorts of fields have busted their ass up the corporate ladder to senior positions that pay them very well. Yes, that takes a much longer time than possible startup megabucks, but it is still possible.
2. It makes it sound like working for yourself will make you rich.
I don't have any exact numbers, but I would guess that there are actually more rich people in the world who got that way working for somebody else than there are rich people who were entrepreneurs at the start.
I love being an entrepreneur. I'm proud to be one. But it's a glamorized game. Yes, there is a great opportunity for wealth in the startup game that I'm in… But there is also great opportunity for failure. I've been at this for 7 years and have seen all kinds of up and downs. Luckily I'm over some pretty big hurdles and am now living pretty comfortably… but for every person who gets to my stage there are thousands more flailing further back. For every founder who really makes it big, there are millions with crushed dreams and ruined credit.
The real issue here isn't about the one and only path that leads to wealth. It's how you approach that path. As an employee and as a founder you need to be smart, hardworking, passionate & tenacious.
Not as a runner, but as a founder. I know the general direction I'm headed. I know it's a race to the finish. I feel at times exposed like I'm wearing speedo-shorts. I started with a plan and composure… and now have no idea what I'm doing but am chest out running towards my goal like a mad-man.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
― Mike Tyson
Mike's words are true. This is why business plans for startups are largely a waste of time. You can plan all you want, but until you're out there executing you're just guessing. Like the runner that started his race, he had a clear plan. Gun goes off. Run. Jump over 10 hurdles. Win. His plan didn't work out too well after the first hurdle.
We are in good times to be a startup founder. Companies are exiting. Investors are writing checks. People are getting rich… It's a glamorous time.
But behind the Techcrunch blog posts, there's chaos, uncoordinated flailing and desperate people plowing headfirst into painful barriers. It's OK. You're not alone.
The video is worth watching for it's humor as well as it's honest depiction of my day to day life.
Ahoy! The theme of my writing here on the Svbtle network will be from the perspective of a weathered captain who has been surviving the storms of startup life.
For nearly a decade I've been out at sea searching for my brave new world. There have been many storms along the way that have nearly wrecked my boat: I struggled in the developing startup ecosystems in Portland, OR several years ago. I was an outsider to the Silicon Valley elite startup world and desperately wanted to be on the other side of the wall. I've gone broker than broke a few times while bootstrapping. …But I've also reached some amazing shores: I was accepted to Y Combinator. I raised more than $2M from top VCs & Angels. I built a passionate community up to 2M registered users. I'm on the other side of that wall.
So here is where I'll write my ideas, advice & lessons learned to help my fellow founders at sea. There is no bit of advice here that will serve as a clear treasure map to guide you all the way, but rather expect some navigational aids that will help you on your own unique journey.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
For more of a feel for my style and what sort of stuff to expect from me here in the future, check out some of my recent writings elsewhere: