PhotoShelter – Incomplete

The success of hotjobs spoiled us.

I thought that if you build it, they will come. Having only dealt with product/technology through my 20s, I had no idea about business. Really, nothing. But that didn’t stop us from being wide-eyed and entrepreneurial.

We raised $4.2m from General Catalyst on a bit of a lark. We had been traveling around trying to find some Series A funding without success. But one day we fielded a call from Clay, who was doing due diligence on us as a part of a competitive analysis for an investment they were considering. They ended up funding us instead.

When a top tier VC invests in you, you believe that the road to riches is just months away. The reality is that the road to hell has just started. It’s not that VCs are bad people; On the contrary, many of the people we met at GC were fantastic. But they are investing in you, and they expect a return on investment. They also want to see the money deployed quickly, so we did.

But I don’t want to talk about the business of PhotoShelter yet. It’s still too early for that, and those chapters are still being written. Instead, I’d like to talk about life lessons. Not business lessons, but life lessons.

I was sitting in the Continental lounge at SFO waiting to board a red-eye back to New York City. A few hours earlier, we had just wrapped up our first PhotoShelter Town Hall meeting to a great and enthusiastic crowd.

And then I received the phone call from Grover. I had never heard him like this before. “They are saying that Christine might die tonight, and I don’t know what to do…”

His girlfriend Christine had been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier. As a double cancer survivor, everyone assumed that she’d get her chemo again, and everything would be fine. But it wasn’t. The cancer was aggressive and it moved from breast to liver to lymph to bone to lung in the matter of a few months.

I jumped into a taxi and went to the hospital in Daly City, and I got out on the 10th floor and moved to the back of the hall, when I saw Grover in tears. And he saw me and he gave me the biggest hug ever. He gripped me like his life depended on it. And I didn’t know what to say nor do other than hug him back.

We stayed in the hospital that night. We watched Christine for hours. Brad and Jack came by. We chatted. We sat in silence with her mother, and looked at the IV dripping into the thin tube that entered her body. She was minimally conscious and could not communicate.

The next day, Brad came by, and we went downstairs into the lobby to meet him. He brought with him a signed baseball of Christine’s favorite Chicago White Sox player with a “get well” wish, and a photo of the ball park that said “White Sox draft Christine.” I still don’t know how he was able to get this, but it moved us to tears that such a gesture might occur.

Everyone knows someone with cancer at some point. My parents have had friends with cancer, but I didn’t know anyone personally. It is a terrible fucking disease. And while it is tragic to take the life of a person in their twilight years, it’s all the more devasting to take a person in their prime of life. This was my first encounter with it, and it wasn’t my last.

When Christine passed away, Thom, Jason, Mike, Caroline and I flew out for the funeral. It was a show of solidarity and the right thing to do. It took a few more deaths for this to be codified in my head, but showing support for your friends in time of trouble is one of the few things that separates friends from acquaintences, and builds true camraderie.

Then within a period of about 3 years, Marc’s father had a stroke, Thom’s father had leukemia, Caroline’s father passed away from cancer, Ruby’s brother was paralyzed, Andrew’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Rachel was diagnosed, but ultimately beat cancer.

And these things change you. Because as much as people say carpe diem and all that shit, nobody does. And why would we? Daily life can be a grind. Work, relationship, bills, and we’re supposed to live each day like it’s our last? It’s not realistic.

The challenge of a start-up is the risk/reward equation. If I play the lottery, then perhaps I have a chance to win the lottery. But in the end, the odds of hitting it big are infinitesimally small, no matter how many millionaires were minted off Facebook’s IPO, or the hundreds that preceded it. All we have then is our quality of life. How do we feel, on average, on a daily basis. Do we enjoy the company of the people around us, and are we maintaining substantive relationships with our friends? When we look back at the past 12 months, are we happy with what we’ve accomplished?

At the end of 2010, Josh’s father passed away from heart disease. I had known Josh’s dad since freshmen year in college, and spent hours with him at the piano or talking photography. He was one of the good guys. His passing had a significant effect on Josh and his family.

The day after my 40th birthday, I drove down to Philadelphia for his funeral. And while there, I had a brief conversation with my old friend Jeremy who reinforced the importance of supporting your friends through times like these. Jeremy’s own father had just passed away a few weeks earlier, and so he understood the range of emotions that death can cause, and how important a network of friends can be. Josh and I drove down to DC a few weeks later for Jeremy’s father’s memorial.

The longer I live, the more that life is defined by death. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I suppose it’s just a part of life.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog post entitled “Rant: I Love Photography.” I’m not sure what spurred me to write, but I had a lot of stuff on my mind, photography and the state of the industry being a part of it. And for whatever reason, it went a little viral in our little niche of photography. And although the ultimate audience size was tiny in comparison to every time Justin Bieber tweets, I felt pride, and I felt some joy over the thoughts that were conveyed in the piece. There was so much life to live (and photograph) and why the hell did we have to be negative?

When I looked back at my 12 months, it wasn’t what I had envisioned. The company was great, and I really enjoyed working with everyone. But my back was aching, I had had two surgeries to fix a torn muscle, and my personal life and personal decisions sucked. When I left hotjobs in 2001, I vowed to spend time with friends and travel, and I did some of that, but not really. All of a sudden I was 40 and still staying up until 3am to work, and I just sort of lost myself. You should never lose yourself.

This realization isn’t new nor unique. People talk about living fulfilling lives all the time, but everyone has to realize this for themselves. No amount of hearing about what’s important in life will make any difference until you choose to make life important. You never want to wake up and find that the best days have past and you missed them. You never want to wake up and find a chronic illness in you or a loved one, and start piling regret in your soul.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I won the lottery you weren’t supposed to win. And I’ve always been blessed with remarkable friends.

So after seven years of running PhotoShelter, I stepped aside.

We call that a cliffhanger.