Founding Our Startup: All about the Team

“Do not do a startup,” they said. “Run a team within my fund. You can hire whoever you want and we’ll give you whatever you need. It’s the smart move.” Why would anyone want to start a company? For money? Seems like an unlikely way to get rich. For fun? Seems like you need to deal with an endless parade of annoying tasks, from legal to logistics to facilities to finance. Better to curl up inside a cozy mothership.

Well, we did it anyway! What have I been up to since GETCO? Jeremy and I started Apptimize and we’re in the current YCombinator class.

I went to Mark Cuban’s high school, but kid Nancy was not an enterprising go-getter who went door to door selling powdered milk; I was a bookworm hauling stacks back and forth from the library, making robots at nerd camp. Only when I stopped wanting to be a physicist did my path diverge from the ivory tower. Unlike entrepreneurship, in academia everything takes forever, there’s no feedback for a long time, you work in isolation if you like, and you don’t need to worry about anything outside your field. That sounded awesome to 17 year old Nancy because why not skip the unsavory, avoid the unlearned masses, and focus on what’s important, i.e. math and physics? But academia sucks. Sorry, PhD friends and Dad: although it sounded cool to be building a laser for a superconductor, I hated lab because nothing ever happened.

Startups don’t have that problem. In contrast, a main problem is deciding what to work on because there’s constant chaos. On top of that, you get emotional whiplash because one week your launch site is abysmally far from the first page of search results and the next week people are imploring you to let them email you their source code.

You can’t avoid any unappetizing arena when starting a company- startups eat pain. As Kevin described, “You are eating the huge shit sandwich that no one else wants to eat.” I am surprised to have volunteered for that, but that’s what Apptimize is- addressing a big, unmet need.

I decided to start a company when I realized people are crucial. I want to work with exactly the people I want to work with, and the best way to do this is to found a team. Everyone says the team is important, but, despite the pyramids and the Manhattan project, it took years to see why humans are social animals.

A smart kid, it was unquestionably more efficient for me to do everything alone than to involve others. During class, I would read the textbook and do the homework while everyone else did who knows what. I wished for clones or a time turner, but enlisting my peers rarely seemed useful. Short term, if you’re smart it’s easier to get good yourself than figuring out how to leverage others. This is great for the first few decades of life when there’s no emphasis on hard problems, but it doesn’t scale when you want to work on something bigger than homework (how sad that none expect a child to do anything cool).

No one builds a spaceship alone because building something great is too much work for 1 person, even an intelligent adult. Thus, executing on real stuff involves teamwork. The more ambitious the project, the more help you need. Why did it take decades to figure out something apes have known for millennia? I’ll blame our educational system because it’s so messed up it’s got to be at the root of all problems somehow. In real life, if individuals are fighting for limited resources, when a subset of those individuals team up to get those resources, the loners lose, and then everyone learns the lesson that teamwork is important. In school, the supposed rewards aren’t scarce, and the work is easy.

Although MIT was harder than high school, it was GETCO that inspired me regarding people. Knowing and liking the founders of my old company both as leaders and as dudes helped me realize: the main gap between founders and employees is that founders decided to be founders. That’s the difference between Washington and the other old guys in wigs, between Jobs and other nerds- people decide to be what they become.

I think of GETCO often- the people, the best part was always the people. Some of my warmest memories are of poker, swearing across the table, Shu urging everyone to drink while he sipped cranberry juice, challenging you to bet more money from off the table (do not agree to this (he will pull out a gangster wad of what first appears to be $10’s before he discards the ten to reveal $50’s mixed with $100’s)), the peer-pressure-induced re-straddles that led to people going all-in pre-flop blind with $1024 in a $1-2 game, Dan systematically re-buying to match the chip lead while dispassionately folding 90%+ of his hands, then offering massive bounties on guessing the next song picked by his iPod shuffle (always guess something by Johnny Cash). I’ve played a handful of poker games since GETCO, and despite my high hopes they’re never anywhere near as fun.

Knowing the drama teams of all sizes have, I feel so blessed to have my co-founder Jeremy. We are both determined, ambitious, critical, and honest. Otherwise we’re opposites. He’s apathetic to competition whereas I find it extremely motivating and exciting. He’s verbose and literal whereas I am terse and subtle. He instantly responds inline to each line of each email whereas I boomerang email for days on end. He avoids rooms of strangers whereas I love new friends and learning about another person. When we disagree, we interrupt each other with increasingly dramatic supporting evidence before eventually convincing each other and swapping sides. I’m encouraging Jeremy to switch from soda to kombucha and he persuaded me to get a car instead of renting from the airport. He’s attentive and polite, nudging me warningly when I openly space out during monologues.

After our YCombinator interview, I said, “I didn’t know if we’d get in!” and Paul Graham replied, “You seemed like an effective team.” How formidable! The Apptimize team loves data, commits to the truth, invites feedback, listens, constantly improves, and boldly experiments. Everyone is curious, creative, passionate, authentic, and generous. We have the best game nights! If I didn’t know the true spell, I’d use the glorious image of us all focused together working as my happy memory to cast my patronus. When you’re swinging for the fences, building an efficient team is critical to execution. That’s what our startup is, an amazing team!

Jeremy and Nancy, founders of Apptimize
Jeremy and Nancy, founders of Apptimize!

Jeremy grilling