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Apptimize S5E5: SF Office Move

People care about office location. Conflicting priorities and the existential danger of commitment charge the question of office location with powerful emotions, emotions I’ve been both agonizing over and toying with since Season 1 Episode 1. San Francisco, the South Bay, and our Apptimize office have formed a multi-year long “will they or won’t they” love triangle, a staple source of dramatic tension in the context of our startup growth- growth fueled by our industry revolution, a revolution set in the backdrop of our species’ social and technological revolutions. Exciting! This month, our team committed to a move away from our original pairing.

To recap the past: we started Apptimize in Mountain View in 2013. Our first office was in a building on the Google campus rumored to be scheduled for tear down. Trust was so high and the weather so mild in the Google garden of Eden that the building was unlocked and nerds wandered in and out freely. Khan Academy was in our building (I snuck food from their office often (not often enough)), as was Clinkle. We did not pay rent but lived off the land in Jeremy’s old company’s suite even as another company moved in, surely eating of any fruit of any tree we chose. In our purity as a proto-person, we dared to ask the new tenants if we could continue to use their furniture and office space for free. And we dared to continue working there for weeks after their awkward silence hardened into awkward post-it notes tagging, “These office chairs came with our lease.” Jeremy told me, “I think they’re too scared to approach you but that one guy whispered to me that we should probably go.”

Robot Invader’s office was in the same office complex and they took us in and ultimately became our first users. We took money plants with us in the move because Jeremy assured me that the new tenants wouldn’t have gotten those as part of the lease, and I loved free stuff and plants (although they died immediately because I don’t love caring for them). I did our office move by myself one night, lugging Jeremy’s monitor up and down various staircases by taking rest stops. Jeremy told me, “I appreciate you doing this but you should have asked for help because you cracked the monitor. A piece of it fell off and people who know me know my monitor is my baby.” I was unapologetic, a recurring theme in the recurring chaos I caused in our recurring moves.

After we got into Y Combinator, we split time between my house and Robot Invader because some of our early developers lived with me for free for years. We had a 5 bedroom house 5 minutes from Google that was sometimes our office especially when we worked weekends for the first few years of Apptimize.

We also worked out of a fellow Y Combinator startup’s offices in SF out of a compromise for our SF contingent- the dozen of us alternating days between South Bay and SF. I asked Y Combinator what they thought of this dynamic arrangement and Justin Kan told me, “When you’re small you can do whatever you want,” advice I overly liked and recalled.

After raising our seed, we moved into a 10K square feet office across the street from Facebook owned by one of our angel investors Massy and Sateez. They used to house 100+ people in this building and now it was for our team of 12, so we had lots of room to grow. An instance of startup karma, our users Robot Invader moved into our Menlo space, turning the tables from the days when we stayed with them at the old Google Building.

We slowly eventually tore down the cubicles after a few years. One executive recruiter told me a candidate called our office dark (following his linkedin since interviewing him, he’s been a trainwreck- I maintain that cubicles are good), but we were already contemplating a redesign. Shauna helped us redo everything [photos]. I loved that this office was right across the marsh where we did walking meetings.

apptimize menlo cubicles

When I moved to SF personally, I assumed we’d move the company to SF soon. We’d been discussing it for months and the SF people, while a minority in the company, were annoyingly vocal complainers (is that any surprise to anyone?). I said we’d do it after the Series B because I needed to focus on our funding strategy first and the move could be tied to a celebration of not dying.

We raised our Series B during a hard fundraising time. 2016 started with the SaaS-pocalypse where public markets were getting pounded, Silicon Valley SaaS technology paragons like LinkedIn and Salesforce were dropping, startup founder darlings like Zenefits’ CEO were getting ousted, reporters were unhelpfully speculating the venture “correction,” and only the highest conviction VC’s so confident in their records that they didn’t read tech blogs were in the game. Our deck was coming together in January 2016 and my Series A investors kindly told me that it was not good. Undeterred and without Lynn to make our deck, I went out into the market and started taking meetings. For the first time, I envied bootstrapped startups. After decades of being straight edge and using clean language, I re-learned my middle school habit of swearing and gained 15 pounds in 1 month.

I’m not going to detail the drama of this time here. Despite the climate, we got really lucky. The result was that this round was awesomely good to us. Within a few months, we raised $14M with top investors such as Glynn Capital, Goldcrest, USVP, and Stanford Fund.

After we started getting term sheets, I turned back to the business and saw we had major stuff to focus on. I lost 15 pounds in 1 month because I had so much energy around all the work there was to do. When I said I was really happy during a meeting where it was clear everything needed work, Lisa said, “You’re happy because and you’re really busy.” Yes! Good-busy, like making-progress-energizing-busy, not gain-15-pounds-stressing-over-cat-herding busy.

Everyone was doing multiple jobs. I’m proud and inspired by how our team stepped up, how much we accomplished and learned. I had my ordered list of priorities, promising Chris I was going to un-fuck X after first un-fucking Y. So our long suffering SF contingent who I had hardened my heart against (with the taunting refrain, “You knew what you were getting into when you joined”), got their hopes shelved into “I can’t think about anything else especially a move until after this next milestone” purgatory.

Late last year, our team had a hard time hiring to scale. Here’s the thing with running a company predicated on the idea of data, testing, and iteration: you feel guilty if you don’t run experiments so people manipulate you into all kinds of things unless you’re consistently clever at poking holes in their hypothesis logic and test design. “Maybe you guys suck at hiring,” was my guess, but I entertained the idea of an SF experiment as a solution for accelerating hiring. Thus we opened up an SF satellite 6 months ago in Hiplead’soffice to test if this helped us hire salespeople. Adam said, “Wow, that was fast after you said you were going to do it,” a recurring theme in our moves. I forbade the non-sales team from venturing there and had strict rules of engagement around when and where meetings and candidates had to be, rules which my insubordinate team irritated me by increasingly flouting as they settled into SF. Brazen requests for catered lunch and dinner in the SF office to match the Main Office basics were admonished, “This is a test and we’re treating it as such so perks such as free food are not a priority.” After a few months, it did appear that our hiring pipeline was much improved, so we started the search for an SF office.

I optimized on one thing: being close to Caltrain to minimize marginalization of the South Bay loyalists who were having the rug pulled from under them. I checked the place our broker Brandon found closest to Caltrain and said we’d take it. Thus we’ve now moved into the one place I looked at because it best satisfied my Caltrain criteria by being literally across the street.

Looking back at the history of our office locations, from Google campus, to alternating days between the Mission and Mountain View with weekends at my house with Gemma cooking for everyone, to Menlo Park, to split between Menlo and Mission, to now everyone together in SOMA, I see consistent themes in our moves.

I’ve learned people care a lot about office location. Uncertainty and flux over office location was endlessly distracting for the team. I was pissed off by how people harassed me for information, lobbied, speculated, and irresponsibly promised SF timelines to team members. Part of me wanted to stay in South Bay so as to not seem to reward SF politicking, but I also blamed myself for not being 100% clear. I always had a soft spot for watching out for South Bay interests because they are uncomplaining and selfless about doing what’s best for the whole team, thus I optimized 100% for Caltrain and ignored Bart. I don’t know what this teaches anyone about interacting with me other than that I make decisions fast by focusing on what I want to optimize and I worry about sticking up for people who don’t stick up for themselves.

After the location factor, all our moves optimized for cost. Our gigantic space in Menlo Park was a great deal because our investors are generous and supportive. I learned a lesson from the various dead startups we got most of our fanciest furniture from: we did not want to live in an opulent palace as though we’d won when we were still in the midst of fighting a war.

The underlying theme is that we do what lets us increase velocity to hire the teammates we want to hire. Are you or someone you know a potential fit because I’d love to talk? Let me know your information! Also, our office warming is tonight. Come to 330 Townsend!

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2016: A New Era

Hart asked if I still write. I do, but I can’t blog as openly about life because of work. War stories are classified. Part of me wishes we’d followed through with filming everything with GoPro necklaces so we could carve the 99% that’s talking to computers to expose the gristle of business drama. But what’s the point? Nothing’s like what anyone can tell you.

Apptimize crew sailing around San Francisco
Apptimize crew sailing around San Francisco

Much work is objectively boring and hard for a long time. That’s what it takes to win, tens of thousands of hours of work that more reasonable people are unwilling to endure. It takes a wizard every hour of every day for years and years alone in a dark tower to draw the spell to craft and mark a new world. It’s pain, loss, sweat, time, boredom, all while fervently believing you must triumph.

More and more, I find myself saying, “I can tell you more in person.” I’m swimming the strange intersection between business and personal, because a startup is water that touches every part of you. In the ocean you feel the reality of constant motion, relentlessly pushed, engulfed by the smell and sound of the heavy waves. Fixate on the mission and row with boundless energy, lest you’re wrecked instead of carried. All your customers and friends and teammates swim together, making the same waves.

The amount of change Apptimize has gone through this past year is staggering. We’ve all changed. I was always ambitious, but my drive was as nothing to my fresh hunger, now that I know more what’s possible. Interviewing an executive candidate, he said, “Your words make me restless,” probably a funny reaction to debating the nuances of sales pipeline definitions.

A year ago, Apptimize was totally different. We made less than our server costs. Much of the impossible stuff we did, we were only able to do because we had no idea what we were getting into. I’ve seen us get so much stronger operationally, starting with learning the difference between strategy, plans, and goals. We’ve rebuilt again and again. We’re now about 25 people, long past fitting around the dinner table at my house, even with all the leaves in.

I’m different. After my previous life of prop trading our own money, I realized I love sales and the responsibility of customers. After 30 years of disdain, I started wearing high heels. I bought a brass rat; maybe one day I will consider actual jewelry. I finally started drinking alcohol. I’m learning more how to wield my weirdness: once upon a time, minutes after meeting someone I’d be ENTJ-ing them towards increased efficacy. Now I give it more time.

The last time I changed a lot was when I moved from NYC to the Bay. That was hard because I loved NYC. No matter how deep you get, NYC shows you something that takes your breath away, realizing you didn’t begin to know her yet. Deep was my love was for New York, the people, myself. I’d take the train down weekends to see my mom in Princeton. When Mom died, one of my best friends since 6th grade drove into NYC from Pennsylvania and I took her to my favorite foods. I had no hunger for food. A few months later, I moved from NYC to Palo Alto because I felt useless. You can’t be useless.

An addiction, NYC poisoned SF for me. I’d plan clandestine visits around NYC wishing we could get back together if it’d change just 1 thing. I’d fantasize about a bicoastal relationship, a modern jetsetter, brimming with love for everyone and no one, ready to forsake town whenever it threatened to get tiresome.

What is a home? I find my home whereupon returning from a journey the smell of the street fills me with gladness and relief and I restrain my haste in knuckling keys into a door to find a friend waiting inside to swing me in her arms and bring me tea.

For the last 3 years I swore I couldn’t find such a home in SF. The homeless people: that’s one of the first shocks. It still astounds me, the looks on their faces, approval through our mute acceptance. I drown in disgust and shame for them, myself, all of us. I lash myself to the mast and sail through the tempest. I staunchly ignore them and consider my own fortune. I resolve, “One day I will fix this pain. I’m still getting stronger and one day this will be simple to correct.” I retort, “Another empty, foolish, impulsive promise.” I rationalize, “This isn’t the most important thing.” I anguish, “But how do you know?” How much can you harden your heart before you’re no longer human? How much can you reach back towards suffering before your life is no longer yours? Torn and bloodied I reel until another of my multitude rips me from the centrifuge, sighing in my ear, “Enough, enough.”

Contemptuous and hating SF, 3 years ago I moved from NYC to Palo Alto. The South Bay has its own sedate majesty. Driving down from SF it’s like descending from Mount Doom into an Eden of sweet, warm air. Understated and grand, even the woods are a suburban paradise. Everyone’s changing the world in their garage- NBD. I plucked giant, perfect fruit from yielding trees, sucking the juice from my wrist. But I can’t stay still no matter how comfortable and serene- onward, onward, pushed out of paradise by the waves of the world.

In December 2015, I moved from my house in Mountain View to an apartment in SF. It rained and the streets were unprepared so I took off my wet socks at Plow. My soaked book crumbled. It rained as we explored an abandoned nuclear site. Nick reassured, “I’ve been over this area with my geiger counter and it’s not that bad.” I like cold, I like temperamental weather, I like Land’s End, the way the wind blows the water white and black. I don’t live next to water or eucalyptus; I’m tabling that until after I settle this next thing with my business. Today I live in the Mission, a place Dan took me years ago and I instantly hated. Love blooms more lustily out of the ash of initial, prolonged dislike. Love: you don’t say it yet but you start thinking it. NYC has much of the best of today, but SF is the swan of our hopes for everything in 100 years.

That’s what you discover in a startup- even after sighting product market fit, you never stop pushing the market and product and reinventing everything. I love my startup. I love SF. Join my SF crew! Come away with us to navigate this life together! Shall we press forward together no matter how comfortable each stopping place is? Shall we strive and adventure together until we die?

Quora: Vegetarianism?

Having a non-mainstream diet means being more deliberate about your food. My perspective is that I like the taste of meat and want to continue eating it, but find it morally indefensible.

In the places I’ve lived, many people don’t eat much meat so no one asks me about it, but sometimes people make fun of it. I think it’s easier for me as a girl to not eat meat and not get heat about it, but some people might view it as a holier-than-thou attitude and get offended by it, plus there’s somewhat of a negative connotation about vegetarians being wimpy and annoying, bleeding-heart bozos. Some of my male vegetarian friends avoid conflict by saying they don’t eat meat due to health reasons.

Being vegetarian means you think more carefully about everything you’re eating. When you do whatever everyone around you does without thinking about it, when questioned it can be easy to automatically rationalize whatever you and everyone else is doing as correct, otherwise why would everyone do it? Growing up in a Chinese household with a lot of meat, that’s how I felt about vegetarianism until I read DFW’s essay for Gourmet Magazine “Consider the Lobster.”

Aside: Most Chinese people eat a ton of meat. Chinese people will eat anything. If China doesn’t care about human rights, how are Chinese people supposed to even imagine the concept of animal cruelty? For example, I was telling my cousin about my beloved cat, how sweet this cat was, how much I missed her. My cousin said, “Oh, I used to have a great cat! Let me tell you a funny story.” This story began with how my uncle was mad the cat was on the bed, so he picked up the cat by the leg and threw it across the room, thereby breaking its leg. Thus for the following months this cat was confined to the bathroom, where its only occupation was the observing of people using the toilet, so that afterwards it also used the toilet as well! Ever after, this delightful, intelligent cat would comically race into the bathroom in the morning whenever it saw anyone heading in and start using the toilet first. The person wouldn’t be able to shoo the cat off since it would immediately start pooing, so everyone would have to wait till the cat was done before being able to go to the bathroom in the morning. No one thought this story was anything but pure comedy, and the preface about the cat’s broken leg was not shocking to anyone: a cat thrown across the room by the leg had the emotional equivalent of “I was going to the store one day when-.” (This story also illustrates how Chinese people often find poo and other bodily functions funny and will not hesitate to tell poo stories, especially to good friends and family.) So yeah it can be weird being a Chinese vegetarian.

Animals are inferior to humans. We control their lives and their environments, but I would hope that if aliens from outer space came to Earth they would show mercy to the inferior humans, which to them would be like animals ripe for enslavement, breeding, eating, labor, etc. Do unto others, right?

When I first started thinking about it, I was reluctant to conclude that eating meat was not The Right Thing To do. After all, I’m a good person, and I eat meat, therefore eating meat should be Good. Plus it’s so delicious! DFW’s essay caught me off guard and snuck in behind my cognitive dissonance.

To animals, we humans are like all-powerful gods. Before honestly and openly questioning whether I should eat animals or not, I was like an indifferent and uncaring god. After thinking about it, I decided if I continued to eat meat after being unable to defend the position, I would then move into evil, cruel god zone, and I didn’t want to do that- I want to a be a benevolent, compassionate god. My argument isn’t based on logic or rhetoric, it’s based on compassion, empathy, and the hope that karma will cause aliens to spare my sweet, delicious brains.

It’s not a question of whether the life of an animal is worth as much as the life of a human- clearly it is not. No one typically needs to eat animals to survive- I only eat them because I like the taste. So the real question is if an animal’s life is worth as much as the enjoyment or entertainment a human gets from eating the animal. If you think you will get more utility out of eating the meat than the cost of the animal’s suffering and whatever costs there might be to the environment, then from a utilitarian perspective, eat it.

This is subjective and each individual’s decision. Sometimes, the dish really is that delicious! Sometimes my mom would insist on cooking me chicken soup when I was sick, and if I didn’t eat it she would weepingly smile, bravely trying to hide her obviously broken heart. If my mom cooked a dead baby, I’d probably have to eat it, so sometimes you have to choose the animal’s suffering and death over the suffering of another human being.

It’s not that easy to think about doing something differently from the default behavior I grew up with- far easier to just be on autopilot and do whatever my family and friends do. But as someone who cares about utilitarianism, I feel good whenever I choose not to eat meat even when part of me wants to. I feel like I’m being slightly self sacrificing, even though it doesn’t cost me much and is probably on average benefiting my body and wallet.

What’s it like to be a vegetarian?