Why I left Seattle

This last week I’ve had to recount my story out loud half dozen times to a few strangers. The simple answer for why we left is because we were frustrated.

I left Seattle four years ago and have visited every year. For some reason I still feel repulsed at the idea of returning home and starting my company there. This post is a reflection on why.

When I’m away, I often fantasize about the pacific northwest. I miss my family. I miss the lakes. I miss the mountains. I miss the food. I miss the feels.

When I get to Seattle, the reality doesn’t match up with my fantasy. Why?

Let’s take us back to 2012. Denny and I, both 22 years old, make a website. We launch the website. People sign up for our website and give money to scientists on the website.

For these two inexperienced founders to learn how to grow this company, we need to learn from some experienced people. I believe we failed to grow in Seattle because Seattle wasn’t able to provide us the support needed to make our mission a reality.

The community of quality investors interested in funding early stage startups is not big enough and is not growing fast enough.

  • the deals are not fair $25k on a $1M cap, this structure disincentivizes founders
  • investors don’t take young entrepreneurs seriously
  • investors try to fit founders and companies into a box

The majority of my peers didn’t dream big enough. The ones that did dream big, didn’t match in execution.

  • the majority of ideas are focused on existing technologies or copy cats of existing apps

The amount of bad advice given by experienced entrepreneurs is dangerous.

  • naive founders can get lost in bad advice this can be detrimental to a startup’s success

Things move at glacial speeds.

  • people schedule meetings for two weeks out
  • people aren’t straight forward and as a result are not honest

The main reason I left is because I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a community of people who shared my values. Trust me, I searched. And, if the people were there they were inaccessible to me, the young naive founder. I am a master at cold email.

The advice from Seattle was that San Francisco was no different from Seattle and that we should stay in Seattle. That was the wrong advice. The right advice is:

“This is my opinion about Seattle and San Francisco. However, that is just my opinion. You should go to San Francisco and see for yourself.”

We went against the advice and visited San Francisco.

The first place we landed was Pixar. Pixar is a company that takes someone’s dreams and makes those dreams a reality on film. The dedication to the craft was something brand new to me. You don’t create something great by connecting two dots in a linear line. My feeling in Seattle was that everyone wanted us to follow the typical track. I knew the typical track didn’t sit right with me and what we wanted for our company and community.

From day one Experiment was built to be an institution that would last forever. There was no exit strategy. Inevitably, we were asked our exit strategy. Our answer became the only honest answer we could think of. Our exit would be the greatest discovery of all time: the invention of a time machine, a mission to Mars, and the cure for cancer.

That did not sit well with investors in Seattle. We were laughed out of the room, scolded for making this a joke, and told that we were being unrealistic. After meeting with every single investor in Seattle and hearing no, or even worse… no response from every VC we made another trip to San Francisco by accident.

We entered a hackathon and over the course of a weekend built a prototype of a Github for Science. I had just quit my job in the lab and found that it was impossible for me to hand over my research progress to my Professor. My data and protocols were spread across hundreds of excel spreadsheets, google documents, napkins, and worse of all my head. We built a MVP of an online lab notebook, to fix this problem. The judges liked us enough to send our whole team to the national hackathon in Palo Alto.

So, we go. We pitch. It becomes obvious that we aren’t interested in working on this project because what we were really at the hackathon for was the pizza. We needed free pizza to feed ourselves to keep Experiement running. We got a free plane ticket, so why not stay a while!

During that trip ran out of a moving car to chase down our first investor in between traffic lights. Months later he invested the first $25k. We met with the most welcoming people I had ever encountered. After meeting with a stranger for 30 minutes he started making intros left and right. That was not unique to this one man, but this happened over and over again. One of the most memorable meetings was a meeting with one of the early investors in Facebook.

I still remember entering the office. It felt like we were entering a literal cloud (like the ones you see outside of airplane windows). We came prepared with our “pitch deck”. The pitch was going fairly well until we hit the exit strategy slide. You could see the investor immediately lose interest.

Based on the feedback we encountered in Seattle, we changed this slide to show a list of companies that could acquire us. We both knew that we would never sell to any of these companies, but Seattle investors made us believe this was such a requirement that we earnestly took their advice.

This investor was very straight forward. There was absolutely no way she would invest in founders what were planning to exit. They only invest in founders who aim to build billion dollar companies. So, they were obviously not going to invest in us.

They were not going to invest in us because we had lied to this investor. We told them what we thought they wanted to hear, only to find that what they wanted to hear was exactly what I wanted to say. That was the last time I thought about exit strategies.

This is the moment I learned to trust no one. From then on I realized that we were on our own. If the person on the other side of the table didn’t believe in our vision, we were happy to leave them behind. We are driving a spaceship that is leaving now and if you don’t want to get on then you can get off. I realized that there weren’t enough people in Seattle to fill the spaceship, so something had to change.

We left Seattle. We left because after exhausting all of our options, we accepted that Seattle did not want to support our dream.

We had applied to Y Combinator, though we were fairly confident they would also reject us. After a few days we got an email. Y Combinator said they wanted to pay for us to visit Mountain View to talk to them for 10 minutes. In that moment everything became clear. I told Denny that we should put everything in my car and use the money to move to the Bay Area and never look back. So, that’s what we did.

We convinced our friends to let us live in their closet for $600/month in East Palo Alto. If things didn’t work out, we had $25k in the bank from an investor that had rejected us to his accelerator but decided to invest a small amount anyways. The $25,000 felt like $1 billion dollars.

We interviewed for 10 minutes and the interview went terribly. Later that evening Denny gets a call from PG. They ask if we’re interested in participating in the next batch. That’s when the story really starts.

I often feel like I need to tiptoe around this topic of whether or not entrepreneurs should consider starting a company in Seattle. If anyone investigated my emails, it is very clear that I am very against Seattle as a good environment for young entrepreneurs. I tell entrepreneurs if you want to build an empire get out of Seattle as soon as possible. If you want to build a lifestyle business, you’ll do okay in Seattle. Most young entrepreneurs remind me of myself. They’re not interested in building something small, they’re shooting for something revolutionary. The only logical place to go is the Bay Area.

You’ll find that I moved the company out of San Francisco exactly one year ago, but that is a story for another time.

I left Seattle four years ago and don’t plan on returning anytime soon because the I don’t believe that Seattle can keep up with me and Experiment. The environment in Seattle prevented me from becoming the best founder I could possible be. By preventing my own personal growth, we were hurting the speed in which science moves faster.

That is unacceptable to me. By being in Seattle we would be doing a disservice to our community.

That said, I fantasize of making Seattle my forever home. One day I may return to build Seattle into the place I dream of, but that day is not today.