Catching My Breath

After five years building a tech startup, a respite

Jess Martin
3 min readMay 14, 2019
Sunrise over Kure Beach, NC // April 2019 // I’m behind the lens, not on the bike. Unfortunately.

It’s like a drug. Ask other founders. There are few things as exhilarating as starting a company. From the whiteboard full of ideas to the first dollar of revenue, it’s a wild, wild ride. And like any good ride, sometimes you need to get off and catch your breath.

In June of 2014, a friend and I stood in front of one of those whiteboards. We’d been working on several different ideas full-time for months. A few had even made it past that first dollar of revenue, but none of them were getting the traction we had hoped. It wasn’t clicking yet. And we knew it. But on the whiteboard in front of us was a glorious landscape of an industry filled with shortcomings, landmines, technical hurdles, and inefficiency. The industry was residential real estate. And it was perfect. With hundreds of thousands of real estate agents, millions of home buyers and billions of dollars paid out in commission, we knew we could find a way to provide value. And we did. grew from that whiteboard past a $1M run rate, through a Series A, to a double-digit-sized team serving thousands of customers. And the journey continues.

Startups are a lot like speedboats. Fast and nimble, they can outmaneuver the larger cruise ship companies. Speedboats don’t have a lot of amenities, and there’s not a lot of room, but they sure are a fun ride. On the other hand, cruise ships have great food, loads of onboard entertainment, but they don’t move fast or turn quickly. You’ll never be jostled overboard by a quick turn, nor will you ever lay eyes on the steering wheel. I have always favored the speedboat, but the bad part about a speedboat is you feel every single bump.

After almost five years and an incredible ride building a tech startup from the maiden voyage on, there’s a time for shore duty.

We were super fortunate at First to convince an incredible team of people to join us on that speedboat. I had many different roles at First, but my primary focus was on technology and product. As we’ve grown, we now have excellent leadership in both areas and I was extremely thankful to be able to pass the baton to those leaders as First continues to speed along.

Now it’s time for me to catch my breath.

What’s next? To be honest, I’m not sure yet. I’ve been finding my land legs, catching up on long-ignored responsibilities and relationships, and remembering the sheer joy of building “toy boats”, tiny projects hearkening to the song of the sea without the commitment of tackling the big waves.

Right now I’m enjoying strolling along the docks, checking out the other ships, chatting with captains and crew, and picturing the next voyage. Whether I set sail on another speedboat of my own construction or a well-charted ship under someone else’s command, I will set sail again.

And that, for now, is enough.

TL;DR, or for those who lack an appreciation of metaphor:

  • I stepped away from on March 1st after almost five years building the company alongside my co-founder Mike Schneider.
  • First is doing incredibly well, residential real estate is more exciting than ever, and I couldn’t be more proud of what we built and the team that built it. I can’t say thank you enough!

As Mike always says, Onward!



Jess Martin

Indie researcher inventing tools for a better tomorrow. Founder, Previously Lambda School, Relevance, UNC-CH CS.