The why is more important than the what.
Something struck a chord with me while listening to KPCB’s latest Ventured Podcast about pitching venture capital firms. In the show, KPCB partners Randy Komisar and Eric Feng discussed how they evaluate startup pitches.
The one thing that stood out to them, and has stuck with me, was how many startups forget a “why” slide — as in why the founders decided to start their particular company and why now, not just what the company solves/does.
The why is more important than the what…
You could say I literally bet my life on this belief.
In short, this is why I spent the last few years quietly concepting, building, rebuilding, rebuilding (again!), and, soon, launching my new company—despite two major distractions: 1) being forced to face my imminent death, and 2) an equally hard and life-threatening battle with PTSD that followed.
Before I turned 30, I was diagnosed with a rare heart problem that critically threatened my mortality. I technically died 7 times over the next few years.
After months of trials and a couple botched surgeries, I was told my heart was failing faster than expected and given a grim 1% chance of finding a cure. Worse yet, if I didn’t find something fast, I might not live another year.
Yesterday was the anniversary of my post-op checkup, as well as the day we prepared to push the Music Impacts app to the App Store for review. Today seemed as good a time as any to share the story of why I started this company while knowing it might be the last thing I did before I died.
I had months to live.
The idea for Music Impacts came during the darkest point in my life.
A few months after being diagnosed, I realized I had never taken a vacation and dropped everything to travel. I celebrated my 30th birthday in my room at the Cerulean Hotel in Tokyo, alone and sick. It was time to go home.
I came back after over three months on the road, dismantled my company, sold everything I owned—except for the company, because how could I live up to an earn out?—and inadvertently retired.
I had one last team meeting at my house and cried for the first and last time.
I fell into a deep depression. I stared at the wall for hours. I had Matrix-like panic attacks—which are absolutely not recommended when you already have an irregular, 300bpm resting heartbeat—and I would wake up on the floor in a puddle of vomit and, sometimes, blood.
Before all of this started happening, I was an athlete and had the libido of a teenager. Now I couldn’t climb a set of stairs without getting winded and had medications that provided a lovely side effect of erectile dysfunction. For some reason, alcohol counteracted this—unless I got too dehydrated.
I went to the bar nearly every day of the week, and often didn’t leave until after they closed. My monthly bar tab was more than all of my other living expenses combined. It was worth it to not be so emasculated… nor alone.
I had never felt so crippled, even though I was paralyzed earlier in my life.
I turned to numerous sexual exploits to not only prove that I had some sense of control over my manhood, but also so I wouldn’t spend excessive amounts of time alone. I even used my condition to pick up women.
“I have months to live, and don’t want to be alone tonight…
I developed intricate dating systems, and even had two apartments next door to each other at one point. Use your imagination.
I stopped taking my medication. I was ready to die. Even hoped to die…
Music saved my life.
Music was one of the only things that kept me from slipping into morbid thoughts when I was alone. Sure, some songs made things worse, too.
I started thinking about my own history with music. How life would have been different had I followed music in the 90s vs. the dot com. I thought about the music that shaped my relationships, my personality, my identity.
I started thinking about why I started playing music in the first place. Why I got into punk rock as a kid. Why I have felt a hole in my life ever since I gave up playing music. Why I couldn’t feel music anymore, even though it was always on around me and concerts were still a big part of my life.
I thought about how much happier I was before I stopped enjoying music.
And then I started thinking about the music I’d want to hear before I died. Which, with my condition, was something I needed to determine. Fast.
“What is the most important song of your life, and why?”
I started asking this question to friends and strangers at the bar as I searched for my own answer. At first, I used it as a line to pick up women. It was a much smoother way to weave in my “I’m dying” line. It worked well. Really well. One girl even gave me her number while she was on another date.
It didn’t take long before it occurred to me that this was one of the hardest and most intimate questions ever asked—especially if asked by a dying man.
Everyone’s first response was, “wow!” followed by a long pause filled with earnest introspection, and often hours of us discussing all types of music.
Discussing music with strangers was therapy.
With this question, I learned more about total strangers than I knew about some of my closest friends. I also shared more with total strangers than I shared with some of my closest friends. The stories that poured out made people tear up — even me, during a time when I tried to show no emotions, almost to levels that, in hindsight, were borderline sociopathic.
Through these stories, I learned to be empathetic, vulnerable, and affected, during a time when I didn’t want to share anything about my condition with anyone, much less my feelings, my fears, or my tears. Our collective stories were so raw, so emotional, so honest during a time when I was essentially and, maybe, pathologically lying about my physical and mental conditions.
The truth is: I was terrified. I was alone. I wasn’t ready to die, even though I knew it was inevitable. I acted as though I was having the time of my life.
Or at least I thought I did…
My friend Natalia tagged me in this photo on FB. Apparently this blank stare was something of a regular occurrence.
It probably didn’t help that it was taken a day before a surgery.
I was so emotionally closed that I went to the first two surgeries by myself. No family. No friends. Just me and a morbid playlist.
I gave more of myself to strangers than I did my family and friends.
We talked in depth about death, love, sex, war, traveling, careers, having children, childhood, abortions, diseases, dreams, fears, and many life-changing events — all in terms of the music memory of those moments.
I started thinking: why couldn’t I replicate this experience with an app?
Why not? I had nothing else to do.
The first iteration was a morbid and, obviously, personally-motivated one…
The idea behind Waketapes was, essentially, a mixtape service that allowed me… err…you to add audio, video, photos, and text dedications to a playlist to share with family and friends upon your demise. Like, “This song will always remind me of you, Ma. I’ll never forget that time when we…” et al.
Interactive CDs and digital copies with well-designed, customizable liner notes and select social images could also be purchased in memoriam.
It was a living will and testament, requiring people to play the mixtape, or Waketape, at your wake/funeral—like the scene in ‘Love, Actually’ where the deceased requested her loving widower play Bay City Rollers’ Bye Bye Baby at her funeral to the happy-sad amusement of everyone that knew her well.
I still couldn’t decide on the preeminent song that was the most important song of my life, but I had built this playlist, this soundtrack of my life.
And I could have been the first person to close the loop on the platform.
The why is more important than the what.
Needless to say, the Waketapes idea was way too dark and niche. Although it was wrong on so many levels, the idea of combining people’s stories with music was still a winner in my head. There was a meaningful idea in there.
I proved this time and time again simply by asking anyone any question about music. These stories unearthed a ton of knowledge, emotion, and true passion. They weren’t the heavily-manicured digital representations you find on “social networks.” They were completely candid and often awe-inspiring.
Had I carried a camera around, I’m sure they would have made compelling pieces of content. Well, there was that one time with Miranda July…
These whys were reasons for me to live.
These discussions were everything to me. Essentially, they became a bucket list. I realized I had yet to see, do, or hear so many things life had to offer.
I started taking my medication again.
Working on this idea gave me a reason to wake up every morning. It posed significant design, brand, and tech challenges—some of which could even be groundbreaking. It kept me so busy that I didn’t think much about dying.
I stopped binge drinking. I hired my friend as a personal yoga instructor. Then I hired a personal trainer. Then a nutritionist. And other specialists.
I often had to go at a much slower pace, and sometimes I’d pass out, throw up, or rush to the E.R., but I started spending three hours a day in the gym.
I started fighting for my life. I had something to live for again. It showed.
I found peace in the music Krystal played during yoga. I found strength in the music Jared and I played in the gym. And I figured out how to control my thoughts with music. If I hit a dark spot, I could play a song and be okay. If I needed to say something, but couldn’t bear the words, I’d share a song.
I found the most important song of my life. And why. It was an obvious one.
Then things got really scary.
The morning after my second heart surgery, my young, ambitious surgeon threw in the towel. He felt that without a heart transplant, I had about a 1% chance of survival, and with my precarious, 1 of 1 rare disorder, a transplant likely wouldn’t help. Regardless, he wouldn’t risk being the one to kill me.
I texted my closest friend: “Drinks?” She picked me up at the hospital and we went to brunch. I ordered a Bloody Mary. After the first sip, I felt a bad burning sensation across the multiple incision points throughout my groin.
“Um, ouch…” It definitely freaked me out. I rushed to the bathroom to see if I was bleeding out or something, but everything seemed normal. I came back to the table and, to Tami’s dismay, took a sip. Ouch! And another. It burned worse. But I laughed. All I could do was laugh about my whole predicament.
In some ways, I was weaker than ever. In others, I had never felt stronger.
I wasn’t ready to die, but I was prepared. Though being prepared just meant I started pathologically lying again. I no longer lied about about my condition. Or my feelings. Or my fears. Not to my friends. I even told my Ma the truth. But I lied to myself. “You can find a cure”—though every specialist disagreed.
I told people, even strangers that shared stories with me, that I loved them.
Every little thing gonna be alright…
When I found the one doctor that not only was willing to take me on, but was confident they could fix my heart, it was a multi-layered opportunity.
On one hand, he could cure me. On the other, he was in Los Angeles.
Moving to Los Angeles gave me an opportunity to say goodbye to all of my friends, sell everything, and have a good plan for my dog if I didn’t wake up.
I asked my Ma to leave the room with 30 minutes to go before surgery. I put on my headphones, and listened to the most morbid playlist I’ve ever made.
Like drinking the Bloody Mary, it made me laugh. I just sent my Ma out of the room, and it started with Bohemian Rhapsody. Some others include:
I Wanna Be Sedated. (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Tears in Heaven. The Big Sleep. Die Young. If I Die Sudden. Dust in the Wind. And When I Die. You’ll Be in My Heart. Free Bird. And, finally…
Three Little Birds.
I have “trois petits oiseaux en août” tattooed across my chest. My dog’s AKC name was Three Birds in August, or “Auggie” for short. I had groups of three birds and a big ‘3’ in the shape of an eternal flame in the middle of my chest tattooed on me.
My doctor let me finish the playlist before administering the anesthesia. He understood. I closed my eyes, and gave a thumbs up as the last song played.
Why Three Little Birds?
My best friend died in a car crash soon after we graduated. His death destroyed me. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but searching for answers, I asked for a sign that he was okay on the way to his funeral.
Three birds popped into my view against a completely blue August sky.
I became obsessed with three birds. What was the symbolism? It became an obsession. I battled depression for weeks before I got a random call to pick up a gig in Chicago. That month changed me and my life forever.
We had a business together. We had plans for growing the business locally. If he hadn’t died, I likely wouldn’t have moved to Chicago where I spent most of my formative years, built my career, became the man I am today.
One day, at one of life’s many crossroads, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds played while I shot pool in Chicago—“Every little thing gonna be alright…”
I moved to San Diego for a year after that, and helped build the company that is now known as Google Analytics. Everything little thing was alright.
He woke me up mid-surgery.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had heart surgery while awake, but it’s, uh, it’s a different kind of experience… After I came out of my haze, I started looking around the operating room and I spotted what I thought was likely my heart beating on a monitor. Things seemed to move every time my doctor moved.
I excitedly asked him, “are you inside my heart right now?!”
He was. I smiled and observed. It was so cool. Then I heard, “his heart rate is rising” followed by, “Look at that!” as he turned to me and said, “That’s all we needed. We were hoping you’d get excited. It looks everything worked…”
I laughed. This time without irony.
I felt the sting of the anesthesia rushing through my hand and the next thing I remember was waking up as I was being wheeled down the hallway.
I looked up to my doctor and asked, “So, did it really work?”
I full-on cried for the first time since that last team meeting at my house.
And just then, as doors to my left opened, I saw my Ma enter. She was smiling. I gave her a thumbs up, laughed, and screamed, “it worked!”
Two weeks later, I had my post-op checkup, and posted this on Facebook:
But the worst had yet to come.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
You might think that finding a cure would be the end of my struggles. I did. Unfortunately, I still had a loooooong way to go on the road to recovery.
I lived in LA with pretty much nothing but time and ambition. I was lost, yet fearless. I had just faced death and won. But, now what am I going to do?
I wrote some cathartic stories and poems that drummed up some of the stuff that maybe should have stayed buried a little longer… But then I somehow found myself developing and producing TV/Film. I also was working on a project that would help entrepreneurs find a live/work balance and not risk their health like I did. I still had this Music Impacts idea, and 20 others, too.
I started making pretty good headway on a lot of significant, ambitious, legacy-making projects, but then I got a letter from my insurance provider.
I was flagged with a pre-existing condition.
And uncovered a new one: Post-Traumatic Stress.
I started getting medical bills fluctuating between $0 and $2.6MM.
I supposedly had the best PPO in the country, and zero records of any significant health issues, especially not heart-related. That didn’t seem to matter much. I didn’t know whether to pay, fight, or give up.
This changed everything. My livelihood was threatened all over again. My financial freedom slipped away. My ability to self-fund and deliver any of these projects slipped away. I couldn’t afford the team I needed to execute. I wasn’t sure if I could even continue being an entrepreneur, and I had been one all but 18 months since I was a 13 year old hacker. Two decades.
I didn’t have a whole lot of friends or business contacts in LA. Certainly not the depth of relationships I had in Chicago, Portland, or even New York.
I felt like such an emotional drain on my friends that I didn’t feel like I could call anyone and let them know I was suffering more now than before.
I didn’t have my double duty therapists slash trainers, or a Cheers-like bar.
PTSD is no joke. I would wake up in a panic and frantically check my pulse. I sometimes felt like an elephant flopped on my chest if I saw a heart on TV. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t move sometimes. Everything that I buried while I was ignoring my situation came back with a vengeance.
I suffered from ghost flutters and panic attacks off and on for years.
I gained 30 pounds before I started to recover. I picked up boxing again, dropped 20 pounds, and dated a yoga instructor. Then I tore my ACL, my dog died, and I broke up the girl. It started all over again: I gained 40 pounds the next time, grew terrified of doctors, and wanted to die again.
In fact, I don’t think I’d be alive if not for one friend in particular.
Fortunately, LA has a great music scene.
It took a very long time, a little over two years, but I was finally able to fight the insurance company and hustle my way into recruiting a dream team that has finally built the first stage of a product that I have envisioned and developed through, unquestionably, the toughest times of my life.
I’ve been to hell and back, maybe literally, but I never gave up. And won’t.
What is the most important song of your life and why?
Music Impacts has evolved into a social music platform, featuring a first-of-its-kind dynamic podcast that lets fans around the world join artists, celebrities, friends, and strangers, in sharing stories about music by answering a question picked by the guest.
During our beta, people have continued to share deep, intense stories about everything from rape to addiction, as well as a variety of happy topics.
Just like my times at the bar…
By combining stories with music, we’ve created a really interesting music platform that focuses on why people connect to an artist, album, track, or event—which gives people a completely new perspective as they listen to the selected music which follows.
All of these stories aggregate to our artist graph, so you could see why Sigur Ros’ “( )” album is good for coming off a cocaine bender, or why Jay-Z is a great English teacher if you’re an Israeli that just moved to New York City.
Or, you could find a shorter story of why a happy song about three pelicans is the most important song of a man’s life who survived against all odds, and has dedicated his life to collecting meaningful, personal stories about music.
The why is more important than the what.
A preview of Music Impacts Stories:
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