The Reality of Breaking Into Startups
The First Product You Build Is Yourself
From the Social Network to Silicon Valley, the media frenzy surrounding the nature of startups has taken on an idealized life of its own. What many people don’t realize is, proving that you have what it takes to work as a Software Engineer without a Computer Science degree is challenging. Friendship, relationships, overcoming fear, mental health, fitness, reflection, and execution are all essential during this process.
You may have already heard the story about my journey up to this point. What you don’t know is that a big part of what kept me afloat during that entire experience was my bond with the Die Hard twins, Artur and Timur Meyster, and a Quarterback turned hacker named Mike.
This is the ongoing true story and lesson of our journey upward.
In startups, everything starts out cold.
As we sat there in my drafty apartment, staring at our screens, I was surprised that my Ukrainian friend’s hands were shaking as his 6 ft. 1 in. frame hulked over his tiny blank screen, terrified about how he was going to write that first e-mail that would dictate the rest of our lives.
Reaching out on any level can be daunting if you don’t know someone. As we sat and debated our approach to writing the message, Timur’s twin brother Artur stumbled in shivering and confused at our trepidation. I don’t know if it was the temperature in the apartment, or our email that was ice cold, but Artur went on to scoff at our predicament and I later learned that reaching out to someone blindly was not the first time that a cold opportunity changed the fate of the Meyster twins.
Backing up, Artur and Timur emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in middle school. They didn’t speak English, but they had a strong foundation in math. Seeing the potential in his twin grandchildren, their grandfather bullishly walked his family up to the lobby of one of the most prestigious Jewish schools in New York City, in the middle of a semester, and brokered their entrance without knowing a word of English. But that story’s for another time…
So back to the tundra — or our blank white screens — this email wasn’t to just anybody. This email was to a member of the PayPal Mafia, a select group of super entrepreneurs (Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, David Sacks, Roelof Botha, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, Keith Rabois, Dave McClure, Jeremy Stoppelman, etc.) that would go on to create several companies worth over $50 billion collectively.
The truth of the matter is, at this point of our lives, we didn’t have much in common with any of these people. So we set out to find out what we did have in common and one name stood out…
Max Levchin, who was also from Ukraine.
This lit a fire under Timur and he immediately realized that Max Levchin would understand Timur’s struggle of having to acclimate to a new country, a new city, a new career, and a new job.
The fire began to grow as he worked furiously to find more research that served as kindling on YouTube, Google, and Twitter. Seven hours later, he pressed the “Send” button and the e-mail was no longer cold.
The room began to thaw…
Hotlanta — 2 Years Earlier
In investment banking, a meeting over a great Caffè Americano can put you on the path towards a great job, a great career, or even a multi-million dollar deal — the quintessential American Dream. This is what we were living as a product of our overpriced college degrees at the top of a hill surrounded by the floor to ceiling windows of our investment bank on a hot day in Atlanta.
This is the place where I first met Artur Meyster, at the top of the world, dressed in his suit, gazing out of the black glass windows, looking like a Die Hard villain. I had no idea that there were actually two of them, twin first generation products of the American Dream. Both were established in their careers, but crumbling in their sense of well-being. I connected with them and we all became fast friends not just because of the 1’s and 0’s in finance, but also because of the possibilities of the 1’s and 0’s in the code that has been forming the fabric of our current society.
Clearly, we were at the top of a hill. The problem was that it was the wrong hill.
There are two ways down. You can walk down a hill, or find the nearest edge and jump off. The choice for us was obvious.
One after another, we purchased one-way tickets from Hotlanta to the damp and fiscally impractical cold of San Francisco, leaving our high-powered jobs and cushy bank accounts.
This Path is No Joke
While I focused on the Sales and Business Development aspect of breaking into startups, Artur and Timur took a different approach and traded in their suits and ties for a military cot in the corner of two of the most grueling coding bootcamps in the United States (Hack Reactor and App Academy).
With a passion for physical fitness and a strong desire to learn the product side of entrepreneurship, this duo quickly morphed into the Hans and Franz of the hacker world. While I snicker as I write this, I also have to recognize that this path is no joke.
Harnessing their fierce passion for bodybuilding, the twins were able to apply the core fundamentals of physical fitness to coding. Picture 12-weeks of basic training, strapped to a computer screen, for 90 hours per week.
That’s how Artur met Mike, a quarterback-turned-nerd that was fighting in the trenches of unaccredited hackers of San Francisco.
Mike played several other sports including baseball and basketball, and also understood the healthy lifestyle that is required to succeed in startups.
Like me, Mike moved out here alone, but understood the importance of a team and we held each other accountable to the highest levels both mentally and physically.
Artur, Timur, and our new friend Mike graduated at the top of their classes which didn’t guarantee them much going up against the entire fleet of top engineers with Computer Science degrees gearing toward the Tier 1 startups.
With basic training finally over, the Hacker QB and the Meyster twins were ready for battle to navigate the landmines in the world of engineering recruiting filled with whiteboarding exercises, coding challenges, phone interviews, etc.
My Die Hard compadres were now fighting for strategic footing on the right hill. The only problem was, there was no heat of the battle, it was cold, which brings us back to that e-mail…
Max’s response gave Timur’s fire the oxygen it needed to burn down the preconceived notions that they were taught about this industry.
It turns out that this world of 1’s and 0’s is really just like anything else in life, it’s based on relationships.
While this is a reality that every person in startups needs to face, the truth is that there is a very accessible battle plan out there called the Breakout List.
The Breakout List helps aspiring individuals choose a company where they will be exposed to the best people and the best opportunities.
I reached out to the founder on Twitter to set up a meeting between the four of us where we began to identify the startups that we were passionate about.
We were off…but this time we weren’t simply reaching out to recruiters, we were actively building relationships with people that were also decision makers.
Although we continued to send out e-mails voraciously, we realized that our network became more powerful when we found ways of bringing people closer together in person (Major 🔑 ).
72 and Sunny
By the time San Francisco’s warm Indian Summer rolled around, I was finding ways to unite my colleagues through the abundant presence of nature that encompasses every square foot of the Bay Area. It’s imperative that when nature hands us moments like these, that we all stop and take a break. This is something that goes back thousands and thousands of years with the creation of the Sabbath, something that is very important to me.
This is not directly related to business, but the principle of setting aside time for reflection every week to focus on spiritual renewal and fortifying meaningful relationships is crucial because the ones who matter most, may not be there when you get to the top of the hill (Another One 🔑 ).
But when Monday rolls around, this hike becomes all business. By Mid-September, Timur and Artur embodied their grandfather’s chutzpah to get software engineering jobs at Blippar and Funding Circle. Mike leveraged his growing network to get a software engineering job at Lending Club. Through all of my relationships and shared experiences, I was able to be introduced to Honor, a company that was uniquely positioned to captivate both my passion and my desire to advance more rapidly.
While I’m thrilled about my new responsibilities, the countless late nights, early mornings, hot days, cold nights, e-mails, phone calls, coffee meetings, hackathons, BART train rides, workout routines, etc. allowed me to accumulate the social capital while I was at AltSchool to move into an Advisory role when I assumed my new position with Honor.
We are all products of the people who help us get to the places we want to be. For me, there are so many people along the way that have shaped the person that I have become and the journey that I’m currently on.
By October, we settled into our house together. Artur, Timur, Mike, and I had finally reached Base Camp One and we could feel the incline under our feet…
We were on our way up the right hill.
- Never underestimate the power of a compelling story. If you have a compelling story, complete strangers will go out of their way to help you.
- In our minds, there’s no such thing as a “Cold E-mail”. Cold just means lazy and you didn’t put in the work to do research in order to build rapport (warm it up) before hitting the “Send” button.
- Don’t climb the wrong hill. The view from your current hill might be nice, but think about your purpose and take the risk of climbing back down to restart if you aren’t climbing the highest hill (your life’s goal).
- Working in startups is mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. Take care of yourself to endure the climb.
- All businesses are about relationships and the tech industry is no different.
- Take time to reflect and do something outside of your normal routine.
If you’re interested in learning how to code, all of the resources that were used for basic training can be found at breakingintostartups.com
People say it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. We’re on that journey and it’s a privilege to share it with the world as it unfolds. As we become more connected to each other through this ever increasing web of technology, personal storytelling has become more critical than ever before.
The Legend of Josh Kahn
Everyone’s perspective is unique. The members of this house had a clear idea of how this story should be written and then on a cool night in February my friend, Josh Kahn, crossed paths with the Everest house.
Josh is a master storyteller, filmmaker, and marketer who blew away our preconceived notions about how a black cellist (more on this later), two die hard twins, and a quarterback-turned nerd came to Silicon Valley.
By working with us to artfully discover our voice and distilling the pivotal moments in a web of countless triumphs and tribulations, the framework for this blog post came together in less than a night. Without his wisdom, wit and unifying perspective, this story would not be the same. And at the end of the day, sometimes that’s really just what you need, a new perspective.
At Everest, all perspectives are welcome.
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Finally, shout out to Front and Center for helping us with the Cover Image for this post and thank you to everyone that provided feedback.
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