Our Journey to Survival - Prostitution, Trespassing, & Disobedience
It was May 2011. My co-founder, Davide, & I did not have nearly enough money to survive daily life. Through a friend we found out about AirBnB, so we immediately Davide & I decided to rent out both of our rooms and share a futon in the middle of our living room for the next 6 months.
In those days I ended up “sleeping” with my co-founder more than I was sleeping with my girlfriend: as I learned the hard way, not the best way to earn points with a girl! I remember a friend making fun of us and calling us prostitutes (sleeping with each other for money)!
But airbnb was more than just money for us!
Within a short period of time, we ended up hosting close to 40 people from 15 different countries and all kinds of personalities, from a Japanese gangsta-rap-groupie to a Canadian Montessori teacher living in Jamaica to a gay Polish guy who hated other gay guys. Not only airbnb paid for our living cost, but it was an incredible eye-opening cultural experience.
That summer we spent all of our time exploring, researching, and prototyping different startup ideas, and eventually scrapped idea after idea, learning something new each time.
We weren’t getting out very much, so one day, Davide’s girlfriend suggested that Davide and I should crash this Jewish orthodox wedding at her place of work (some fancy hotel).
We thought why not!
I won’t get into the details of that crazy story, butI’ve detailed it all here.
After crashing that wedding, we noticed that many wedding couples of issues collecting the candid photos that guests take with their phones during the wedding.
And voila, our startup idea, Wedding Snap was born!
No Mo’ Money— Nov ‘11
We were really passionate and determined to work on Wedding Snap, but by November, 2011, we had finally ran out of money.
To make matters worse, Davide, my co-founder, had only ten days before his visa expired. We had little left to lose, so we dedicated our last pennies and every last minute of those ten days on a trip to Silicon Valley, to see what is this, so called, Silicon Valley.
As soon as we landed in San Francisco, every day, we searched and scoured events on Eventbrite, Meetup, ….
All of the events were paid, and pretty expensive, so we couldn't afford any of the tickets. The only thing we could do was to find ways to crash the events.
We crashed two to three events per day. Some of them were completely private, and some had ticket prices of $1,000+.
We got so good at it that we even wrote a guide for other people: how to crash any event.
Through a random chain of events, someone we met at an event introduced us to a mentor at 500 Startups. Afterwards we found out that 500 startups is actually a pretty big deal investor in this startup land!
At that point, it became obvious to us that we should crash their office space… which we did a couple of days later! We made some friends and then crashed their demo day (where all startups present to investors) and ended up even sleeping on their office couch that night.
It was a very informative trip. The Silicon Valley Dream seemed promising, but, in the end, we had to go back to Atlanta with our tails between our legs and face reality:
We had failed.
We were broke & Davide would be kicked out by ICE if he didn’t leave soon.
Davide had moved back to the U.S. to pursue his ambitious dreams with me, Years after his graduation from Georgia Tech.
Our journey’s unsuccessful run made me think, not only had I failed myself, but I had also failed a great friend who traveled across the world to pursue his dreams with me.
It was time to say goodbye.
We didn't know if we would ever see each other again. It was a very rough day when I had to drive him to the airport. I was definitely more emotional than his girlfriend.
Selling My Soul — Dec ‘11
Let’s go back — 6 months before, I had graduated Georgia Tech as an Industrial Engineering major. Being the in the top 10% of my class, I had worked very hard to build a great resume with presidencies of 3 different college clubs and 1 corporate work experience.
But none of that came to matter!
I had absolutely ZERO interest in working for “the man.”
I was in love with high-level business strategy, technology products, big picture thinking, and building my own future. The idea of a 9 to 5 job where I’d be looking forward to the end of the day and counting my 401K savings every day would make me sick!
When I graduated, I asked my parents to give me 6 months so I could get my startup, my passion, my dream, up and running. I told them:
If I do not sustain myself in 6 months I would go get a “real job.” — The naive me
Clearly that didn’t work out.
The time had come; I had to go work for “the man!”
I applied to 70 or 80 jobs, got only three interviews.
Even though they all gave me offers, unfortunately, One worse than the other.
I accepted the third offer: a mindless 9-5 , or what was called an “Industrial Engineering” job, where I completed tasks day in and day out, pretending that I was using my brain.
I knew I would continue working on my startup if I took the job, so I did just that. I started focusing less and less on my “work” and more and more on my startup.
I was so determined to leave my job that after work I would go home, eat dinner, go to Starbucks to work on Wedding Snap until Starbucks closed, go home continue working till 2am, go to sleep, wake up at 7am, and repeat. My girlfriend thought I was crazy.
Failure can destroy you, OR it can make you SO FREAKIN’ MAD that you TRY EVEN HARDER!
I felt like I was in the movie the Shawshank Redemption, where Andy spends every day carving out a little piece of the wall with a spoon to make a tunnel out of his prison cell.
Crashing 500 Startups’ Demo Day (False Hope) — Jan ‘12
A week before 500 startups Demo Day in January, 2012, I found a super cheap ticket that took only 12 hours to go from Atlanta to San Francisco. Hence, I decided to fly out there and crash 500's demo day and meet some investors.
Crashing the Demo Day was easy. I told the receptionist that I worked for Twitter and I was there to check the new startups for potential partnerships.
I noticed someone who looked important. I noticed his name-tag and looked him up on LinkedIn, and realized not only is he an investor, but he is a mentor at 500 Startups. He is also into photography and Italy — AMAZING! Guess where my co-founder is from? (Hint: Pasta)
For a second, I start believed in everything my Iranian high-school teacher used to say about miracles: There is a God and he’s sending me a present after this shitty year.
With nothing to lose, except getting kicked out, I went to introduce myself and tell him about my startup (as I learned later, in Silicon Valley they call this “pitching”).
Let’s just say he was severely unimpressed!
We started debating and I felt punches were being thrown at me from all different directions. At that time, we didn't have any traction (a Silicon Valley word meaning a lot of users or revenue) to prove him wrong. I felt like a blind dude getting into the ring with Rocky Balboa!
No fruits came out of that trip.
I slept at 500's office again and hopelessly flew back to Atlanta the next day.
Getting Donald Trumped— Feb ‘12
I had already scheduled another trip to LA and the Valley in mid-Feb (2012).
However, Disaster Struck!
The exact day of my flight to LA, I made a colossal screw-up at work that cost the company $20,000 by ordering some unsellable material for inventory.
I tried calling the seller in Russia, and they wouldn't take it back. I tried sweet-talking the lady, but she literally said, “Go to hell!” (sounded like a Russian mobster accent.)
My boss called me into his office.
I walked in to find my boss, my boss’s boss, and the boss of my boss’s boss all in one room.
I wasn't that important, so something told me this is not good.
Given the $20,000 mistake, my “hard work and passion” for the job, “emergency trip” to SF, and the fact that I was planning to take 9 out of my 10 days of annual vacation (not to mention the additional 3 sick days) within the first 90 days of my job, they fired the “innocent,” right-out-of-college, young, ambitious me.
I knew I was going to quit soon, but I still felt like crap for getting fired.
I got dumped, which wasn't exactly how I envisioned leaving the company.
But, even more, I felt bad for my boss. He was one of those really hard working, nice, quiet guys who enjoyed the stability of his 9-to-5 job.
Earlier that day, I had worried about not having enough time to leave work, pick up my girlfriend, and catch the flight to LA, but now I had extra hours to kill before my flight. My girlfriend later told me she had clued in on my fate as per my text: “Hey don’t worry. I have plenty of time to come pick you up.”
Compromising family, friends, and “Comfort” — Feb ‘12
I knew that getting fired was a trigger for me to move from Atlanta to Silicon Valley immediately.
It took me 5 years of living in Atlanta to finally be able to establish a very close group of friends. I was emotionally devastated that I had to sever ties with the family I had finally built in Atlanta. At my very last Bachata dance performance, I quietly broke the news to them.
One cannot discover new lands unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. -André Gide
Just when you think things can’t get any worse… — March ‘12
With the unexpected loss of my job, I was completely broke. All credit cards were maxed out. None of the 7 other credit cards I applied for gave me a dime of credit.
My last hope was to sell my crappy old Dodge and maybe get 2 grand for it.
Three days before I was planning on selling the car, on my way home from a night working at Starbucks, I stopped for gas. After I filled up the tank, I turned the wheels to exit the gas station, and I noticed the car was not moving.
One wheel turned. The other wheel was determined to stay.
The car’s main transmission frame was broken. It would cost at least another $1500 to fix that. I thought about giving it to the AAA guy who came to tow it for free.
What the f**k am I doing here— March ‘12
Recently, I had read a lot of Paul Graham’s essays. He is like GOD for silicon valley technology startups. When he says jump, people jump.
I read an essay from him about difference between the cultures of different cities, and how different environments can affect your potential for success differently (e.g. you want to be an actor you go to Hollywood). That got me very inspired to move to the heart of the Startup Land to make my dream come true.
I had to be in Palo Alto. So I jumped!
As I find out only after moving there, EVERY THING in Palo Alto costs an arm and a leg plus 3 livers. Luckily I found out that an old middle-school friend had recently gotten into Stanford and was living in a studio in a Stanford dorm.
I got in touch with him for the first time in 10 years and politely asked if I could crash at his place for couple of days until I find my own place.
I ended up living on his 3-foot love-seat for several weeks.
I remember the first time I went to a grocery store to buy some food. I just looked at the prices and almost everything was double the price in Atlanta: “What the f**k am I doing here.”
I only had a couple of Benjamins in my bank and definitely not enough for any sort of real transportation. With no other choice, I borrowed some dough again from my older bankrupt brother to buy a bike.
After finding a good bike to purchase, I was still left with lack of public transportation from Stanford to East Palo Alto to pick up the bike.
I decided to walk there. “Luckily” it started to rain, but I needed to get the bike so I can ride to Y Combinator’s demo day the next day. I had my phone and earphones with me to listen to an audio-book while walking there. My phone died 10 minutes through.
2.5 hours later, I was “happily” on my bike. It was at that time, that I really felt like nothing is working out for me.
Keep Pushing Forward— April ‘12:
After weeks of religiously examining Craigslist’s listings, I finally found the tiniest room in a Palo Alto house for $735 a month.
At the end of March, I managed to again borrow a couple of Benjamins from family members and buy two sponsored blog posts for our startup, Wedding Snap.
I was very excited! These blogs had hundreds of thousands of viewers. I thought this would be our break!
We got two sign ups.
I didn’t want to get a job at that time, so I had to find a way!
After harassing different wedding websites for partnerships, I was finally able to secure a vendor-deal with the Wedding Channel’s Deals website (kind of like Groupon for weddings). The deal opened mid-April and they would feature and sell Wedding Snap for a week. I was trying not to hope for anything anymore so I don’t get disappointed.
But we got super lucky, and Wedding Snap sold $15,000 worth of products in the first week!
The director of deals section at Wedding channel asked me to have a call and show told me that they sold “More [with your product] than any other product since I’ve been working here,”
Money at last! They were so happy with our deal that they actually decided to extend the deal for another week, and we sold another $9k.
Up until that time, Davide was working remotely but full-time with me from mama’s house in Italy. We now had money, and it was finally time for him to come back!
After the wedding channel deal, purchases on our website also sky-rocketed.
We ended up making close to $400k that year. We expanded the team and launched Eversnap a year later.
It always seems impossible until it’s done. — Nelson Mandela
It’s still quite unbelievable to me how things were so dark prior to our Wedding Channel deal.
EVERYTHING was uncertain.
I remember my girlfriend would rent a car every time she would visit me from Atlanta. Just to ride in a car again as opposed to being slapped in the face by thick rain drops on my bike felt like it was my birthday every day.
Sometime it just takes blind dedication to run a marathon full of frustrating uncertainties to find only tiny drops of success (especially in tech startups).
The truth is, in circumstances of extreme uncertainty a lot of people think that they are playing the game of probability, e.g. I have a one in 100 chance of winning. However, as one of my favorite books mentions, champions don’t play probability.
They play calculus: There is a right answer and you will find the way to be that one in 100.
Special thanks to many people who gave me feedback, inspiration, and helped me get this story alive:
Dustyn Bindel — Amazing super detailed feedback on the 1st & worst draft.
Jeff Tong — staying up late night and helping me fix last changes.
Nick O’Neil, title brainstorming.
Damian Madray @ Hunie, crucial title feedback!
Wade V. @ Mattermark, important last min feedback
Matt Mireles @ EasyFridge, Heather @ Salesfolk & Ilya @Mixrank, title feedback
Kumar T, reviewing the very initial draft from my other blog.
& many others who gave me feedback & inspiration on this topic.