Almost a year ago I joined an up-and-coming YC startup called userfox. It wasn’t the easiest decision. I left a well-paid engineering job at a big dotcom that was treating me well and where I liked the people I worked with. A lot. What ultimately made me go for the startup wasn’t the usual “you only live once” bullshit, but the fact that I came too far to not take it all the way. See, I was supposed to be a meat delivery driver in Germany. Most likely residing in one of the many tiny villages around my hometown — communities that usually don’t consist of more than 300 people and where being an entrepreneurial-minded software engineer is pretty much not even on the list of possibilites.
So how did I get here?
I wish I could pin down the exact moment I decided that I fancy computers. It must have been around third or fourth grade, because I dedicated my newest skill set, writing and basic math, to write down what computer system I’d like and how much the total cost would turn out to be. Surely I needed a monitor, mouse, and keyboard — also a few floppy disks would be nice. Printer, that’s optional.
So I would sit there in the evenings, showing my mom the computer configurations I had put together from a Quelle (Sears) catalog and she would try to convince me that I did not need such things. Eventually though she gave in and told me I could buy one with my confirmation money at age 14. Years away. I was displeased, but kept my faith.
Looking back, I think my parents simply considered computers nothing but expensive toys. My stepdad worked a construction job all his life and mom was employed by the local butcher store chain, where she was slowly making her way up to store manager. Neither of them had the biggest interest in technology and having one of their three children ask for an expensive computer was the last thing they wanted to deal with. And besides, kids ask for things all the time. But my request wouldn’t die.
A few years later they would eventually buy me a used Commodore Amiga 500 that one of dad’s co-workers was trying to get rid of. It didn’t come with a monitor; instead it had this oddly shaped box that enabled me to hook it up to my little TV. By the time they got me this thing everyone else had a Intel Pentium chip and Windows 95. But I didn’t care, it was my first real computer and I couldn’t be happier. I would stay up all night trying to code BASIC and play video games on it. Mostly video games though. Oil imperium was amazing.
So finally confirmation rolls around and it was time to upgrade. It still took a bit of convincing but I was finally allowed to walk into a store and buy a brand-new Pentium II 350Mhz system, monitor included this time. Needless to say, this machine consumed every bit of spare time I had. Three years went by, years I spent writing text based video games, to-do list apps and my first yearlong project, a 2D RPG that I ended up distributing on self-burned CD-ROMs. The first product I ever shipped.
All this time writing code and designing video game graphics eventually landed me a spot with a three-year computer science degree program at a small software company. JAVA was hot back then and super popular in the enterprise space. So I ended up learning how to build web-based software, even before learning how to drive a car (the legal driving age in Germany is 18). Looking back at that, I think I was pretty lucky to end up in such a position. This type of hands-on degree program is common in Germany, but not for something as high-level as software engineering. This was only the third year they offered it, thanks to the dotcom boom.
After graduating there was no budget at the firm to keep me on. The bubble burst and I thought now was as good a time as any to go out and see the world. Maybe start freelancing a bit, to see how that goes. But before I could even go find new opportunities my mother had already arranged a job for me as a meat truck delivery boy. So there I was, in white overalls, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to go deliver meat for the company my mom had been working for the past 20 years. Making money I wasn’t able to make at home with my fancy computer science degree.
This was never supposed to be a permanent gig, but I know my parents hoped it would turn into one. Local employer, steady pay, and people always have to eat, so I would never be out of a job.
But I couldn’t stop building things. I would come home from my shift exhausted, but would always end up coding a website, some Visual Basic application, or learning more about Photoshop. A few months in, I left the meat business to start my own web design shop, working on projects for small clients in Hawaii, Canada, and Germany. I remember running ads for my services as eBay auctions, “web design for a flat fee” or something along those lines. I had no idea how to price things either, which was bad for my balance sheet, but great for skill development. My cheap pricing would sometimes have me working on ten different projects at once. Hardly leaving me with any time to play Counterstrike.
Picking the right industry
My little web design operation enabled me to be a baller on a budget. I was able to spend some time overseas since I could basically work from anywhere. I liked Honolulu and London, mostly because I had friends and clients there, that I wanted to visit. But being a web designer seemed boring after a while or maybe I was just getting burned out. I wanted to evolve and tackle more interesting stuff. Basically making the jump from being in the service industry to one that was product focused. Building a single product that was more sophisticated seemed way more attractive than working on 40 small websites. So I started building side projects, small SaaS apps for other web designers. Invoice software and tools to help freelancers find remote work, stuff I wish existed and wanted to use myself. Nothing turned out to be a huge success, but it made me aware of the startup industry. An industry filled with people that are like me, passionate about building things.
To figure out more about Startup Land I attended YC Startup School in 2010. It was a great first visit to Silicon Valley and out of all the amazing talks that day, it was something that Paul Graham said that stuck in my head for a while.
“If you can’t start a startup,
the second best thing you can do is to join one.”
I was based in Dallas at the time and on my flight home I tried thinking of local startups, but couldn’t come up with any. What Dallas had to offer though was a few established Dotcom companies. So I figured if I can’t join and learn from an early-stage startup right now, I could at least find out what the end result looks like. A few weeks later I wrote my first lines of code for Match.com where I stayed for almost two years and met some amazing people.
Today I still work with one of them and another sharp mind on building userfox. Living and working in Silicon Valley, slowly becoming an established part of this epic industry. Not that there is anything wrong with driving a meat truck for a living, but if a different passion has you up all night writing code, it’s hard to be good at early morning deliveries.