Life is not waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning how to dance in the rain.
By Ryan Alshak
We all like to believe we’re unique. I’m not sure what part of our human nature requires this belief, but I’m fairly certain we all secretly think we’re the star of our own Truman Show.
If starting a company was one circle on a Venn diagram and dealing with your mom’s brain tumor was another, I just assumed there was zero overlap.
So I kept to myself. I figured relating was impossible and at the end of the day we are all fighting our own battles. This just happened to be mine.
I believe there is great strength and honor in silence. I took pride in always being there for others, but never needing others to be there for me. That’s the way Middle Eastern boys are raised. There is no direct translation for the phrase “I love you” in Arabic. I always found that telling.
I also believe there is nothing worse than people who complain. Stephen Hawking said it himself: “when you complain, nobody wants to help you.” So I wasn’t going to be one of those people. Even writing this now, having no idea if I’ll ever show this to anyone, makes me wildly uncomfortable.
Then I serendipitously came across a First Round Review article when preparing for our first company retreat in December. The article starts with Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit) talking about, of all things, his mom. Three months after Reddit launched, his mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
In one of those soft, fluffy Hollywood moments, I was reading someone articulate and vocalize what I refused to for so long. I had goosebumps all over. Never did the realization that I wasn’t a snowflake feel so comforting.
And it made me realize that talking about hardship wasn’t weak, but quite the opposite, it showed true strength.
Alexis talked about how he found himself fueled by his mom. How he’d fly home often to spend time with his parents. How telling her that Reddit had sold was the perfect culmination of her 23 years of love and support. You could tell that not only did he survive the experience, but he flourished because of it.
“For the last 10 years, nothing that ever happened to me felt like an actual crisis. Everything was manageable. I had been through the worst and nothing else in the tech world could compare.”
Hearing Alexis tell his story gave me the courage to write mine.
I hate tech blog posts. They mostly feel like an excuse for the author to self-aggrandize. “Four Ways SaaS Companies Can Scale Without Building a Product” and “How to Growth Hack Without Putting in the Work.” Read a book.
But Alexis’s vulnerability and humanization — now that’s powerful.
So here’s my feeble attempt to share my story and experience over the past year, and maybe let one person out there find solace in the fact they aren’t a snowflake.
The Origin Story of Ping
I was a corporate lawyer for three years. And as far as being an associate in a law firm went, my job was as good as it got. I was a single guy, making north of $200K, living in the Hollywood Hills, driving a BMW convertible, staffed on a case that had me traveling first-class and staying in five-star hotels all over the world, whenever I wanted.
And yet, I was the furthest thing from satisfied. I always felt like an impostor. Despite the perception from the outside, none of what I had was because of anything particularly special I accomplished. I wasn’t some sort of amazing, Mike Ross-type lawyer. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and people generally enjoyed working with me. That was it.
I was always jealous of the partners at the top of the pyramid. The ones with the books of business, the deep relationships with their clients, the ones that were the backbone of the firm. Every firm, no matter how big, has just a handful of these partners. The rest are partners in name only.
I was even more jealous of the people around me who had built businesses. I graduated UC Berkeley in 2009 and saw quite a few of my best friends buck the corporate world and have the balls to turn an idea into a company. How fucking cool. These are the artists of our day.
I was a commodity. And I knew it’d take me fifteen years to become differentiated. So I quit.
One of my favorite quotes is: “if your path is paved, you’re living somebody else’s dream.”
It was time to put on my construction hat and start paving.
One thing traveling so frequently afforded me was optionality. I was able to bill my monthly target in about two weeks because of the long hours on-site.
So in the free time I had stateside, I decided to pursue a crazy idea. And without getting into how the sausage was made (a story in of itself), I teamed up with business partners, started ideating, and with my two right feet, I stumbled on a newfound purpose in life.
The Origin Story of Mom
Those that know me will tell you I am my mother’s son.
My dad (more on him later) is my role model and hero. He taught me how to be a man.
My mom is my angel. She taught me how to love.
Every time I smile, dance, joke, laugh, it’s because of her.
We have always been close. But maybe not in the way most moms and sons are. Mom was a world-class physician who worked my whole life. In fact, it was her mom who spent the most time raising me. My grandma drove me to and from school, made my every meal, and even wiped my ass until I was 12 (now that’s love).
I asked my mom a couple years back why she always went to my brother’s sporting events but never mine. “Because he’s good and you weren’t” she told me laughing.
That’s my mom. Never has there been a mom who loved her sons more. I always knew that. We didn’t need to talk every day, never needed affirmation from each other, we just knew.
After graduating Cal, I moved back home and worked in investment banking. It was 9pm and my dad called me asking where I was. Working I told him in that piss ant tone we save for the ones we love the most. I need you to come home.
There was my family, all huddled in the living room with their closest friends. What’s wrong? I asked. But I already knew.
Mom had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
I went numb. I robotically walked over to her, gave her a kiss, and told her we’d get through it. I then went to my room and broke down.
My 16-year-old (at the time) brother then walked in. This is the one person in the world I love most. I prided myself on being his role model. I coached his basketball and football teams, tutored him, drove him to dates, you name it. That day, he held me as I cried, and told me he’d take care of everything. That was the day my little brother became my person.
Mom had a full craniotomy and the recovery was brutal. As would become a theme in my life, I never really talked about it. I was just starting law school at USC and nobody knew. I internalized everything. The doctors were able to remove 90% of the tumor during surgery, and she had radiation administered to kill the rest.
I’ll never forget walking outside Cedars Sinai during the eight-hour surgery, listening to Kanye’s Hey Mama on loop, praying to God that he’d “let the whole world see her dancing feet” just one more time.
I got through 1L year and my angelic and resilient mother got through Act I.
Starting a company is no joke. People constantly romanticize the startup world and Silicon Valley. All we are privy to are the fundraising rounds, the acquisitions, the IPOs. The outcomes. But never the process.
The notion of an overnight success is bullshit. Every “overnight” takes ten years.
I officially went all-in on the startup in mid-2016.
I replaced first-class flights with Greyhound buses, five-star hotels with my brother’s futon, and my six-figure salary with zero income for nine months (and a whopping $1,256/mo after that).
I also started becoming a man. I replaced drunken nights with reading. I replaced dating with networking. And I somehow became responsible for twelve other human beings.
Eric, Matt, Janesh, Kourosh and I decided to devote our entire lives to automate timekeeping. An odd mission statement for sure, but we were (and very much still are) obsessed. I won’t bore you with the pitch but we knew if we could execute, we’d build one of those special companies that rarely come around.
And so two engineers, a lawyer turned designer, a wealth manager and I were off to the races. We were a motley crew who had never built a company before, and we failed, over and over again. But we never quit. We never lost faith. Never lost direction. And most importantly, we never lost respect for each other. And we always had fun.
We also had people in our corner who were the bumpers in our bowling lane. They’d let us make mistakes but made sure we never threw a gutter ball. They still do in fact. To everyone who believed in us when you had zero reason to, thank you. And to Niket and Michael, words will never be enough.
In the thick of everything, mom wasn’t doing too hot.
Immediately after interviewing for YC (twice) and getting rejected, and after interviewing at UC Berkeley’s accelerator Skydeck (twice) and getting in, I hopped on a flight back to LA to spend the weekend with mom at the hospital. I have fallen asleep to the cadence of her vital signs more times than I care to count.
The tumor, which had been a supporting actor over the past seven years, became the antagonist again.
We were told about a neurosurgeon at Washington University in St. Louis that had pioneered a brand new procedure called LITT that would attack the tumor “non-invasively” using a laser. This was good news. The symmetry of my new life in tech, and technology saving my mom’s life was not lost on me.
So for two weeks in February of last year, me, mom, dad and Mark moved our lives to St. Louis to knock this thing out once and for all.
There was one moment that always sticks out. It was two days before the surgery and there was music playing at a bar near the hospital. We had just finished up Valentine’s dinner and I dragged my mom inside to dance. I will never forget her smile that night. How a woman could laugh from her core 48-hours before brain surgery was beyond me. And still is. That is the woman who raised me.
When everyone tells you the most important decision you can make professionally is who you work with, this was why. I tried as best as I could to stay in the loop on everything going on with Ping, but my better halves made sure I could focus on my most important job — making mom smile.
Déjà vu. I hate waiting rooms. So there I was, pacing outside Barnes-Jewish Hospital, praying I’d see that smile one more time, this time with 2Pac’s Dear Mama on loop.
Mark wrote a Facebook post that day. It ended “You are the fire we refuse to let get extinguished.” That was it.
The recovery was once again brutal. But we were told the surgery was a success. And she smiled. We had gotten through Act II.
After a year of ideating, building, iterating, researching, scratching and clawing, we had our MVP and were heading to London for a ten-week program with the goal of closing our first global law firm.
I had been to London many times before as a lawyer but I will never forget staring at the London Eye, with Kourosh by my side, realizing that the only reason we were living in that moment was because of what started in my head, and because four guys took the insane jump with me. It was the most gratifying feeling I had ever felt. I felt accomplished.
And proud. Proud of my brothers-in-arms. Proud of myself. But more so than anything, proud of mom. She kept fighting and pushing to get better so I could live out my dream. I may have been 6,000 miles away from her that day, but she was in my every heartbeat.
Life is an equilibrium. It’s basic physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s why most people with the highest of highs experience the lowest of lows. It’s just Mother Nature evening the playing field.
I have the most incredible group of friends you can imagine. This includes a group from Berkeley that will become the next PayPal Mafia.
One of these friends, the aforementioned Niket, at the ripe age of 23, founded and sold his company to Google for many millions. He was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer one year later.
Another of these friends, Michael, was the first designer at Nest, that sold to Google for many billions. Within a year, his girlfriend (now wife) was diagnosed with Stage-3 breast cancer.
This isn’t coincidence.
Most people live a relatively tempered life, measured ups, measured downs. My life has always be a Sine wave. Same with my friends.
Something is wrong and Eric won’t tell me, I told Kourosh after one of our stand-ups.
Eric, whose relationship to me I can’t put in words so I won’t try, was quiet on every one of our calls that week. Eric is anything but quiet.
As Kourosh and I were flat hunting in London, quite literally over the moon with the prospect of spending three summer months in London working on your baby with your best friend, I got a call from my brother.
Mom’s back in the hospital. The tumor was exploding and she either had to get emergency surgery or she was gone.
It was only three months later.
Eric had known for a week.
That feeling of numbness again. Poor Kourosh stared at me as I stood there dumbfounded. I walked into the flat, met with the owners, went into autopilot mode and nobody was the wiser. That night I booked the first flight home while yelling at an estate lawyer that I didn’t give a fuck what happened to her assets.
Heathrow to LAX never felt so long. I went straight to the hospital, luggage and all, camped up in mom’s hospital room and wouldn’t leave for a week. At night, after visiting hours ended and everyone had to leave, I would set up shop in the vending machine room and sneak in every hour to make sure she was still breathing. Finally, on the third night, the nurses realized I wasn’t going anywhere and they let me sleep on a chair in her room.
I was ready to let her go. I didn’t want her to have to go through another surgery. More Chemo. More Radiation. More Pain. I told my dad and brother we needed to have the quality of life conversation. We got into a huge fight.
My dad is a fighter. He grew up in Tartus, Syria. Went to medical school in Damascus. Moved to the US by himself. Worked as a valet for three years in San Francisco while he took the US medical boards. He has fought, and won, his entire life. He’d be damned if his wife was the first battle he lost.
So she was rushed into her third brain surgery.
Charlie Munger says there are about 15–20 decisions that we make in a lifetime that ultimately matter. The rest is just noise. It’s an oddly comforting way to look at life. It’s estimated we make 35,000 decisions a day. So the truth is, very little that we decide matters. Until it does.
I was holding mom’s hand a couple days post-surgery and she looked at me and said “I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to go.” I looked back at her, squeezed her hand and told her I’d be right next to her the entire time.
Dad walked in. I knew mom would tell him the same thing she had just told me so I stepped outside to let them talk. I was now mentally preparing for losing my light. Half an hour later, I saw dad walk out the room crying. I knew he was going through the same mental gymnastics that I was.
But he wasn’t.
I walked back in the room and mom seemed to have some life pumped back in her. What the hell happened? I asked her. She told me she told dad she was going to go.
“Okay. But I’m coming with you.”
If you’ve ever met my dad, you’d know he wasn’t talking metaphorically. It was as literal as literal gets. Dad would go wherever mom goes. Even if that means off the earth.
“What about the kids?” my mom asked. “They will be fine. But I’m not staying here without you. So if you go, I’m going too.”
That was the moment mom decided to keep fighting. That was definitely one of her 15–20 decisions.
When somebody is sick, they get all the attention, prayers and support. Appropriately so. They are, after all, the one suffering. But spouses rarely get factored into the equation.
My dad growing up was very much a Middle Eastern dad and husband. He loved his kids and wife to his marrow but he was tough. He wasn’t the dad you see on sitcom TV. He was the patriarch you read about in Sapiens. He was the rock.
Mom’s sickness has shattered that rock. Dad has tried everything and given every ounce of himself to get mom back to health and nothing has worked. He has slipped into depression multiple times.
It’s my turn to be his rock.
If you ever read this, know everything I do is to carry your name as far as my body and mind will possibly let me.
I’ve had a first row seat to what true love is. It isn’t romantic. It isn’t beautiful. Hell, it’s fucking brutal. It’s what nobody thinks about when they swipe right. Or when they check a box off their arbitrary checklist. But it’s the purest form of human connection we can ever experience. I’ve watched my dad break himself down to build his wife up. It is the ultimate sacrifice. It is the most beautiful thing I will ever see. My dad loves my mom. I get to witness that every day.
I am no one to give advice. Especially on relationships. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this experience, it is find the person who will love you most when you are at your lowest. Anyone can love you when you’re healthy, beautiful and smiling. Only one person will love you more when you’re the exact opposite.
Life Goes On
When you have responsibilities, you own them. I had a team of twelve to take care of and their lives didn’t stop just because mine did.
Those long days and nights in the hospital I read. Obstacle is the Way is the book that resonated most. Everyone has obstacles on their path. The weak give up. The good find another road. The best find a way around them. The ones we read books about use those obstacles as their secret weapon and turn them into their new path.
A week after the surgery, we had Demo Day at UC Berkeley. 200 investors. A full two-weeks of nothing but prep for every other CEO.
My prep was memorizing the beeping of mom’s vitals and praying to God he’d let her have one more day.
I hopped on a flight to Oakland. Booked it to Berkeley. Had no idea what I was doing, where I was, what I was going to say. But I had a responsibility to the team and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to own it. I don’t think I have ever been as nervous as I was standing off stage waiting to present.
But right before I went on, I closed my eyes, and thought about mom. And it hit me. She was my superpower. I came from her, and if she can get through brain surgery three times, and chemo, and radiation, I sure as hell can get through this. And a peace fell over me.
In that moment, mom became my new path.
I know it sounds like bullshit, but I actually had an out-of-body experience where I was watching myself pitch. Mom was carrying me through the entire thing. I walked off stage, found a corner, and broke down. It was the first time I showed any emotion in front of the team. “I know, pitching can be really nerve-racking but you were amazing” one of the program directors told me. If she only knew.
I immediately hopped on a flight and went straight back to the hospital.
Ray Dalio has a perfect analogy about running a business. He compares it to a sport. When you first try it, it’s hard because you suck. Then you suck less but it’s still just as hard because the competition gets better and better. And it’s always like that. “The Olympic athlete finds his sport to be every bit as challenging as the novice does.”
We are live in our global law firm. The sign “One. Big. Firm” that adorned our office wall for a year has been taken down and replaced. Now I have to go raise a couple million bucks and convince a bunch of investors, who have no idea who I really am, why they should believe in me. I want to tell them the truth. Because I have a superpower nobody can ever take from me. Because I have lived through hell over the past year and I’m still standing. And so is Ping. Mom has made it certain that I can’t fail.
Money for me is only a means to an end. That end is starting a philanthropy and putting my mom in charge of it. And building a hospital in Damascus and putting my dad’s name on it. And justifying everyone’s decision who took a chance on me. This is my life’s work and I am going to do anything it takes to see it through. I could care less what obstacle life throws at the company. Every obstacle will just become our new path.
That’s why they should invest in me.
But I don’t tell them any of this of course. I share with them the vision, the financial projections, the pipeline. Ping is their business. Mom is mine. Their loss.
I wish my story had a happy ending. Mom hasn’t been able to walk since the surgery back in May. She’s in constant pain. When I’m not in the Bay, I’m at home. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between LA and SF for almost a year to be with her and dad as much as I possibly can. I work by myself in a coworking space. I gave up the house in the Hills. I lie to my friends on Friday and Saturday nights that I’m too busy to go out. The truth is, I’d rather put her to bed.
We pray every night. It is the single best part of my day. When she prays, she never prays for herself. She only prays for everyone around her.
It’s not easy. Dealing with a million fires throughout the day. Getting home at 10pm only to immediately enter an hour-and-a-half routine getting mom ready for sleep.
But I don’t resent this tumor. I hate what it’s done to her body and most of all what it’s done to dad. But the tumor has made me love mom in a way most people will never experience.
Same with my dad. Every day, day in and day out, without praise or adulation, he’s there by her side. He gives her every pill, every shot, every cream, every oil, every piece of himself. He may cry now but he is manliest person I’ve ever known. I have my North Star as a husband and father.
On the worst days, I allot myself one tear. It comes out after I’ve made her visualize playing with me and Mark’s kids. After I’ve made her say “I am going to be okay” (I stole this from Michael and Jeannette). After she’s closed her eyes and fallen asleep. After I’ve kissed her beautiful forehead and told her I’ll see her tomorrow. It’s on my short walk from her room to mine. I let one tear fall.
That tear isn’t filled with sadness. It’s filled with love.
I have a million more stories. Some are heartbreaking. My grandma, in the middle of all of this, was herself diagnosed with cancer. My baby brother was rushed to the ER a couple weeks back in what was single-handedly the scariest night of my life.
But most are heart filling. I broke in 2018 swaying gingerly to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect with mom. I love messing with her when she’s high off all the CBD oil I’m pumping her with. I’m obsessed with watching her brush her teeth as the toothpaste drools out of her mouth.
We scheme everyday on how I’m going to to convince any girl in her right mind to marry me. There is no better hug in the world than the one I get when I’m back from another work trip. Her face when I told her Ping was live and working. The “I love you so much” she tells me every night knowing she means every word. The “I love you more” I get to tell her, knowing I mean every syllable.
I have no idea what will happen in the future. But I do know I am untouchable. You want to tell me no a hundred times? Great. I now know to ask a hundred and one times. Life or death deal at work? Nope. I deal with that at home every day. We have a massive problem? Perfect. It implies there’s a solution.
I am going to give mom Act IV. That’s my purpose. And Ping is going to get me there. And the best day of my life will be when I get to look her in the eyes and say: we made it.
I have no idea how to end this. Then recently I mentioned Alexis’ article to one of my closest friends. She told me to look up NPR’s How I Built This podcast and listen to the episode that featured Reddit. I listened to it after I wrote everything you just read. I’ll let Alexis finish things off.
[Three months after launching Reddit] my mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And you go from feeling invulnerable at twenty-one or twenty-two and months into starting a business and feeling like you were going to take over the world. And then being really hit in the stomach and realizing no, this is real life. And I knew at some point, I had an amazing life up until that point, very very lucky, and I knew at some point the comeuppance would come, I just didn’t think it’d happen all at once.
And I’ll never forget the first meeting I had back with my mom, the first words out of her mouth were “I’m sorry.” She felt so bad because she got cancer. That is the kind of woman she was that she was always thinking of me, of other people ahead of herself. And that in a lot of ways came to define my entire experience at Reddit. It still to this day is imbued in what Reddit means to me, because it is the best of her. I know that because of everything she gave me in confidence, in motivation, and support, and unflinching love, that I could never fail, that Reddit could never really fail because she released me of any of that concern. Starting a startup sucks, it really sucks, but it ain’t that bad compared to what you do if you’re going through chemotherapy or if you’re like my father supporting someone who is, and it was a gift that I’m still grateful for because it keeps perspective on every trauma, everything that I face, because nothing is really actually that bad.
Thank you Alexis.
Ping officially closed its Seed Round. We raised $3.3M in what ended up being a whirlwind of a fundraise.
But plenty of start-ups raise money.
What’s truly unbelievable (serendipitous? fate?) is, after talking to hundreds of funds and having more term sheets than we knew what to do with, our two largest investors ended up being First Round Capital and Initialized Capital.
First Round, considered the best seed stage fund in the world, published the interview that inspired this post.
And Initialized was co-founded by Alexis Ohanian, yes that Alexis.
I don’t care what anybody says, I know that Mom orchestrated the whole thing. When I told her that I had pitched Alexis, she started crying and said nothing but “please tell him I want to give him a hug because I know he can’t hug his mom anymore.”
Mom, we did it. And we’ll do a hell of a lot more too.
On June 21, 2018, the world lost perfection and God took back what was never ours to begin with. Mom left holding my hand and ready for what was next. I know she is above us all, dancing and smiling and laughing.
I lost my person but gained a guardian angel.
I promised her I will make her proud. And I will. How could I not? She is me now.
I love you Mom. And the best part is, I know you know.