Working in Golden Gate Park—San Francisco, CA
In January, you are in Lisbon, dreaming of the future. You have left your job as a product manager at Twitter and moved to Portugal to think about your next steps. You have an idea for a consumer product that will allow people to access high-quality news behind paywalls with a single paid account. As a former journalist, you have seen how economic incentives can distort the way information is presented and distributed, and how serious the consequences are for society. You believe that democratizing access to information is the most important problem you could spend your life trying to solve.
In February, you move back to San Francisco and commit to starting your own company. You have never felt so excited to wake up every day. You’re living in the basement of a house on the fringes of the city because the rent is cheap and your savings are finite, but you are optimistic that you can figure it out before you run out of time. Every day you go to events, practice pitching, and network with founders, mentors and potential advisors. You spend your evenings watching lectures from YC and Startup Grind and reading books on entrepreneurship. You realize that you have to unlearn everything you learned working at a big company in order to start a small one.
In March, the US is hit with the coronavirus pandemic, and a recession quickly follows. San Francisco is one of the first cities to institute a mandatory shelter in place. Your roommate moves out immediately, and you are alone. You don’t get scared easily, but as the death toll climbs, you wake up every morning with fear gripping you by the throat. You see that news consumption has increased significantly during quarantine, and you realize that media has principles of anti-fragility: demand for news only goes up in times of chaos. You work like your life depends on it, spending your days learning about the business side of media, reading up on the industry, and becoming intimately familiar with different types of paywalls and how they work.
In April, you go through the breakup of a serious relationship. Trump has banned all travel to and from Europe to limit the spread of covid, making it impossible to continue international long distance. You are devastated. You cry yourself to sleep each night, then wake up with puffy eyes in the mornings to conduct user interviews. You learn that everyone you’ve ever spoken to about the problem has hated hitting paywalls for news articles, and a good deal of them would be willing to pay for a better solution to access the news. You also hear that VCs have paused investments in new startups in order to support their portfolio companies. You scale back your spending to only the essentials. The stakes feel high. You wonder how long you can survive.
In May, your friend dies, violently, from a drive-by shooting in San Francisco. It was a random act of terror, and he was an innocent bystander. You last spoke to him three weeks ago on a Zoom catch-up call, where he thanked you for writing up a summer onboarding document for his Twitter APM cohort. He wanted to update it for the next cohort and give you credit. It was representative of his character: he was always generous and thoughtful and kind. You think to yourself, if there is a God, how could he let this happen? You are numb with grief as you recruit and start working with your first employee, who eventually becomes your COO. You research pricing strategies and plan out your next three months. You chart a path to get to market.
In June, #BlackLivesMatter protests erupt across San Francisco. A video circulates of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he dies of suffocation. You feel a sickening pit of dread in your stomach as you consider the scope of racial injustice in the world. You watch in real time as news about the social justice movement is distributed virally across social media, while paywalled articles are shared less frequently, a natural bottleneck to information distribution. You are determined that your product needs to exist. You write up a PRD and start planning out what you need and who you need to work with in order to build out a prototype.
In July, your friends move away one by one, and San Francisco feels like a ghost town. The streets are filled with tents, a physical manifestation of poverty proliferating in lockstep with the chaos of the world. You try to drop off a box of clothes at a homeless shelter, but they tell you they cannot accept any donations during covid-19. You have to focus on one problem at a time, so you incorporate your company and throw yourself into recruiting. At its peak, the team is 12 people: you, your COO, two technical interns from Caltech, two software engineering friends from Uber and ADP, a UI/UX designer who used to work at Uber and Google, a visual designer from UCSD, a former data analyst from BlackRock, and three business development interns. Your startup is remote-first, bolstered by your experience as a remote PM for Twitter London. You spend all your days on Zoom.
In August, you begin to dream again. You hear that VC firms are writing checks again, and investors start reaching out to you to chat. As the MVP is being developed, you start building out a strategy for partnerships, a pipeline for fundraising, and a good culture and workflow for the team. Things are looking up, and you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You start tracking your personal habits as if they are KPIs to keep yourself sane — blocking out hours for things like “sleep” in your Google calendar so you don’t forget. You tentatively go on a second date on Hinge. You start feeling hopeful again.
In September, the skies turn orange. California is burning from wildfires raging across the state. A long-awaited vacation gets truncated to a weekend trip because travel feels impossible, so you drive to Monterey through a cloud of wildfire smoke. Your nascent relationship turns to smoke too, when the boy you just started seeing informs you that he is moving to Taiwan with no plans to come back. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, but you have little time to grieve. You take partnership meetings with your dream publishers, and launch a private alpha with a small group of waitlisted users. And sometimes, in the quiet moments in between, you think about all that you have been through this year, and how much further you still have to go.
So, what’s it like to start a company during coronavirus?
Everybody told me that startups were hard, but I didn’t know it was possible to be dealt a hand like this. I was reading about lean startup methodology as millions died from covid, conducting user interviews in the midst of tremendous personal heartbreak and grief, building an MVP as civil unrest and racial protests erupted across the country, and creating ambitious new business models during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In many ways, I have had to rewire myself to survive. Fortunately, I am nothing if not an optimist, and I am certainly no stranger to adversity. I believe I will come out stronger on the other side and that my company will be successful despite the odds. 2020 has taught me that you need a purpose to keep going during hard times. Our North Star is clear — the consumer media experience is broken, and we’re going to fix it. It’s just a matter of time.
In Q4, we’ve got a lot to do, and we’re excited to roll up our sleeves.
- We are hiring a full-time CTO! If you’re a full-stack developer passionate about the future of content consumption, we’d love to work with you.
- We will be fundraising for our pre-seed in Q4. Please reach out here if you’d like us to consider your firm.
- We are accepting applications for alpha users to test our prototype. Sign up here if you’re a news junkie and you’re interested in following our product development journey.