The Truth About Starting a Startup

(I wrote this for YC’s Future Founders Conference for Women. I’ll add the recording when it becomes available. The actual talk I gave on November 18th should include bonus streams of unconscious thoughts and cursing, in case someone is into that.)

My parents were refugees of Communism. Wherever the line was between being poor and being homeless, my mom and dad lived just right above that line for many decades. Growing up, I watched them work seven days a week without ever complaining so my siblings and I would live a better life than they did. We didn’t have much, but there was a lot of love. All I wanted to do was make them proud to honor their sacrifice for us. 

I’m rarely the smartest person in any room. I went to a state school. I liked math and architecture, so I studied to be a construction engineer. My work uniform was a hard hat, orange safety vest, and muddy boots. While I worked in construction, I saw firsthand why projects are so often behind schedule and over budget. We built PlanGrid to solve the problem that we experienced in the field.  

I grew up at PlanGrid. It was the most beautiful thing to me. I loved it completely with all my heart, to an unreasonable and unhealthy degree, and I think it has to be that way for startups to work.  

When I look back at our almost decade journey, however inspiring our technology was, or how impressive our growth was, the happiest memories in my heart, the only ones I’ll remember 20 years from now, are always with people. It’s an incredible feeling, building something people want, seeing their jaw drop from awe at something you’ve made for them. One of our early users told us, “after 30 years in construction.. this is the best tool ever given to me.” And nothing compares to working hard with people you trust, running at full speed towards the same mission together.

We had a reputation for being good people building good software for the construction industry.  Some construction publications would refer to PlanGrid as the “Darling” of construction technology, and I remember I didn’t know how to feel about it at the time. I think I wanted to be associated with a noun that was less lovable and more fierce. But I now realize it was their way of rooting for us.

A big part of our reputation came from how we interacted with people. And it was so simple and true to who we were. We just treated others the way we wanted to be treated. We were normal, decent people who loved building things. If this is your vibe also, please don’t be afraid to show it because even in business, it resonates with people. I’m proud of the culture we built at PlanGrid. 

But as high as the high moments were, there were a lot of unhappy and hard ones. And that’s just how business is — When it feels really good, it probably means something terrible is about to happen. And conversely, if it is feeling awful, it will get better. That, or it’ll feel bad a little longer, but it always vacillates back to good. I’ve come to believe that a big part of our jobs as founders is to manage our own emotions through the emotional rollercoaster called building a startup.

And I think that’s why company building isn’t for the faint of heart. It doesn’t matter how well we were doing; it never got easier. Because as we’re trying to find product-market fit, as we’re trying to get people to part with money for our product, life continues. Meanwhile, life doesn’t stop just because you're stressed out doing the hardest thing you’ve ever done before.

I remember how excited we were to get accepted into YC’s Winter 2012 batch. As we were launching our product into the world, living the entrepreneurial dream, sleeping and working out of our Silicon Valley hacker house, we were also experiencing the cruelness of life. We watched our cofounder die at 29 years old. We watched cancer eat him alive, and there was nothing we could do to help him. We felt heartbroken, angry, and confused. I remember on so many occasions; I would turn the corner in our house to find one of my co-founders, who are all tall, strong men, sobbing in a corner, mourning our best friend.

And this is the journey. 

Because we weren’t unique snowflakes with this terrible thing that happened to just us. As our team grew bigger to hundreds of people worldwide, it felt like sad stuff was a constant: parents and partners dying suddenly, children getting sick, deeply tragic stories of life.

And it’s why, whatever you have chosen to work on, it has to be worthy of your time here. Because if you have any success at all, it will be at least a decade of your life. A decade of life where you are doing nothing but working on the problem you have chosen, obsessing over it and neglecting friends and family, a decade of barely taking care of yourself because there isn’t enough time to do anything but build.

We always had excellent health and dental insurance for our team. But I rarely used it. Not because I was so healthy or had great teeth, I just couldn’t find the time. So when I wasn’t CEO anymore, I finally went in to get a bunch of things checked out, including my long aching teeth I had been ignoring. My dentist found six cracked teeth, all from grinding at night. When he learned that I was a founder, he said, “that makes sense, cracked teeth from stress.” Stress messes up your body — and starting a startup will bring you to a new level of stress.

I often get asked about work-life balance.

I never figured it out. Work-life balance is such a beautiful concept in theory. You get to have your cake and eat it too. Let me give you a few examples of why it was so hard for us to find work-life balance:

When we only had months of runway left in the bank, there was no work-life balance. We had to work around the clock so that our company could survive. When we were behind on our big product launch, when we’re behind on our revenue goals, when we released nasty bugs to our users, or when our servers were down, there was no work-life balance. 

And then there are unforeseen conditions. What startup included Covid19 into their new fiscal year plan. Shit seems to happen often while building a startup.

And by the way, it doesn’t matter how big your company is and how fast you’re growing. There are never enough resources. Even when we got to $100m in recurring revenue, we still didn't have enough people to build and support our customers, not enough money to invest in our business’s growth.

And then there are competitors. 

Some competitors had way more of everything we did. And if they didn’t have more resources than we did, we had to assume they were working their hardest to eat our lunch and dinner. So the only thing we could do to compete was to make ourselves into multiple people, 10x if we could.  An easy way to 10x ourselves was by not having a personal life and not taking care of ourselves.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m not trying to convince you not to start a startup. I only want to properly warn you about the commitment of building a startup, so you can better prepare yourself than I did.

But I lucked out. We had picked a problem to solve that we cared about. And it turns out; it is much easier to do a good job at something that we love. I loved building tools for people who take showers at night because they reminded me of my immigrant parents and how hard they worked. I believed that if our software helped them get home to their kids, even 10 minutes earlier, it was all worth it.

I think there is a balance to everything in life. I believe that for every terrible thing that happens, there is also a good side; Even tragic things like a friend who didn’t have enough time. Of course, I would much rather my friend be alive, but the good side of this incredibly tragic thing that happened was that we got a front-row view of how short life is. I remember thinking: “How lucky I am to be alive and still have time here?” A big part of me realized then that I wanted to build something beautiful for myself and in memory of my friend. 

The only reason PlanGrid worked — was that we loved it, and we poured our hearts and souls into it. 

If you’re thinking about starting a startup and pursuing something you love, do it! I’m so proud of you. I know how hard it can be, in particular, to feel judged for how I looked, to feel judged for being a woman. And whether sexism was something I encountered or whether it was mostly my insecurity — what I felt was real, and it was hard and painful.

But I want you to look at me as an example and trust that it is possible to overcome all of that.  I’m not trying to downplay discrimination because it happens. There have been people who have said crazy things to me like: “but you’re too small to found a company”, “you’re not tall enough to be CEO”, “you’re too young”, “well you’re not too young, but you look too young”. Another CEO had advised me to “hire a professional CEO who can do my job better.”

The fact is, for every person who has ever doubted me, there were hundreds more who believed in me. They could have cared less about my gender and only judged me by my work ethics and output. I promise you there are many more good people in this world, and they have been waiting to work with you.

Building PlanGrid was one of the most rewarding, most challenging, most meaningful experiences in my life. The greatest privilege of this entire journey is the deep connections made by working in the trenches with people. Something magical happens when we trust and believe in each other on a startup journey that is impossible to do alone. It took me too many years to learn to raise my hand and ask for help, but when I finally learned to, a village of people came to my support.

I’ll close with the last conversation I had with Antoine, our co-founder and Chief Mad Scientist. I still think about it every day, and I hope it’ll be helpful for you too.

“Life is short.  Take care of the ones you love.  Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Never do anything that makes you unhappy.”

This post is dedicated to my co-founders: Ryan Sutton-Gee, Ralph Gootee, Antoine Hersen, Kenny Stone <3

Reflections on Being a Female Founder

Not a lot is written about being a female founder and CEO. I used to believe that my journey as a startup founder was the same as any other founder's experience, regardless of gender, in that it is lonely and hard. I believed the same when I worked in construction. At the time, any questions about there being a difference felt deeply unnecessary to me. 

For example, here is my snarky answer in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt: “When Tracy wakes up every morning, Tracy doesn’t think ‘Oh, I am a female.’ When I wake up in the morning I think ‘Wow, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I better get showered, caffeined up, and get my ass to work.’”

For context, I am the daughter of refugees, first to be born in America. The minority part of my identity I understood well, having witnessed my immigrant parents grinding their nose to the stone without ever complaining, so their children could have a better life. I was proud to be their child. The female part of my identity, however, was hidden under plain masculine clothes and behind a stoic demeanor. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a CEO and I perceived any attention to my gender as bad.

Then, when I became pregnant in 2017, my opinion changed. Women have different lived experiences than men, and not acknowledging this would be a disservice to humanity.

On the same day I learned I was pregnant, I also learned that one of our tech executives left his laptop on his desk, and would not be coming back to work. I remember the highest level of excitement I have ever felt, finally pregnant after trying for almost a year, and within a few hours, I swung to one of my lowest moments as a CEO.

I thought that I must be the worst leader for someone to just leave me like this. That night, I vomited into my sink and cried sloppily in the dark. Someone I trusted had snuck out of responsibility in the most selfish way imaginable, and my body responded with intense physical reactions. I wondered if male CEOs would have reacted this way. I wish I knew. By morning, I kicked off an executive search, filled in as leader for the department, and announced my decision to the team. One thing I learned during this time was to not waste turbulence. As part of the shocking announcement of our executive’s sudden departure, I also made a bunch of decisions that I previously lacked the courage to make and rolled everything out at once. There were major people and product roadmap changes, budget and schedule cuts all in the span of a few weeks. Our team had many questions, followed by many emotions and opinions about our new R&D direction. Some team members, including great engineers, quit.

Emotional roller coasters seem to be law in startups, and I believe managing our own emotions is a big part of the job. What I have found is that I cannot stop myself from being human, but I can practice dialing down the duration of negative feelings like anger, fear, and sadness.

When my baby belly began to show, I told my leadership team we were expecting, and by the end of day most at the company knew too. There are no secrets in a startup. One colleague told me the next day that she knew I was pregnant because she saw me eat two bagels. That conversation made me realize that team members are always keeping an eye on their founders and leaders. In some cases, I do believe my coworkers genuinely cared for me. In most cases, I believe they were evaluating how well the company was doing based on my actions throughout the day and that factored into whether or not they should answer all the recruiters’ calls.

Three months before I was due to give birth, I got a message from the CEO of a large competitor who had enough cash to acquire us. There was M&A activity in our industry, and, I too, wanted the option for our startup to become acquired. I was to give a presentation to several of their CxOs (a strong indicator that they were not just kicking the tires). In my own office, it never bothered me that my team’s eyes would sometimes wander to my basketball shaped belly during conversation, but it did get under my skin when these strangers, who I was negotiating with, looked at my stomach during this presentation. But that was mostly my own insecurities, something I would learn to deal with.

Two months prior to giving birth, we received a disappointing M&A term sheet, so we declined. There were more problems in the company that I could no longer ignore, and because there was a baby in my belly, I could not use social drugs to escape from my stress, and was stone cold sober through all of it. I needed to make another leadership change. Some of our board directors told me: “We support your decision, but let’s wait until you come back from maternity leave”, to which I obliged. Although I understood the rationality of their advice, I felt trembling anger for not being supported in that moment. I’ve also come to hate the phrase- “bad breath is better than no breath”, because it is terrible advice. My biggest regrets in business involve keeping the wrong person in the company for too long. I knew in my stomach that it was not going to work every time, I would even dread having unproductive 1-1s with them, but I would come up with excuses like- “I know they can’t stay, but I’m so stressed out right now.” The fact is, I hired the wrong person, I failed to help them grow as a leader and I owed it to my team and company to fix my mistakes.

I went into labor the same night of our first user conference. The weeks leading up to the conference, watching our whole company burn late night candles in preparation for our new product unveiling, I wondered how many male CEOs would skip their conference for the birth of their child? I assume most would. I kept reasoning with myself that if I wasn’t pregnant, there would be no question whether I’d be there or not, so I must be there. Forcing myself to parade my 9-month pregnancy, deliver the keynote, support our team, and work the halls as the host, was my way of feeling like a superwoman, which was mostly about rubbing my own ego. I arrived home around 8pm that evening, and my water broke immediately. I would hear my son’s first cry 32-hours later.

No one told me how hard breastfeeding would be. Like clockwork, every 2-3 hours a tiny mouth latched onto me for 20 minutes, resulting in raw and bloody nipples. The amount of time and effort it requires to breastfeed doesn't stop there. You'll also need to make time to eat an extra 500 calories each day, time to pump and wait for milk to slowly drain out of each breast, and then time to clean each pumping piece thoroughly.

After the M&A deal fell through, I was concerned that two of our largest competitors were coming together. I was determined to get back to work as soon as possible and fundraise a war chest to fight back. However, being only 4 weeks postpartum, I was still healing. And by healing I mean I was still bleeding from several tears in my vagina from pushing out a baby. Even something as natural as emptying my bladder felt debilitating. When my son was 6 weeks old, I handed him over to his nanny (a vetted stranger, really) and went back to work. I wiped tears from my eyes as I drove away, convincing myself that the company needed me more than my son. In reality, waiting a few more weeks for my return would not have made a difference. 

To this day, I ask myself why I rushed back to work when I wasn’t ready. And I think I was scared. Not because our business was in trouble. We had two years of runway in the bank and our interim CEO (our CFO) and the team were running the business just fine. I think I was scared of what others might think of me as a new mother and CEO, maybe because of my own insecurities, maybe because of the societal norms ingrained in me. I pressured myself into proving that I was as dedicated to PlanGrid as I always have been.

I would spend the next two months driving to VC’s offices, and down to Sand Hill Road, to secure our war chest. Despite this full schedule and constant traveling, I needed to pump milk. But I never asked to use any investor’s Mother’s Room. On some days, I would park my car on a sleepy street in Palo Alto and pump milk with a silicone hand pump in front of someone’s nice house, reading profiles of the investors in my next meeting from my iPhone. Occasionally someone would drive up, or a jogger would run by, and I would feel completely humiliated.

I’ve always hated fundraising. It's putting our hearts and souls on a platter for money and for smiling strangers to poke holes in us. However, PlanGrid could not have fueled growth the way we did without selling pieces of it to investors who took a chance on us. I often get asked about how it was to fundraise as a woman. I’ve heard awful stories firsthand from friends. Horrific stories like being offered a term sheet if sex was involved. Thankfully, that was not my experience. I believe I am in the minority.

I think there are bad apples in every industry, but it is especially prevalent in those that control so much money and power. We tried to time all of our fundraising for when we were in a position of strength with attractive revenue growth and enough money in the bank to walk away from any or no deal. I also fundraised with my co-founders, and in later rounds with my CFO. I think it is easier for predators to target their prey when they are alone. I was never alone. 

After half a dozen no’s to our Series-C fundraising, and a few weeks before we planned on stopping fundraising all together, we secured a round. We then received a revised M&A offer to purchase our company at a much higher price.  

Our job as founders and CEOs is to maximize all options for the company and choose the best path forward for our team and customers. A part of me wanted to stay CEO of PlanGrid forever. I grew up at PlanGrid. I watched one of my co-founders die of cancer during PlanGrid. I married another one of my co-founders and we became parents together. My self worth was completely tied to the company. PlanGrid gave me purpose and fulfillment. However, in fall of 2018, the best option for our company given the competitive and market risks, and our own internal challenges, was to sell our company to an incumbent with obvious technical synergies, for over 10x multiple on revenue. So we did. The day we announced the sale to our team was the most frightened I have ever felt in my life. I was afraid that I had let our team down by selling, but they didn’t see it that way. That night, we celebrated together.

My contract with our acquirers was set to last 18 months. The plan included 12 months to run PlanGrid as a standalone company (or try to), and 6 months to fully integrate into the mothership. Everything that made me a good founder, made me a terrible employee at a public company. I was used to having complete autonomy in leading PlanGrid. As a startup, we would make changes quickly. We could take dozens of small bets and risks every quarter. Depending on those results, we would abandon or make larger bets in the direction that was working. Risk taking is much more limited at a public company, in part because they must report to Wall Street every 3 months. At a larger company there are also more dependencies, it felt like I couldn’t sneeze without asking permission from the heads of five other departments. New leadership took good care of our team and products, and people were nice to me, but it was obvious I was unhappy there.

A few months after the acquisition, I became pregnant for the second time. And shortly after I found out, I also had a miscarriage. While with my team, I felt it slip out of me. I went to the bathroom and I knew exactly what it was. I walked back out to the group pretending as if nothing happened. For the next few months, I grieved, fighting back tears almost every hour.

The women's experience can be really hard - I went through infertility, pregnancy, birth, miscarriage all the while trying to balance being a good leader, good mother and good partner. To top it all off, I felt I had to be a version of what I thought a good male CEO was, so that I wouldn’t be judged or treated differently. It would take me years before I realized how delusional I was. I became a better and happier leader by being honest in who I was, even if it meant feeling raw heart pounding discomfort most days. And it turns out, my female identity was much more important to me than I realized going in.

The tech industry has a long way to go toward gender equality in the workplace. The first step to change is acknowledging that things need to change.

I am no longer employed by the company that acquired us. I posted on LinkedIn that my watch has ended. I have much more time to read about the world we live in and who is controlling it. When I look at leadership across companies, and leadership across countries, it looks predominantly male. And that means our world is missing out on a lot of hardworking, self-identifying women who can improve it. The problems of our time are overwhelming and massive. In the midst of a pandemic and too many crises, our women leaders are proving they are great at leading and getting things done.

I want to see a world where men and women, who make up equal halves of humanity, also make up equal halves of leadership. When that happens, I wholeheartedly believe that the entire world will benefit. We owe it to our sons and daughters to work hard to get there.

Thank you to Nina Achadjian, Maria Alegre, Andrea Barrica, Ralph Gootee, Kat Manalac, Madison McKay, Kristina Milian, Sarah Moon, and Strat Sherman for reading drafts of this.