Saturday, March 23, 2019

My High School Friend the Unicorn Founder and CTO!?

I'm taking 2019 off of Facebook. So if I haven't responded to your messages, it's because I haven't logged in at all. If someone wants to post any of these articles on my Facebook wall (if Facebook still has a wall) feel free to quintuple my traffic for the day. Point being, I try to be in the real world more than in the virtual one. In the past I've upset people by things I've written on social media so I try not to do that. Then every time I log onto Facebook specifically I feel like everyone has these awesome lives, with their spouses, with kids, traveling the world, doing cool stuff. And I know I'm probably part of the problem, climbing Mt. Everest, traveling around the world, flying airplanes, working at a cool new start up, etc. That's part of why I try to blog about the stuff that hurts, because I want my blog to be a place of reality.

So while checking my email I had a LinkedIn notification about one of my good high school friends who I haven't talked to in a decade. He and I both went to college in Massachusetts and despite me running a few track meets at his university, I think we only actually ever met up once I think, and I might be confusing that with when I visited him in Massachusetts my senior year of high school. He was the year ahead of me. Anyway, we both went to high school in Sabetha, Kansas and he went to an excellent college in Massachusetts, which I didn't even apply at because I didn't want to be seen copying him, even if I might have helped give him the idea to go there (haha! I don't think I did, but I might have). He was the only person that outscored me in quiz bowl over the course of the season, and had he been a little quicker on the buzzer would have had significantly more points than me, double probably. He could have gone to college anywhere. At the same time he was quite humble, and never put on a show. He was even embarrassed about how well he took one particular standardized test. He ended up getting a B.S. in Computer Science.

The last I had heard from him a few years ago was that he was working at some small tech company doing computer science stuff, and had gotten married, and was still living out in Massachusetts. I was happy for him, it seemed like things had gone his way. So when I clicked on this LinkedIn article from a large respected publisher I was blown away. He is the founder (one of three founders) and CTO at a unicorn! A unicorn is a start up company that has a valuation over $1 billion and is still private, not listed on any stock exchange. Fifteen years ago it was an anomaly, but it's actually somewhat common now... but not common enough I know any unicorn founders!

I watched the Shawshank Redemption last weekend, because I have a broken leg and can't do much else. It's been my favorite movie since high school and still is. There is a part near the end where Red gets a postcard from Texas and laughs thinking of Andy driving down the coast in a convertible with the top down. That is exactly the kind of laugh I had when I learned this about my friend. You see, at the risk of saying too much, his family experienced a trauma during some very formative years in his life. So despite the eight or nine figures of net worth that he now has, I wouldn't trade places with him. I kind of hope he keeps going and doesn't check out to sit on beaches the rest of his life, it would be pretty cool to say one day my high school friend is a billionaire.

To be clear, I have a strict no asking for handouts policy. Great financial wealth often brings out long lost friends and relatives looking for free money. Sure, I would like advice from anyone that financially successful, but knowing him years ago, there is only so much he could tell that I haven't already read somewhere else. I mean, he took a risk on a startup with two friends or coworkers, and it has totally worked out because there is a definite market to be served. I've had the feeling lately that I can't fail at entrepreneuriship. Maybe it's this nine year long bull market. Maybe it's simply the variety of people I know who have been successful at entrepreneurship. Maybe it's just that I've reached a place where I can afford to fail a little.

At the risk of giving his identity away, although everyone from Sabetha I went to high school with will already know who I'm talking about, I want to share a story. He did particularly well on a standardized test his junior or senior year. You need to know that I went to very high performing somewhat rural public high school. We had multiple individual and team state athletic champions. A large percentage (maybe 5%) or so of graduates went to prestigious universities (which is wholly unnecessary, but there is the prestige of being accepted to those colleges). From my graduating class of 68 there are two medical doctors including one who did a residency at the Mayo Clinic, and I think one Ph.D. Multiple classmates had some form of athletic scholarship. It was just a high performing place. Lest anyone from Sabetha read this and feel bad about their life post high school, that's ridiculous! We've all had issues, and I say without a doubt that every single person I went to school with fostered an atmosphere of excellence. There was a woman in my grade who had a baby junior year, and she was partly stigmatized for it. I wasn't particularly friendly with her, but she kept showing up to school and she graduated on time with us. She was thrown a huge challenge and instead of check out and give up, she at least got her high school diploma. Across the spectrum there are stories like that.

With that explanation of my high school out of the way, at a whole school assembly he was recognized for his achievement on that standardized test. We stood, everyone stood, and gave him a standing ovation. I don't remember any of the state athletic champions getting a standing ovation from the entire student body. It was frankly the only standing ovation from the entire student body I remember in four years of high school. He was embarrassed of course. But for the rest of us, there was a feeling that when one succeeds, we all succeed. Our school had a better reputation because of him. We were all more likely to get into good universities because of him. And so it is the same with him becoming a founder and CTO of a unicorn. If he can do it, we can do it. Maybe not exactly the same, I don't particularly like computer programming, and the industry he is in doesn't really excite me. But if he can have career success, then even when I have significant self doubt in my career, I have to remember feelings are not fact, and I am quite successful in my career already.

On the odd chance that this article finds its way to my old friend, because I don't have his phone number any more to congratulate him: Well done sir! I hope that you feel as accomplished as you are.

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