In 2008, 3 years after Youtube launched, I received a link from one of my best friends. Like much of Youtube at the time, perhaps it would be a stellar compilation of funny cat videos. However, when I clicked, I slowly realized that someone, somewhere, back on Dec. 7, 1987, recorded the ESPN SportsCenter highlight of my Cornell Big Red basketball team getting into a bench clearing brawl with mighty Syracuse. And, ummm, yep, that’s me, getting punched in the face, clear out of the TV picture. Thank you Youtube, and thank you video packrat for your foresight in 1987 to save this SportsCenter highlight in order to upload it 20+ years later once the internet was invented, for allowing the world to share this video moment for eternity.
I have learned many many lessons from sports, but in this post I will focus on the fact that every startup will metaphorically experience getting punched in the face. And, as modern day philosopher Mike Tyson eloquently stated: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
The startup roller coaster is legendary. The highs? Incredible. The highs are what you work for. From launching your product to getting initial traction; from hiring a rock star to closing a big sale. If you’re lucky enough to experience a positive exit - whether your company is fortunate to be acquired or goes public - well, that’s an almost indescribable high. Cherish those moments.
The lows though, the lows are unfathomable. As Ben Horowitz writes in The Hard Thing About The Hard Things:
The hard thing isn't setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn't dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.
There will be lows. They will give you a pit in your stomach, keep you up at night, cause your head to throb. You will get punched in the face.
In 2007, I was unable to raise a new round of funding for my startup SWMX, a pioneer in the radio and TV advertising automation space. We had strong adoption in radio, where the leading stations nationwide were logging in and using our platform; excellent press coverage - here’s a pre Business Insider Henry Blodget profile of SWMX; and Google bought our competitor DMarc Broadcasting for $100 million - which generated a ton of interest in the company. Knowing we had limited runway based on our cash position, I crisscrossed the media technology landscape taking countless meetings with institutional and strategic investors including NBC, WPP, Yahoo, Microsoft, Omnicom, Interpublic Group, and more, telling our story, searching for an investor.
Based primarily on our corporate structure, I was unable to raise our next round. This led to several rounds of agonizing layoffs and cutbacks. As you could imagine, lots of soul searching and sleepless nights ensued. As our options dwindled, I ended up in the hospital after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. We ultimately sold the technology in a fire sale, evaporating real investment and our dreams in one fell swoop. I was devastated.
If someday you get staggered by a devastating punch, you must quickly regain your footing - time is of the essence - and focus on the next play. Communicate with your team. Let them know how bad the bleeding is. Don’t hold back. You likely have limited options, be decisive, pick the best one, and give it everything you got.
If it so happens that you get knocked out, you are not alone. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. My advice is to lean on your friends and family and reconnect with your network. Day by day, no matter how dark things may appear, the light will eventually find you. How you respond to defeat defines you more so than the moment itself.
When I was knocked out at SWMX, I moved forward by consulting on a few projects. I leaned on my family, reconnected with my network, and this directly led me to an opportunity to join a pre-revenue startup, the Rubicon Project. The early team at Rubicon was incredibly talented, focused, and on a mission. I was fortunate to play a key role in driving the company’s growth culminating in our April 2014 IPO on the NYSE.
Which leads me to RevCascade. As Andrea Tobin and I nurtured the idea for what became RevCascade, we knew that building a great company starts with great people. So as we started thinking about turning our idea into a business, we reached out to four of the best people from the amazing early Rubicon Project team to be our co-founders:
- Julie Mattern, Rubicon’s Co-Founder & CTO, is a legendary creative force responsible for building Rubicon’s core technology which propelled the company from fledgling startup to force in the adtech market. Julie is now RevCascade’s CTO.
- Matt Meyer, who shares a patent with Julie for advertising optimization, built the yield management practice at Rubicon, a legendary group of people who became the smartest GSD team inside the company. Matt is our SVP, Operations & Strategy.
- Samantha Henderson, one of the legendary people on Matt’s team, at 24 was running the $100+ million buy side at Rubicon and later moved over to a product role where she created the company’s private marketplace product - one of the fastest growing parts of Rubicon’s business to this day. Samantha is RevCascade’s SVP Business Development.
- Kyle Stainer is a world class, rock star product manager who worked side by side with Julie to create many of Rubicon’s seminal “Power To The Publisher” products which paved the way for the company’s ultimate success. Kyle now serves as RevCascade’s SVP Product.
If I had to say I learned one thing from being a player in the entrepreneurial game - from the highest highs to the lowest lows - here’s what I learned. Play the game in every moment to the best of your ability, not just for the outcome. Play with people you trust, care about, and enjoy working with. Play for the people who believe in you. Play for the fight, trust your instincts, and go for it.
A year into our RevCascade journey, I am using what I’ve learned from my battle wounds and greatest achievements to guide and empower my team as we build a transformative company that will make commerce better for brands, retailers, and ultimately consumers.
As for my ‘87-’88 Cornell basketball team - yes, the same team immortalized on Youtube - that team became Cornell’s first Ivy League Champion in 40 years.
Here’s my Sportscenter moment: