Have you been a start-up guy this whole time that you've had kids?
Pretty much. We were expecting our first child when I was running my first company with my co-founder, and shortly after he was born our company was acquired. I became less of a start-up guy, in that I was not sort of the founder where you really running the whole show, but I was part of a much larger organization now. The company that acquired us was about 280 people and I would describe them as being a late stage startup; we took the company public in 2015 and I spent some time there post IPO. I got to see the sort of the entirely lifecycle of a company, as a parent.
Do you think having a kid was part of the reason why you sold that company?
It wasn't a key for the the decision-making process, but I think it's always a peripheral factor because your company in many ways is like a baby. Ultimately the decision was driven by my co-founder and myself and the market and the suitors. It was a combination of all of those things that made it seem like a good move for for everybody who was involved. That said, it was nice to have the pressure ease off a bit with a very young child at home. My son was born in July and we closed the acquisition first half of October, it was a pretty close.
How did you go through the acquisition process while also being a dad to a young kid at home?
The so the company that acquired us is based on the east coast and we are here in the Great Pacific Northwest and so that time difference was an interesting thing. There were several occasions where I was up in the middle of the night, feeding my son, one hand holding the bottle and the other hand reading and replying to emails about making the deal move forward. If I am gonna be up anyway, there are things that I can help move forward; the shorter that process takes the easier it is for everybody.
It's very tiring to have a very young baby at home because of it does to your sleep schedule and then you add on the stress of actually trying to close a deal. It's a tough time period.
You have a new startup now and seem to be doing quite well, health-wise . What’s changed?
I went into the first startup kind of not paying too much attention to my sleep and my health. Now I try to make sure I get it least six hours a night and usually at least seven hours a night. It makes a huge difference.
When you're just running a start-up, and you need to get that sleep, you still get to dictate when you start going to bed and when you wake up. You get to set that time. You don't have those choices with with babies and with young children. You do everything to make them thrive; a lot of that is you have to be super responsive to their needs and that can throw a wrench in things.
There's a lot of like micro planning that goes into that whole process that I kind of remember sweating a lot of those details. We got a couch at the office, and I would occasionally crash on the couch and just take 15 minutes naps here and there, and uh. My team understood, some of them had families, some of them didn't, but I want to lead by example and show that if you needed the rest you got to take the rest. It doesn't do anyone well for you to just be forcing yourself to grind it out.
How do you balance your dad life while working in a high-stress demanding environment?
My co-founder and I both have this “lead by example” mentality. Some of it is explicit and vocal and verbal and and we write things down, but a lot of it is in the work ethic and accomplishments and things like that. I was pretty transparent with my team.
My first time going through it, I talked to friends and family and tried to understand what it was going to be like to be a dad, yet nothing prepared me for that moment when our son was born. There's nothing that prepares you for the emotions around it.
There are structural things that can be done with planning in terms of your you know what you do with your life, and how you prioritize your time and and those sorts of things and so my biggest thing with the team was to try to be transparent about times when I needed to come in late or leave early, or crash on the couch…etc.
More recent example now is I drop my son off at school every day in the morning, I pick him up every day. My co-founder, he coaches sports team for his sons. We talk about that we our team, and explain that those things are important to us, to spend time with and to bond with our families.
We love what we're doing. We've found a purpose professionally and it turns out that the most efficient way to achieve that purpose is through a start-up right now. But family is super high priority for us, and so we make that evident, and how we conduct ourselves on everyone that we work with; they don't try to keep that stuff in the shadows.
As a boss, how do you align company culture as your organization growth?
It is important for us as a team and for our culture to have common overlapping hours where we're all in the office, but we focus on the contributions that people make and not the time that they spend sitting in a chair where we can see them. When we talk about it with prospective hires, naturally lots of people have questions about what it's like to come join early stage company.
Not a lot of people that we talk to have experience working at this stage of accompanied and a lot of people ask me - how much do you work, and how many hours do you work? I can answer that question if I sit down and try to add it all up, but for me what I do doesn't feel like work. This is a life purpose for me. Early-stage startups are trying to do the impossible by their very nature. They're trying to achieve the impossible and so some of that means that you have to figure out, even in your own life, how to occasionally achieve moments of the impossible and that requires a certain amount of work. I think that it's not about counting how many hours people are in the office, I think it's about gaging the level of contribution.
We set goals and priorities based on what our business realities are, and then we turn the dial on those based on what people are able to achieve within that framework. You have to be able to calibrate based on who you have and what's going on with them, and that it's hard. Everybody's rowing in the boat in the same direction, and they themselves are dealing with the internal struggle of how to balance what's professional and what's personal and you as a leader of a business, struggling and trying to find that balance of how do we make sure that we achieve these goals and you know respect people’s needs. You have to constantly be okay with imperfection. You've got to be really comfortable with gray space.
What are you working on anyway?
We can talk about high level. We have not disclosed what the product does and will have more to say later this year. The internet has shifted away from its roots. In the 90s, you could do quite a bit of personal discovery on the internet, see a whole bunch of interesting topics, and you never really had to think much about your privacy or security. In an effort to ease the experience online, we have since seen the concentration of power. Now, the Big Five (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) have created a new data economy; data is the new oil and.
People have given up control of their personal data and if you explain to them jus how much, most are shocked and surprised and a lot of people are uncomfortable with it.
After the Snowden revelations in 2013, we did some research and realized a lot of people feel hopeless about their privacy and security, and Privacy Labs is about the power to be free.
Why are you running Privacy Labs in such a stealth mode?
It takes time to build a meaningful moat; we are working on a combination of hardware and software and services. If you're doing a software-only company, it is very difficult to build a moat these days. The talent is fairly hard to come by, everyone is hiring. In fact, big co’s are buying entire teams just to get access to great talent.
For us, the product, the technology and the experience, it takes time to get right, and we are keen on developing what we have in our minds, and then getting feedback from users.
I was actually really reluctant to announce our financing. It basically starts a timer and people start judging you and your progress. Competitors start to pay more attention to you. All of which is unnecessary early on. There are more and more people who are recognizing the value and the importance of being able to work under the radar.
What do you think the future is going to look like for our kids?
To see what the future is going to hold I like to look at our generation, vs. our parents generation, vs. the slightly younger generation. Our parents have a stronger core sort of intrinsic belief around privacy
… We have more of an awareness around privacy, and younger generations may be less awareness and therefore maybe have less willingness or ability to believe what companies are able to gather about us, and what they're able to do with that information now.
I do think that there are some very interesting things happening right now that are shaking that trend. With the election it is becoming increasingly clear that public information about people has been used to target them with misinformation for the purposes of more or less manipulating them. The fact that Russia was able to orchestrate a white supremacy rally in the US and had people on both sides show up is kind of amazing.
Think about the young people - maybe they are willing to share more, but that does not necessarily mean they don't care about privacy. Snapchat for example. When it all started ,people were joking about it being a platform for sending nude pictures. But really the core value is that people wanted to send an ephemeral message that went away. Those those early users were kids!
The average population is more tech literate now and that creates the opportunity to have a meaningful and intelligent discussions about the trade-offs of deciding to have a Facebook account or deciding to use Gmail or whatever…etc We are going through an inflection point and when our kids grow older things may be substantially better for them if we do it right.
We look at the opportunities to return control back to people and have them be in more control and have more of that autonomy than the future holds well for our children because they will be able to make decisions about their information and their data as opposed to having that decision made for them.
What do you think has influenced you the most as a parent, while growing up in Bellevue, in an immigrant family?
When I was growing up around here, Microsoft was driving a lot of the growth. Boeing was driving a lot of that too. Large employers were bringing a lot of new people to the area. I would say about a quarter (25%) of the kids that I went to school with were immigrants are children of immigrants. You know, my parents immigrated here too, so I was a child of immigrants.
Now it is north of 50% here in Bellevue and the minority is now the majority. The constitution of companies that are here is attracting people from all over the country and all over the world.
When we're recruiting, we run across quite a few candidates who have emigrated from their home country to another part of the US, and then have decided subsequently they want to come to the Seattle area.
When I was growing up here, there were maybe 75-80 thousand people in the city. Now, I think we're pushing like 130-140 thousand people in the city, so you know we're close to doubling um maybe in a 20 year time period which is which is an interesting phenomenon.
What can we do better for the future of our kids?
People like us (in tech) have a responsibility to do what we can to further the diversity because you should also have the freedom to explore and do what it is that you want what and you feel is right for yourself, and seeing people of all different backgrounds doing a variety of different things can help you realize that anything is possible.
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