Something happened last year and I didn’t tell anyone

For nearly a year before it even happened, I worried.

I worried about what would happen to her without me, and what you would think of me for abandoning her. I worried about how I could explain. I worried about it all the time. And when the day finally came, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to say anything at all. But I was wrong.

I sold Photojojo, a company I started eight years ago.

But I didn’t feel like celebrating. It felt boastful. And it seemed cliché to write a “We were acquired, Mission Accomplished!” post as some do. More than that, it wasn’t true. The mission was never to sell.

Since then I have worried again and often – that you might hear the news elsewhere and mistake my restraint for something else… a sign that the company failed, that I’d lost it, or worse, that I simply did not care. None of these were true, either.

The story is more complicated.

I worked harder at building Photojojo than on anything in my life, though it never felt like work. I devoted myself to it, though it never felt like sacrifice. And to my delight, it succeeded! And yes, okay, I am a little proud.

I am also endlessly grateful. Those years gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them.

It is easier than ever to start a company. But many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply and be able to make it your life.

At 19, I started a website called The Daily Jolt with friends out of my dorm room. It was 1999 and the Internet would change everything. So I dropped out, raised $1.4 million, and spent many late nights at the office. Eventually, I stuffed a mattress into a closet to save me the trouble of going home. We beat our targets; but when the market crashed, it didn’t matter. I laid off 17 friends that year as we clawed our way to break-even. It was a brutal introduction to business.

Photojojo was different. I love photography, and in 2006 I saw an opportunity as digital cameras gained popularity. But this time I was wary of raising capital. I decided I would grow cautiously, saving enough that I wouldn’t lose anyone if the market turned. I would make this one last.

It took a few years to get to a million in annual revenue. But we more than doubled revenue and profits each year after. Our customers told their friends and even wrote us love letters. The team was close-knit; we started taking a 2-3 week “workcation” together each year.

One day, I picked up the phone and everything changed.

On June 4th, 2014, the day after the sale, I sat down with each employee, each one a friend, and I told them what happened.

I told them that when I got the call telling me I had leukemia, I faced two facts:

First, I had to pack up and leave California immediately.

Second, I had no backup plan. If I died, Photojojo died with me.

They saw me nearly go under and knew I’d had close calls. Suffering from stem cell transplant side effects, it was a year before I returned to San Francisco. But my body was still broken.

I realized I couldn’t have my old life back, but I also didn’t want it anymore.

I had struggled to get back, but my heart wasn’t in it. Maybe I no longer cared enough about the things everyone else cared about. Maybe eight years in, I simply craved a new challenge. It didn’t matter why — I couldn’t lead Photojojo that way, and I had promised myself the company wouldn’t be caught without a plan if something happened to me again.

But I’d kept all this secret.

Now I confessed to each of them that for the past year I’d quietly met with people who could help if I was out of the picture. I’d shored up weaknesses, improved processes, and hired. It was furtive, shadowy work, and the secrets made my stomach ache.

The goal: make myself unnecessary

I revealed that I’d talked to hundreds, considered several offers, and in the end narrowed it down to one. I said he understood who we were, and could help us be even better. His name was Sunny, and he was an unlikely choice not because his company, Zoomin, was a photo company too, but because it was located on the other side of the planet.

I’d met Sunny’s children, had dinner with his family, and stayed in his home. We’d been talking for over a year, I explained, and I trusted him. This was the plan to ensure Photojojo lived on. Sunny would buy the company, and I would shortly leave it.

That was 11 months ago.

What happened next?

I made Jen Giese, my friend and right-hand at Photojojo for five years, the CEO. The team has grown, recently releasing their first app. They just moved into a new, larger office on Market Street. And yes, they’re hiring.

I can’t promise Photojojo won’t change. But I rest easier knowing it won’t stay the same.

What about me?

I don’t know yet what’s next for me, but these past few months I’ve been thinking a lot.

I’ve been thinking about how if you’re lucky enough to be doing work you love, it’s your responsibility to plan for the day when you will no longer be able to do it.

I left San Francisco in November. For a few nomadic months I’ve been chipping away at my bucket list, advising friends’ companies (and Photojojo), making angel investments, writing, taking photos, and working on myself. I’ve a million ideas for new projects, but I’m trying my best not to start anything. For a little while, at least.

P.S. If you enjoyed this, leave your email and I’ll tell you when I write something worth reading again. (Not often, heck this took me a year to write):

Thank you

Om Malik, for graciously wielding an editor’s knife here more than once. Amber Rae, Buster Benson & Elle Luna for looking at early versions of this.


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