This post was originally published on Medium.
We were desperate.
It was May 2011. My cofounder, Davide, and I did not have nearly enough money to survive. Through a friend we found out about Airbnb, so we immediately listed our rooms to be rented by travelers from all around the world.
The Airbnb income allowed us to continue working on our startup. Meanwhile, Davide and I shared a futon in the middle of our living room for six months.
In those days, I ended up sleeping with my cofounder more than I was sleeping with my girlfriend: as I learned the hard way, not the best way to earn points with a girl! As a friend put it, we were prostitutes (sleeping with each other for money).
We drew up, conceived, tried on, and eventually scrapped idea after idea, learning something new each time.
After crashing a Jewish orthodox wedding, we got passionate about resolving the pain in the neck that is collecting wedding guests’ photos in one place. Wedding Snap was born. Here’s the full story of our wedding crashing.
We were really passionate and determined to work on Wedding Snap, but by November 2011, we had finally run out of money. To make matters worse, Davide had only ten days before his visa expired. We had little left to lose, so we dedicated our last pennies and every last minute of those ten days to a trip to see this so-called Silicon Valley.
As soon as we landed in San Francisco, every day, we searched and scoured events on Eventbrite, Meetup, and Plancast. We couldn’t afford any of the tickets, so we crashed two to three events per day. Some of them were completely private, and some had ticket prices of $1,000+. (If you need instructions for creating your own mischief, here are some tips on how to crash any event.)
Through a random chain of events, someone introduced us to a mentor at 500 Startups. Afterwards, we found out that 500 Startups is actually a pretty big deal in Startup Land. Obviously, we started crashing their office space a couple of days later! We made some friends and then crashed their demo day again to see what it was like. I even ended up sleeping on their office couch one night.
The Silicon Valley Dream seemed promising, but in the end, we had to go back to Atlanta with our tails between our legs and face reality: we had failed. We were broke and Davide would be kicked out by immigration officers if he didn’t leave soon.
Years after his graduation from Georgia Tech, Davide had moved back to the US to pursue his ambitious dreams with me. Our journey’s unsuccessful run had me thinking: not only had I failed myself, but I had also failed a great friend who traveled across the world to pursue his dreams with me.
It was time to say goodbye. We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again. It was a very rough day when I had to drive him to the airport. I think I was more emotional than his girlfriend.
Six months before, I had graduated Georgia Tech as a decent Industrial Engineering student (3.50 GPA). However, I had absolutely NO INTEREST in working for “the man.” I was in love with business strategy, technology products, big-picture thinking, and building my own future. Naturally, the idea of a 9-to-5 job where I’d be looking forward to the end of the day and counting my 401K savings every day made me sick!
When I graduated, I asked my parents to give me six months so I could get my startup up and running:
If I do not sustain myself in 6 months I will go get a “real job” — The naive me
The time had come; I had to go work for “the man!” I applied to 70 or 80 jobs, got three interviews, and got three job offers. One worse than the other.
I accepted the third offer: a mindless 9-5, or what was called an “Industrial Engineering” job, where I completed tasks day in and day out, pretending that I was using my brain. I knew I would continue working on my startup if I took the job, so I did just that. I started focusing less and less on my “work” and more and more on my startup.
I was so determined to leave my job that after work I would go home, eat dinner, go to Starbucks to work on Wedding Snap until Starbucks closed, go home, continue working until 2 am, go to sleep, wake up at 7 am, and repeat. My girlfriend thought I was crazy.
Failure can destroy you, OR it can make you SO FREAKIN’ MAD that you TRY EVEN HARDER!
I felt like I was in the movie Shawshank Redemption, where Andy spends every day carving out a little piece of the wall with a spoon to make a tunnel out of his prison cell.
A week before 500 startups Demo Day in January, 2012, I found a super cheap ticket that took only 12 hours to go from Atlanta to San Francisco. Hence, I decided to fly out there and crash 500’s demo day and meet some investors.
My boss would’ve definitely not let me take days off on a day’s notice, so I told him that a relative had been in a car accident and I was going to fly out to Chicago to take care of the kids. A little white lie never hurt anyone, right? He let me go and insisted on counting the days as sick days.
Crashing demo day was easy. I told the receptionist that I worked for Twitter and I was there to check out the new startups for potential partnerships.
I noticed someone who looked important. I read his name tag, looked him up on LinkedIn, and realized that not only was he an investor, but he was a mentor at 500 Startups. He was also into photography and Italy — AMAZING! Guess where my cofounder is from?
For a second, I started believing in everything my Iranian high school teacher used to say about miracles: there is a God and he’s sending me a present after this shitty year. With nothing to lose, except getting kicked out, I went to introduce myself and told him about my startup (as I learned later, in Silicon Valley they call this “pitching”). Let’s just say he was severely unimpressed!
We started debating and I felt punches were being thrown at me from all different directions. At that time, we didn’t have traction (a Silicon Valley word meaning a lot of users or revenue) to prove him wrong. I felt like a blind dude getting into the ring with Rocky Balboa!
No fruits came out of that trip. I slept at 500’s office again and hopelessly flew back to Atlanta the next day.
I had already scheduled another trip to the Valley in mid-Feb (2012). The plan was to go to the L.A. Bachata Festival with my dance team and then fly directly to SF to plant more roots in the Valley and seriously investigate what it takes to move there. I had already told my boss about my trip to LA and SF a long time ago, so he could count it as vacation.
However, disaster struck!
The exact day of my flight to LA, I made a colossal screw-up at work that cost the company $20,000 by ordering some unsellable material for inventory. I tried calling the seller in Russia, and they wouldn’t take it back. I tried sweet-talking the lady, but she literally said, “Go to hell!” (with a mobster Russian accent).
My boss called me into his office. I walked in to find my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss’s boss all in one room. I wasn’t that important, so something told me this was not good.
Given the $20,000 mistake, my “hard work and passion” for the job, “emergency trip” to SF, and the fact that I was planning to take 9 out of my 10 days of annual vacation (not to mention the additional 3 sick days) within the first 90 days of my job, they fired the “innocent,” right-out-of-college, young, ambitious me.
I knew I was going to quit soon, but I still felt like crap for getting fired. I got dumped, which wasn’t exactly how I envisioned leaving the company. But, even more, I felt bad for my boss. He was one of those really hard-working, nice, quiet guys who worked hard to do his job while counting his 401K savings every day.
I knew that getting fired was a trigger for me to move from Atlanta to Silicon Valley immediately.
It had taken me five years of living in Atlanta to finally be able to establish a very close group of friends. I was emotionally devastated that I had to sever ties with the family I had finally built in Atlanta. At my very last Bachata dance performance, I quietly broke the news to them.
One cannot discover new lands unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. -André Gide
With the unexpected loss of my job, I was completely broke. All credit cards were maxed out. None of the seven other credit cards I applied for gave me a dime of credit. My last hope was to sell my crappy old Dodge and maybe get two grand for it.
Three days before I was planning on selling the car, on my way home from a night working at Starbucks, I stopped for gas. After I filled up the tank, I turned the wheels to exit the gas station, and I noticed the car was not moving. One wheel turned. The other wheel was determined to stay.
The car’s main transmission frame was broken. It would cost at least another $1,500 to fix that. I thought about giving it to the AAA guy who came to tow it for free.
I had read Paul Graham’s essay about different cities and environments and how they affect your potential for success, so I was inspired to move to the heart of Startup Land and stumble upon more opportunities. I had to be in Palo Alto.
As I find out after moving there, EVERY THING in Palo Alto costs an arm and a leg plus three livers. Luckily, I found an old middle-school friend who had recently gotten into Stanford and was living in a studio in a Stanford dorm.
I got in touch with him for the first time in 10 years and politely asked if I could crash at his place for a couple of days until I found my own place. I ended up living on his three-foot love-seat for several weeks.
I remember the first time I went to a grocery store to buy some food. I just looked at the prices and almost everything was double the price in Atlanta. I had a senior citizen moment: “What the f**k am I doing here?” Only in Palo Alto.
I only had a couple of Benjamins in my bank and definitely not enough for any sort of real transportation. With no other choice, I borrowed some dough again from my older bankrupt brother to buy a bike.
After finding a good bike to purchase, I was still left with a lack of public transportation from Stanford to East Palo Alto. I decided to walk there. “Luckily” it started to rain, but I needed to get the bike so I could ride to Y Combinator’s demo day the next day. I had my iPhone and earphones with me to listen to an audiobook while walking there. My iPhone died 10 minutes through. Two and a half hours later, I was “happily” on my bike.
After weeks of religiously examining Craigslist listings, I finally found a tiny room in a Palo Alto house leased by the founders of a very nice startup for $735 a month.
At the end of March, I managed to gather up a couple Benjamins and buy two sponsored blog posts for Wedding Snap. I thought this would be our break. We got two sign-ups.
After harassing different wedding websites for partnerships, I was finally able to secure a vendor-deal with the Wedding Channel’s Deals website (kind of like Groupon for weddings). The deal opened mid-April and they would feature and sell Wedding Snap for a week.
Wedding Snap sold $15,000 worth of products in the first week!
“More than any other product since I’ve been working here,” said Alyssa, the director of the deals section of Wedding Channel. They were so happy with our deal that they actually decided to extend the deal for another week, and we sold another $9,000.
Up until that time, Davide was working remotely but full-time with me from mama’s house in Italy. We now had money, and it was time for him to come back. After the Wedding Channel deal, sales on our website also skyrocketed. We ended up making close to $400,000 that year. We expanded the team and launched Eversnap a year later.
It always seems impossible until it’s done. — Nelson Mandela
It’s still quite unbelievable to me how things were so dark prior to our Wedding Channel deal. EVERYTHING was uncertain.
I remember my girlfriend would rent a car every time she would visit me from Atlanta. Just to ride in a car again as opposed to being slapped in the face by thick raindrops on my bike felt like it was my birthday every day.
Sometime it just takes blind dedication to run a marathon full of frustrating uncertainties to find only tiny drops of success (especially in tech startups). But you’re an ambitious warrior.
As a warrior, you’re NOT fighting for yourself; you’re fighting for those who did not grow up to have your ambition and courage due to their nature, nurture, and opportunities presented to them. In other words, you are selected against all odds to lead a bigger impact. In other words: you owe it to everyone else.
When the most successful people in the world were asked the secret to their success, they all said one thing: I didn’t give up.
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