College at 15: How I turned an abusive childhood into selling my company to Meta
My dad was physically abusive. Finding safety and love in achievement worked decently and gave me baseline happiness, until I stopped achieving.
At any high school in the world, you'll find dozens of victims of childhood trauma. Anywhere you see someone “hanging out with the wrong crowd,” abusing drugs, having risky sex, or generally seeking negative attention, you'll see the outward manifestation of the effects of trauma, without seeing the cause directly.
But what about that kid who graduates from high school and college at the same time? What about the startup founder who sells their company to Meta?
Judging that book by its cover tends to send people to another route: A priviliged person using their connections to get what they want.
I'm a person who came from an abusive childhood, and used achievement to get positive attention to cope with a rough home life.
I’ve met a few people like me. They’re all entrepreneurs, and as far as I can tell, the resilience you form from developing healthy coping mechanisms in spite of your immediate circumstance seems to set in motion the idea that the world around you is made by people no smarter than you, from circumstances no better than yours, and you can change it just as they have.
My dad's rough childhood
My dad grew up in rural New Jersey, son to a mother forcibly committed to a mental health institution when he was just 8 years old. Brother to a sister who ingested rat poison to commit suicide. He found her while she was still pleading for her life. She still ended up dying.
In his own life, he overcame that adversity through achievement. He falsified his age and entered the airforce at age 16. He ended up as a successful program manager for the cold war era minute man missile program. (It’s not lost on me that my old man was essentially a PM at the biggest tech company of the day1.) He married my mom, had 6 children (I'm the youngest) and moved to Utah.
Utah's majority religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (I am a member, as were my parents and siblings.) The religion focuses heavily on being family-centered and emulating Jesus Christ's most prolific lessons around humility, love, and sacrifice.
While many around me had amazing home lives, I'm sure with their own hidden trauma... my trauma was on public display. My dad was always right about everything. If you stood in his light while he was working? "Goddammit Randy, get out of my light!!" If you accidentally dropped a glass? "Why the hell were you being so stupid??"
Once, a neighborhood boy across the street (notoriously the loud kid on the block, also regarded as "not mormon") was being bullied by other kids from our street. One bully let the air out of his bike tires as it was parked in front of our home.
My dad raced out there (overweight, somewhat short... at least that moment was funny) and literally grabbed the 10-year-old bully by the neck, and threw him into the grass. All the neighbors saw it happen.
I went outside to try to calm my dad by hugging him. My best friend David's mom came out and was rightly chastising my dad. My friend was no longer allowed to play at my house.
The neighborhood felt like it had changed, and I wasn't welcome anymore.
(I don't know how he never got arrested for that. It's insanity.)
For the me and my two brothers, the bully had it easy. Daily, we were verbally abused. At least monthly we were physically abuse. To my sisters, he never hit them, but his rage left them hiding in their rooms, witnessing physical abuse and they were subject to constant emotional assaults.
By the time I was eight, my dad was approaching early retirement from his career, thanks to the end of the cold war. The thought of him being home when I got home from school definitely filled me with terror, not excitement.
Even when other people were around, the terror never let up. In 1992, before fantasy football was easy to do on the internet, my sports-obsessed brother was holding a fantasy football draft with probably 6 of his friends.
In the other room, as an eight year old, I already suffered from depression. Sometimes I slept on the floor, and it would help calm me down2. My dad came in my room with a blind rage. How dare I sleep on the floor, and how dare my mother endorse it!! He had me stand up, look at him in the face. I had an out of body experience where I saw myself looking up at my dad as he slapped me so hard it flung me to the ground. I had a nosebleed, and definitely was terrified.
My brother came in, I ran out, and I knew they were fighting each other. I remember my brother Ryan running past me with a bloody nose, and one of his friends calling the cops. I’m not really sure what happened after that, but my dad never was charged as far as I’m aware.
My home was never safe. Neither emotionally nor physically.
By the time I was old enough to get out of the house with friends, I spent every single minute I was allowed away from home. I didn’t realize it at the time, but home was associated with pain, and it was the last place I wanted to be. It’s traditionally at this point in the story where a someone like me starts to cope with negative attention coping mechanisms, like drugs, other addictions, risky sex, violence of their own, etc., when they enter high school.
I’m not sure why, but none of that ever seemed like it would fix anything, so why bother? Only fate, my genetics, god or the flying spaghetti monster pointed me away from that and toward achievement.
At 15, I joined a program called Upward Bound, where I was invited to live in college dorm rooms, and earn 10 college credits per summer. The 100 kids in the program were all either poor or first generation college students. My parents by that point were living on a fixed income, so while I’m not certain, I think I met both criteria.
At Upward Bound, I finally found my people. Without the baggage I felt at school, where I felt nervous to take anyone to my house or develop any deep friendships, instead I was free to write my own story. Some girl had a crush on me! (WHAT!?) I was actually kind of popular! What the hell? It felt amazing!
I’m certain it was because I felt safe in that environment. No risk of physical violence whatsoever, nor any emotional abuse helped me feel valued. The staff often remarked of my potential, and I felt more like I could be myself. Their unconditional love and friendship still continues to this day thanks to Facebook.
Safety drives outcomes
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well worn psychological ground.
Each section of the hierarchy is crucial to the next one. If any of the prior steps falls into a negative state, people revert down to that state.
For young me, I was stuck on the safety or belonging and love rungs of the pyramid for my entire childhood. I had little self-esteem, and I couldn’t imagine caring about the my grades, let alone the aesthetics of anything.
Moving up the pyramid
Being out of the home meant being safe. Being safe meant being happy.
After the first summer, I resolved to get my associates degree before I graduated from high school… landing me a guaranteed scholarship to any school in Utah and financial independence from my parents.
Luckily, I found out I could take advantage of an early enrollment program to get my school district to pay for tuition, and my parents footed the bill for books.
It was amazing. Unlike high school, I actually made friends. Since I went out of my way to avoid introducing my family to my friends, I never felt unsafe. That (other) fistfight with my 8th grade basketball coach? Never heard of it. My friends appreciated me for me, with no pretext.
After a while, I joined every out-of-home activity I could find, and had built my ideal setup:
- 5am (radio show)
- 7:30am (high school pt 1)
- 11am (college pt 1)
- 1pm (high school pt 2)
- 4pm (job)
- 7pm (college pt 2)
- 9pm (get home and go to sleep avoiding everyone)
This constant state of busy, and the eventual outcomes it drove, were self reinforcing. It was intertia, it was momentum, it was the happiest I had been to date.
Startups, it turns out, also live and die on momentum. When a startup is growing, investors want to invest, employees want to join, and everything feels like it’s only a matter of time before ringing the opening bell at the NASDAQ. When momentum is not there, people start looking for the exits, investors dry up, and things feel hopeless.
As you might expect, personal achievement works the same way. After graduating with my associates degree 30 days before my high school diploma, I threw myself into achievement after achievement.
I immediately moved out, started going to college, served a one year mission for my church, then graduated from college.
I immediately worked for KSL TV in Salt Lake City, which then turned into a better job as a podcast producer at Engadget, which then turned into a short-lived Netscape project (where I moved to New York).
Then, I got married, landed my "dream job" at CNET, eventually winding my way to Silicon Valley to work at Justin.TV as an early employee, well before it was ever called Twitch3.
Lastly in this voyage, I was fortunate to become Y Combinator’s A/V guy for demo day from 2011 - 2013. This exposed me to startups, and showed me that the only thing I was missing from changing the world around me was learning to code. Eventually I started a company and joined YC as a startup founder, not the A/V guy.
Each of these activities I viewed as another form of achievement. I had done things other people talked about doing but never did, and each step drove me toward a higher sense of self and “made me happy.” But in reality, each one was really giving me dopamine.
Again, if I had gone on a 7 year bender, people would have judged me. Instead, they praised me, without any idea of why I was doing all of those things.
Like any good dopamine addict, eventually I overdosed on achievement.
Eventually, there's something outside your control that derails you, or you take on a task for which you're not ready. Now, you crash, turning your achievement high into achievement depression.
While the run up to Vidpresso had been years of observably consistent improvement, after Vidpresso became a real company instead of a science project, the company underperformed.
From April 2014 through February 2016, our revenue was flat. We had grown during Y Combinator to about $25k per month in revenue, but after demo day we flat lined. Turns out selling products to a small number of customers + lengthy sales cycles + an old school mentality = a low growth startup. We weren’t dying, but we were adding enough customers to offset those who were churning. We were a zombie.
In 2015 I felt more depressed than I can remember. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. My company wasn’t going well, and my health took a turn. Not from stress, but from a baseball-sized tumor pushing on my brainstem.
Before I even knew about my tumor, I started going to therapy. My therapist helped me understand: My achievement defined my identity. When I was achieving things, I felt happy, and when things weren’t progressing forward, I felt sad.
Skipping over the brain tumor thing for a minute… (I’ll get back to that in another post) Vidpresso wasn’t growing because I didn't understand how to run a company.
I was convinced the grand plan I had concocted was going to work. I had the technological underpinnings to alter the way video was produced and consumed, who cares if these TV engineering fossils couldn’t understand what I was doing?
The lack of humility and insight made me miss the core truth: This product and most products serving media companies are destined to be small businesses, not startups.
I wasn’t ready for that, and still pushed forward with bad idea after bad idea, trying to serve a market I understood, but that didn’t care about me whatsoever.
Eventually, I got lucky (with some well timed deals with Facebook) and learned how to run a business, and Vidpresso ended up being my greatest achievement-based self-esteem success to date.
At Facebook (now Meta), I haven't been successful. I've built some really big projects (Live Producer started b/c of my pushes) but we were unable to realize the original promise of Vidpresso.
Over the last four years, I've consistently received average or below average performance ratings. Basically, Vidpresso all over again. I had a grand vision, I was going to see it happen, and I didn't care if my managers didn't get it. (They didn't, and I was being arrogant and a dick.)
This time around? 2022 was my redemption year. Working with a manager who did appreciate the work I had done in the past (Live Producer!) he put me in a position to do what I do best: Solve ambiguous problems irrespective of resources.
I got the highest performance rating possible. Something <1% of employees get.
I've been living one of the most prolific teachings of my church: Achievement freed me from destruction and suffering, but ultimately the prosperity I received turned back into its own form of suffering.
I wasn't able to separate out that achievement, while very useful for building self esteem, is a hollow objective. It's having a goal, vs having values.
I'm 38 now, and it feels like I've just hit emotional prosperity again. Can I stay on this path? Finally?
I hope so. Maybe writing it down will finally make it stick.
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Also forgive the clickbait headline, but honestly, I was a journalist / blogger for years. You think I can let an old habit like that go? Views are achievement dopamine, baby, and I'm here for it.
If you don’t know me already, I’m a software engineer but they call me a “product hybrid” where I do anything required to ship a product, including product management. ↩︎
I have two autistic sons, and think my father was likely autistic. It’s likely this was a manifestation of proprioceptive stimming. ↩︎
For illustrative purposes, I’ve emphasized the positive and left out the negative. My brother Ryan died in a car wreck, I helped start a startup that failed in 2008, I did my own projects that didn’t go anywhere, but the trajectory was not static for more than three months at a time. ↩︎