From Despair to Acceptance to Elation

IMG_3795This is a deeply personal story involving the most precious things in my life – my wife Renee and 18-month old son Jack.  Renee and I have been considering having another child, but at our ages the risks of complications and child health issues are increased, so we have been actively seeking out as much pre-pregnancy testing as possible.  One of the tests that was recommended by our fertility doctor was the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) carrier test through a simple, and relatively inexpensive ($99) at-home saliva swab kit, and many insurance carriers will cover some of the cost.  We’d never heard of the test or the disease.  It’s important you read about this horrific genetic disease before progressing, but a few key points:

  • SMA is a disease where certain nerves in the brain and spinal cord die, impairing a person’s ability to move.  In the majority of cases (Types 0, I, II) SMA manifests in infants and toddlers before the age of 2 and in most of these cases, death is the result.  The remaining cases (Types III, IV) result in various degrading movement levels and onset ages, but the majority of cases result in loss of independent walking capability sometime between 3 and 30 years of age.
  • If you are a carrier of the disease, you cannot contract the disease.  Renee and I were being tested as possible carriers, as given our ages and no physical symptoms, it is obvious we do not have the actual SMA disease.
  • Approximately 1 in 35 caucasians (where the disease is most prevalent) are carriers of the disease, so the likelihood of having two parents as carriers is roughly 1 in 1225.  And there must be two carriers of the disease to produce offspring that contract it.
  • If both parents are carriers, there is a 25% chance that the child will be born with the disease, and 70% of those children will die before their 2nd birthday.  The remaining 30% have a wide range of prognoses and outcomes, ranging from inability to walk sometime between 3 and 20 years old to death.  There is no outcome, if the disease is contracted, where the disease is dormant forever.  As I said, horrific.
  • There is no active testing protocol in place today for parents considering children or for the fetus during pregnancy.  This is shocking to me given the combination of contraction probabilities and severe outcomes if contraction occurs.  Because of this, the vast majority of parents do not know if they are carriers and the contraction of the disease in children or adolescents is only known once physical symptoms occur, which can be as early as birth and as late as adult onset (early 20’s).  Insidious.

Because of the lack of testing, parents and their children know nothing of this disease until symptoms show in the child.  But, our story is different.  Renee was tested early in January and received a positive test as a carrier of SMA, which we didn’t think much of outside of being a fluke.  Given her positive test, I needed to ensure I was not a carrier in order to guarantee absence of the disease in Jack and any future children.  However, on Friday, January 18, I received a positive test as a carrier of SMA, and our immediate thought was not about how does this impact our desire to have another child, but rather what does this mean for our 18-month old son Jack?

This moment began the most harrowing week of our lives as we waited for the genetic testing results from Jack’s blood draw.  An emotional journey through despair, intense and depressing research, mental preparation for the worst outcomes and finally, a focus on how to comprehend that our beautiful, strong son, who has zero symptoms of this debilitating disease, could degrade in physical strength and be in a wheelchair at any moment.  Or, it could take years to manifest itself.  It was this uncertainty – knowing if the disease was present, there’s no way to predict when symptoms would show or their severity – that we just couldn’t get our heads around.

Then we thought, should we even get the results?  How would knowing a positive test affect our interactions with Jack?  Would we treat him differently?  Could we as parents deal with the waiting, the imminent result?  We ultimately determined that knowledge was power, that a positive test would enable us to do everything in our power – time, energy and finances – to help our son.  And certainly a negative test would give us peace of mind, a selfish, but ultimately another important reason for us to know the results.

We cried ourselves to sleep for 10 nights, waiting.  Then, on Monday, January 29 our prayers were answered with a negative test for Jack.

Given our experience, and our dismay at the lack of proactive testing, Renee and I are going to at a minimum make a financial contribution and possibly get involved more deeply with Families with SMA, the non-profit association dedicated to research, funding and advocacy related to SMA.  We’ve been amazed over the past week at how many people have said, “yeah, I have a friend who’s child died from SMA” just within our personal networks.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  And we’d like to participate in the advocacy for a broader testing protocol.

Avoiding Complacency

This past week I sent the email below (verbatim) to my leadership team, not as a critique, but as a challenge.   I really find my own personal motivation goes in cycles and I have to fight through this issue from time to time.  The title of the email was the same as this post, “Avoiding Complacency”.

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Guys, I wanted to share a simple technique I use every week to ensure I’m staying motivated and focused on the right stuff.  To be clear, this is not a critique on our/your work ethic, commitment or anything else other than my normal “challenging” the team to stay awesome.  I recognize everyone is working hard. 

Candidly, one of the issues I personally have to wrestle with is avoiding complacency, becoming “comfortable” in my role and most important, losing a sense of urgency and paranoia that I believe is critical for any startup to succeed – the leadership team simply has to feel an almost overwhelming sense of urgency and belief that if we don’t get better fast, someone else is going to kill us.
 
One of the things I do every Sunday night before the week begins is to answer the question, in writing “In addition to all the crap already on my calendar this week, what am I personally going to do, this week, to move the needle for the company?”
 
We should all take this view and we should push our teams to take this view.  On a weekly basis, its not sufficient for us to “move our existing, albeit important, workstreams closer to completion”.  We each must actually accomplish something, each week, that is foundational to our success, that we can all see as a big step forward, that those looking in (investors, press, customers) would say – yeah, that’s big.
 
Now, is this realistically going to happen each week?  No, but it HAS to be a goal, a focus that each of us holds each other accountable to.  I want us to ask each other this question and I welcome you saying “Rob, what did you do this week to move the needle?”

Pondering Mortality

I celebrated my 43rd birthday this week, but this one was distinctly different – it was my first birthday as a Dad, and it really had me reflecting on the past year and particularly on the future in a very different way than past years.  My typical birthday routine is to enjoy a phenomenal cigar and an even more phenomenal glass of scotch while thinking about the past year and what I hope to achieve in the next year.  While the cigar, scotch and prior year reflections followed a similar routine, my thoughts, objectives and priorities for the future could not be more changed.  There were two key differences this year:

First, its not just about me and what I want to accomplish or what I want to do.  This is probably obvious to you who are parents, the birth of your child and the immediate and complete priority shift and sense of responsibility for their happiness and well-being become the leading priority in life.  But what really struck me and had me reeling (read: panic) a bit was the second stream of contemplation – the realization of my own age and it’s conflict with the longing I have to know my child into his old age.  To experience his adolescence, help him through heartbreak, watch him become the man he chooses to become, rejoice in his marriage and see his world change, just as mine did, when his first child is born and I become a Grandpa.  But wait!  I’m 43.  That means 60 at high school graduation.  What if he marries or decides to have children “late” in life like me.  That’s 86 at first child.  Ugh, you can see how this began to quickly spiral out of control as I began to hyperventilate with the cigar and gulp 19 year old scotch.

Then it hit me.  Quit being an engineer, trying to plan and predict your life and every outcome for those around you.  While we like to avoid thinking about it, let’s face it, there are dozens of causes, accidental or otherwise, for us to “go” at any moment.  Accidental death took my own father when he was just 36 years old (I was 9).  There is no better defense of “live in the moment” than when talking about loving and nurturing your children and breathing in all of the experiences, every day, that they bless us with.  The energy it takes us to worry, plan and predict is energy that can be channeled into our spouses, children, parents, friends and most important, our own happiness.  This is definitely a work in process for me, I’m not so good at it personally or professionally.

So my personal objective for this coming year is to be present for Jack, Renee and the rest of my family while also satisfying my own professional and personal needs.  And when I start stressing about my own mortality, I’ll just hammer out some miles on my bike, which I love, and visualize (but not stress!) being the healthiest Dad at high school graduation, even if 60 years old.

So Much to be Thankful For

2011 has been an amazing year for me, personally and professionally, at least that’s the way I choose to see it.  As I wrote in a previous post, I’ve been through the gamut of life events this year.  Marriage, baby, new job, cross-country relocation.  But as I reflect it all boils down to this – I’m happy.  I have an amazing wife, a healthy new child that is making me a better person, and a new stimulating role at BlackLocus in a city that I love – Austin.  I also have all of the things I had before!  A wonderful and loving extended family that has always given me unwavering support through the good and bad.  Finally, for the first time since childhood, I live near my brother who has two young children.  I feel truly blessed that we can be close and I can build a relationship with my nieces.

So today, like every other day, I’m thankful.  Happy Thanksgiving!

The Eagle Has Landed… In Texas

After an adventure that resembled something close to Chevy Chase’s Vacation, although no Christie Brinkley tailing us in a Ferrari, we finally made it to Austin.  Baby Jack did pretty good save for a few end-of-day meltdowns.  We made it manageable for him by capping our daily mileage to 425 miles over 4 driving days.  Now we have to hang out until Saturday when the movers arrive to relieve us of Inflatable Mattress Back Syndrome.  Finally, I’m looking forward to settling in to my new role as President of Blacklocus next week!

A sad note, unfortunately we lost our beloved Shetland Sheepdog Jackson during our stopover in Scottsdale.  His health had seen a rapid decline over the past month and he got to the point where he couldn’t keep any food down, so we had to say goodbye and send him on his way to the Rainbow Bridge while we were in Scottsdale.  Jackson was a faithful companion for Renee over the past 10 years, he will be missed.

Klaus and Jackson hangin' at Venice Beach

Mission Accomplished!

Jack seeing me off just before the race

This past weekend, we took a family trip to Las Vegas for three reasons – to visit some of Renee’s family, to do a “dry run” of having Jack in a car for a 5-hour stretch in anticipation of our upcoming move and finally, so that I could participate in the Las Vegas Gran Fondo, a road cycling race through the Red Rock Canyon area.  Believe it or not, we actually had a great, energizing weekend on all fronts.

Jack did great… as long as the car was moving.  He only started to get fussy when we returned to LA and hit the inevitable stop-and-go traffic that defines this place.  Renee really enjoyed seeing members of her family, including some that she had not seen since her childhood.  And I had a great race on Saturday, completing 100 miles and 8000 feet of climbing in just over 6 hours.  Somehow, I managed to finish in first place among roughly 60 riders.  Jack wanted to enter the race as you can see, but was disqualified since he had 4 wheels instead of 2.

 

Jack disqualified for using 4 wheels

All in all, a wonderful trip which gives us some confidence for our upcoming cross-country move  to Texas 9 days from today.

What’s Next? Part 3: Moving to Austin, TX!

I am ecstatic to announce that I’ll be joining a promising young startup in Austin, TX called BlackLocus as their President effective November 1.  BL was founded at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009 by 3 incredibly smart and innovative individuals – Rodrigo, Francisco and Lukas.  They’ve built technology that enables retailers who sell products online to optimize pricing at the product level in an automated way and in real-time, based on what competitors are charging, internal margin requirements, profit goals, etc.  It’s clear from customer interest, even among large retailers, that they are on to something unique and valuable.  The broader mission is to simplify, automate and profit maximize eCommerce.  A lofty goal indeed and I love how these guys think big.  The team was recently funded by VCs Silverton Partners and DFJ Mercury.

My role with the company will be to run the day to day operations and go-to-market strategy and execution, including hiring the leadership team (Analytics, Product, PR/Marketing, Recruiting/HR, Support and Sales/BD), acquire customers, generate meaningful revenue and establish the company as a thought leader in its space.  I couldn’t be more excited to join Rodrigo, Francisco and Lukas to help them execute on their vision.

What a journey its been over the past 4 months.  And I really do mean journey.  You can read the two previous installments of this process, Part 1 and Part 2.  I have actually really enjoyed the process, re-connecting with folks and meeting really interesting people in the various geographies I was pursuing.  It has been refreshing to take an external view and build some meaningful relationships after being so heads down at TrueCar for the past 4 years.  I’m looking forward to keeping that external focus and really getting involved in the Austin tech community.

This was a really tough decision given that there were multiple opportunities and they were all quite different – different geographies (Boulder, Austin, LA, SF), different roles (CEO, President, COO) and different stages of development (Seed, Post A-round, Pre-IPO).  An oversimplification, but it came down to two primary criteria for me – 1) the quality of the idea and absolutely huge market potential and 2) the team at BL, including the investors at Silverton and DFJ.

And, it will be great to be located in Austin with my brother and his family.  The Taylor caravan departs Los Angeles for Austin in just a few weeks.

Thanks to all my friends, family and others who were supportive and helpful along the way.  Let the new adventure begin!

Where Were You 10 Years Ago Today?

Ground Zero, taken from where the towers used to stand

Obviously today is a day of reflection for all of us, and a day of remembrance, mourning, hope and many other emotions for those closest to the tragedy.  I was in Arizona that day, just getting up to start my day when I turned on the TV to see the first tower up in smoke.  I was transfixed to the TV and at a complete loss for what to do.  It was surreal having a complete feeling of helplessness while watching it all unfold minute by minute.  I’ve spent this morning scouring social media and online news reading and absorbing countless stories from those who lost the most that day and thought I would share a few of the most impactful from my point of view.

  • The one must read story about  a town most impacted by 9/11 and events over the past decade:  “Hit Hard by 9/11, a Piece of Queens Struggles to Let Go”
  • An interactive map that lets you pinpoint and comment about where you were on 9/11.  Thousands of entries from everywhere on the planet.
  • A ten year interactive timeline of the evolution of ground zero, complete with pictures.
  • An article about the complex algorithm that was used to order all 2,983 names on the ground zero memorial.  It certainly wasn’t alphabetical, rather based on the complex relationships that existed among the victims.  Really interesting.
  • Jeff Jarvis, a survivor of 9/11, is at the memorial site today tweeting live about his observations @jeffjarvis

The Love For My Son

I’ve always heard the comment “you’ll never understand the love you can have for someone else until you have a child” and while I appreciated the point of view, I never really understood.  Now I do.

During Renee’s pregnancy, I never really had a deep bonding with this baby that I’d never seen and only periodically thought about throughout the day.  For Renee it was entirely different since she had this being growing inside her.  He was always present for her and there was a special bond developing and growing over those nine months.

It began for me in one precise moment, a moment I will never forget.  When his head first appeared in our world, that 1 second moment, I knew he was mine and that I already loved him in a protective and sacrificing way more than anything else in the world.  It really is hard to explain – unless you’ve experienced it then you know what I mean.

What’s so strange about this for me?  I don’t even know him.  I mean, even now after three weeks, he can’t talk to me, engage me or reciprocate my love in any way.  He can’t yet even look me in the eye.  All he does is sleep, eat and poop and while he is the master of all three, it’s all he can do and my interactions with him are exclusively caring for those three needs.  So why this deep, overwhelming emotional connection?  There is one attribute of a child that is unique about any other relationship or connection we can have – with pets, friends, partners, parents – that our children came from us, we made them, they are uniquely part of us and for me there seems to be an innate “protective and sacrificing” love that does not and cannot apply to anyone or anything else in exactly the same way.

There’s another new and exciting realization from this experience – a deeper appreciation, understanding and bond with my own parents, particularly my mother, for the sacrifice, commitment, guidance and love that she had and continues to have for me.  I never really even thought about what it meant to be a parent, much less having an appreciation for the 42-year sacrifice, protection and guidance that has dominated my mother’s life.

My favorite time with Jack now is when he is awake and alert while I’m holding him, usually after feeding.  In the span of one minute, his facial expressions gyrate across an entire spectrum that seems to communicate happiness, sadness, laughter, fear, constipation, joy, anger, wonderment, confusion, rage, contentment, exhaustion and anticipation.  I watch him intently seeing not only the physical features that are uniquely Renee or uniquely me, but also the emotional expressions that resemble us as well.  I think about him growing up and visualize various stages of his life when we can play together, when I embarrass him in front of his girlfriend, seeing him graduate, imagining what his personal and professional passions will be and worrying about whether he will be happy in life.

But for now I’m content to cherish each day, as every day that passes is one that he is growing up and that is forever in the past.

One thing is for sure, I love my son.

What’s Next? Part 2: Finding the Right Opportunity

In Part 1 of What’s Next?, I discussed my ideal search criteria for finding my next professional role.  In this post, I’ll talk about my process of uncovering, narrowing and choosing the right opportunity based on that criteria.

So, here’s the process I’ve been following –

Determining my ideal search criteria.  Geography, role, stage of company development, industry and cultural attributes were all important to consider during this self-assessment stage.  Part 1 of this series was devoted solely to describing in detail this first step.

Putting myself “out there”.  This step involved several activities for me, most important (and most surprising) of which has been this blog.  While I didn’t anticipate or intend it, there’s been a positive reaction to my personal and professional transparency, perhaps I’m coming across as more genuine and “knowable” than a typical candidate, I don’t know.  My original intentions for the blog were simply to enable  my close friends and family to keep tabs on me and the important things in my life, to motivate myself to form and articulate points of view on certain subjects and finally, to keep a journal of sorts.  While readership is not substantial, my blog is discoverable during the recruiting process and it has helped, not hurt my search efforts based on feedback I’ve received.

Another important component of this step was to take ownership of my personal brand – ensuring consistent, comprehensive and current information and messaging everywhere online.  Updating and staying active on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and this blog ensures that I’m easy to discover and the message I want to share is consistent across all platforms.

Firing up the network.  To be clear, this is not (yet) to target specific companies although several companies have emerged opportunistically directly from my network right from the get-go.  This step is really about a discovery process of re-connecting with folks in my existing network to 1) get introductions to others in their networks that either I want to meet or they recommend, and 2) to get perspective and insight into what is happening in the marketplace for the types of roles/companies I’m interested in.  I reached out to friends, current and former colleagues, VC’s I’d met while raising capital for TrueCar and Pricelock and tried to prioritize the initial outreach according to my search criteria in step 1.  So balancing access to both geography and to types of target companies I am seeking helped to focus the first round of contacts.

This has been the most fun part of the process for me, re-connecting with people that I’d lost touch with and also forging new and interesting relationships.  The more conversations I have, the more I notice trends in advice, perspectives and prospective company names.  Having “insider information” or knowledge of specific companies that others believe would be a strong fit really provides an efficient, targeted leg up on identifying interesting and high probable fit companies.  This outreach process started nearly 3 months ago for me and I did no real specific company targeting for the first two months.  I had conversations and/or met with roughly 100 individuals during this phase, half of which I reached out to directly and the other half came through introductions from the first half.

Creating a target list of companies, researching and narrowing.  After several rounds of networking conversations and research, I had well over 50 companies across 4 geographies that were mentioned somewhere along the way or came up in my own research.   Without getting too scientific, I matched up the opportunities first against my criteria and second where I thought I could get a personal introduction.  This trimmed the list by half to roughly 25 companies, a healthy portfolio recognizing that a portion of the remaining wouldn’t be a fit from a role perspective, meaning no senior ops leadership role is currently available.

Another important output of this step was to identify the “key influencers and connectors” from all of the prior networking activity that have credible access and can make quality introductions to the “short list” of interesting companies.  There are less than 10 of these connectors on my list, but most have provided multiple introductions or referrals.

Circling back for introductions.  Folks in my network really appreciated that I was specific when I reached back out to them for introductions.  Instead of contacting them for another general conversation or update, I asked for referrals to specific companies.  In many cases, I crafted the introductory email that they could forward to their contact with personal comment.  While I deeply appreciate the time people have invested in collaborating with me, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this smaller group of people who have put their own personal credibility on the line by introducing and recommending me to others in their networks.

Eat your Wheaties and dig deep, time to interview!  While every conversation is ultimately an “interview”, this stage is the most grueling and requires a lot of energy – actually going through the interview process with specific companies.  I’m finding that EACH company that I enter the process with as a candidate involves 3-6 rounds of interviews and requires interviewing deeply with 5-10 individuals at the company, Board and investor group.  Total interview time alone, excluding travel time, can top 25-30 hours per company.  This is the stage where I’m spending the preponderance of my time now across a “handful” of companies, although not every opportunity is in the same stage of development.

It is important to note that my approach has been a very personal one – reaching out to my network, extending that network and getting personal introductions and referrals to companies.  I did not post my resume anywhere online or respond to any job postings through traditional channels.  My experience shows that where supply outstrips demand (limited roles available, many gunning for them) and the more senior the role, the more critical a referral and personal introduction becomes to even be considered for a role.

I hope and expect to complete the process and make a decision within the next 30-60 days and dive into the next exciting role on or around October 1.  If I’m lucky enough to find and land the right opportunity, I’ll post Part 3 and let you know who it is.  Stay tuned!

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