Truthfully, I am really nervous.
There’s really no way around this feeling. I decided near the beginning of 2020, back when I was still belting out Alanis Morissette songs at karaoke without fear, that teaching was something I could no longer pursue in good faith. At least at that specific life juncture.
See, after leaving my first start-up company back in 2017, I started coaching track and field at my former high school, specifically the sprinters. In our first dual meet of the season, we got swept (the other team won first, second and third) in every sprinting event. I immediately fell in love. I asked my former high school coach to meet with me shortly after. He was, and still is, coaching the boys team at Burlington High, and I was a coach for the girls. He thought I was going to tell him that I hated it because the team stunk. Quite the opposite, really.
I told him my story over indoor beers (the glory days, huh? Imagine taking that for granted…) and he shared a similar sentiment from when he was my age. He had a job; for him it was government. He started coaching track. He loved it. He wanted to keep doing it. So he took up teaching. I thought about it. Which other jobs would allow me to be at the gym at 3:30 for track practice? Not many.
So I followed suit. I immediately applied to graduate school, got my degree in the quickest possible amount of time (something I do not recommend in hindsight) and was ready to pursue a career of teaching and coaching. Except, I wasn’t.
What I realized, probably early on in that experience, even if I may have told myself otherwise back then, was that I loved coaching and only liked teaching. When I was grading papers I was thinking about our depth chart for the next week. When I was teaching kids about symbolism in 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird, I was picturing the looks on the faces of kids breaking their PRs (personal records) in their events. I found it difficult to think of anything else.
So, I made a difficult decision late in 2019 and early in 2020. I was going to put teaching on the back burner. I went back to what I knew best, scouring AngelList boards and looking for a new start-up gig.
Most of this experience felt like “dumb millennial in existential crisis stubbornly only open to job opportunities directly aligned with his ‘passion.’” Safe to say, this didn’t go very well. Especially with so many people looking for jobs due to the onset of you-know-what. Months passed. I was blessed with interviews and opportunities, but no job offers. I kept faith. And then I got an email for a co-founder position at TIKI.
Immediately I clicked with Mike and what he wanted to do. At this time, I was monitoring Twitter pretty heavily (and becoming a worse person for it, no doubt). One particular instance stuck out to me. The New York Post was suspended. SUSPENDED from Twitter for posting an article about a certain “President Elect’s” son’s laptop. Suspended? Now, I know the NYP isn’t exactly the best source for news, but it has been around for 219(!!!) years. And, you know, the First Amendment is still a thing, right? …right?!
Now, there isn’t a direct correlation to Twitter suspending the New York Post and what we want to do at TIKI. But the sentiment remains: big tech companies have way too much power. The Facebooks, Amazons, Twitters and Apples of the world have access to more information about world citizens than any person or entity has ever had before. At least that we know of.
Mike wanted to do his part in changing this. The pitch was relatively simple. We give up a ton of our own personal information in exchange for “free” services. These companies make a ton of money off of sending us increasingly personal targeted advertising. And we see none of that money. Surely there should be a way to reverse course here, right? Surely we can regain some control over what we share online?
That’s what Mike wants to do. And now, that’s what I want to do too.
And I’m damn nervous. I’ve worked at a start-up before, but even this is more risky. My first start-up had customers. It had a product. With TIKI, all we have right now is an idea and the same punk rock spirit that captivated so much of my teenage and early-twenties. Queue up the Rage Against the Machine.
This might not work. There’s plenty of other companies who are trying to do what we want to do. Some of them have been in operation for years. Most already have a product and users. But I do not think many, if any, of those competitors are willing to do what we are willing to do.
We want to go full open-source. All the code of the product will be available for anyone to see, in real time. We want to be especially selective with who we take money from and when. We do not want to be beholden to investors and stakeholders who might compromise the task of making a product built that prioritizes users making money. Lots of companies preach transparency. We will actually follow through on that promise.
Early on, we also made a promise to not let our own personal success take priority over the user. We don’t want to become successful just to make money. We want to become successful by doing what is right — take power back from the companies who treat us like potential boons to their bottom line — and to do all of this while staying true to ourselves and the original ethos that spawned this idea in the first place.
We want to balance being trustworthy and relatable. We want to hire the best people we can to make sure our software is as secure and user-friendly as possible. We want to do this with a jovial wacky-armed mascot.
To listen in on a Zoom conference call for TIKI in late 2020, you will hear the voices and see the faces of a small group of individuals making personal and professional sacrifices in order to do something truly greater than themselves.
And here I am again, back in the start-up saddle, hoping the decisions I have made are the right ones, knowing this might fail, but that it also could fundamentally change the status quo.
I suppose you could say this millennial, through merit, luck, or stubbornness, has found a way to align his career with his passions. And you can bet I’ll be there at 3:30 when track practice finally kicks off again.