Startup DNA

Written by David Ortinau

It was late on a Sunday night when I got the urgent call. An offer was being made to acquire ThisLife, and we were going to be individually interviewed the next morning.

This is the call we’d been hoping and dreaming for. Nearly 3 years of late nights, early mornings, and “can you work the weekend” requests were finally paying off.

Ben had started on ThisLife before I had, and left almost a year in to pursue other projects.

Many had left along the way. Some had tried to leave and got sucked back in. The pace and stress of something of this magnitude takes a toll on you. We were regularly pitching to just about every big tech name you can think of that might have had even a remote interest in what we are doing.

In preparation for the interviews we were asked to provide a resume. I hadn’t written a resume or anything close to it in nearly 10 years.

As I blew the dust off the old Word doc, I found myself having a very different perspective on my career. Three years as part of a Silicon Valley startup had given me new insight.

Forged in the Fire

In 1996 I took my first steps towards what would be my career path in technology and software. I was working for a film production company and they decided to partner with a broadcast radio veteran to take a change on live streaming events online. Because I was the kid that setup the office network and servers, I was charged to “make it happen”!

There was no roadmap, no precedent for what we wanted to do. When I spoke with the engineers at Progressive Networks (then makers of Real Player) they shrugged their shoulders.  It wasn’t being done to their knowledge.

We met with radio station engineers and telecom engineers, and in the end rigged up a remote audio coupling solution. I built servers and encoding machines from parts, constructed a crude server room with increased airflow and reduced static electricity.

I was young and stupid and nobody told me I couldn’t.

The highlight of this adventure for me was delivering a week of live webcasts from Moscow, Russia. I coordinated with a local ISP to provide dialup service from the CSKA Sports Complex, borrowed a Toshiba Satellite, rush ordered a passport and visa, and flew out.

Less than a year after I left this company behind to move my growing family back to St. Louis, the company was sold for many times more than the initial investment.

First of Many

I didn’t know at the time what I now realize, that I had just enjoyed my first experience as part of a successful startup!

As I went over the next and the next and the next “company” on my list, it occurred to me that I had played a part in growing, shaping, and accelerating companies along their path to success. In the midwest we weren’t cool enough to call them startups, but they certainly were in one way or another.

There was the interactive shop that we merged with a traditional advertising and marketing firm to give them an internet capability.

Then the healthcare software company that grew from 4 people to 20, raising revenue from $200k to $3M, and then a major acquisition shortly after I departed to start my own company.

ThisLife joining Shutterfly was and has been an even greater experience. Getting acquired is a fantastic achievement. It’s a recognition that we have done something valuable and useful. It’s validation. And while it certainly has it’s tangible rewards, the bigger win is that our product now is supported by a massive infrastructure of technology and talent to get that product in the hands of many more people than we could have reached on our own.

I’ve experienced working with a small, fast moving team during the hectic startup days of pitching investors and wooing popular buzz. I’ve navigated through technologies dying and being born in the middle of a product lifecycle (Flash/HTML5). And I’ve experienced integrating products with a new team and organization, and bringing that product fully to market.

No Formula

None of this makes me a know it all. I don’t have a formula for success. I don’t know 7 sure-fire steps to startup enlightenment.

But I do understand the struggles and pressures of launching an idea, of the highs and lows that go with it, of the strategic importance of hiring and partnerships to catalyze the product development and get alphas and betas into people’s hands, and so much more.

Doing things that perhaps have never been done? Sounds like the street I’ve been living on since day one.

This is why Ben and I started Rendr, to do work that matters, that innovates in existing markets to disrupt and improve lives. Is there really any more exciting work to do?