My dot-com saga started in a Stanford dorm room in 1997. I was a 19-year-old sophomore when three of my fellow classmates started Getfit.com, which was basically an online personal trainer. The Web site took people's physical measurements, their health goals and the workout equipment they owned or had access to, and, using a customized artificial-intelligence engine, produced a personalized fitness plan. I started off at Getfit as a summer intern, and after graduating in 2000 with a degree in computer science, climbed onboard full time as a software engineer. By then the company had received nearly $20 million in funding and had 60 employees.
Engineering-wise, I think we had a phenomenal product, but we ran into the same problems as everyone else during the dot-com boom. People were hesitant to pay for our service. We bought into the "get big fast" philosophy that was going around, and thought our ideas and products were as good as any of the others making a killing. I think it kind of diluted our business sense: you have to run a real business that makes more than it spends--you can't just keep expecting to get funding forever. We also had extravagant employee parties every other Friday, with beer and sushi. By the end of 2000, there was a lawsuit against the company, the investors were fleeing, new capital was impossible to find and I was looking for a job.
The first few months of 2001 were a scary time. I had just bought a condo in the East Bay and didn't know how I was going to pay for it. Was there room for one more Stanford computer-science grad in the tailspinning economy of the Silicon Valley during the dot-bomb era? Some of my old colleagues were taking time off, recovering from those brutal 80-hour weeks. Others joined new start-ups, some of which also died, and the cycle continued for them. I had faith that the skills I learned at school and at Getfit were valuable no matter what happened. I started consulting for someone trying to restart Getfit, and also for a new start-up, SimpleDevices. It's a software company based in San Mateo, Calif., that's working to deliver music, and soon other digital content like video, beyond the PC to devices around the home such as the stereo and car. By March, I was working full time there, doing Web and PC software development. That's where I work today.
I'm generally risk-averse in my personal life. But professionally, I believe working at a start-up is more rewarding than a traditional company. I guess I could go to an older tech company, take those stock options and hope they'll be worth something someday. But there's little chance of their really exploding. And stability is supposed to be the advantage of landing at an established concern, but as we're seeing these days, that's not always the case. At start-ups, the pay is good, people are excited--and there's always the chance of that big reward.
I really enjoy software: everyday I go to work and there's a challenging problem to solve, and everyone's solutions are different. The software business might not be as lucrative as everyone thought it would be during the dot-com years, at least as far as pure Web technologies go. But I think companies will always have a place for people with my technical abilities.