Buying Health Insurance

December 21, 2009

Another reason to do a startup now: the older you get, the more expensive it will be to purchase individual health insurance. As someone purchasing health insurance for the first time, I was shocked by the process. The cost is one thing, but the complexity of the fine print is even worse. I’m no longer surprised that so many Americans do not have health care. Given the average salary, there just isn’t an affordable option that provides security. The most reasonably priced options cover very little, and it is mind-numbing when signing up to figure out exactly what you are buying. Unless you can afford fully comprehensive insurance, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. No wonder so many choose to just pocket the money.

I’m lucky to be young – my requirements are minimal and I am not on any medications. I narrowed down my options to two choices, one being catastrophic insurance under $100/month, and the other appearing to be a more comprehensive policy at about $150/month (anything better was $250+/month). Offered by the same company, I poured over the details to find the catastrophic policy was actually better – both the price and the coverage. Sure, the more expensive plan covers a bit more (mainly prescriptions), but it also charges more for the services a person is more likely to need. My conclusion was you either get the most basic plan, or the most comprehensive which I could not afford; everything in-between seemed misleading, and did not provide security either.

We need health care reform. I don’t know if the bill currently being considered will fix the problem, but I’m glad the discussion is occurring. That’s if you can call it a discussion. Politicians always talk about small businesses being the life blood of the country, but without the most basic security to take a risk it is severely limited. If I wasn’t in good health, I wouldn’t be able to do this startup. If I had a family, I wouldn’t be able to consider it. We are supposed to be the land of the free, but we are indentured servants reliant on our masters to survive. Some people argue universal healthcare is socialist, but it’s a basic right. Can someone explain to me why public schools are not socialist, but healthcare is?

I consider myself fortunate to be in good health, but by doing a startup I am putting myself at risk. To start a business, I am forced to risk my health should an event occur. I don’t know how someone older does it, especially with a wife and kids. I hope this country can figure out a way to provide such basic security for its population. If small business is indeed the life blood of the country, then this would be a no-brainer. All I ask for is a genuine intelligent debate amongst elected officials trying to do what is best for the country. I find it sad that this is what I have to wish for.

Things Always Works Out

December 17, 2009

My brother moved to Seattle shortly after me. His girlfriend had moved here too. He was a lawyer working 80 hour weeks for not enough pay, and he was unhappy. He packed up his car from Cleveland, Ohio and drove to Seattle. The change in his personality was instantaneous, from tired and grumpy to happy and satisfied. His lone cross-country drive was transformative. He quickly passed the Washington State bar exam, but could only find work temping since so many lawyers were being laid off. He doesn’t regret a thing. In fact, he makes more money temping than he did working full-time. He controls when he wants to work, and if he works overtime, he is compensated. “Things always have a way of working out” he told me.

Tonight was my team’s holiday party, which was held in the space needle. I was literally handling a queue of coworkers complaining about their jobs and asking my advice on what to do next. One of the individuals told me he has been working on a business on the side, but hasn’t been able to walk away from the safety of his full-time job. When I attended the StartupDay conference in Bellevue, WA earlier this year, the advice across the board was don’t leave your day-job. Instead, they said to work on the startup during spare time and use the salary to live. I tried this, but found my job was draining my creative energy. I also found my performance slipping, and was worried about my reputation. I knew I had to leave if I was going to truly pursue my project.

Asked what to do, I walked him through my thought process. I told him how difficult my decision was. And then I launched into my brother’s story. Midway through, a photographer snapped a photo of us, and we started to chat. She told us that she had been laid off from our company in May, and that it had been one of the most liberating experiences. She had 6 months of severance, and was finally able to pursue her passion for photography. “I had never felt so creative” she said. Now she was photographing parties for the company, probably at a very profitable rate. She told us she even photographed her former organization’s party, and that it was a pleasure because she was now doing what she loved. I turned to my questioner and said “And there you go – things always work out. Consider this a sign.”

I don’t know how things are going to work out for me. But I do know that things are going to work out for me somehow. I know I’m going to end up some place different, some place that is better for me. Ultimately, you know what’s right for you and you shouldn’t fight it. After all, what’s really the worst that can happen?

Don’t Forget You Are Alive

December 15, 2009

Today I was watching a 2005 Stanford commencement speech given by Steve Jobs. He spoke about connecting the dots – how some gut instincts that might not make sense in the present will fit perfectly into place in the future. He talks about needing to find what you love to do. But what really caught me was what he had to say about death:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool that I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life… Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking that you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

While making my decision, the topic of death did occur to me. I thought of looking back at my life on my deathbed, and my decision seemed plain and simple. Steve Jobs really puts it into words well. Life is too short to be unhappy. What’s interesting about life is that while we may not know what’s RIGHT for us, we definitely know what’s not right, and that serves as a very good guide. Finding yourself is like finding calm water in a storm. When thought of this way, one realizes change does not have to be resisted, but embraced.

“I have looked myself in the mirror every morning and asked myself ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

One of my journals from when I was 18 years old has the following written all over the first page: “Don’t forget you are alive”. Looking at adults, I decided there must be a moment in each person’s life when their youth vanishes. I decided to write this note to remind myself of who I used to be, who I truly was, who I could be – so as not to get lost like so many others. Of course, I burried the journal in a drawer and forgot about it. A few years later, my personal change came. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the event. Let’s just say, if I went back in time before this event and asked myself for advice, it would clearly be to follow my heart. If I went back to during this event, even more so. We fear death, we ignore it, we joke about it… but the fact is Steve Jobs is right when he says that “death is very likely the single best invention of life.” Let it help you make difficult decisions, and let is motivate you.

The New Career

December 13, 2009

I just watched a video titled Did You Know?

The video lists interesting labor-related statistics. One of them caught my eye:
“The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs… by the age of 38”

If the average individual starts working at 18, this translates to an average of a new job every 2 years. I see this every day. When I look into the career of someone I respect, it’s very rare that it involves working their way up the ladder within a single company. People change jobs, opportunities present themselves, and a unique career is born. Best of all, most people couldn’t have imagined they would end up where they did. I also think moving around means people have a higher chance of finding themselves- but only if they take advantage.

To compare our generation to previous generations, this signifies an incredible shift in the description of a career. For my grandparent’s generation, a career involved loyalty to one company; this ensured professional growth, perceived success and financial stability. Today, a career is a much more unique description of life decisions, risks and rewards.

Those that move around are much more in control. They are also regarded much more highly when job searching. The individuals with the highest seniority at my company did not work their way up at the company; they were risk-takers, most who started companies (except the head of HR, which has been with the company forever, to specifically give the masses hope).

Finally, I’ve never heard someone who moved around to different jobs say that they regret it. It’s much more common to hear regret from someone who has been loyal to one job/company. I assume those that move around are happier, because even if they are not happy where they end up, at least know they tried to find their happiness. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Climbing The Wrong Hill

December 13, 2009

One of my favorite blog entries while I made my deicision was Climbing The Wrong Hill, written by Chris Dixon. This is recommended reading for anyone making a similar decision for a life change.

“People early in their career should learn from computer science: meander some in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.”

This analogy of changing careers to a computer science problem of finding the tallest hill really put things in perspective for me. I felt out of place in my job, but when I focused on leaving, I was distracted by my current hill. There was always something promising on the horizon: a raise, a bonus, stock vesting, a promotion, a new role opening up. What I never considered is where that path led – even if I made it to the top of that mountain, it was not the mountain I was trying to climb. Rather than think of what is lost walking away from where you are, realize that where you are is possibly not on the path to where you want to be; if you don’t change your path now, it will only get more and more difficult to get there. Make your course changes swift.

When I finally realized that I was looking for a completely different hill, all the promises on the horizon faded. As I was giving notice, I found out I was being considered for an extremely attractive position, quite possibly the position I had waited years for. The day I gave notice, a partner created another very attractive role for which I was a strong fit. But I was confident that I did not need to consider them, because I knew they would not get me where I wanted to be.

The Reaction of Others

December 13, 2009

When I was making the decision to leave, I was very concerned about others’ perception. Would coworkers be angry? Would they feel that I abandoned them? Would my manager and leadership team consider working with me again?

To my surprise, the most frequent response I have received is enthusiasm and even jealousy. I have had coworkers and even previous managers tell me they also had dreams of a startup, but with family and kids the opportunity had passed. No one blamed me – they were excited for me, they even wanted to live vicariously through me. It’s not like I am leaving for a competitor – no one can blame me for following my dreams. Granted, some people have looked at me like I am crazy, and perhaps I am just a bit. Some have even asked if they can work for me, which is an honor.

It’s also interesting how relationships change. Coworkers who were upbeat have scheduled time with me to tell me how they also need a change and to learn more about my decisions and plans. One of my biggest regrets is not getting to know my coworkers as human beings. There are individuals I have worked with years where every conversation I had with them was robotic and rushed. I have been compiling a list of those I have worked with for my farewell email; it already includes well over 100 people. I have been fortune to get to know a handful – let’s say 10 – quite well. But even most of those relationships are falsified, like those you have lunch with and talk about work, even family without getting too personal. My conversations since I have given notice have been the most real and personal in 4.5 years; I hope in my future endeavors that I can be open and get to know those I work with very well. Once again, it all seems to come down to finding a situation where I can be myself.


December 6, 2009

One of my biggest problems has always been confidence. I am easily intimidated by others, and I question my own ability to succeed. The more I worked, the more I realized that it’s rare a person knows 100% about what they are doing. Confidence is more about knowing you will be able to deliver the end result.

My policy has always been that it is better to be under-confident than over-confident. Obviously, one should have just the right level of confidence. But over-confidence is the most disappointing. When people talk too much without say anything of value, when they just like to hear their voice, when they talk about things they don’t know and promise things they can’t deliver, it is unbearable – and unproductive.

My biggest confidence issue with this project is that I am not a programmer. I studied computer science and psychology at the University of Chicago, but I dropped computer science my final year to have room to pursue more topics like economics and write an honors psychology thesis. I only had two more classes remaining: discrete mathematics and operation systems. My University did not offer minors. I truly enjoyed computer science, even the assignments that would keep me up all night to find a single bug. My problem with the program was that we were not taught practical applications. All I wanted to know how to do was web development, but C++ math problems did not take us there. I sat in the first day of discrete mathematics; the professor made a joke and everyone laughed but me. I did not even begin to get it. Maybe this wasn’t a good reason to drop the program, or maybe it was – time will tell. If this project fails, I hope to at least learn to program again.

In an excellent presentation titled Everything you wanted to know about startup building but were afraid to ask, Mint CEO Aaron Patzer hits upon everything from financing to confidence. He explains that his startup experience transformed him and made him more confidenct ($170M would make anyone confident). He also makes a joke about how when approaching investors, valuation increases for each engineer, and decreases for each ‘busines guy’. I hope to prove him wrong by demonstrating how a business guy can become a programmer.