Success and struggle
It’s probably fair to say that Sketchfab right now checks various boxes of what we call success. We just became profitable, we have millions of users, a rockstar team of 37 people, we’ve partnered with most of the tech giants, our product is strong and unique, used by some of the biggest brands out there, and we’ve become the largest library of 3D content on the internet.
I often share our progress, because it feels good, and because as a startup I constantly need momentum, to attract employees, investors, customers, partners… I talk much less about struggle.
And yet, as the co-founder and CEO of Sketchfab, I still struggle pretty much every day. Struggle with my employees, my co-founders, my investors, my users, my family — all my stakeholders. 2020 was a year of struggle for most, and I wanted to share some of mine here.
Employees who leave typically create an emotional struggle and a practical one. Are we not good enough? Was I not able to paint an attractive enough vision, or communicate it accurately? Is our culture not strong enough? The challenges we work on not interesting enough? The compensation not compelling enough? How are we going to manage given our team is already too small to handle the immense task we’ve set to accomplish?
My two co-founders are both technical, and both in Paris, while I live in NY. I often joke that we have 2 oceans separating us: the physical one, and the background one. They are together, and I am by myself. They speak the same technical language, I speak a different one. They care about reliability, performances, scalability, data… I care about speed of execution, revenue, growth, progress. It’s often a struggle to communicate my feeling of urgency, my sense of the market, what is happening in the US, what I feel matters most now.
Fundraising is one of the biggest struggles for most startups, and I have many struggle stories about it. From the outside, you usually just hear about the fancy headlines of all the new funding rounds. From the inside, I could write a book just about our angel round, and how it collapsed 2 days before closing. I literally had half of my commitments who vanished at closing… Or how we pitched 85 VCs for our seed round, until finally getting to a yes. Or how we failed to raise a B round, after pitching over 100 firms. Or how we negotiated a bridge with 2 months left of runway. My investors invested with the hope that we had the potential to become a very large company in a reasonable time frame. The road to get there is still long, and everything has taken longer than expected, from the consumerization of 3D capture technologies, to the mass market adoption of VR and AR devices (see my post on getting through the VR winter). Thankfully they’ve been very supportive and patient, but managing expectations, highlighting our progress while being honest on the struggles is a struggle.
Our users, without whom we’d be nowhere, are very demanding. This is a great thing, it shows they care a lot about what we are building. But keeping everyone happy while building a business is definitely a struggle. Starting to charge for something that was initially free, and then increasing the price because you realized you were not charging enough, managing the backlash, explaining the ins and outs of the decision… Handling the frustration of users for whom it doesn’t work, all the edge cases and personal situations… I receive direct messages from users pretty much every day on twitter, linkedin or facebook. I typically love it, and have been vocal about being here for the community, but keeping up with it is a challenge.
Last but not least, handling all this while taking care of my family is a daily struggle. I asked my wife to move to the US with me with pretty much zero visibility beyond the 3 months of the TechStars program. I remember the first night at TechStars, the first advice we got was to treat our significant other as our main investor. I try to live by that advice, but it’s a struggle. I also have 3 children now, and always feel guilty of not spending enough time with them. Luckily, now that we are a bit bigger than when we started, I work reasonable hours, work less on weekends, and have much less emergencies to deal with. Plus the pandemic and staying at home allows me to spend much more time with the kids. But I am still constantly on my phone. My head is constantly thinking about work. It’s hard to be fully present for my family. This is probably the biggest “cost” required when you start your own company.
My wife recently told me that despite the struggles, we will remember this time as the time of our lives, with so much going on, and yes some struggles, but a lot of them being good problems to have, I guess! Another interesting perspective I keep thinking about is that every progress makes you the largest company of everyone smaller than you, but also the smallest of everyone larger than you, which brings its own set of struggles.
Ultimately, as an entrepreneur, you deal with a set of successes and struggles on a daily basis. I feel that to keep going, you need a positive delta.