VIDEO: Cancer hardship and the f*ckery of being a founder – Patrick Campbell

Are you a first time founder? Or a co-founder of a SaaS company?  Learn how Patrick Campbell did “everything wrong” when he first started out as a co founder of ProfitWell.

In this video you will learn:

  • How Patrick handles hardship as a founder.
  • Why being a “Part-time” co-founder of a SaaS company can be a “huge mistake”
  • How incentives, expectations and dedication can become “misaligned” in a start-up, and why this can lead to resentment between founders.
  • How his team was ‘misaligned’ from the start, and how this took 4 years to fix.
  • As a founder, how you should not set yourself up for failure
  • Why you should ask yourself ‘what are you dedicating your life to’?
  • and how the “ticking clock” of Cancer helped Patrick clearly define the values and structure of his team.

This is  fascinating insight into the life of founder Patrick Campbell – watch the video, or read the transcript below.


* This keynote was presented at SaaStock18 in Dublin. Patrick Campbell will be joining us at SaaStock West Coast this September 10 – 11 in San Francisco. Grab an early bird ticket (our best possible price) before Friday, July 19th to see him and over 30 other incredible speakers.

About Patrick Campbell, Co Founder / CEO Profitwell

Patrick Campbell is the CEO of ProfitWell (formerly Price Intelligently), the software for helping subscription companies with their monetization and retention strategies. ProfitWell also provides free turnkey subscription financial metrics for over eight thousand companies. Prior to ProfitWell, Patrick lead Strategic Initiatives for Boston based Gemvara and was an Economist at Google and the US Intelligence community.

Start of Transcript

‘Founder Fun’ – Life and hardship as a company founder

– How’s everyone doin’? You guys awake? Who went out a little too late last night? You’re all lying to me. That is not what I believe really happened 🙂

Cool, so today we are gonna talk about some Founder Fun and it’s gonna feel a little bit like the opposite of fun, but there’s some good lessons that can come from it. And to start things off, I wanted to put things in a little bit of context. A few months ago I had objectively a terrible week. How many of you here have had a terrible week before? Like, founding a company, putting things forward, just personal stuff happening? Well, here’s what this week happened to me a few months ago.

So, the week started off arguing with this lovely woman. This is my partner in crime here, about kind of like a perpetual argument that I’m sure you’ve had with a lot of your friends and a lot of your spouses about, oh, I can’t spend enough time with you. And, unfortunately I’m dedicating a ton of time to a company, a ton of time to building something, but I also love someone and wanna spend a lotta time with them. Who’s had that argument with a spouse, loved one? Okay, a couple of you. That was Sunday night.

The Monday of this week I went to the doctor and the doctor said that I might have cancer again. And for those of you that don’t know me, and we’re gonna talk about this a little bit deeper in the presentation, I’m a two time cancer survivor. And I don’t know if you know any like stats on survival rates for a third time of getting cancer, but they’re just not great, they don’t really exist. So that was kind of a really really big mind screw going into this week.

The next thing was is that I had to go to New York from Boston to go do a couple of meetings that I had been putting off over and over again, so I felt like I just had to go take care of these ’cause I couldn’t put them off again. And the problem was this particular week was a very, very heavy work week ’cause it was a content sprint and I’m leading our content strategy right now as we’re trying to hire out that particular team and I don’t know if any of you have ever taken the Amtrak from Boston to New York or New York back to Boston, our trains aren’t as great as your trains. They’re pretty terrible. And so, on the way back when I was just exhausted, I believe it was on Thursday night, all of a sudden what happened was I got caught into a Tweet storm from a very, very popular digital nomad kind of a lifestyle business guy who just called me a spiteful human because we had ads that were for our competitors and then a couple of our competitors jumped in, the CEOs, and called me like a low class person and desperate, just ’cause we were doing competitive ads. And then, to top it all off, Friday came and basically had to do a ton of work in order to come in on that Saturday and basically film all day because of this content sprint that we were finally trying to get done.

And so, I think it’s safe to say, I had a bit of a week. This was a pretty, pretty tough, tough week. And again, all of us have had bad weeks and you know, frustration and pain is not a mutually exclusive thing. It’s not a contest. I’m sure, some pain for you, some pain for me, they’re very, very different levels on the spectrum, but I think what’s really, really interesting is that we’ve all had these bad weeks and we’ve all faced some sort of hardship in our lives. And that might be very, very simple hardships on a weekly basis, arguing with co-founders, arguing with team members, or it might be a very, very serious thing, dealing with health issues, dealing with all kinds of stuff that comes up that is in your control and also out of your control.

Now typically what ends up happening is that when we face these hardships we have a old psychological kind of phenomenon where human beings, we have this whole fight or flight phenomenon, where we can sit and we can choose to fight or we can basically crawl into bed, watch a buncha Netflix and basically just hide from the world. And, what’s kinda fascinating though is that for the founders and executives in the room, how many of you are founders and executives? Most of you, right. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to fight because you’re the steward of the company that you’re basically running. You’re the steward of the company that you’re putting forth and in a lot of ways you essentially need to be the one that has no choice to run away and can’t emotionally leave because your team is relying on you and the mission of what you’re trying to do is relying on you. And so, what’s kinda fascinating about this and what I wanna unpack for the rest of the presentation here is basically this whole concept that when I look at how a lot of us handle, and how I was handling hardship, I think a lot of us know what we should be doing, but we essentially let these hardships cloud our execution on fixing the things that are basically hampering us within our lives. So, we’re gonna unpack this.

We’re gonna go through a couple of stories. I have some interesting data, just on founders in general, that I’m gonna share. But, just to give you a little bit of context on who I am, who we are, Patrick Campbell, as was mentioned, founder and CEO of a company called Profitwell. We used to be called Price Intelligently. There’s a whole ‘nother hardship talk about changing your name. It’s like the worst thing ever. Never change your name, get it right the first time. But, my personal background is in econometrics and math. I started my career working in the U.S. Intelligence Community and then I worked at Google, doing fun like statistical fun things and started the company about six years ago. And it’s not really super relevant what we do. We have a bunch of different products that basically help subscription companies grow and I’ll save you the sales pitch here. But, we’re in the middle of Saas, which is great.

So, let’s tell some stories and look at some data. Sound good? You guys fired up? I know I dropped like the hard see a little early in the talk. Don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine, I promise. We’ll get over cancer in a bit here. Let’s unlock this though.

The hardship of being a founder

So the first thing I wanna start, I wanna bury the lead about the cancer stuff for a bit and I wanna talk a little bit about our founding story. Has anyone, who’s here heard of us before, Profitwell, Price Intelligently? All right, so a good group of people. Awesome. Well, here’s a little bit of insider information that I’m super embarrassed to share, but I think it’s super relevant because when I was going through a lotta these hardships I wish people would’ve shared that they went through stuff like this. And probably, some of you in the room have gone through some of this stuff. To put it really bluntly, I could not have founded Price Intelligently at the time, Profitwell, in a more worse way. It was just straight up terrible. I was a first time founder. I had not founded a company before. I’d read a lot of books, I’d read a lot of information. I’d worked at a startup that was about 60 to 80 people when I was there, before I started Profitwell, Price Intelligently, but I made a lotta mistakes because of my naivety and that really affected the company as a whole. The first mistake I made, part-time co-founders. Anyone here have part-time co-founders? Okay, so this was a huge mistake, lotta laughing up here. I know, this was terrible, right. Here’s a little bit why it’s a little bit terrible too.

Q. What is the the average life expectancy of a company with a part-time co-founder?

What do you think the average life expectancy of a company with a part-time co-founder is? Any guesses? About a year? It’s under a year. It’s about 8.3 months and that’s assuming the part-time co-founder doesn’t become a full-time co-founder. There’s just a lotta problems when you have a part-time co-founder. A lot of times what ends up happening is expectations are completely misaligned. Often times the dedication is misaligned. But, don’t worry, it gets worse.

So, here’s the next thing that happened. I had part-time co-founders who were fully vested and I was not vested. I’m not gonna go too deep in what vesting means, but this basically means that my part-time co-founders owned more of the company and basically had that company outright. And the reason this happened was because my co-founders were really, really well known in Boston and they looked at it as more like a logistical thing. Basically like hey, we already have this entity, we’re just gonna use that. We’ll issue you new shares and in your agreement you’ll have vesting and we won’t have vesting, but that’s like totally fine, we’ll all work this out in the end, right. Famous last words, right. It gets worse. So, both of them ended up having more equity than just me and so, essentially these two part-time individuals could vote anything they wanted including making me lose my job, which felt really weird ’cause it was just me working full-time at the time. And it really sucked because all of a sudden even though they weren’t like aggressively voting against me on anything, we didn’t really vote. I don’t think we’ve ever had a vote. It still felt really, really weird, like there was this weird balance of power that was off. To make matters even worse, our lawyer was the sister-in-law of one of the part-time co-founders. And so, every time I read a contract, not being a lawyer myself, I was like, are they trying to screw me right now? Like, what is happening with the situation? And then, as I kind of eluded to already there was very, very little alignment before founding the company. So, expectations on who was going to do what didn’t exist. Expectations on where we were going didn’t exist. Expectations on just anything didn’t really exist because neither of these guys had founded a company before. So, we were all like first time founders, but I was like, oh these guys, like one of ’em leads product at HubSpot, obviously he’s legit. And there was another CTO founder in the city of Boston. I was like oh, they know what they’re doing. They’re gonna help me, right. Does this look familiar to anyone? Have any of you made a mistake like this or am I just the only complete idiot in the room? Yeah, so okay, maybe I’m the only complete idiot. That’s totally fine. But, here’s what’s really kinda fascinating.

Life as a Solo Founder

So, I was basically a solo founder. I was bustin’ my ass 18 hours a day, we’re completely bootstrapped. And so, this was the first nine months of the company where I was just basically working in this room and the problem with this entire structure, if it’s not inherently obvious, I know like the money stuff is super obvious, but the reason this is really, really tough was because all of that stuff was just terrible distractions that set me up for failure. So, if I needed to do something, because I was a first time founder, all of a sudden I would go to them and say hey, how should we handle this. Their basically incentives, were completely misaligned because they had full-time jobs and were basically focusing on those full-time jobs. And all of a sudden there’s this situation where I was trying to get them, hey, can you help me fix this bug? I’m not a full stack engineer. I can do some, some dev, but not really hard core. And then, I’d come over to their house after they had worked an entire day and be like hey, we’re gonna fix this bug, right. And they’re like, I’m too tired. Can we just hang out, right? So, we had a really, really bad environment that just bred a lotta resentment. Now, a lot of you might be thinking this is terrible, holy cow, and you’re completely right, but what was interesting and what I learned through this and I learned this a lot in hind sight, I don’t think I learned a lot of it at the time, was that this entire environment breeding this resentment, forced me into making a couple of decisions in a few different directions. So, one particular direction that I could make was you know, fuck these guys. They’re terrible, like this is awful, like they’re trying to screw me over, but the other interpretation really is the most charitable interpretation which is, listen. These guys haven’t done this before. They don’t know what’s going on. Their expectations are very, very different than my expectations. We haven’t talked about these particular things and I can just assume that there’s a lotta naivety all around the board and I can basically start breeching these conversations and actually talk and try to figure this out so we can make sure that everyone’s aligned in the right direction, not only from a money perspective, but also from an expectations perspective and ultimately from growing the company perspective.

And so, that was super tough because there’s all this emotion that went into this. And unfortunately, it was one of those things where finally we handled this directly. It took four years to fix this. It was terrible. I had to threaten to tank the company a number of different times and it was one of those things where I think the only reason we were able to figure this out is ’cause we were getting success and so there was something to actually care about. Now, a lotta those conversations that we had I think I could’ve handled better. We can definitely go into that with some Q and A, but the framework I ended up falling into was the whole radical candor framework. Anyone heard of this before? It’s a really good book to read, but it basically means is you gotta handle things directly and ultimately have to show people that you care. So, in a lotta those conversations the masters degree in psychology that I got from trying to basically untangle this huge mess that I had started, a lot of it came from being super, super direct. And, what helped was basically as we were unfurling this entire problem we basically figured out that we were able to all get on the same page. We were able to help me get recapped, the rest of the company get recapped, because at this time I’d started bringing on new people who deserved a lot more than they had gotten out of the gate. But, it was something that handling it directly really kinda solved this problem as well as doing a lotta the logistical things that you can imagine. And to bring this back a little bit to you, I think a lot of us, what we end up doing is we put off a lotta these conversations. Most of you have probably had a conflict with an exec and you’re just like, oh, this person doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing and it might have been because you screwed up the hiring, might have been you screwed up the expectations. And most of us, we take the least charitable interpretation and we’re like oh, they just suck. And sometimes they do just suck, but you have to basically handle it directly before you can have that interpretation of what’s goin’ on.

Problems only get bigger. That’s the big thing to kinda remember in handling things directly. All right, let’s talk about cancer. It’s like the most exciting thing to talk about, right. So, I, I’m not gonna go too deep in it, I can, I have nothing against it, I just, I don’t want it to be emotionally masturbatory about like, oh my God, this happened and it sucks ’cause it absolutely did suck.

Cancer and the “ticking clock”

The first time I got cancer it was actually about 2011. I was working at Google. If you’re ever gonna get sick, the best place to work is Google. My boss was basically like hey, you don’t have to show up, we’ll keep paying you. Just go away for a quarter, it’s totally fine. I didn’t see a single invoice. I know you guys all have health care here. That’s kind of a big deal in the United States. And the second time I had cancer unfortunately happened about two years into building Profitwell/Price Intelligently. And the reason that this sucks is not because obviously, there’s some medical implications and all that kinda fun stuff, but the big reason it sucks is because when you’re young, and most of you in this room are relatively young, you don’t have necessarily this you know, feeling that you’re gonna live forever, but you have a little bit of this feeling of invincibility, right, like you’re Superman, you’re Superwoman. It’s something where you know you can’t stop a speeding bullet, but you feel things are inevitable, right. Like hey, I’m in my early 20s. I’ll figure that out when I’m in my late 20s. When I get into my 30s that’s when I’ll get married or buy a house. When I get into my 40s that’s when I’ll do that. Oh, I’ll figure that out when you’re retiring, right. And the issue that that has is that often times you end up putting a lotta stuff off. And for me kinda facing this, a bit of mortality it was really, really good to kinda face that ticking clock. And the reason I think this is an important point is that in a lot of our companies a lot of interpersonal relationships we waste so much time and a lotta that time gets wasted because we put up with so much bullshit. If you think about a lotta the interpersonal relationships that you have, a lot of times there’s things that you’re not saying to those individuals, especially ones that work at the company that you probably should have those conversations, both positive and negative. And, I don’t want you to all get cancer and have to realize this.

What are you dedicating your life to?

I think it’s a pretty easy concept to understand. But, I think it’s one of those things where you have to really re-evaluate that whole time aspect of what you’re dedicating your life to. And the reason for this is that you are going to die one day. I know this is like the most ominous slide ever. I felt really nervous about putting it in there and I don’t wanna get too morbid, but we all know that there’s going to be some sort of terminal aspect to our lives. Hopefully, it’s very, very far down the road, but in a lotta cases I think a lot of us just think about that invincibility and that inevitability, rather than focusing on the now, and to bring this back obviously to companies, I think one thing to do, this is just a quick tactical note, is implement what I like to call, if I die docs. Again, I know that’s super morbid. This came out because there was a possibility that I was actually going to die. That’s why we called these these. I’m good now, by the way. I just realized I didn’t say that. I’m like totally fine, so don’t worry. But, these, if I die docs, are basically Google spreadsheets and no matter your role or no matter your organization, you basically fill out everything that’s going on, the values, the structures, so that if someone you know, proverbially gets hit by a bus, the person who comes into that role can basically take it on right away and ultimately not miss too much of a beat.

Q. How many founders out of 10 do you think have some sort of documentation or structure in place to transfer their role or function?

Just for context, the reason these are so important, how many founders out of 10 do you think have some sort of documentation to transfer their role or transfer something or another? Any ideas? So, basically seven out of 10 of us don’t have documentation that if we didn’t exist, our companies would be like, oh my God, like where the hell is everything, right. But, you don’t really think about this as you’re building, but what’s interesting is this actually helps as you’re building mainly because all of a sudden it helps other people understand what’s going on and what those expectations look like.

Know yourself and what you want – “we can’t be everything to all people”

Now to bring this back a little bit to time, what this really is for is this whole experience really forced me to realize is who am I and what do I want to do. And I understand that’s super existential, but I think a lot of us what we end up doing, and especially when I was going through treatment, what I realized is like I was going through treatment and then people that I thought were friends were like out drinking and posting pictures on Instagram, which is totally cool, but it was one of those situations where I realized like, we can’t do all the things and we can’t be everything to all people. And there’s a lotta implications for that in particular, but I think one thing you realize as you grow up, but also when you face some of these hardships, is that you can very much choose your friends, but you also can very much choose what you want to do. So, some of you in this room, you wanna build $100 million or billion dollar company. Others of you want to build enough that you can have a really, really nice lifestyle and work as little as possible. Both of those things are perfectly okay, but I think what’s really, really important is that you have to understand what you want and who you want to be because often times what ends up happening is there’s a huge distance between what we say we want and what we’re actually doing.

The Sacrifice and consequences of being a founder

To give some context on this, a lotta these choices have consequences and to give a little bit of a laugh break, I wanna give you an example of some sacrifice. So, for me I’ve actually been pretty intense in terms of how I prioritize Profitwell over a lotta things in my life, including my health, not the cancer stuff, but just like working out and eating well and here’s what I looked like right before founding Profitwell. I’m the one on the right, not the bigger guy on the left. And it’s just because this was my priority. This was my life. Whenever there was a decision of like going to the gym or like crushing another email, I crushed another email. And I know I made that sacrifice and that consequence and I’m not blaming the company for it. It’s just one of those things that I realized.

Work life balance

And to bring this home a little more concretely for you, I think a lot of us don’t realize what the sacrifice looks like to do something great. Just to give you some examples here, a lot of us want balance. Who here believes in work/life balance? Good number of you, right. So, 42% of founders believe in work/life balance in some particular capacity. What you’re looking at here, on the right hand side are the founders, or the companies where the founders don’t believe in work/life balance. On the left hand side you’re looking at the companies where founders do believe in work/life balance and these are their year over year growth rates. So clearly the ones who believe in work/life balance are the ones that aren’t growing as much. How many of you believe you should have a hobby? Okay, a lot of you believe you should have a hobby. Right hand side, founders that don’t have hobbies. Left hand side, founders who do have hobbies. Right. How many of you believe you should have a remote culture? A few of you, okay. Right hand side, not remote. Left hand side, remote culture. And it’s not to say one direction or the other is good or bad, but again, you have to understand what you want and you have to understand what you’re going to choose and the consequences that that choice is going to have.

How to take ownership. Hardship is part of life as a founder.

And, to kinda close this out, I think the biggest thing that I learned and I think it’s the biggest thing you learn, just as you grow up in general, is that you have to be what you want, but not lie about who you actually are. I know it’s really trite and it’s cookie cutter wisdom, all that kinda fun stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s wisdom for a reason. It’s because it’s really, really hard to learn. So, I would take ownership, that’s the biggest thing that I learned through these couple of experiences. It’s really, really easy to blame everyone else for what’s going on, including God, Yahweh, whoever you believe in, as well, but at the end of the day it’s one of those things where hardship is a part of life and I really, really believe that you have to embrace it, especially when you’re a founder, because at the end of the day this is the life that you chose and if you don’t want this life that’s absolutely okay, but just understand the consequences of the choices that you have made. If you ever have any other questions, you wanna talk about this, you’ve faced some of this stuff that we’ve talked about, I’m more than happy to talk to you. I think it’s a big thing where the community needs to police itself. The last thing I’ll leave you with is if you’re in this room in particular, or just at this conference, you’ve all been given an extraordinary opportunity. You’re not diggin’ ditches. You’re not doin’ manual labor. You’re not doin’ anything like that’s remotely in that world. You’re in a very luxurious position and I would encourage you to understand that time and take advantage of it to it’s fullest potential.

Thank you.

As a reminder, Patrick Campbell will be at SaaStock West Coast this September 10 – 11 where you can see him alongside 30 other speakers. Grab an early bird ticket (our best possible price) before they expire on Friday, July 19th.