Fireflies.ai's Sam Udotong On The Emotional Challenges Of Tech Entrepreneurship
Sam Udotong's unflinching honesty about his struggles as an entrepreneur in San Francisco.
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Executive Summary: None. You need to read this story from start to finish.
Standout Quotes: (emphasis added)
Out of fear, I learned how homeless people around San Francisco operate to figure out what I would do if I ended up on the street the next month.
Honestly, I coped by learning to dislike food, travel, nature, and anything that costs money.
Even with a few co-founders, doing a startup is an incredibly lonely journey because pretty much everyone else around you lives a completely different lifestyle with a different mentality.
We didn't strike gold with our first idea -- in fact, we were wrong many times. If you are too, that's normal. I'd like to remind you that anything great takes a long time and a lot of effort and the only thing that will stop you is yourself.
Sam Udotong is co-founder and CTO at a venture-backed startup called Fireflies.ai and a graduate from MIT, where he studied computer science and aerospace engineering. Sam's expertise is in deploying deep learning in large-scale projects, like drones as president of the MIT UAV Team and satellites at Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Udotong is a guest lecturer at Stanford for an introductory artificial intelligence class. He is a recipient of AIAA's Twenty 20s award, which recognizes top engineering, math, science, and technology students driving innovation in the 21st century. He leads engineering at Fireflies.ai, a startup that automatically records, transcribes, and takes notes from online meetings.
Fireflies.ai’s Chief Technology Officer, Sam Udotong (center).
Daso: What was your lowest moment as an entrepreneur before successfully raising your seed round?
Udotong: Building a startup is a constant roller coaster -- the highs can be high, and the lows can be low. One of the lowest moments I had was right after we moved to San Francisco. I had to adjust my diet, habit and lifestyle to survive in the most expensive city in the US with less than minimum wage.
I did everything I could; I stayed in a dining room converted into a bedroom, took on a completely Soylent/ramen/domino's pizza diet, and found all the best coffee shops and free co-working spaces to go to. I was able to survive on less than $1500/month for multiple years, but I was living month to month with zero savings.
Out of fear, I learned how homeless people around San Francisco operate to figure out what I would do if I ended up on the street the next month. This financial pressure put me into survival mode, and many friendships became weaker as work & survival consumed a more significant chunk of my energy.
Daso: How did you feel when others were going the more conventional path? They had stability, a prestigious career that people knew and respected, and other traditional accomplishments in life while working on your startup?
Udotong: Many of my MIT friends who graduated with me could make more than $150,000 a year as a software engineer in San Francisco fresh out of college. Let's not even mention endless perks and longer-term benefits. Though they spent more than I did on rent and living costs, most of my friends typically had a budget for living life. They had lovely dinners, traveled around California, took trips around the world, participated in fitness & art classes, and of course, drinks & tables at bars/clubs.
For me, I was on a shoestring budget, and I would be excited if I could go out to eat a nice dinner even once a month. Honestly, I coped by learning to dislike food, travel, nature, and anything that costs money. I'm so thankful for the countless times that my friends took care of me by buying me coffee, dinner, and more. For my 23rd birthday, one of my best friends even came from Boston to the west coast, rented a car, and we drove down Highway 1 to Los Angeles, where he proceeded to cover the rest of the costs for the trip. I was truly blessed, and I felt incredibly supported and encouraged to keep going by the community around me.
If the environment around me were instead discouraging, it would have been exponentially harder to bootstrap the company. I was lucky to be surrounded by amazing people, even while I missed out on doing essential and fun activities with my friends, I kept going.
Daso: How did you lean on Krish (co-founder and CEO of Fireflies.ai) during the tough times?
Udotong: Even with a few co-founders, doing a startup is an incredibly lonely journey. Everyone else around you lives an entirely different lifestyle with a different mentality. I'm so thankful for the past 5.5 years of working with Krish on Fireflies -- without him, there's no way I would have survived this path. Krish is the epitome of disciplined energy. He is a brilliant product-first CEO with an incredible work ethic that is contagious to everyone on the team. From the very beginning, he has held a high bar to build the best team and product by prioritizing integrity, health, clear communication, and fast execution.
Even during the toughest of times, you won't find Krish stumbling at all. He's a reliable anchor and team player, and together we have surmounted every single challenge we've faced through over seven pivots during this journey. During the tough times, this is especially important because when I stumble, Krish is there to keep the train moving and help me get back in gear. He's the only person that has truly experienced the journey we've been on.
Daso: What's your advice for entrepreneurs slogging it out right now?
Udotong: For all of you slogging it out, I feel you. There are way too many things to do, and sometimes it can feel like you're just running in a circle. Also, there is a lot that is out of your control. Inevitably, there will be a ton of luck involved. I believe that you should worry about what's in your control and continue to put yourself in places where success can find you (like San Francisco). For us, the most critical factor that we could control in our journey has been persistence. We tried so many different ideas. According to any reasonable person, we should have quit at the very beginning.
But we have continually been able to reach positive outcomes by executing every single day with the right attitude. We took the risk of moving to San Francisco and living on minimum wage. Still, amazing people and opportunities that surrounded us led to fast learning, growth, and, ultimately, a seed round. We didn't strike gold with our first idea -- in fact, we were wrong many times. If you are too, that's normal. I want to remind you that anything significant takes a long time and a lot of effort and the only thing that will stop you is yourself.
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