Submittable CEO talks startups, life, cancer and living in Missoula, Montana.
Geek At Sea

Michael is the CEO of Submittable, a company that powers submissions and applications around the world.

Michael first started his career a copywriter, in San Francisco in the 90s, during the first dot-com wave. It was a crazy time that originated a lot of ideas that are finally coming to fruition right now.

Money was plentiful and ambitions were grand. You could have no idea of what you were doing, and still great a great sounding title at one of the hot software companies.

Fairly quickly into his gig, FitzGerald realized this was not a great job for him. He wanted to be a novelist, not spend his time endlessly playing with words. HTML skills in hand, he became an "online producer" for PC World.

San Francisco was "too expensive" in the 90s. Michael was paying about $650 for a Studio apartment in the Mission. It was a lot, given his salary was about $3,200 a month.

The first crash and what we are going through today does not sound alike. Amazing things are being built right now with a lot more utility than companies that were selling and going public in the 90s. When you are in the bubble though, it does not feel crazy. That said, San Francisco DNA of a beautiful hippy city is gone.

Michael has always wanted to be a writer, but there were not many entry level jobs for a novelist. When his girlfriend, now wife, got into a writing program in Missoula, he followed along.

This wasn't his first trip to Montana. When he was a little kid, Michael's family came there to look for a job, but after about a week, his mom requested they move back to civilization.

It was now a perfect time to spend some time in Missoula again!

After moving to Missoula, FitzGerald went to work for Clutchmasters. It was a company stated by a high-school dropout who figured out how to get free clutches, remanufacture and sell them at a massive markup. For FitzGerald, this was a great lesson in how to turn a simple idea into a profitable company.

Dennis Washington is a well known persona, a high school dropout who started with nothing and became a multi-billionaire by generating leverage.

Montana and small-town America are ridiculously entrepreneurial. In a small town, there are no regular jobs. It used to be that everyone was either working in a small business or hustling 2-3 jobs to pay the bills.

Unlike the Silicon Valley though, Montana companies are not trying to eat the world, they just want to create awesome products and create jobs so their own kids don't leave Montana for other places.

Due to lower costs, better quality of living, and availability of willing talent, companies are able to hire fair-priced employees, which enables them to price products differently. Where a Silicon Valley company has to sell $50,000 products to pay their bills, a MT company is able to sell for $5,000 and still turn a profit. Everybody wins.

By writing books for executives in top software companies Michael was able to get a front seat in whatever business they were in and to learn, while getting paid for it.

For three years he would write in the morning, go to his job, edit at night, and do it all over again until 400+ pages were ready. Then, it was time to sell the novel, which was a really challenging thing if you did not know how to sell.

Michael FitzGerald wrote a novel called Radian Days only to realize that writing novels did not really pay.

Michael feels he is a very lucky person. He's been able to do what he wanted to do. He has a great family, and they are not starving. He gets to walk to work. He is pretty happy, and if it was not for stage-four colon cancer, life would be amazing.

FitzGerald started Submittable when his kids were 3 and 5, and in hindsight it was a silly idea. Starting a company takes all of your energy, so your kids don't get to see you very much, and when they do see you, your mind is often wondering somewhere else, focused on problems at work.

During Y Combinator, Paul Graham saw a picture of Michael and kids and wanted to make sure that Michael really wanted to do a startup, and to inflict the underlying stress on his family.

FitzGerald said that he was going to build a company, take it back to Montana, and hire 500 people so his own kids would have a place to work, and therefore be able to work and live in Montana.

So far, Michael FitzGerald is keeping with his promise.

Both. It gets easier for a while, until you hit the next set of challenges and then it gets hard again.

Adding 10 more people does not make your company 10x faster, and in some cases it makes it slower, for a while. It's normal, but you have to anticipate it.

One day Michael felt sick, went to see his doctor, and got scheduled for a colonoscopy. Missoula being a rural place, the procedure was three months out. Michael forgot about it and went on with the business, raising money for his Series A.

The day after the deal closed, he got called to the doctor. Feeling stoked about money in the bank and the prospects of a greater future, FitzGerald went to the hospital, only to hear some awful news. His prognosis was death.

"If you get the answer that you don't want, you go find another answer!"

Metastasized colon cancer gets into your organs, liver first, and liver is the hardest to treat. The whole point of your liver is to remove toxins, and when you start to blast the body with chemo (toxins), the liver gets overloaded.

The solution, which saved Michael's life, is a slow-drip chemo, delivered by a HAI pump, attached to a patient's liver.

If you get great investors, True Ventures in this case, they will back you 100% regardless of challenges and circumstances.

When Michael found out that he got sick, he posted a message on the internal Y Combinator board asking for suggestions. It turned out, founders were eager to offer to help. Some were doctors with knowledge of the disease, some were founders going through a serious illness, and of course, there were even startups working to cure cancer.

A typical scenario for a cancer patient, they first go broke trying to cure the disease, and then they die. Most people cannot afford stage four cancer.

This particular CEO is getting paid less than some of his employees, putting all his money and energy into the company, banking on the future success for all.

It might help people who believe it works, but there are also a lot of tangible things you could do to actually help a cancer patient.

First, don't ask what you can help with. That simply puts the burden of creating and scheduling work onto the sick person and their family. Instead, just do. Bring food, mow their lawn, rake some leafs. The best you can do is show up, do it, and leave without asking for attention.

When you are sick, the hardest part is lack of control. Chemo is basically poison for your body, and every two weeks you have to poison yourself. Life starts to swing from times where you are feeling low on energy and unable to do anything, and times when you are desperately trying to catch up, before you are down again.

Don't get cancer. Have fun. Be kind to your fellow humans.

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