Here’s what I earned from my tech career
Talking about money is still a taboo, particularly here in the tech industry. But, inspired by Hunter Walk’s post from a few years ago about exactly this, I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experiences.
By not going with the flow, I’ve had a lot of really great experiences in tech, but I haven’t made the kind of money that others claim to. To be clear, none of it is bad! I’m not complaining in this post; I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had. The point is to provide a point of reference that’s far away from being startup hustle porn.
Here’s how my proceeds broke down over the major startups I’ve been a part of.
Elgg. I earned about $1,000 a month while I was bootstrapping my first startup — but I was in the UK, and my cost of living was significantly lower than in the US. A few years in, investors approached us and we raised a half a million dollar seed round, which allowed me to bump my salary up to the equivalent $50,000.
On paper, because of the valuation of the company after the investment and my holdings in it, I was a millionaire. But it wasn’t liquid, and although I could live, I was living paycheck to paycheck. Elgg won awards and became the intranet for at least one nation’s government, and the open source community is still putting out code today. I met people from all over the world who were doing amazing things, and it changed my life in a meaningful way. Along the way, I had to get comfortable with the idea that earning money was not, in itself, immoral.
Elgg was sold in 2010. I bought a laptop.
Latakoo. I started as the first employee and the technical lead. As an early stage startup (which is now profitable and powering NBC News, among other media entities), I earned somewhere in the $50–85K range, depending on the time. I also bought a bunch of equity, which I still own. I also moved to California from Edinburgh during this time: while I could build up some savings in the latter, California was dramatically more expensive, and I once again found myself living paycheck to paycheck.
Known. I co-founded this startup, which raised a very modest $50K from Matter. This and subsequent contracts allowed us to make somewhere in the region of $50–70K, which I supplemented with a few contracts here and there. One Christmas, I built an advent calendar for an agency that worked with Swarovski. You do what you have to.
Because of the expensive involved in trying to get this up and running, I maxed out my credit cards, building up $50K in debt. It wasn’t a fun feeling, and the payments were terrifying. I’ve long since brought this down to $0, thankfully.
Known was semi-acqui-hired by Medium (it’s a long story); the entirety of the proceeds went to Matter, by my design. I felt that it was important that they were repaid for backing us.
Medium. The offer they made me was twice my previous highest-ever salary. I tried not to say yes too quickly. It allowed me to pay down my Known debt, and I learned more than I ever could have imagined. I’m forever grateful for the time I spent there. And I even got to start a 401(k) for the first time ever.
Matter. I would have stayed at Medium for much longer, but I honestly didn’t think a job like this would come up again for me in my lifetime. I took a $40K salary cut to work on investing in early-stage startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. I still consider it to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. As Director of Investments, I got a small amount of carry (if the startups succeeded and the fund was returned to its investors, I’d get a little bit of the profit above and beyond).
I wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for the world — but it was an expensive job to have. Still, far more important than wealth, I found a community of incredible people who changed my life.
Unlock. I was back on my Medium salary, which allowed me a certain degree of freedom. Unfortunately, at the same time, my mother’s decline accelerated, which meant I couldn’t be as focused on the company as I wanted to be, or stay for as long as I wanted to.
ForUsAll. This is where I am now. I’ve paid down my debts, I’m growing retirement savings, and I’m making considerably more than I did when I started. If I continue at the job through September, I’ll squeak by being an accredited investor based on salary alone. In exchange, I’m definitely a manager: I’m rarely hunkered down building things myself. I’m very excited about what we’re building, but the outlets for my individual creativity and desire to personally build have to happen outside of work. I’m also very clear that my next role will likely have a significantly lower salary — and that’s okay.
Here’s what I think: there’s certainly a world where I could have been an engineer at startups you’ve heard of, developing deep engineering skills, earning a really great salary and building wealth. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. In lots of ways, particularly for someone who doesn’t come from a history of wealth, it’s a perfectly reasonable path.
But, for one thing, I didn’t see that as a possibility for myself when I started as an engineer and startup founder in Edinburgh. Those startups didn’t exist. And for another, I don’t know what my life would have been like if I hadn’t started Elgg or Known, or been through Matter. Those experiences changed who I am as a person, really profoundly. I worked with people who wanted to change the world for social good, and I became one of them. While my politics predate my career, I don’t know that I would have had the same opportunities in a tech job.
There’s a trade-off, and I enjoy working with people at the fringes. The tech counterculture is far more interesting than the tech culture. The trick, if you’re not independently wealthy, is to find a way to lower your cost of living meaningfully. That probably means not living in the San Francisco Bay Area, for a start, although I know many artists who do exactly that and not just make it work well, but have a much richer life than anyone I know in tech.
I guess my main point is: a life in tech doesn’t necessarily mean you’re rich. It certainly doesn’t mean that getting rich should be your goal. It can be about maximizing experiences, building cool shit, and doing stuff you’re excited by that hopefully makes peoples’ lives better. More than anything else, that’s what motivates me.