Though we undoubtedly crossed paths a few times beforehand, Mike Gerbush ’09 and I didn’t formally meet until just before the pandemic. We had both attended Williams College, but one of us is six years older (you’d never know by looking at me) so we didn’t overlap. One of us also majored in Computer Science and Physics and spent a lot of time in the library, so there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have crossed paths often regardless. (Technically we both played lacrosse too, but Mike was an All-American team captain, while I was the worst player on a bad team and retired as soon as my more talented younger brother was admitted during my sophomore year. My pride could only take so much abuse. If I’m being honest, I’d also admit that I too spent a ton of time in the library, but I always tried to pretend I didn’t so I could go for a Will Hunting-type vibe when I managed to get good grades.)
We eventually met after randomly running into each other at a concert in Boston, and my ears perked up when my brother mentioned that Mike was a software engineer. As a former founder with aspirations of starting another company someday, I was always on the lookout for a technical counterpart (my last cofounder was also a Williams-grad, so clearly I have a type). I’m not sure how exactly I followed up to see if he wanted to explore that potential, but I am certain it was awkward as it sounds (they don’t call it “founder dating” for nothing…the parallels are pretty spot on). Somehow we ended up grabbing drinks shortly thereafter, and while I can’t say it was love at first sight (though it probably was for Mike), there was definitely instant chemistry.
Our shared college experience provided a foundation of familiarity; we’d lived in the same buildings, been berated by the same coaches (one of us more than the other), and appreciated our liberal arts education, even if our coursework had concentrated on different ends of the spectrum. But it was discussing our perspectives on the type of company we’d want to found where the sparks really flew. We had both experienced different types of startup roller-coaster rides, ranging from hypergrowth fueled by gobs of venture capital, to more measured growth built on our own company’s balance sheets. We’d seen different types of cultures, felt moved to different degrees by the missions of our respective companies, and helped build products for which we felt drastically different levels of pride. While it was only a first date, the values on which we’d build our founder marriage were clear from the outset:
Team First – You hear this at so many companies, but in our experience, it’s much rarer that it’s true. To truly claim you are “team first,” you are by definition saying that everything else is secondary. That doesn’t mean that team building comes at the expense of everything else like building a great business, crafting a great product that truly solves a need, or chasing a great mission, but it does mean that when push comes to shove, you prioritize your team and sacrifice for each other. We believe team is the single most important factor in increasing our odds of success for everything else, and we’re ready to make the sacrifices necessary to attract and retain that team.
A Mission We’re Proud to Tell Our Kids About – If I were a better man, maybe a world-changing mission would be more important to me than the people I’m attacking it with. But I can live with the shame of admitting it’s only second on my list, and Mike’s shared perspective gave me further solace. We want to help solve a problem that meaningfully improves people’s lives, and know that aside from our teammates, a mission we’re passionate about fulfilling will be our biggest motivator when the going gets tough (which it will…daily). Mike and I both describe this motivation the same: we want to be proud to tell our kids about what we’re building. Again, every company claims to be “mission-driven,” but if you peel back a few layers, most companies’ mission is to make lots of money. We don’t begrudge those companies in any way, but for us, building something that meaningfully helps people gets us more excited.
A Product that People Love – As a Product manager and a software engineer, it’s probably not too surprising that we are naturally inclined to skew towards a “Product Led” culture vs a “Sales Led” one. When we say that though, we’re referring less to the clever hooks we’ll build into our product to tap into viral growth forces, and more to the fact that we want to make sure our product is truly solving a problem before pouring too much gasoline into the sales engine. We understand this will be easier said than done; as a startup with extremely scarce resources, the need to scale revenue will be ever-present. We’ve both benefited tremendously from working at companies that had incredible sales and marketing engines that provided the resources we needed for the Product organization to catch up to what was being sold. But having been forged in those fires of catch-up product development and having seen the impacts on other teams like Implementation and Customer Success, we are hopeful we can align our early team skill-sets, as well as the external capital we bring in, to allow us to lead with a product that truly works before we prioritize growth.
As you might have noticed, “building a billion dollar business” was not a top motivator for us, which is accurate. Neither of us has ever been particularly financially motivated. With that said, we firmly believe that if we succeed in assembling a great team working towards a great mission that will positively impact millions of people via a great product, we will probably have built a great business. We’ve both been at companies going through wild hypergrowth and relished the excitement of those experiences. We look forward to getting there again, and think it will only be sweeter having gotten there by sticking to these principles.
Like most great love stories, Mike and I were forced to wait a few years after our initial flirtations. Besides a pesky pandemic that popped up around that time, we were both engaged in other commitments at the time that we wanted to see through to greener pastures. As luck would have it, our respective companies both managed successful exits in 2021, and after sticking around to help ease the transition post-acquisition, we’re at a point where we can explore our shared dreams and bring Ophelia Labs into this world.
Eben Pingree ’04 is the cofounder of Ophelia Labs, a platform for better intergenerational communication in families, making it easy and fun for grandparents and grandkids to stay connected and build stronger bonds throughout the parallel journeys of childhood and elderhood. Prior to Ophelia Labs, he was Chief Product Officer at EverTrue, an alumni engagement platform focused on schools (including Williams!) and other non-profits. Earlier in his career, he founded another startup with another fellow alum, Max Montgelas ’03, and even worked briefly for the Williams Endowment during an earlier chapter of his career pre-business school when he worked in institutional investments. The original version of this article appeared on Medium.