Let’s make sure Ted Rheingold’s words about purpose ring in this industry’s ears for a very long time
“Is your life that taken for granted that you’re okay wasting a day of it, possibly your last day? Do you want to die with thoughts of regret about what you didn’t do? Do you want to know you lived your life to the fullest even if you don’t get to live a statistically full life?” -- Ted Rheingold
The Valley’s heart is broken today. Entrepreneur and investor Ted Rheingold has lost his brave, inspiring, and tragic fight with cancer. One which he bravely shared with everyone, via social media and Medium. One in which he used some of the last year of his life to send a clear message to those who knew him, and those who didn’t: Life needs to have more meaning than just money, hockey stick growth, and unicorn valuations.
In an era where we see so much hate and self interest, in an era where the largest Silicon Valley companies echo that same Trumpian playbook, in an era where some 200 companies have prioritized for a short-term meaningless valuation that allows them to say they are “a unicorn”, his words couldn’t have more importance or meaning than they do in both America and Silicon Valley right now.
Why not flip the trap and treat each meaningful experience as maybe the last. Visiting with family, going to a special event, spending time with important friends, going on the perfect hike, listening to a favorite band … treat it all like it may be the last time you get to do it. Frankly it may.
There’s little I can say about Ted that people who knew him in the ecosystem don’t already know and feel this morning. I knew him better than some, not nearly as well as others. I’ve interviewed him in professional settings and seen him at kids’ birthday parties. Other than: LISTEN THE FUCK UP TO THE MESSAGE HE LEFT WITH US! I have little to add to the social media tributes about him, little that will surprise anyone else who is devastated this morning. At times like this, even writers struggle with words because they all just sound so hollow.
And so, I wanted to write something for those in Ted’s family, the people who he grew up with, the people who didn’t know him as a part of this ecosystem, but as just Ted. I want to tell those who closest to him, who shared him with our industry, how much he meant to it.
I’m hoping to just add a tiny voice to a massive chorus telling Ted’s family today and hopefully for many, many more days in the future how much of a better place Ted made the great and mighty, money-obsessed Silicon Valley.
I first got to know Ted going to the Lobby conference every year. It was before either of us had kids. It was back in the early days of Web 2.0, when there was so much promise and hope at the Internet’s resurgence. No one in this wave was a billionaire yet, everyone was collegial, there was no bro-economy. There were just people inspired to build cool things. A lot of us were in our early 30s, happy to have survived the dot com bust, married and blissfully happy with so many major milestones still ahead of us.
The Lobby is strictly off the record, so I can’t share any of the long conversations we had over the years. But one thing struck me from the first year we attended together: How much he adored his wife, and how much he could draw out the good in people.
I interviewed Ted several times while he was building Dogster and Catster. The company didn’t become a “unicorn,” but unlike so many people here, what he built was about happiness. As most things in the late 90s and early 2000s, he wasn’t wrong with his thesis, just ahead of his time. Pet-centric consumer Web companies would wind up raising huge sums at large prices years later. But Ted never gave up. He grinded that business out, finding it a home eventually.
He didn’t become a billionaire, but he was an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. He wasn’t out for the glamour or the headlines, he wanted to bring more joy and real community to the Internet and he never gave up when things got hard.
When I came home from the hospital with my son, Eli, Ted brought his family over to bring us some food. They were a few months ahead of us in the journey, and we were-- as most first time parents-- terrified. Ted gave Eli’s dad a book on parenting, telling him it was the only thing he needed to be a good dad, other than listen to what was inside of him. It was some of the best advice he got, and they were the first and some of the only people in tech to take the time to do that without expecting anything in return.
It was like Ted never got the memo that the ethos in the Valley changed from those early idyllic Web 2.0 days where everyone was in it together to do great things. He never became cut throat, he wasn’t a bro, and he’s one of a handful of people in this industry I have never heard a single bad word about.
The last time I saw Ted was at a kid’s birthday party. I wasn’t supposed to be there -- it was my kids’ weekend with their dad - but coincidence and a skipped yoga class intervened to give me some bonus kid time. I’m so grateful it did.
In re-reading many of Ted’s words this morning, I came across this line:
If you think a conversation with someone may be the last, you explore it with a force that redefines what a normal trivial conversation means.
There was both nothing and everything trivial about our conversation that day. It was about life and our kids, and my kids’ first upcoming trip to Tahoe.
Ted and I-- and so many people who were at that first year of the Lobby-- had undergone parallel journeys of discovering the unspeakable joy of becoming parents. I’ve interviewed so many men in this industry who slog away unsuccessfully for years building something that never quite hits at the right time. So many have told me they suddenly looked up, their kids were hitting junior high or high school and they didn’t know them. That was never Ted. You could see it in his eyes and read it on his social media feeds.
Ted helped remind so many of us at the peak of bro-culture why all that “baller hustling” was all bullshit. As he wrote after a “hail mary” treatment started to work:
I’ve gained some powerful emotional powers (super powers) in what I’ve been calling my second life. Most all my deep-set hangups died with my first life. A number (but not all) of my grudges, entitled expectations, self-assumed responsibilities, judgements are simply gone. I have no FOMO. There isn’t an event I’ve heard of since I’ve recovered that I wish I would have been at. I’m simply content to be alive and living my life. I have no bucket list. Life is the bucket.
There’s nothing I can say that will ease the pain people who knew Ted feel today. There’s no silver lining, no “well, at least…” I can offer. This is horrible and unfair.
It is devastating in an industry that’s operating at peak-asshole to lose someone so amazing, who loved life, love creating things, loved his family so deeply, and spent his last months on this earth trying to shake us all by the lapels to tell us it was all fleeting and so much of the bullshit we think is important isn’t.
I wish I’d said more-- said even all this to him-- when I could. I was paralyzed in knowing what to do or offer Ted and his family, in part due to all the things he outlines in this post. I wasn’t as close to him as others, and reading that post, I’m glad I didn’t go with my instinct to bring over food. It wasn’t helpful, as he explains. That post, again, is a gift he left with us. Thanks to Ted, I’ll know better what to do the next time someone who means a lot to me is in this position.
If you are like me and wish you could have done more, there is another clue in his writing: Make your life matter.
The best way to honor Ted is to make your life’s work have meaning. Give a shit about the unintended consequences of what you create. Think about purpose, not just money. And love those around you every moment of every day. Unicorns and market caps come and go. Meaning and integrity is what’s remembered. Maybe not by blogs and magazine covers, but by the people who are also just here, working hard, trying to build something great. By the people who make up Silicon Valley, if not the billions that flow through it.
In a time of greed and cowardice in the Valley, let’s work to make sure the Tweet pinned at the top of Rheingold’s Twitter account is also his legacy:
“The trend of purpose is coming like a tidal wave. Get out in front of it. Enjoy the ride. Die fulfilled.”
Thank you for making Silicon Valley better, Ted. We will all miss you.
(Photo credit: Chris Michel)
[Update: In memory of Ted, his family has encouraged people to donate here.)