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By Alejandro C De Baca on September 12, 2017

How cancer convinced me to start a company.

Two years ago today, a new phase of life began for me and my family.

In an emergency room in the New York City suburb where I live, I was told that my CT scan revealed a mass that required "further investigation." The mass was unrelated to the purpose of my ER visit. The finding was incidental; the tumor, asymptomatic.

All the same, I had cancer.

The weeks that followed were challenging. My little girl was only fifteen months old. She had just started to walk.

Ten weeks after the discovery, I underwent robotic surgery at Sloan Kettering in New York to have the cancer removed. I was fortunate to have caught it so early. No need for chemotherapy or radiation - the cancer was out. I dodged a bullet. As soon as I could get around without pain, I was back to work. I was intent on putting the entire experience behind me, as if it had never happened. I didn't want sympathy or pity or concern. I wanted to be judged professionally, as I always had, on my work output.

But something was different. Very different, in fact. I wanted everything to be fast tracked. I grew impatient. I was not the best version of myself. I was physically uncomfortable at times. The stress was such a concern that my wife put me in touch with a therapist who specialized in professional anxiety. It would be another six months before I would come to accept what my therapist surmised immediately: my professional anxiety was in response to the cancer.

Epiphany fresh in hand, I took a two week vacation with my wife and daughter to Montana. I was still under considerable stress. My wife posed a simple question to me:

What would make you happy?

She already knew the answer. I wanted to start a business. Lurking beneath the anxiety was a lifelong itch to form a tech startup. My cancer experience made me cognizant of my own mortality which had triggered a fear of not accomplishing my goals. My visceral response to that fear was to become impatient in my job and career, only to find myself frustrated. But the experience had unearthed a deeper truth. Even though I loved my job and my team, I was no longer on the path to what I wanted to accomplish professionally. Feeling like the business that I was perpetually five years from starting would never become a reality was unacceptable, particularly when I was at an excellent spot in my career to pull it off.

There is never a good time to start a business. Early in your career the likelihood of failure is sky high, and you will miss out on the development of critical skills. Mid-career, your obligations (kids and mortgage) leave you with little capacity for taking risk. Later in your career, you will have spent too much time out of the trenches to efficiently do the grunt work necessary to have liftoff. Excuses, excuses. Every successful company in existence started out as a dream on which someone was willing to take a bet. When the risk-tolerance curve crosses the probability-of-success curve, you know it.

Shortly after my return from Montana, I gave notice to my employer. I had no idea what I was going to do. I confidently walked away from one of the most rewarding jobs I had ever had at a company that I loved. I was confident because I was taking a bet on myself. I was ready.

As I walked out the door, the stress evaporated. I was taking the first steps toward the future I wanted. I was no longer trying to pretend that the cancer didn't happen. Instead, I embrace it as my catalyst for creating the professional role I always wanted.

Ever the purveyor of ideas, the CEO of my former employer introduced his employees to Nassim Taleb's concept of being "antifragile", the quality of being able to benefit from the type of shock that would otherwise cause damage. While my body is arguably not better off for having had cancer, I am more confident and optimistic about the future than ever before. We have one life to live. It makes no sense to fear failure.

Today, I am announcing the launch of Fermio LLC, my software company. I'll post more in the coming weeks about what we are up to. For now, I want to celebrate the two year anniversary of the day that everything changed for me and my family by sharing our story with you.

Thank you.

  -- AC 


Founder and CEO of Fermio LLC.

Published by Alejandro C De Baca September 12, 2017