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How i went from a 6 figure income to broke, several times

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You’ve heard the success stories — that 17 year-old kid making millions every 13 seconds. My story is a lot more relatable, i can assure you.

Warning: This content might seem obnoxious. Maybe it is. It certainly is unapologetic. Proceed at your own risk.

As i told my old university friend about my latest startup ideas and how i validated one of them, he acknowledged the problem i was solving as huge, the solution good and told me i should hire 2 people and start building the product while acquiring customers.

“But i have no money left to do that”, i told him, with a straight face.

The coffee came out his mouth, while he was laughing like crazy. I sometimes pull jokes like that with my friends, but this was serious, and as i reiterated on this information, he grew more and more amused.

“Yeah, right! So you made north of 6 figures, in USD, for the past years, own a house and drive a 6 series, and you don’t have 20k USD to spend.”

While steadily growing as a software engineer all the way up to a Chief Architect role(i am now in the final stage, interviewing for an EVP position with Crossover), i sunk almost all i made into several ventures. 30 years old, almost zero in the bank.

I was always fascinated with accummulating wealth. Growing up in Eastern Europe during a time of massive transition(from communism to a wild wild west capitalism) was certainly a blast. We were so poor that we would marvel at Nike shoes. Whenever a friend would buy a pair, we would carefully inspect it, to see if they were not a cheap rip-off. To me, wealth is the scoreboard for the positive impact you make — as long as you don’t steal and cheat your way there.

I am immenselly grateful for all i got to witness — i was part of all 3 waves of the new industrial revolution, got access to the global conversation and value exchange and saw ever-rising standards of living, amplified by remote software work.

Me(right) at a friend’s birthday party, around 2004. Heavy ex-soviet ambient.

Before starting my first VC funded business at 19, i had a clean track record. I did not fail in anything i set out to do, including building an Internet Service Provider company and successfully selling it at 18. Then, as my aspirations and the challenges i took on grew, so did the pressure and the deceptions.

My first failure came from building an online casino. After getting 50k USD as an initial investment, i slowly and painfully realized i was not yet fit to lead. I made all the mistakes: did not delegate well, over-reached in terms of features(at one time we were building what should have been several businesses, instead of focusing on the core of our product) and simply failed to acknowledge my lack of seniour skills in software engineering(had been writing software for only 3 years, and doing small projects).

11 years later it doesn’t make me anxious anymore

The experience broke me, and i had anxiety and violent panic attacks for the following 3 years. It was mostly due to the difference between my expectations, and reality.

Around 2011, after doing mostly remote work, i jumped on the startup train again. It was two years before the food ordering app craze, and we would get there just in time. By now, my software building skills were strong, but my biggest mistake was hiring B-players and we could never get to deliver on time. Although we were growing and the demand was there, i decided to shut the bootstrapped company down. It wouldn’t make any news, and any billions(although we were selling a SaaS product at 70 USD per month, with relative ease). In hindsight, it would have been good to continue growing. Even if we only sold 4 new subscriptions per month that had 0 churn, by now we would have had around 400 super-loyal customers.

“Only 28k USD per month, 7 years from now? Pffff…” — old me. My parents did not believe me, my friends did not believe me. They would pat me on the back, and give each other meaningful looks. I sold the company, but spent everything quickly, and i was soon broke and contracting again.

My drinking and partying were getting out of control, probably going out 3 to 5 times per week and getting severely intoxicated. Good times, and i think i needed it. At one time my (drunk) friends and i stole several fire extinguishers and blocked one of the main boulevards in town, early in the morning. A police car came out of the mist and that day we drank our coffee through a straw. But that’s another story.

i have GB of this

I clearly needed a reboot, so i left for the Canary Islands to spend a couple of months there. A friend asked me how my ideal day would look like, and i said i would live somewhere near the beach, and work on meaningful, hard, deep-tech products. Why not do it?

At that time, i was contributing to a number of Neo4j(graph databases) projects, and i met with the GrapheneDB team who are based there. We started working together. Graphs continue to fascinate me to this day, and work in this field has probably been the most rewarding, both intellectually and in terms of impact.

Coming back home, i took on a remote role as a Chief Architect. Two years went by *almost* quietly, growing professionally and leading 30 people teams.

Last summer, i started a due dilligence with the Ethereum Foundation for a security tool that would generate automated tests to highlight vulnerabilities in smart contracts. They got me deal-pregnant, promised a 400k USD up-front, and then dragged the process to a stand-still. I had spent most of what i had saved on this project, and a car. With less than 1k USD in the bank and no income, i started looking for options.

After all the highs and lows, my confidence was very good and i was honestly calm and centered, knowing i would rise again.

I quickly got a contract doing content marketing, which brough in 750euros per week. I decided to invest the money in promoting my graph database consulting gig — i took the lessons learned from Crossover about building a software factory, and came up with a good playbook for companies to harness the power of graphs. Did a couple of free consultations. One short week, later — BAM!, my first customer.

At this point, i am vested 100% in solving hard problems and innovating in the graph space, while bringing companies massive ROI. I certainly learned a lot from my experiences. Working with AAA+ people is a must. Delegating and leading software projects is an art. Never build something unless you validate the idea(look up lean startup, it will save you a lot of $$$), the timing is great and the market supports big growth(because ultimatelly, this will dictate your success). The list can go on and on.

Why go all in with graph consulting, especially since that 800k USD per year job is right around the corner?

During the past 12 years, i got to be part of amazing, world-first, break-through projects. I learned, and learned and learned. I grew a lot. But none of my efforts compounded.

The consulting company i was working with in London grew from 7 consultant to 37. Neo4j grew 50% yoy. GrapheneDB grew several times over. The list is a lot longer, but you get the picture. I didn’t compound any value, mainly due to a lack of focus. Innovation happens when two distinct concepts get into a state of osmosis. Maybe my previous journies will empower me to come up with a secret. I am sure everything will fall into place, and i will harness all that i have learned.

But I think it’s time i focused on one thing, especially since i am deeply passionate and intrigued about the subject. In the following year, i will help 50 companies solve previously impossible-to-solve problems that bring most ROI, by employing a zero-bullshit, zero-time-lost factory playbook with the help of 5 other consultants. Side-quest: move the needle regarding graph database adoption.

Keep your fingers crossed for me!

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +423,678 people.

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