It’s December of 2011, and Andy Sack is busy.
In addition to being the CEO of Lighter Capital, a pioneering revenue-based financing provider, he is managing Founders’ Co-Op, a seed stage fund, and presiding over TechStars Seattle, where he mentors founders in the hope of hatching a host of successful startups like Vizify and Bizible Marketing Analytics.
Days filled with meetings are the norm as Sack shares the advice and experience he earned from cofounding three successful technology companies, including Firefly Network, an Internet personalization technology that was acquired by Microsoft.
What Andy Sack doesn’t know is that none of the knowledge he’s amassed thus far will prepare him for dealing with what is coming next.
Just before the holidays, Sack met with board members at Lighter Capital. The business was doing well, he says, but the investors weren’t happy. As CEO, it was his responsibility to figure out a new strategy. Sack was mulling this over when he noticed he was having pain in his testicle.
He ignored it at first, but three weeks later, Sack saw a doctor who initially said it was probably just a simple infection that could be treated with antibiotics. An ultrasound was done just to be sure.
Instead of being handed a prescription for some potent bacteria-killing medicine, the doctor took one look at the ultrasound and issued a far more serious diagnosis.
“You don’t know anything until you’ve been told you have cancer,” Sack says. He pauses, thinking back to the events that led up to the diagnosis. But he doesn’t dwell on them for long. “You know in that instant your world has changed.”
However, just as quickly as his world turned upside down, Sack says he tried to right the ship by shifting into action mode. The first order of business was surgery, but in the weeks that followed, Sack was dealt another blow.
The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and would require chemotherapy. Sack says he knew then that this disease was really going to affect his life. “This is serious fucking shit,” he says, harsh words echoing the blunt force of his fear of the treatment.
Though thoughts of work were far from his mind during the rush between the diagnosis, surgery, and the doctor’s recommendation to administer chemo, he had exactly four days to clear his slate of pressing business before starting treatments. “It’s a different kind of deadline,” Sack quips, although one he believes provided a lot of clarity. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that was horrifying to me.”
Fortunately, he was able to dial down responsibilities as board member for various companies and at TechStars for the upcoming three months. At Lighter Capital, Sack “made drastic assessments and decisions,” selecting a team leader and giving the staff of six the authority to act without him, likening it to going on African safari for 90 days with no cell phone. He relayed his thoughts and worries and then simply told them, “I’m out.” Sack says he recognized the need to clear emotional space in order to “melt down.”
But that is exactly what he did not do. The reality was that on the days he felt well enough, Sack came back “from safari” to drop in on the self-directed team to consult and contribute. The reality, as best as he can recall, was that while he did offer some guidance, he recognized he wasn’t really “working.” “I wasn’t me, emotionally, mentally, psychologically,” Sack admits. “I was pretending. I didn’t produce or add anything of value, but also didn’t fuck anything up,” he observes ruefully.
There were days, though, that would start out fine, and then fall apart. But Sack notes that even a trip to the emergency room was an opportunity to appreciate the value in taking things one step at a time, and later provided a chance to reexamine his values.
Sack will be the first to tell you that going through chemo is “amazing.” The experience, from sitting for six or seven hours at a stretch waiting until the IV fluid dripped into his veins to the rush of fever and other attendant unpleasant side effects, was transformative.
During his hours on the drip, Sack says he was hyperaware of the passage of time. “You know you are fighting this internal battle with cancer, and all these people are walking around outside worried about being late for coffee or stressed about their boss and work and you are in a total other orbit.” From the haze of what he calls “chemo brain,” Sack gained clarity with the fleeting nature of that one zone of existence and the importance of loving relationships.
Six months later, Sack is cancer-free and on the mend, yet says simply, “You don’t go back. You are forever changed.”
Quitting never entered his vocabulary, even though he would have had the perfect excuse to do so. Instead, once he was well enough, he began making tough decisions that the average person, who hasn’t just had a front row seat to their own mortality for three months, might not contemplate. Except that for Sack, the very essence of success had changed dramatically.
“Before, I would have measured it in some form of wealth, some kind of ego,” he says. “It would not be measured in impact, time spent with my kids [ages 14 and 11], and quality of relationships.”
At one point, the investors at Lighter Capital made him an offer and Sack just said yes without negotiating. Before his bout with cancer, Sack says, “I would have told them to fuck off. I would have returned their capital, kept the business, and raised money elsewhere.”
Though he could have maintained control and kept all the equity in the company, Sack confesses he isn’t sure it would have been a better business. He replaced himself as CEO, shifting the leadership and getting the company and the investors to a better place.
Now he finds himself swapping his workday responsibilities for those that are more personal. “I have a responsibility to help people with their life events,” he says, including those of the entrepreneurs he has come to know, as well as to help friends through their own personal and professional crises.
Mental toughness comes from compassion and vulnerability, which, at first glance, appear to be the antithesis of resilience. Yet Andy Sack never caved. He carried on with work and life, and continues to march forward with a renewed sense of purpose that has allowed him to redefine his priorities.
Condensed and adapted from Survive to Thrive: 27 Practices of Resilient Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Leaders (Motivational Press 2015) by Faisal Hoque and Lydia Dishman. Copyright (c) 2015 by Faisal Hoque and Lydia Dishman. All rights reserved.