April. What a month. I wanted to write this for folks associated with F3TCH. Many of you are not aware of this and it is important as part of our origin story. I am not telling you this for sympathy, I tell you because it is relevant to our stakeholders at this point. There is a special relationship between a founder and their start-up, intertwined at the start.
As a founder, a valid question from an investor or stakeholder is: “How much grit do you have?”
A second question is “Why did it take you so long?”
These are valid questions. To help in answering these questions, you need to go back and understand how we got here. This is a tough read, you will need time and space, so be sure you are okay with difficult topics such as suicide.
All right, if you are sure then read on.
Eight years ago, on April 2nd, my eldest son, committed suicide. He was one month from his graduation ceremony as one of the best students in Astro at the US Air Force Academy (rocket scientist). Perfect ACT scores and near-perfect SAT scores, just to let you know how very special he was. He has a satellite orbiting the planet in a LEO pattern that he helped build with his/ our nameplate on it. He never turned 22 years old.
Late in the afternoon of April 2, 2015, I got a call from my wife, Ksenia. As best as I can recall she said “Papa, you need to come home. It’s Sash.” You could tell from her voice she was barely holding it together, something was most definitely wrong and it was not good.
Me: “What is it? Can you tell me?”
Ksenia: “No. I don’t know. I have three senior officers here from the Air Force Academy and they won’t tell me until you come home.”
The world stopped. Having served, having three senior officers at our house could only mean one thing. Sasha had passed. I was numb. I could barely speak. I walked into Jaime’s office and told her. I asked her to drive me home, I did not think I could drive. Jaime was in tears, her blond Harry Potter was gone (her nickname for him).
When I got home, there were three officers, and my wife, not tall to begin with, looked so small and fragile. She was braced for the news. They relayed the news, Sasha had committed suicide. As soon as they let us know we had the machinery that the military offers for these situations kick into gear. Arrangements were made, services to attend, and a young man to bury. We were grateful they could get that done, as we were unable to do much at that time.
The night after, or so, we were taken to the Academy. Under the iconic chapel, near midnight. Peter 13 at the time in tow. There we had the most surreal and incredible ceremony. By the cadets. Lights off, they formed around the quadrangle in full-dress uniform. Taps were played. Not a word was spoken. Their last respects under the chapel to their fallen brother. Poignant does not even begin to describe it.
Unknown to me a startup founder I would meet years later was in that ceremony- D from Goodr. Hard to remember it all but it was touching, as a family we are forever grateful to that Class. Thank you, D.
Alex‘s (Sasha to the family) death was traumatic, bloody, and gruesome. I have but have never been able to read his autopsy report. I wish that on no parent ever. My high school friend Alan, a medical doctor today, read the report to make sure there was nothing suspicious about his death. I can never thank Alan enough. That he died was terrible, how he died was downright straight out of a horror movie. I tell you this to explain what happened next.
As a family, this was an incredible loss- a son and a wonderful older brother- at a time when we thought he would be moving on to new and better things. He was going to get his Master’s and likely his Ph.D. in Astro, his path was set.
Now we had memories, a tri-folded flag, and his Sabre.
As we all grieved one of us, my wife Ksenia, suffered more than the rest. Her suffering revolved around the “how”. She often would say to me during those few weeks- “How did I not see how angry he was? What kind of mother am I?” Such was her grief that she also committed suicide less than two weeks later (April 15th).
I realize this is survivor’s guilt, but I feel that I failed them both (and Peter). That is a hard thing to take and own, but that is how I feel, to this day. Ksenia was a beautiful soul. Beautiful and smart in equal measure and a fierce mother. No one saw the signs, but we should have. I should have. I think of this from time to time as I work on being a better person.
Ksenia just went missing on April 15th. I picked up our youngest son from his friend’s house after track practice. I had not heard from her all day which was not unusual, I had just gone back into the office for the first time since April 2nd to make sure we got our taxes filed. Peter had texted her and she had not replied which set off alarms in my head and sure enough when I got home, there was no truck (she was tiny and loved her massive Dodge Ram 1500 V8 red tank).
She had all our family documents on the bedside table. Passports, birth certificates, etc. I called 911 and due to some pertinent history, they immediately initiated a search and alerted the Air Force Academy to keep an eye out for her. We went looking for the truck- Jaime (yes, our Co-Founder) and her husband looked high and low as did our neighbors. We found the truck but not Ksenia at Stratton Open Space.
It was an incredibly cold night. A Spring storm was passing through. Bitter winds driving the cold. I will never forget that. My immediate thought was “God she must be so cold, we have to find her.” Halfway up the mountain, the police showed up and I headed down as requested, a regret I will have for the rest of my life. ATVs, motorcycles, and dogs went up soon thereafter. The Search & Rescue team had heat detectors as well to look for her heat signature. The mountain looked like a scene from “Close Encounters” with all the lights in the darkness. Divers went into the water at the reservoirs. Surreal doesn’t even begin to explain it. They called the search after a few hours- it was so cold the dogs were in danger of dying.
The next day search parties were organized, and searches were undertaken. People as far as Denver came down, and hundreds of people went looking. My high school friend Chris flew in to help me look. His being there was incredibly comforting. Someone I knew long before the wife and the kids, I will always be grateful to him for this kindness.
Together we looked in places that were not being searched. It took three days to find her body. She was at the original place we searched but the snow had covered her. A friend in the police department in Miami, Mindy, called my sister, who then called me, to tell me that the search effort had found a body. We were searching near Broadmoor Elementary School that morning.
All my feeling left me when my sister called. I was numb (again). Even expecting the worst, the worst fear became a reality, and I could not feel anything. Shock set in. I called Peter home. He was with friends, too young to search for his now-dead mother in my opinion. I headed home. I was then questioned to see if I had killed my wife. They say it is routine. It was not to me. Of course, I had nothing to do with it and I understand the reason for the questions, but again surreal. Peter was with me during the questioning.
Not to belabor the point, but it does emphasize how terrible this was, my only question I had for the funeral home, was: “Did the animals get to her?” Thankfully the animals had not started eating her. Unfortunately, the weather can really do things to you even in a few days. The funeral home did the best they could, but our last look at her was hard (she looked like the Joker’s girlfriend from Batman). It was not an open casket other than us saying goodbye. I will never forget that image. Haunts me to this day.
So just like that, we went from a family of four to a single dad raising a teenage boy, Peter, about to enter high school. I wish I could tell you I had some master plan, some incredible fortitude to lean on, but the truth is I was barely hanging on. It truly felt like I was watching a television show.
At the time I thought how ironic it was that I was so sad for Bambi when I watched the movie and as a kid you always see yourself as Bambi. I could not believe I was having to play the part of Bambi’s dad. I was not ready for that. I was not ready to take him into the woods alone. But ready or not, in we went. Side by side.
By a miracle, we persevered somehow. Personally, I was literally on my knees after all of that. I was not sure how I would find my way back, but my son depended on me so one way or another I was going to have to find a way and get my stuff together. Please understand that nothing was this clear at the time, I can make it clear now due to time and a lot of work.
Instinctively I knew I had to get back up, get back on my feet. Having fought back many times, I did not look forward to the prospect of getting back up. At times it really did seem it would be better to just lie down. As innocuous as it sounds the most dangerous thought during this time was “What’s the point?”. I firmly believe that very same thought brought Sasha down. For him endless tests, more classes, more tests. Life can seem that way.
Shortly after the funerals, I took Peter out of town. Some folks misconstrue that as not caring, but on the contrary, my focus was Peter. Keep in mind that people would stop me on the street or at the supermarket and tell me how sorry they were for me. For a while, we had the news vans out front of the house. Thankfully they lost interest after a bit. Peter’s friends were just as shocked and did not know how to handle being around him (understandable).
We needed to be somewhere that we were not “that family”. Not intentional on part of the community, but this attention can be overwhelming and jars you back to the tragedy every time. We needed space. We needed time.
So, I took Peter somewhere safe a few months later. Somewhere we had to be around each other 24/7 and figure things out. More importantly, somewhere he could not use his phone or understand the language. That took his mind off a bit and gave us space to understand that we had each other and that was going to have to be enough.
As we traveled, I did notice that there had been zero upgrades to hotel guest communications. I am a nerd. Hard not to notice when you have a background in the field. So, when we got back we filed for a patent, something to do. We got our first patent in 2017, and the second in 2020, and that is how F3TCH became more than a thought.
Patents aside, it personally took about five years to get back to it. Fitness, mental acuity, problem-solving, speaking in full sentences, etc. all had to be worked on. Grief is hard, but the fitness aspect kept me from ever being too depressed or even going to bars to “self-medicate”. Jaime helped me every step of the way, not putting up with excuses, kicking my butt when it needed it, and just letting me sort myself out under a watchful eye. I can never thank her enough either.
As F3TCH, we began to move forward in early 2020. You can’t make this stuff up. Business-wise, COVID slowed us in 2020 (like it did the whole world) and then we moved to Wilmington, NC in 2021. If you are in North Carolina, you know “the rest of the story”.
As to Peter, that scared kid who lost his much-loved older brother and his mom? He graduated Summa Cum Laude from a tough high school. He graduates in Mechanical Engineering (with honors) from Boston University and will receive his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers in less than a month. We are incredibly close, and we work hard to stay that way. Jaime has become his surrogate mother and they too are incredibly close. Peter’s well-being, then and now, matters more than anything else. I am grateful he is doing well.
At F3TCH, we have staying power due to our life experience and some of the awful things we have had to endure. We have incredible perspective. Neither was asked for, but regardless, both were gained.
Just writing this makes me break down, every time. It is a wound that will never truly heal. A pain that never will go away. I do not know if I have grit, but I am standing. Moving forward, in the best way I can. Where I am now, from a functional perspective, was not a fast process, at least not for me. There is no set time for this, so I do not know if it took me too long or not long enough. Regardless here we are, moving towards our goal.
Now you know.