Defying Gravyty


RICH PALMER
CO-FOUNDER & CTO |  GRAVYTY

Reading Time: 6 minutes
M

y mom was a nurse. She delivered babies but used a lot of technology to do so. My father was a database architect. I was constantly surrounded by tech. At an early age, I would take apart computers and televisionsreally anything I could get my hands onwithout any intention of putting them back together. I just wanted to see how they worked.

I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is highly regarded and the oldest engineering school in the US. While at RPI, I completed a dual major in Computer Science/IT and Economics. After graduation, I ended up going to Wall Street, where I joined the Portfolio Analytics team at Capital IQ. The team focuses on picking which stocks to buy, which sectors to over or underweight, quant factors, real-time ticker movements, and all kinds of interesting stuff.

After about a four-year period, I felt that it was time for me to move on. I realized that I was mainly making rich people richer, and I didn’t feel very connected to the work. I started reading things from Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, as well as Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek, and they both really messed with me.

I persuaded two of my friends to pack up a Ford Explorer, drive west, and eventually settle in Berkeley, California to create a startup called OvenAlly. It was an online food marketplace, sort of like ETSY for food. For three months, we were just a couple of nerds hanging out in an apartment, spending most of our time coding, before we showed anything to the world. At that time, it was all self-funded, and it started to feel like our money was close to running out.

To top it all off, investors seemed to hate it.

Well, hate is a strong word.

It was a couple of years before other companies started doing the sharing economy concept and we were tasked with doing the convincing. They all seemed to like the concept and the visuals, but they couldn’t pass on some of the operational issues like, “What if someone poisons my food? Am I liable? Who’s liable?” All of these questions came up that we were not prepared for.

We pitched to Y Combinator and got through to the final round. Paul Graham asked us a very simple question: “Have you ever sold food from your kitchen before?” My co-founder and I looked at each other and thought, “Shit.” We knew the answer and we knew what the outcome would be. He said to us, “If you’re going to do a business that does ‘x’, shouldn’t you also try to do ‘x’ as well?” There were lots of reasons why that was important, mainly to see the true problem that we’re trying to solve.

Money started running out, my co-founder’s father passed away in a motorbike accident, and my then-girlfriend broke up with me. It was kind of a holy-shit-life-is-falling-apart time, during which I pondered if I was going to spend the rest of my money living in Santa Cruz. I decided to move to Denver, Colorado to be a mountain bum at the age of 26. I bought a Ford Bronco, climbed mountains at three in the morning, and learned more programming languages. My family was supportive. My mom called me “the butterfly boy” because I couldn’t really sit around for more than a second; I was always bouncing around.

From there, I heard rumblings that the Co-Founder of Capital IQ was starting a new company that was built around business intelligence. I joined to be the first product person at a company called RelSci. Over three years, we raised around $120 million. There were a lot of big names working there and a lot to learn, but before I knew it, I was back on Wall Street making rich people richer again. I didn’t realize what was happening subconsciously.

Throughout all of this, I stayed in relatively good shape. I don’t smoke and I only drink socially. One day, I was working out on a stationary bike, doing some HIIT, when all of a sudden I started to get the worst head pain ever. Mind you, over the last eight years, I had suffered migraines, which would normally knock me out for a couple of days at a time. This was different.

It turned out to be an aneurysm. Aneurysms have a 50% mortality rateof the remaining, the majority end up with some serious disability or paralysis from brain damage. For me, I ended up with more bad headaches and a slight loss of vision. I’m the lucky one. For three to four months, I had trouble walking, talking, thinking, and doing anything.

Leading up to this, I had consistently done 30-day challenges during which I would pick up a new skill or try to learn something neweverything from meditation to knot tying, from learning Illustrator to eating only raw food. The aneurysm happened in July of 2013. My challenge the previous month had been to write a book about 30-day challenges, and it was humbling to instead spend September, October, and November learning how to walk again.

My aneurysm set me on a different path.

Life was going to be a lot different for me going forward, and realistically, I was okay with that.

My wife is a Jewish-Italian lawyer and also a bilateral amputee, which means she was not born with hands or arms past the elbow. She’s so toughthe toughest woman I’ll ever meet. If she can do what she does day in and day out, so can I. No matter how bad I felt, no matter how much I couldn’t speak to people, or couldn’t read, I knew I just had to take it one step at a time because I was determined not to be less than what I could achieve.

Instead of that Wall Street singular focus, I realized how fragile I was and how fleeting all this could be. I decided that version 2.0 of me was going to be different.

I studied for the GMAT with a shaved head and gnarly scar and used a cane to walk. It took me a long time, but I did it. I ended up doing alright on the GMAT and getting into a few different schools; I was waitlisted at MIT and got into Babson College.

Fast-forward to my Babson days. I had become friends with a guy named Adam. He was a professional fundraiser who was helping Babson build relationships with alumni donors. Given our compatibility, we decided we wanted to work together and had gone through a bunch of really crappy business ideas. We both had this idea for the manliest hair gel company in the world…yeah, that bad. I like to drink wine and found this concept of rapid decanting: you put wine in a blender and within 20 seconds it’s decanted. We realized eventually that none of these ideas were truly inspiring.

That’s when I started learning about how Adam did his job. At the time, Adam was helping to raise millions of dollars, basically just using a spreadsheet and a bunch of luck. Looking at the data he had and the way people were responding, I realized that some of the signals that lead to figuring out which donors to interact with and how to talk with them looked a lot like the signals that lead to which stocks to buy. So we started to apply predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to the dataset to figure out who to talk with in order to build a relationship. Analytics to predict how much money you ask them for, and how to progress the relationship.

We knew from the beginning that we were going to be a venture-backed company, but we have a strong social mission. In Gravyty, what I’ve really found as I’ve become relatively more successful, raised more rounds, hired more people, and built useful products for an underserved population, is that I’ve never lost touch with that version 2.0 of me that I was seeking.

“Instead of that Wall Street singular focus, I realized how fragile I was and how fleeting all this could be. I decided that version 2.0 of me was going to be different.”

I would argue that startups have the hardest job on the planet. Starting something from nothing, convincing people it will work, trying to get things going, that’s hard. Most jobs, unless they deal with life and death situations, are simply not as stressful or uncertain. When you can balance that with a really healthy appreciation for life and a purpose, it’s a powerful thing.

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  • Rich Palmer

    Co-Founder/CTO Gravyty

    As a brain aneurysm survivor, Rich has a deeply rooted belief that technology should be used for the positive benefit of people. He is the co-founder and CTO of the rapidly growing tech start-up, Gravyty, which helps nonprofits raise money efficiently with the use of AI.

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