On the Loss of a Cofounder

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Ryan Wegner

Here’s the rough chronology: On April 22, 2015, Christian Brink and I, two tech entrepreneurs in our early thirties, incorporated the company that would become Audm. A few months later we sat down with The New York Times to pitch our idea — an app that would let you listen to audio versions of magazine articles — in a meeting we thought we had hit out of the park. (We had not.) We toiled on, launching Audm to the public in August 2016 and eventually moving to Menlo Park to become part of Y Combinator’s S17 batch. In August 2018, we hired our first full-time employee. By the end of the year, we were a team of 9. And then, exactly four years after our first meeting with The Times, we signed a term sheet with them that resulted in the sale of our company. On March 9, 2020 the transaction was made official. Eight months later, Christian was gone.

In sitting down to write this, I’m confronted with the question of how I would characterize my relationship with him. Were we friends? Sure. Brothers? In a way. I think “cofounder,” an admittedly stilted-sounding word, is maybe what captures it best.

The cofounder relationship begins as a bond of forced intimacy. For the good of the company, openness and honesty are paramount. There are no personal days when there’s only two of you. Tension in the dynamic isn’t something you can ignore, bury, or avoid. You will experience some of your lowest lows and highest highs with this person. The strain can be considerable. Sometimes the bond breaks. Sometimes it only survives the lifespan of the company. And sometimes, as was the case for us, you emerge from it all with a person you love as family.

In these six short years, Christian and I lived what felt like a lifetime together. Based on opposite ends of the country, we communicated constantly. Initially, our conversations were focused on planning — fantasizing about a future for a product that seemed like a pipe dream. Then all we talked about were the cold, hard practicalities of execution. Then surviving. The grind wore me down more than once. Every day we faced the very real prospect of failure, along with everything that would have entailed — explanations owed to investors, public embarrassment, the need for an abrupt career overhaul. The stress was unstinting. But I always had Christian, who was three thousand miles away and yet also right there alongside me. When I teetered, he steadied us. When he had his doubts, I allayed them. Somehow, we always managed to level out.

Ironically, death was a kind of specter that always hung over our heads. We gave life to Audm, and the anxiety that, some day, we would have to put it to rest was implied in every conversation we had about how to grow it. There was an inexorable logic to this: if the company wasn’t growing, it was already dying. The margin for error was that thin; the clock never stopped ticking. What a strange thing to confront now: Audm survives, but he does not.

A cofounder relationship can be a competitive one. The question of who is more “formidable” comes up a lot. Who will be the point of contact with investors? Who will represent the company to the outside world? Who will have the final say at an impasse? Navigating these questions can easily lay waste to your ego. The only reason he and I avoided this pitfall was because we addressed our insecurities to each other directly, rather than let them simmer beneath the surface. I soon came to learn that one of the most valuable opportunities of an experience like this was that your cofounder’s strengths could become your own.

Christian and I went to the same college and graduated in the same year, but we never crossed paths. I met him about five years later, thanks to an introduction made by my future brother-in-law. We talked about working together for years until one day, Christian and his wife strolled into the lobby of a hotel, in New York, where my wife and I were visiting her family. It was this chance encounter that set Audm in motion. Finally, Christian and I were in the same place, at the same time, with a shared purpose. We sat down and began fleshing out an idea that, until then, had been amorphous and aspirational.

Christian had a deep, resonant voice, and he had the odd habit of snapping his fingers while he worked through a problem. He was tall, too, and his stature emphasized his philosophical, analytical spirit. He seemed, literally, to bear down on his work, to wrestle lofty questions to the ground. He built our iOS app from scratch, writing every single line of code until we made our first technical hire years later. He also helped develop our partnerships with other media outlets, refine our audio production process, and expand our user base. There was nothing he couldn’t do.

In late August 2017 we entered our final week at Y Combinator. Demo Day, the much-publicized biannual event during which we would present Audm to a prominent group of investors, was only a few days away. We were feeling confident, even cocky. Cultivating new relationships and networking was an arena where both of us shone, especially together. Which was why we entered a final practice pitch with one of the YC partners feeling little trepidation. What followed, though, could only be described as a complete thrashing. The number of questions he asked which we returned with blank stares was gutting. Looking back on it now it’s almost funny to recall how stunned we were at the time. In the moment, though, it was like the wind had been knocked out of us. I was silently despondent as we staggered to the parking lot afterwards.

But Christian was unfazed. When we got in the car, he asked me to open up my laptop. “Why?” I wondered aloud. He said we were just going to start writing things down. Anything. Everything. So I did, skeptically at first. And then suddenly, a jolt of energy sparked, and we had what were perhaps our most focused, productive days together. In our meeting, we couldn’t muster good answers about who our customers were, why certain people decided not to subscribe, and where in our signup process users appeared to be dropping off. So we started there, working methodically to piece together what had stumped us. We came to know every aspect of our user acquisition funnel intimately, and we implemented changes that doubled our conversion rates overnight. In seventy-two hours, we had a plan that, under other circumstances, might not have materialized for several months. My first impulse had been to brood; his was to roll up his sleeves. His strength became mine.

In the few short days since he died, the fact of his absence jabs at me constantly. Writing these memories down is one immediate example. Christian would have been the first person I’d have asked to read through them. He was a brilliant writer, a natural; what it takes me 400 words to say, he could in 200, or less. I was never offended when he rewrote something I had asked him to proofread, because his version was always better. He thought about language deeply — it was one reason why he loved the world of longform journalism — and his emphasis on it endures as part of our company’s culture to this day. A single email to one of the publications we work with might get workshopped by the entire team — written, rewritten, reviewed again, relentlessly honed. We are more successful because of it.

And so now I know something that I wish I didn’t. When your cofounder is no longer here, what have you lost? It’s an even harsher reality than I would have guessed. He was the only one who could understand exactly what it was like day in and day out. The hardships, the wins, the losses. Now, these memories are mine alone. I sometimes think about the stories we might have reminisced about down the line, looking back over our work together. Most likely, we wouldn’t have talked about the obvious watershed moments like signing with The New Yorker or The Atlantic, making it into YC, or closing a round of financing. Instead, it would have been the idiosyncratic stuff, the small details — the kind of memories that you’d likely overlook without mutual prodding. So many of the things that I’ve probably already forgotten he would have reminded me of.

I knew Christian during a short but defining period in both of our lives. We brought Audm into the world, but we also celebrated milestones together, such as welcoming our first children. Christian was fiercely intelligent. He was also unflinchingly devoted to what he cared most about in his life — his faith, his family, his marriage. He and I shared experiences of pure joy together. Yet none of it compares to the way his face lit up when his wife would bring their daughter into his office. It was palpable even over a video call between Los Angeles and Brooklyn. As his cofounder, trying to make sense of this unfathomable loss, I choose to remember Christian as he was in these moments, nowhere near the company we built together, when he was at his happiest. When he was at his very best.

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