Mark Chadwick is over startups - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 22, 2015 12:11 pm

Mark Chadwick is over startups

He was part of one of the buzziest Philly tech exits in the city's web 2.0 era. Now he's at the helm of another venture-backed startup. But after that, Mark Chadwick wants something else. He wants to do, well, good.
Vistar Media cofounder Mark Chadwick spends his Thursday nights volunteering at a community bike shop called Bike Church.

Vistar Media cofounder Mark Chadwick spends his Thursday nights volunteering at a community bike shop called Bike Church.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Mark Chadwick is biking down Spruce Street.

He’s running a little late but he doesn’t weave through traffic. He stops at every red light, well ahead of the crosswalk. He wears a helmet and later, he’ll flip on both of his bike lights, one of them powered by a generator he built into the front wheel of his black Surly Cross-Check, the one with sky-blue pedals and a handsome leather saddle.

Listen, his friends don’t call him Bike Dad for nothin’.

It’s a warm summer evening and Chadwick has just left his office at Broad and Walnut, where his tech startup, Vistar Media, was hosting an open house. The event had apparently made him a little anxious. Startup hangouts aren’t really his scene and it’s always hard to play host. Plus, the gift bags the company had paid someone to put together had Vistar-branded stress balls in them. Stress balls? Really?

But now that he’s out of there, he’s a little more at ease.

“That went way better than I thought,” he said, as soon as he made it out the door and onto Walnut Street with his bike.

Chadwick left the open house early to make it to his weekly shift at Bike Church, a bike co-op that’s nestled in a church basement on Penn’s Locust Walk. There, he helps people fix their bikes.

mark chadwick bikes

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Most of the people at Bike Church don’t know Chadwick works in tech. He could probably pass as a bike mechanic, with his plaid shirt, gray Vans slip-ons and his disheveled hair, dark with streaks of gray. It’s the most visually striking thing about him and one of the few that hints at his age, 34.

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They don’t know that he runs the engineering team for a venture-backed startup or that he was part of an $81 million exit to Google back in 2010, a huge win for the region’s then-sleepy tech scene.

He doesn’t seem to mind. Actually, maybe it’s better that way.

Because, after working for advertising startups for the better part of a decade, he’s kind of over it. The act of dedicating himself to a purely profit-driven venture just isn’t fulfilling anymore. What he really wants to do next? Something that helps people.

###

Chadwick was in his mid-twenties, just a few years out of Temple University and working at a small Delaware software company, when he got hooked on the idea of joining a startup.

It was 2008 and there wasn’t much by way of startups in Philadelphia, nothing like the ones he’d read about in Paul Graham’s essays.

But somehow, he landed at one. A recruiter found him a gig at Invite Media — a then-year-old, First Round Capital-backed advertising startup run by a crew of Penn wunderkinds. Six months later, Chadwick was running the engineering team out of their Philly office, a Rittenhouse Square apartment, while the business side moved to New York. Sometimes he’d work 14-hour days, building Invite’s real-time bidding platform for display ads. Sometimes he’d get paged in the middle of the night. But it was worth it. It was exciting.

“It was the only game in town like that and those things just seemed like part of the deal,” he wrote in an email.

Things peaked in 2010 when the company sold to Google.

invite-media

The Invite Media team with investor Chris Fralic, center, circa 2010. (Photo via AllThingsD)

His stock options weren’t worth that much (“No one [in Philly] knew enough to ask about employee options back in 2007,” though he said that has definitely changed), but the promise of a big payoff came in the form of a retention plan, the proverbial “golden handcuffs.”

They’re a way for acquiring companies to make sure important team members stay on board. Stay at the company for a certain amount of time and you’ll be handsomely compensated. In Chadwick’s case, the payout came over the course of three years.

His one requirement was that he get to stay in Philly, instead of moving to Google’s New York office. All his friends and family were here.

“It’s just a job,” he remembers thinking. “I’m a programmer. Why be unhappy with your life?”

Enough of the other Invite engineers felt the same way, so Google quietly opened a Philly office at 15th and Market. They even painted the walls Google colors.

But Google wasn’t what he had hoped for.

“It was a straight-up desk job,” he said.

His primary task was maintenance — a stark contrast to the fast-paced environment at Invite, where he had control over the product, where everything he did felt like it mattered. It wasn’t like that at Google. There were about 10 developers in the Center City office and morale was low. People were bored. Tired.

“When you’re waking up for a billion-dollar company over and over, it’s kind of numbing,” he wrote in an email.

So, after exactly 365 days, just long enough to collect that first payout, he quit. He was the only one who did.

“I didn’t want to trade my happiness for money,” he said. “It’s just not worth anything.”

His parents thought it was idiotic, walking away from a pile of money just because he didn’t like going in to work every day.

But Chadwick, who wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids, had made his decision.

“[The payouts] weren’t insane drops of money,” he wrote, “but one was more than enough to say: Okay, bye Felicia. I’m not happy, now I have all the money I need to do whatever I want. You know? Getting that money dump twice more wasn’t going to change anything about my life.”

###

What he really wanted to do was build his own tech company, to keep working on “huge, gnarly tech problems.”

There was another reason, too: “For my own, almost, like, edification,” he said.

Not longer after he left Google, he teamed up with Invite Media cofounder Michael Provenzano and Provenzano’s friend from Penn, an ex-Goldman Sachs analyst named Jeremy Ozen. The trio launched Vistar Media, a company that would help advertisers target people who were out and about, reaching them through screens in elevators and taxi cabs. They’d sell data about that kind of consumer behavior — “cookies for the physical world,” they called it.

Once again, Chadwick wanted to stay in Philly. So, just like his Invite days, he built the engineering team out of an apartment, this time on a picturesque Rittenhouse side street, while the business side set up shop in New York.

vistar media2

Chadwick and developer Nat Lownes in Vistar Media’s first office in Rittenhouse Square. (Courtesy photo)

It was right around then that Chadwick started biking, near compulsively, as a way to quell this “weird void of emotions” he felt after he quit smoking.

He’d bike to the office from his house in Fishtown, often showing up all sweaty and out of breath, one time startling Provenzano, who said, You are the last person I expected to come through the door sweating like that. Or he’d speed across Spring Garden Street to the Art Museum and sit on the steps, on evenings when he didn’t have any plans.

Chadwick went all-in on his new obsession — he’s geeky like that.

He started acquiring more and more bikes (10, currently, but he can’t help but check Craigslist every day for more) and then teaching himself how to fix them when they broke, using his kitchen as a workshop.

“Look at me,” he said, “I’m like, a giant dork. If I don’t understand how something works, then it’s not frustrating. It’s like, ‘I’m so happy right now [that] I don’t understand how it works, I’m gonna read the living shit out of this,’ you know what I mean?”

Working on bikes became this perfect foil to thinking about abstract algorithms all day — a reason to come home, put on Radiolab and just work with his hands.

###

Meanwhile, Vistar grew. The company closed a $1.5 million seed round. It built up a staff of 30. It was profitable last year, Provenzano said.

This past summer, Chadwick’s seven-person engineering team moved out of that Rittenhouse apartment and into a real Center City office with polished concrete floors, ironic cat photos on every door and plenty of space for bikes.

And Chadwick is happy. He’s proud of what the company has accomplished so far. But after this, he’s done with tech startups, at least in the conventional sense.

He doesn’t want to build another company that only exists to make money. He wants to do, well, good.

“I wouldn’t feel good doing something that wasn’t helping people,” he said, talking about the future, a life post-Vistar.

He later wrote in an email:

I love [Vistar]. Even when it’s stressful. I love the problems, I love the people. If it’s successful, I’ll feel great. But then what? Do it again? You know? Oh cool, more…money? I maybe think of it this way….You spend 4-5 years killing yourself building a successful tech company. You wake up one day, and you suddenly have, I dunno. 10 years? 20 years? The rest of your life? Where you could do whatever you want. Whatever makes you feel good about yourself. If someone answers, ‘Uh, build another tech company?’ Then they and I are just not cut from the same cloth.

Though of course it’s not as straightforward as do good or don’t. For one, big wins — whether they’re from traditional, profit-driven startups or not — are the very thing that powers tech scenes. Think Josh Kopelman’s Half.com exit setting the stage for him running the city’s StartUp PHL investment fund, plus so many other spinoffs, including his backing of Invite Media with First Round; or David Bookspan’s MarketSpan exit laying the groundwork for Monetate and DreamIt Ventures. Chadwick himself is a product of the Invite Media exit.

But that’s not the kind of good Chadwick is thinking about. He’s not completely sure what it’ll look like. Maybe it’ll mean using his expertise with location-based data to do work like Azavea or Mapbox does. Maybe he’ll walk away from tech, do something with his hands. Or maybe he’ll find another tech problem that’s so compelling that he’ll change his mind all together. Do just one more of those traditional startups.

For now, he’ll help people fix their bikes.

###

When he arrives at Bike Church, the place is already buzzing.

Some people are hunched over bikes propped up on repair stands, while others look around expectantly, hoping someone will notice they need help. Rows of tires hang overhead. The workbenches are a mess of bike chains, wrenches, screwdrivers, their cheery paint all chipped and peeling.

Chadwick takes questions all night. There’s the guy who bought a bike that’s too small for him, the woman who needs a new reflector for her folding bike and Ellie, a Penn student, with not one, but two broken spokes.

It’s busy tonight, he tells her, so it’s going to be hard for me to really help you with this. It’d be easier to just buy a new wheel. But Ellie, who’s never built a wheel before, wanted to know if she could do it by herself.

Chadwick obliges, pointing her to the shelf full of long, silver spokes and showing her how to thread them through the wheel. He spends the next hour checking up on her progress until finally, her wheel is turning smoothly, true.

He watches on, smiling, impressed.

“There you go,” he says. “You’re an old pro at this.”

Later, after Chadwick closes down the shop, he rides to a nearby pizza joint that’s become a Bike Church hangout. He drinks a few IPAs and marvels at how quickly Ellie caught on.

“She was fearless and accurate,” he tells another volunteer.

The night winds down around 11 p.m., as the last of the Bike Church volunteers head out for a smoke. Chadwick reaches into his pocket for his pack of American Spirit Lights.

When the cigarettes die out, they say goodbye. Chadwick heads up 43rd Street to unlock his Surly. He buckles his helmet and flips on both bike lights — typical Bike Dad — and rides east to Fishtown, toward home.

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