The day I became a millionaire | DHH Guest Blog Post
December 1, 2015 by Mark T Littlewood
This post is a guest blog post originally posted on David Heinemeier Hansson’s Medium page and has been reposted here with David’s permission. We thought it is important to share it as it speaks so much to what Business of Software is about – Creating Businesses for all the Right Reasons, not just the money.
I grew up lower-middle class on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Anywhere outside of Scandinavia, the socioeconomic label would probably have been ‘poor’, but Danish safety nets and support systems did their best to suspend the facts and offer better.
But don’t worry: This isn’t a rags-to-riches story. I loathe the I-did-it-all-by-myself heroic myth mongering. I got where I am thanks to government-sponsored maternity leave, child care, health care, education, and even cash assistance. I grew up in housing provided by AAB, a union-founded affordable housing association. And my mother was a damn magician at making impossible ends meet without belaboring her tricks (like biking an extra 15 minutes to find the lowest price on milk).
I took two important lessons away from this upbringing. First, as long as yourbasic needs are met, the quality of your lived experience is only vaguely related to the trappings of material success. While it wasn’t all roses and butter cookies, I had a great childhood. Second, I wouldn’t learn to appreciate the truth of the first lesson until I saw the other side of the golden fence. More on that in a bit.
I remember playing the “What would you do if you won a million kroner?” game with my brother many times. We could spend eons making fantasy purchases. Comparing and contrasting choices and possibilities. Could you imagine not having to save up a whole year to buy a Commodore 64? Or to fly away on a foreign-country vacation every year? Or to — let’s go crazy here — buy a car for the family? (The sky setting those limits was barely higher than the Eiffel tower).
The underlying premise to these imaginary indulgences was how much better life would be if we were free from the constraints of our humble weekly allowance. Man, everything would just be so great if only I could…
As I grew older, this game was always at the back of my mind. There were always more things I wanted to do than money to buy them. It wasn’t that working towards certain material goals was really a chore or a struggle. My good fortune of being born in Denmark provided for the basics, and selling pirate software CDs through my Elite BBS contacts provided some modest splendor.
But there’s always an appetite for more, and a belief that just a little extra was going to be the tipping point for eternal bliss. Dreaming of an Amiga 1200, making it happen, and then thinking that, oh, what I really needed was that Amiga 4000. Somehow the repeated treadmill never seemed to bare its underlying truth, no matter how many times I took it for a run.
Then in 2006, it suddenly happened from one day to the next. Jeff Bezos had taken an interest in Basecamp, and Jason and I each sold him a minority, no-control stake of our share of the company for a few million dollars each (Basecamp had been self-funded and profitable from the start, so didn’t need any capital for the venture). I was a millionaire!
I remember the weeks leading up to that day when the numbers in my checking account suddenly swelled dramatically. They were anxious. I stood at the doorsteps of The Dream. A lifetime of expectations about how totally, utterly awesome it would be to be a millionaire. I’d be able to buy all the computers and cameras I ever wanted and any car I desired!
One of the other underlying pillars of this dream was the concept of Never Having To Work Again. Like somehow an eternity of leisure was going to provide the existential bliss I had been longing for all along. I thought about that a lot. I did all the math: Hey, if I stuff all the money in a prudent mix of stock and bonds, I should be able to live a comfortable, if not extravagant, lifestyle until the end of my days without lifting another finger.
The euphoria I felt when it was finally real lasted the rest of that day. The inner smile remained super wide for at least the rest of the week.
Again, I get that even having the pretext to contemplate such disillusion is an incredible privilege, beyond sympathy or even empathy of many in this world. I never went hungry to bed. I never feared getting shot. I never worried whether the end of my future prospects would be as a store clerk working minimum wage. The Danish experience shielded me from all those concerns of basic safety and comfort. So I won’t even pretend to know that struggle.
I can only speak to the experience I did have. The one I do share with millions of people who have the basics taken care of, but who still yearn for the treasure perceived to be behind the curtain. For those who might contemplate giving up all manners of integrity, dignity, or even humanity to pull it back.
“The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive” — Coco Chanel
While the quote above rings true, I’d add that the difference between the best things and the second best things is far, far greater than the difference between the second best things and the twentieth best things. It’s not a linear scale.
Once you’ve taken care of the basics, there’s very little in this world for which your life is worth deferring. You’ve likely already found or at least seen the very best things (whether you know it or not). Make them count.
My life’s work is Basecamp. I’ve been at it for more than twelve years. See the latest fruits of that labor in our all-new version 3.
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