Discontinuing a Legacy: On Inheriting My Father’s Software Company

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

I was barely out of college when my father took his own life. There’s much to say about his death and the actions he took prior to it, and I’ve spent many hours writing about it. But nothing that I’ve really shared. I think there are a few reasons I’ve had so many false starts with this story. One being an unexpected opportunity that has taken precedence. 

I was working a rather strange job when my father passed. Dr. Brenda Wade, an author and celebrity psychologist beyond her prime who made appearances on The Dr. Oz Show and Good Morning America, needed help with her marketing and enlisted me. As dysfunctionally entertaining as it was, I decided to step away and join my father’s software company to help with things like web design and email marketing. But, I’d come to realize I’d left one set of dysfunctions to join another. 

My father had an eclectic set of interests and expertise. He held a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford, ripped on the guitar, and could build a car from scratch. But at his core, he was an engineer, and this fact emanated from his company. So much so that I’d be quicker to call what they had a product rather than a business. Not to say that they weren’t making money, but it would become clear to me that my father and his two fellow engineers  in the company were mostly interested in doing what engineers do best--engineer products. The problem being that engineers tend to build products for themselves, and most people aren’t engineers. 

Build products that people want and love, and build a company that can sustain that effort. Easier said than done, but I think business can be summarized by that maxim. I don’t know if my father or his partner saw it this way. While I joined the company to mostly help with marketing, it became clear that there were bigger problems that needed attention. A lot of time and money was being spent on building a new product that didn’t solve a clear problem that people would pay for. Meanwhile, our core product was generating impressive organic traffic and installs, but was struggling to convert these free users into paid customers. Serious change was needed, but because my ownership in the company was in probate and not legally mine yet, I avoided rocking the boat. So cautiously and patiently, I extended my recommendations. Eventually we released a new website, new branding and a new version of our core software to much success. 

When I officially inherited my ownership in the business, I fired my father’s business partner. While I had cause, I recognize now that I handled his removal poorly. News like this should never come as a surprise. Instead of voicing my concerns as they arose, I let them fester until it was too late. If I were the umpire, I let the batter swing and take a few pitches off until I finally announced that the count was 3 balls, 3 strikes and he was out. While my approach was poor, his reaction was aggressive to say the least. What entailed was over a year of painful negotiations and legal threats that ended with me buying his shares in the company. 

Throughout this experience my interest and effort in the company waxed and waned. Even in periods of peak productivity, I never felt that I was giving enough. Effort is one thing. Having the ability to execute at a high level was another, and who was I to think that I had what it takes to run a company? Would I ever have earned this position if it had not fallen into my lap? Do I belong here? If successful CEOs are putting in 80 hour workweeks, why does putting in 40 feel like pulling teeth? I thought that a lack of passion had to be the problem. So I put the business on autopilot to work on something I loved. Next thing you know, I’ve booked a flight to Vegas to play in a series of poker tournaments for a month straight. While shuffling poker chips for hours on end with a bunch of smelly white dudes was fun, a nagging dissatisfaction remained. 

It wasn’t until I spent 5 days on a silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock that I began to understand the depth of my suffering.  I wrote about that experience here as well as how LSD led me to take meditation seriously. So I’ll say briefly that the experience opened my eyes to the severity of my neuroticism and depression at the time. I had a lot of demons from my childhood and father’s passing that lingered outside of my awareness. Meditation illuminated these shadows and gave me a toolkit for beginning to work with them. And boy was there work to do. Internal work that I felt would be best accomplished, at least for me, in seclusion. So I did what anybody would do and booked a two month trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

I’ve written about my time in Thailand previously, so I’ll summarize by saying that it was fucking amazing. I lived, I loved, I laughed, I cried, and I almost died (stay off motorcycles, kids). And I came away realizing that there was work left undone with my father’s business. That said, I felt another project deserved attention as well. 

I was listening to Dax Shepard’s podcast, and he said something that I’ll paraphrase here, 

When it’s the fourth quarter, and the game is on the line, a 140lb kicker is given the opportunity to win the game, and when you look at his face, there’s no doubt that he wants the ball. Find the role where you want the ball.” 

I’m not sure that running my father’s business is that role for me. I’m grateful for the chance to build upon a product that many love, and I’m working now to make the most out of this opportunity. But, there’s another role that I think I’m better positioned for. Strangely, I think I’m lucky in that I’ve at times been so unlucky. Our culture tends to fetishize uncommon tragedies. I think I can use this cultural fascination to get people to question what they’ve been habitualized to know. Even the uncommonly tragic circumstances need not dictate our capacity for happiness. I’m proof of that. Or, I think I can be. 

I began really working on writing my story upon returning from Thailand in 2019. This proved to be too overwhelming a task to complete alongside running my late father’s business. So what I think is a book is on pause for now. We have a new version of our software, FxSound and a new business model that we’re slated to launch in 2020. I’m compelled to see it through. Afterwards, my plan is to put the company in a position to grow and last without me. Whether that comes by passing off management or selling the company, time will tell. Handing over the keys to my father’s legacy will be painful, but we’re on a trajectory to take it to heights he’d be proud of. I have my own legacy to build. One that I hope will correct for the mistakes he made.

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