After a failed attempt at a tech startup in the early aughts, Debbie Madden and her husband, Rex, co-founded a consulting company that made the Inc. 5000 five times. They sold it to their partner and started Stride Consulting, with Debbie as its CEO. But their journey with this company took a very unexpected turn. --As told to Zachary Lipez
My first company was like a made-for-TV movie. The crash-and-burn type of scenario.
My husband and I started that company in 2002 and called it--the dumbest name ever and I'm embarrassed to repeat it--Fetch-a-Flick. We were going to bring DVDs and snacks to people's door in under an hour. What could go wrong?
Very little went right. Then my husband almost died. He was on a bike and collided with a jaywalker who wasn't looking. He punctured a lung and broke 18 ribs, and was in the hospital for a week. I was left delivering DVDs on a bike in two feet of snow while I was pregnant.
We shut that business very quickly. Then, in 2004, we started a software consulting company, Cyrus Innovation. It made the Inc. 5000 five years in a row. We sold it to our partner in 2014. It was a 10-year partnership that needed to end.
At that time, I was 40 years old. I had two kids. I set out on my first job search since 2001. I got offered two high-ranking positions at companies I respected, and both times the person hiring me said, "I don't think you want this job. What you really want to do is start a business."
Was I too old for this shit? My kids were 7 and 9--they needed me to be there for them. But I took a day, sat on the grass with a coffee, my notebook, and my phone, listened to podcasts, read a bunch of blogs, wrote notes, and gathered my thoughts.
I said to myself, "Every day when I wake up and go to work, if I'm not happy I'm going to do something about that. If I'm going to start from zero, have a 90-plus percent chance of failure, 100-plus percent chance of seeing my kids less than I want, I have to work with good people and I have to be happy."
And my husband and I started Stride, which is a tech consulting company. The longer way to describe it--and it has to be long, because we're not selling ice cream--is that we are a software consultancy based on agile principles that helps tech teams and software engineers become the highest-functioning versions of themselves.
On Labor Day weekend in 2015, I was on vacation and discovered this huge bump on my armpit. I immediately checked the other side--if it was on the other side then that's just my body, and I'm not worried. But it wasn't on the other side. I couldn't talk to anyone until Tuesday, so I Googled. Everything said if it hurts it's not cancer, so I'm jabbing myself going, "C'mon! Hurt! Hurt!"
I went to my doc. She said I needed a biopsy and that she was sending me to a doctor who could get me in that day. And then I knew.
A few days later, the other doctor called me at work and told me I had Stage II breast cancer. Then everything went blank. I fell to the ground. I called my husband. I said, "This is bad. Come here." We went to the doctor, and I didn't hear a word he said, and in the cab home, we made a plan.
I asked my husband if he was OK, and he said yes. Which was a lie. But, you know, OK, fine. I said, "What about the kids?" and he said, "They'll be fine." Then I said, "I have to shut down Stride." My husband said, "Do you love it?" and I said, "I'm 100 percent sure that I do." "Then keep doing it," he said. "We'll figure it out." And that was the whole conversation.
How much money I make--that doesn't matter. These are the important things: Am I happy? Can I be near my kids? My husband? That's it.
It took a year. I had chemo first, then surgery, then radiation. When I was done with all the treatments, the doctor said "cured." I didn't believe it for a long time.
But the cancer was gone.
Striding Past a Big Challenge
What was the funniest thing that happened in the first year of your business? Our first employee--a developer--had to go on a sales call. He was really scared. He was nervous he'd get hungry during the meeting, so he ate a big breakfast. And it was such a big breakfast that he almost vomited during the meeting.
Hours of sleep I get each night: 7
What creative things do you do to retain talent? Every person who gets a job offer is not only asked but required to advocate for their happiness. If they're ever not happy, they are responsible for telling someone--and, with the leaders at Stride, for helping to solve whatever is causing their unhappiness.