The Real Story Of How I Sold Two Startups, The Chaos Afterwards, And What’s Next

alex christmas

Today we’re starting a series of more personal stories, looking at what makes interesting people in health care tick. Alex Carmichael is a rare multiple time CEO in health technology, and she has a very interesting tale to tell–Matthew Holt

Don’t worry, this isn’t your typical, syrupy founder story. Matthew asked me to share my experience selling my startup CureTogether to 23andMe, what ensued after that, and how I ended up at uBiome today.

So I thought, if I’m going to share, I might as well *really* share. Let you in behind the scenes to see what it was actually like.

(Bonus: at the end I’ve listed my top 11 life lessons, so make sure you read all the way through for that!)

The story starts…

October 1, 1976: I came into the world in Toronto, Canada, with striking violet eyes. My lawyer/politician mother and management consultant father gave me the name Alexandra, which means “leader of all mankind,” as they often reminded me. Talk about a family having high expectations!

Childhood: I remember loving to read and walk my dogs, who were probably my best friends. I went to a progressive Montessori school with an amazing teacher who believed in me and taught me the power of patience.

Teenage years: The “best” school in Toronto was a repressive and aggressive all-girls private school. My insane work ethic was drilled into me there, as well as at my mom’s political campaign offices, where I would work after school until late into the night.

College years: I met my first love, Danny, in a biochemistry lab at the University of Toronto. I chose the most difficult major (Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology), because it would drive me hardest. Masochist much?

First startup, 1999: I dropped out of grad school, much to the horror of my extremely educated parents, to join a bioinformatics software company Danny had started in his bedroom in 1997. I taught myself how to code, design, sell, and run a company. We worked so much that we hardly left our apartment, except to get married, have a baby, and occasionally go to Tai Chi class. We lost most of our money in the dot com bust, and scraped by on rice and beans for a few years. It was so isolating and intense that I got really depressed and even suicidal once.

First exit, and move to California, 2005: We were seriously running out of money, so one day I made a big wall chart of all the possible companies that could acquire us, and we started going after each one relentlessly. After a few months, we got a meeting with Hitachi. They were interested, but didn’t seal the deal until we decided to put our stuff in storage and just show up in California, baby daughter Samantha in tow. One way or another, we were determined to make it work. They did end up acquiring us, for a few hundred thousand dollars. Not much for 8 years of invested time and energy, but really we just wanted to get to California, where the sun shines and the opportunity abounds. We finally made it!

Baby #2 Megan arrives, 2006: The next two years were spent with Danny working at Hitachi and me fighting post-partum depression with two little ones around. I was tandem nursing too, which actually let me have a moment’s rest – a baby on one breast and a toddler on the other. The sweetest moments were when they would both nurse and hold hands with each other. The roughest were when I would be carrying one child in a sling, another on my back, and two heavy grocery bags in each hand. We would all come home crying.

CureTogether started, 2008: I pulled myself out of depression by starting my mind working again. Having suffered from chronic pain and mood issues myself, I wanted to use my pain to understand and help others. Danny left Hitachi and we started a website for patients to share treatment ideas and ratings with each other for over 500 medical conditions. People wrote in to say we had saved their lives. I pushed my comfort zone and went on a CureTogether speaking tour in 2009, then we sold all our stuff in California and spent the winter in Hawaii. During this time I was also Director of Quantified Self, helping that movement grow to 92 cities worldwide, with two international conferences. It was a busy, engaging time, and I loved meeting so many amazing people.

Second exit, and divorce, 2012: When Anne from 23andMe approached us about acquiring CureTogether, we were ready to pass it on, and excited about it being part of such an impactful larger company. And they gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse, about an order of magnitude more than our last exit! That same year, we went through a divorce. Maybe the stress of two startups in two countries with two small kids was just too much.

Party year, 2013: Having been SO serious my whole life, I spontaneously took a year and did all the crazy stuff I’d never done before. Dated five guys at the same time, traveled in Europe, climbed mountains, partied at electronic music concerts, took up yoga, spent two weeks in the desert for Burning Man, lived in an intentional community, experimented (very carefully) with the therapeutic power of psychedelic compounds to heal trauma. I have more to say about therapeutic psychedelics, but basically I went into it knowing that it was a tool I could use to have my body feel amazing while bringing up every possible super painful experience from my past, with incredible brain-rewiring results. It was a year of great fun, laced with immense sadness and profound lessons too, and then I realized I wanted to get back to real life.

Mommy year, 2014: I managed to leave 23andMe early, after less than two years, since I wasn’t really fitting into the larger startup culture anyway. So I took a year off to be with my kids. I also fell deeply in love with Jon Cousins, mood tracking expert from QS London who had moved to California. He bonded immediately with my kids too, and helped us all navigate a surprisingly drawn-out and bloody custody battle. I don’t know what I would have done without him. We moved into a stable home in Redwood City, and made a list of all the epic things we wanted to do as a family, then did them! Beach days, hiking through the redwoods, Disneyland, the Exploratorium, movies, and lots of snuggle time.

uBiome, 2015: Jon, the girls and I went to Lake Tahoe over Christmas break last December, and while staring out at the peaceful lake one morning, I realized I wanted something really big and meaningful to sink my teeth into again. I need to be useful, to be helping people, to exercise my crazy execution skills. When we got home, I considered different options, and at the end of January, I heard Jessica was hiring at uBiome. I had met her during my CureTogether days, through a mutual friend, so I asked her if we could meet up for dinner. She drove down from SF to meet me near my house, and the next day I was working at uBiome! Officially, I’m Director of Community, but I’m also working on product and growth. It’s so much fun, and I feel incredibly strong now after having been through so much change and challenge. I’m excited to see what the next chapter brings!

So that’s my whole messy story of self-discovery and serial acquisition. Hope you’ve enjoyed it! Feel free to ask me any questions, I’m always happy to share.

P.S. Oh yeah, my 11 hard-won life lessons! Here they are:

1. Always help people. Every day, even if it’s a tiny thing.
2. Be open to trying anything that’s not lethal or addictive or harmful to anyone else.
3. Just show up! That’s 99% of success.
4. Channel strong emotions into useful productivity. Use that anger!
5. Thoughts will always be there, but they don’t have to influence your actions.
6. Snuggles make everything better.
7. Kids come first.
8. Let go and keep going.
9. All you need is love. And it’s inside you.
10. Be gentle.
11. Find yourself. Then find yourself again.

Alexandra Carmichael is serial entrepreneur and now Director of Community at uBiome. You can contact her at alexandra@ubiome.com

8 replies »

  1. wah very memorable experience, really need a huge struggle to get all of it, let alone have to take a break from school.
    I hope all of this experience can be an example to us all
    See You More

  2. Hi Alexandra,

    Thank you for sharing this. I really appreciate you being open and gracious and I think stories like this are really inspiring.

    Not every startup story reads like a Techcrunch article!

    You did an amazing job creating a sense of community at the Quantified Self conferences and meetups. I have great memories meeting you and Jon and all the other cool people and feeling welcome.

    I also started a company while raising a toddler and went through a separation afterwards. And your kids are lucky to have 2 loving families now!

  3. Thanks for your comments, everyone! My kids’ dad actually sees our daughters 50% of the time now, so the custody split is even. Really appreciate you worrying about him!

    Also, the order of the lessons is the order I learned them in, pretty much, not the order of importance. 🙂

    Thanks for reading!

  4. I thinking more about your husband who (it sounds like) was effectively ejected from his children’s lives. Im guessing a complete stranger now has vastly more quality time with his children than he does. I cant imagine how awful that must feel. These (mens) stories are rarely told.

  5. Just being a little pedantic.
    1. Αλεξάνδρα, Alexandra actually means the one who repels men (in the battle field that is).
    2. Kids come first, but at number 7?

  6. Thank you soo much for sharing that Alexandra! I remember the first day I met you in at a park in Belmont; when you, Danny, and Samantha were visiting the area to scope it out. Your growth and development as an amazing mom and entrepreneur is incredible! Loved reading about it all! Thank you!