Life During Lockdown: David Swain
David and I met through our mutual love of endurance sports. As it happens we also share a passion for technology and marketing. David spent years managing communications at Facebook and then Instagram during their years of skyrocketing growth. He has generously shared with me some of his learnings from those extraordinary experiences. He’s also started this storytelling platform (with Angela Zaeh) for endurance athletes. It’s a good place to share ideas and narratives around running, cycling, and outdoor sports in general. He and I both feel that outdoor activities, athletes, and events need more storytelling and exposure. David lives with his family in Marin County, and I asked him how he was getting along in the pandemic. In addition to his Prokit profile (linked below), you can find David on Instagram and Twitter.
1. Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first two months in lockdown mode
As the pandemic started, the overwhelming lowlight was internalizing what this means for people who are most in need and at risk. My sister is a social worker, and nothing hit home more than her immediate panic over what this would mean for things like child abuse as kids are forced into their homes and out of schools where they can be kept safe. Multiplying this across every area of society created a rabbit hole that made falling asleep hard.
We are fortunate as a family, and have slowly found a new set of routines. Our biggest struggles have been adapting to home-schooling, not being able to see east coast family, and having trips cancelled that were lifelong traditions for my kids. All so minor in the context of people out of work, losing loved ones, and losing their senior years in high school or college. For Prokit, we had just finished building an epic database of 9,000 of the best trail running and gravel biking events, races, camps and adventures; all were instantly out-of-date as events were cancelled, but a minor hiccup in the scheme of things.
Highlights are unexpected shifts created by being stuck at home. My daughter and I climb trees, build forts, and invent obstacle courses in our yard. My son always had three sports going and with everything cancelled found a love for running. He has the time to explore the trails in Marin — something that wasn’t likely to happen for another decade. He went from a baseline of zero to running 100 miles last month; a new daily goal and fresh air gave him an outlet.
At Prokit, the highlight is watching relationships grow in the community. For example, cyclists Laura King and Sonya Looney had babies during the lockdown and their stories have brought together so many women on and off the platform. Things like our Moms in Sport feature offered a chance to celebrate people who deserve to be celebrated, especially now.
2. How have you grown personally and professionally during this disruption?
I’ve worked alongside some of the most talented entrepreneurs, and lived through the 2000 collapse at the start of my career and the 2008 financial crisis. At Facebook, we were constantly the underdog in our early days — quite literally a peanut compared to Apple and Google, smaller than MySpace, smaller than just one newsroom of the publications covering us. Facebook was just over 400 employees when I joined, and Instagram had just crossed twenty employees. In hindsight, everything looks like it was destiny, like success was inevitable for both companies. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Luckily I’ve had a lot of rehearsals to teach me how to dig deep, recalibrate and take a big picture view, and while I’ve built teams and had shoulder crushing accountability, running a company is new. Running a deliberately founder-funded startup through what is likely going to be the most extended downturn since the Great Depression is another level. I made a commitment to myself in January to double down and not look up until June. June is almost here, and while I’m not looking up, I’m reminded daily of the rewards of taking the little steps, pushing outside my comfort zone, and simply moving forward. The fortune cookie I opened in January said this, “ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupy.”
I believe startups are one part execution, one part timing and one part magic. For Prokit, our magic is the storytellers, experts and athletes on our platform, not the pixels we create on a screen. For any startup or day-dreaming entrepreneur, the best companies often come out of the hardest times when you’re forced to reimagine how things are done. There will no doubt be some incredible new ideas turned into companies over the next few years.
3. Has your relationship with your work and your community changed as a result of the pandemic?
In my early years at Facebook, the work never stopped. Lunch was at my desk — no leaving the office, ever. For years. Instagram was similar. Work, exercise, see family and a few close friends. Repeat. The last few months have been the same, working from 7am until the time my head hits the pillow with almond butter sandwiches at my desk for lunch. I break all the working from home rules, sometimes forgetting to brush my teeth until after lunch. My hands ache, my neck is tight. But I love it. It is focusing, we have momentum and it is up to us to deliver an experience that solves real problems rather than simply talk about them.
Things are both out of balance and in-focus because of the pandemic. Many of the biggest time-stealers — relentless carpooling to kids sports, driving to meetings, errands to buy things you don’t need — are gone. They have been replaced with a rare opportunity to put my head down and simply work. Similar to the marathon of being in the trenches as we built Facebook and Instagram, the lockdown has forced a refreshing level of prioritization. Work, outdoors, family and close friends. Repeat.
One of the most serendipitously pleasant surprises of this extra “work” has been new relationships and picking up the phone to talk to people in the community who would have been too busy out at races. Whether through the people I’ve interviewed for The Common Threads like Sarah Piampiano, Eric Min, David & Megan Roche, and Jeremy Jones, or getting to work with people like you, Laura King and friends at Strava, the new relationships are what I’ve enjoyed most. My co-founder Angela Zaeh and I get an email every-time a new user joins Prokit, and I get so much joy out of going to our Athletes page to check out their profile. Can’t wait to meet people in person.
4. Can storytelling and outdoor sports create positive change in the world during a crisis like this? If so, how?
The outdoors — sitting in nature, simply walking around the block, or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air — without question create positive change in people and society. Taking sports out of the equation entirely, I believe deeply that the outdoors and movement of any type has incredible healing powers and can unlock creativity, calm and potential in people that few other things can.
Outdoor sports represent freedom and potential for me. You choose to do them. Every morning when you lace up your shoes or hop on your bike, you make a choice to move, to chase a goal, to connect with a friend. Sports can be painful, frustrating and exhausting in ways very few things can; but very few things teach you more about yourself and about finding hidden potential and self-belief. This pandemic has given many a unique window of time to find this focus again, or for the first time.
At a personal level, we’ve always chosen where we live to allow us to walk or bike to work. In San Francisco, I never took the bus. Rain or shine, I walked or rode to work every day. It’s where my best ideas happen, where I recharge after a long day. And now with my kids, it’s the morning walk with my daughter where we connect and are able to work through the chaos of this new reality. Simply walking down the street before school fundamentally changes her day as an 11 year-old, the same way it did for me as a kid and still does today.
Long way of saying the outdoors are magic. And it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. If you have the means, walk outside. There’s always blue sky hidden behind the clouds. We are just trying to bottle up some of that blue sky with Prokit through the stories that are told, insights shared, friends met, mountains climbed and experts hired.
The outdoors aren’t for the privileged — said by a white guy living in a bubble. You have to see things to believe them, and we need to collectively elevate the voices of female athletes, under-represented athletes, and inspire our youth to find their adventure. We have a commitment to being equal or better in our coverage of men and women, but have far to go.
Every industry needs a storytelling platform — there’s LinkedIn for your career, Houzz for your home, Nextdoor for your neighborhood. The outdoor industry needs the same. That’s why we built Prokit. And I don’t think there could be a more important time for it.
David’s podcast, The Common Threads
David’s Prokit profile