Over the years, I’ve spoken on several panels and I’ve given many pep talks to friends and acquaintances who were considering starting a company. I’d say about 99% of them never pull the trigger. They become distracted by their “day jobs” or get cold feet along the way for one reason or another. Many of them try to build a business on the side to avoid putting their safe job and income at risk. They want the best of both worlds, to have their cake and eat it too. Unfortunately when you’re spending your best waking hours at your day job, your startup (your dream) is the one that suffers. It’s as if you were a nanny and you chose to feed the baby you’re paid to care for with organic healthy baby food and feeding your own baby a bag of Cheetos. Your baby deserves better than that.
When I was a kid I remember setting up carnival games in our basement complete with with prizes. I charged other kids from the neighborhood to play the games and made some pocket change. The best part of creating the carnival wasn’t making the money, it was coming up with each of the carnival games and being resourceful enough to build them with what I had available. Making money isn’t enough motivation to start and run a successful business, you have to enjoy the journey.
Growing up I was generally pretty risk averse. Get good grades in school. Get into an Ivy League college. Get a good job. Get a graduate degree. Get a fancy high-paying job so I could have a comfortable and secure life and take care of my family. And then die. I spent my entire life jumping through hoops only to one day realize that I found no satisfaction being a cog in a big corporate machine. It struck me when I was at a bluechip Silicon Valley company after business school and wanted our product team to push the envelope a bit more. My director pulled me aside later and said that it was futile and that this wasn’t a place to rock the boat. He said that he had done so in the past and was reprimanded for it. When he told me that even if our buildings were to blow up tomorrow, that the company would still continue to make millions, I knew right then that this wasn’t the place for me. That’s when I decided to look into the startup world.
Making money isn’t enough motivation to start and run a successful business, you have to enjoy the journey.
I joined a consumer hardware startup Pure Digital in San Francisco, the makers of the Flip Camcorder, before it was acquired by Cisco. I learned how a small team could make a product that had wide-ranging impact. I spent time in Southern California and Philadelphia setting up test markets for our products. I ran focus groups and designed packaging for our retail partners. I built spreadsheets and models to better understand our rebates and channels. It was exhilarating and I was learning a ton. But it still wasn’t my own.
I knew that I had always wanted to start my own company someday, but I kept putting it off by telling myself that I wasn’t ready. I was afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid of derailing my career. Afraid of discovering that I was never cut out to be anything but a cog. Fear leads to paralysis and coming up with excuses. When your desire to build something and make your own path outweighs your fear of failure, you have no choice but to take the leap or live with regret. I took the leap and started my first company Fanpop and it was the best career decision I ever made.
For 9 years I built Fanpop with an old colleague from Yahoo! and two talented developers. With our team of four, we bootstrapped the site to over 35 million monthly visitors from around the world and generated millions in revenue. More important than any numbers though, was the fact that I was in control of my own destiny and my cup was full. I loved what I was doing because I was building something that people loved. It was reminiscent of creating carnival games that brought joy to the kids in the neighborhood. This time I was making fans of Harry Potter, One Direction, Vampire Diaries and grateful for helping them find a community of like-minded peers.
The most rewarding part of starting your own company is that you stretch yourself and give 150%. I was the CEO and on top of being our finance, marketing, business development, and legal departments, I learned Photoshop and Illustrator to be our designer. I learned HTML/CSS/Ruby on Rails to help out our developers. I took out the garbage and cleaned the home office. Because in a startup, if you don’t do something, it doesn’t get done. Startup life is all about getting things done and moving the needle forward. There’s nothing better than knowing your job has real impact.
Now I don’t want to glamorize starting your own company, because it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are many dark days and sleepless nights because the weight is all on your shoulders. You can’t depend on a salary. You have to raise money or generate revenue to pay the bills. You have people relying on you to pay their mortgages. You have to deal with the stress of worrying about legal battles. When you have a nice cushy day job, you don’t have to worry about any of this stuff. Starting a company is by no means for everyone. There are many days that I wish I had a corporate job. But then I remember that I would have a boss and have to deal with office politics. When you run your own company, hopefully you won’t hate your boss. If so, then you’ve got other problems. If you have a great idea or even a mediocre idea that can evolve into a great idea, then building your own business can be the holy grail of work.
Since then I’ve started another company Pared. We’re just getting started but I’m having a blast doing it. Building an amazing team and service that customers love and are willing to pay for makes going to work each day a pleasure. If I hadn’t taken the risk many years ago to make the transition from employee to founder, I would have never known just how much you could love your work. I would be sitting behind a desk at a big company wondering what could have been.
People will become the bridge you need to get across to the other side, all you need to do is have faith that they will be there and take that first step. I promise, succeed or fail, you’ll never regret doing so.
I know it’s terrifying to go out on your own and leave behind the safety of a big company and fat paycheck. But as I always tell people, it’s just like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade when he’s staring into the dark abyss of the crevasse. He has no idea how he’s going to get across to the other side where the Holy Grail awaits to save his dying father. But he has no choice and is forced to take a leap of faith. Once he takes that first step, he realizes he’s going to be just fine. Starting a company is just like that. When you consider doing something no one has done before, it can seem like staring down into a black hole with no sign of how you’ll make it. The amazing thing is, once you take that leap of faith, you will find out it’s going to be okay. People will come out of the woodworks to help you out. They’ll make introductions to investors and advisors. They’ll help you recruit your team. They’ll refer you to customers. Most importantly, they will give you words of encouragement, because everyone wants to root for the underdog. Everyone has a dream to go out on their own, and if they can’t do it themselves for whatever reason, they will want to help those who actually do take the risk. People will become the bridge you need to get across to the other side, all you need to do is have faith that they will be there and take that first step. I promise, succeed or fail, you’ll never regret doing so.