- Startup experiences can vary — while we often hear of the success stories, it is rare we hear of the startups that fail.
- Even if the startup proves unsuccessful, it is healthy to take the risk and pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor that you are passionate about.
- The experience of joining a startup can be beneficial when applying for future professional roles, as it shows drive and self-motivation.
There are a lot of 20-somethings in America dreaming of launching a startup. I should know, as I was one of them for a long time.
Renting beach chairs and umbrellas, a vitamin subscription service, curated cigars, an app to pay your restaurant or bar tab — these are all startup ideas that I have had over the last 10 years. I even set up limited liability companies and began development work on some of them, but none ever got off the ground.
I was starting to think that I had an entrepreneur's mind with a banker's risk tolerance.
Leaving a six-figure salary behind
One day I got an email inviting me to join a team of three that were founding a healthcare startup. However, the closer I got to the opportunity, the more nervous I got about leaving my great six-figure job and putting a strain on both my finances and my ability to maintain some sort of work-life balance. Leaving to join the startup meant taking a 50% pay cut. Weeks of hand-wringing ensued and I decided if there was a time in my life to jump in the deep end of the pool, it was now.
We finalized a capital round of $750,000 and we were off to the races. Or so I thought.
As it turns out, "off to the races" at early-stage startups means moving into the cheapest office space you can find with the cheapest furniture you can find. In this case, it was a couple hundred square feet in a dark basement corner of a refurbished sock factory with used furniture that we found on Craigslist.
Working there and periodically stealing office supplies from the other tenants in our building wasn't exactly what Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be doing in The Social Network. Nonetheless, I embraced the excitement of starting from scratch and we landed a few clients, including one of my former employers. We had positive meetings with investors and large prospects in nearby Nashville. It felt like we were on to something, I started thinking about how big we could be and all the fortune that would bring. It felt like we could be a success story.
And then, like so many other startups, we hit a wall
Courtesy of Mike Funderburk
No one was telling us no, but no one was telling us yes either. I had grand ideas for marketing campaigns that we weren't ready for. We needed revenue in the door yesterday.
I switched gears and focused on sales, calling it "business development" because it sounded better. I started with friends who I knew would answer my calls, then quickly moved on to professional contacts, then to LinkedIn contacts that I was loosely connected to at best, and finally to building my own outbound cold-call list. I sat in our basement office and called so many names from the list that I began to lose count.
However, after several months of restless nights thinking about that one additional feature we needed or that one extra call we should make, our CEO and investors announced that we were done.
Just like that.
My jump into the deep end of the pool suddenly felt like a free fall from highest of high dives, and I had no idea if I could swim.
The news came on a dull morning in February, and it was devastating. I went home and spent the rest of the day thinking about how to explain to my wife that I had failed. When she finally did come home every word I'd thought of escaped me.
I cried instead.
The following weeks were spent frantically trying to recreate the company with my own vision, team, and set of investors. After realizing what a monumental task this would be, I started looking for other startups to join instead. When none of those doors would open I finally found myself applying for "corporate" jobs on company websites, a task that I was positive I would never need to undertake just a few weeks prior.
Everything had gone wrong. I had taken a massive pay cut to bang my head against a wall. We had admitted failure in just less than a year, and now I was having trouble finding a new job.
And yet, after a year of reflection, I'd gladly do it again
There is nothing more rewarding than chasing a dream. Accomplishing the dream is great, but the real fun is in the chase — that's what I got to do for a year. I chased as hard as I could and even though I came up short, I loved it.
A year later, everything is just fine. It only took me about three months to land a job I love at a great company. As for the process of returning to the corporate world and explaining my failure to hiring managers? It wasn't nearly as bad as you would think. I focused on the positives like the experience of pitching to C-level executives, managing contractors and having to become an expert on a new industry in a compressed time frame. Most hiring managers saw my startup experience as a positive. If they were concerned about anything, it was over whether I would leave their company to jump back into the startup world.
To everyone out there sitting on the sidelines, debating over whether or not to jump in the pool — just go ahead and do it. You'll be forced to fight harder than you've ever fought before and you'll learn you can handle a lot more stress than you thought you could. Maybe it won't work out, and maybe you'll cry, too, but at least you will have tried.
You'll certainly never know if you can swim if you don't jump in the pool. And if it turns out swimming isn't your thing, you'll still be glad you jumped.
Mike Funderburk is currently the Associate General Manager of Personal Loans at LendingTree.
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