Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Until you truly experience failure, it is hard to fully appreciate the feeling.  For better or worse, up until this past summer I truthfully had no idea what it meant to fail. I’ve read enough blogs and posts in my time to learn about “failing fast” and “closing gracefully,” but until this summer, those learnings were a mere façade of the truth.

Now I’d like to be prideful and say that Zodah wasn’t a complete failure (personally, the experience was a learning success), but in the binary world that we live in, it probably should be considered one.  Our goal was to fundamentally alter the way households interact with their bills, and thereby, billers; since we recently shut down operations a few months back, we obviously did not quite get there (update: it turned out we exited to Hearst Corporation instead).  Along the way, there were a few things I did right, however, many more things I did wrong – but by going through these experiences I’ve fundamentally altered how I approach startups, and life.

To best describe what I’ve learned, I’ve created a list of key insights from the last few months at Zodah:

  1. Failure is emotional because startups are emotional; if it’s not, you’re not that invested in what you’re doing. More generally speaking, being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 job, that isn’t actually a job – even if your not building, you’re always working or brainstorming…you’re life becomes the same as your startup. It is an extremely strange feeling, but it seemed as if everything I said and thought had to do with Zodah, days merged with one another, and I literally didn’t spend a night without having dreams (nightmares) about use cases. Therefore, after spending every single minute wrapped up in your mission, realizing it was time to shutdown shop can be extremely traumatic.
  2. Making key decisions requires one foot on the ground and one hand in the sky, or in other words, a balance of realism and unfiltered vision is critical to be a good leader and successful entrepreneur. In the last few weeks leading up to our decision to close down Zodah, I must have flipped flopped a few times a day – to continue or not continue? At this juncture, realism was absolutely critical in helping us make (what now even more than ever) feels like the right decision. However, there were many times along the way where more realistic people (most of my peers) probably questioned our judgment or our plans; but with the recent successes of some of our competitors (and their subsequent interest in our business, our knowledge), it was evident had I not pursued the less sane path, we would have never launched and made clear the gaping holes in the current system.
  3. Runway is absolutely critical, therefore, do whatever is necessary to give yourself a $50K cushion to work with (either through savings or family/friends) before going to far down the rabbit hole. Seed cash not only gives a startup the freedom to purchase necessary hosting space, and hire part-time contractors or full-time hackers, but it also allows for runway – time to iterate and flexibility to test and experiment, while also keeping the food on the table and the lights on. I was recently asked by a friend “what can be done with $50K as a startup?” The truth is if you are building an Internet startup and have $50K, there shouldn’t be an excuse not to have enough to iterate and discover whether or not your product can gain traction. This lesson is not a fun one to learn the hard way…trust me.
  4. Details matter, being anal yourself is better than expecting someone else to get it right. Unlike any other job in the planet, being an entrepreneur requires finite precision and attention to detail both toward your product and your organization / culture. No matter if you are a hacker, front-end developer or visionary it is vital to an early-stage company to maniacally pursue and execute your vision down to the last detail (or pixel in my case), because if you don’t, no one will. The product is what you are selling, it is your job to make sure it looks and performs the way you envision; the company and culture is what you are building, don’t for a second lose sight that this is 100% in your control. I don’t think he knows this, but I thank Saar Gur for his advice here – before we met, I can now say our day to day journey was more aimless than focused; after we met, not a single product or company detail was unintentional. We built a good, clean app, and had it not been for this learning…well, I’d probably not be writing this now.

I apologize for the rambling, but I don’t like being trite. A lot of people claim that failure makes an entrepreneur successful. I don’t think it’s important to fail before succeeding, nor do I believe you always learn by failing. The act of trying, however, is far more important – hopefully you succeed, but if you fail, the act of trying new things and learning via each experiment makes the experience worthwhile.

Update: After writing this post, we finalized our exit to Hearst Corporation. Given the fact it was mainly a tech / talent acquisition, most of this holds true, but I wanted to clarify for those who might be confused.

Advertisements

It has been a few months since I decided to table Zodah and join Bain Capital Ventures, but alone from a handful of close friends and advisors, I feel I have not properly communicated what happened and how we came to our conclusion. Time always provides for perspective, and after a few extra months of reflection I’d like to take the time to share the highlights of my decision process.

When we started our private beta in early May, our goal was three-fold: 1) to test out our hypothesis, 2) learn how we could iterate and improve our product and 3) raise a seed round to fund the next phase of development.  We launched to mixed results, but we quickly (and more importantly) pinpointed a group of loyal and avid early-users who validated our hypothesis. Every day we gathered new insights (from both promoters and detractors), and after a few weeks, we had begun to build out a pretty robust 12-month development plan. By the end of June, a few things were clear: we had built the foundation for a really easy to use application, we had identified and validated a large opportunity, we had a lot of work to do to take our solution from a “nice to have” solution to a “need to have” solution.

The above was the essence of our sell to investors. Our affiliation with DogPatch Labs and First Growth Venture Network put us in a position to meet top-tier investors and advisors interested in working with Zodah. After our initial pitches, our focus and next steps were clear, build traction! Easy, right? Wrong. Once our goals were within reach, things became complicated. To build traction we needed to make significant iterations to our back-end model (not that it was poor, it is just inevitable with any startup), and in order to make significant iterations we needed either significant time or added resources. Given our shrinking runway, we soon realized we had a major problem.

As we approached the end of July, it appeared we had a significant runway problem without a clear windfall in sight (there were a few glimmers, including a potential exciting exit). Instead of recapping the emotional rollercoaster that followed, I’ve included an expert of a note I wrote to friends and mentors that explains what came next:

I wanted to send you all a quick email updating you on a few items. First, I wanted to let you know that Andy and I have decided to table Zodah for the time being – extremely sad. After our private beta launch, we received really good feedback from our beta users, but given the nature of our business, because we weren’t able to secure a seed round before our runway went dry we were forced to decide whether or not to push forward or look for an alternative solution. We are committed to investigating potential partnership opportunities for our solution, but at the same time have decided to also investigate other personal opportunities. This was an extremely difficult and emotional decision, but I do believe the right and responsible one given our diminishing runway and personal constraints.

 

The opportunity that presented itself at Bain Capital Ventures has made the transition palpable, but not any less difficult. Of course, I still go to work everyday and torment myself with what went wrong (lots) and what I could have done better (most of the blame probably lies on my shoulders); but the ability to look forward, however, is what I believe distinguishes any true entrepreneur. So instead of wilting at the news of new services in our vain, I am extremely grateful and excited for my opportunity to learn at BCV and to have grown from my experiences with Zodah over the past year and a half.  Over the next few years, my goal is to learn about the world of investing, both early and growth stage, but to also take what I learn from the great team at BCV to further my success as an entrepreneur.

In the end, it is sad to see the Zodah dream come to a halt. I’ve personally, however, learned a great deal from both my experiences with Zodah and all the mentors and advisors who took the time to help and guide me over the last two years. Even though thing didn’t end the way we had anticipated, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity – without a question in my mind, I would do it over 10 times out of 10. Now as I look forward, I am excited to begin a new phase in my career and apply everything I have learned; only time will tell where the next chapter will lead…

Update: After writing this post, we finalized our exit to Hearst Corporation. Given the fact it was mainly a tech / talent acquisition, most of this holds true, but I wanted to clarify for those who might be confused.

After thinking through what has transpired over the last 24 hours, if not past 2 months, I have a few thoughts about “The Decision” that I would like to share.

First and foremost, I’d start with Lebron. I’m shocked, angered and saddened by his choice (and I’m still not sure in what order). It is hard to fathom someone from our own backyard a) selling out to essentially play second fiddle in Wade County and b) humiliating us on national television. The fact that his departure means we won’t win anymore isn’t the most upsetting part either, it’s the simple fact that if one of our own won’t stay, what does that say to the rest of the world?

I like to think I’m a well-versed historian of the game – I think his legacy is tarnished, no matter if they win 5+ titles in Miami. Would MJ have left the Bulls to join Isiah, would Bird have left the Celtics to join Magic? To be the best, you have to beat the best…it is that simple. All the reports that have now surfaced since his decision seem to indicate one thing, he either didn’t think he could do it alone because he wasn’t the leader we believed him to be (i.e. he needed Wade more than Wade needed him), or he never had any intention of staying – I don’t know which is worse.

Still, the man had the right to leave. The way he went about it though, was unacceptable. Not only did he do it only national television, he spent the last 2-years stringing this city along. For the past 7-years we gave, but for the past 2-years we gave even more – we loved him and praised him more than his own family. However, our unconditional love was never respected; he flirted with the media, he tormented us with free agency, he went out of his way to say he loved us and we had the “edge,” and when we had the opportunity to improve, he baffled us with his lack of commitment. How were we supposed to attract top talent, if we couldn’t even get our own superstar to commit to his own organization?

I don’t blame Dan Gilbert for his rant and letter. It wasn’t perfect, but it was raw, sincere and honest. To be introspective, that has been the one thing that has been lacking in this city when it came to Lebron. He was hurt, and he had every right to express his feelings. I don’t think everything he said is true (nor do I agree with his approach), but I don’t believe he will regret what he said, nor will I be ashamed of how he said it. He stood up for those people who needed hope, something Lebron never did…

Regardless, I was hurt when he left. I wanted him to stay because I cared. I won’t even try to deny the fact that I’ve cried many times since his departure. Furthermore, when I heard stories about children crying and asking their parents why he left, it broke my heart. Sports figures shouldn’t be put on a pedestal (and I argued too many people did this with Tiger), but Lebron meant something else to this city. He signified a hope that people from our area could do great things (for better or worse, this was especially true in a time where our city needed hope more than anything), and to shatter the dreams of all those around him in such a callous manner, is unacceptable. Regardless of whether or not he wanted to admit it, he developed a unique tie to this city, the fans and our franchise that has never been seen before in sports anywhere else – and even though it is his right, I can’t deny it hurt to see him turn his back…I just never thought it would happen.

Moving forward, I’m sure Lebron will win a title, and Cleveland sports will suffer. But what saddens me the most, is that Cleveland is in such a depressed state that we become defined by these things. It is almost a chicken and egg situation, where we live and die by sports but then forget about who we really are, but because we rest our hope in sports, we lose sight of real hope.

The saying goes, it takes real darkness to reach the dawn. Northeast Ohio is struggling, and there is no doubt about that. We believed Lebron represented hope, we believed that one of our own could do great things and bring glory to our city. It doesn’t feel good being the butt of all jokes, it doesn’t feel good seeing our city struggle, and when it comes to sports, it doesn’t feel good knowing that “the curse” might just be a microcosm of the fate of the city.

Cleveland deserves someone better than Lebron, someone who understands that and is willing to make a sacrifice to make a difference – not only in sports, but in the community. We believed Lebron could be that guy, and maybe, at the end of the day, that is why we are the most hurt. We had faith in a guy, who at the drop of a hat embraced a new city overnight only to say, “this feels right, this feels where I should be.”

But again, maybe after all this, the saying is true: what doesn’t break you only makes you stronger. As a city we’ve always let our sports dictate our happiness (and in this case, a single athlete), but maybe, now it is time that we also look in the mirror and say we can be great ourselves. We don’t need to put all our faith in 25-year old athlete (who when push comes to shove can cowardly run to his buddies), but rather we can put our faith in our colleges, in our innovators, and in our leaders. We all hate living in a small-market, we hate the national nicknames for our city, but what if we change that? Maybe then, just maybe, we can put ourselves in a position where not only do we have an attractive city, but then, what Clevelanders want most of all, our teams can compete year-in and year-out without the fear that we will be ditched for greener pastures.

Some might believe this is corny, cheesy or overly optimistic, but I do believe sports can sometimes be more than just a game. I fear, however, that in Cleveland we allow ourselves to get too involved waiting and watching until “the curse” is broken. If instead, we put faith in ourselves and support our own development, then maybe, just maybe, we can break our curse without just watching and waiting for the next heartbreak.

But again…these are just my thoughts.

As an addendum, I’ve learned 2 more things since “The Decision” transpired:

1) After watching Lebron’s interviews, both on ESPN and in American Airlines Arena, I do not believe he had any intention of staying unless we had won. Problem is his failure in leadership resulted in our failure as a team.

2) With all the national spotlight on Dan Gilbert’s letter vs. Lebron’s decision, I think people have lost sight of the real victims in this situation, the fans. Children, teenagers and even adults have given all they had to Lebron for 7-years, and were not even acknowledged with a “thank you.” Because we cared so much, it hurt much more than most people can ever fathom.

Welcome!

Hello world. Welcome to my life.

After much deliberation, I’ve decided to start a blog. Why? I don’t really know. I guess my general thought process went something like this: I have things to say, I don’t want to forget what I say, I want to start an open discussion, it might be fun, why not?

As a new entrepreneur, I’m going to focus most of my musings on startups, social media and innovation. However, because this is my blog, I will from time to time stray and discuss general topics like sports, politics, etc. when appropriate. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I hope my thoughts and experiences can be useful for people in my position (business-minded, first-time entrepreneur) in order to promote general experience-sharing and maybe even higher discourse.

So here we go, I hope you enjoy.