Navigating a treacherous terrain without a compass
Facebook tagged me in a memory recently of me on stage, pitching to 500 folks at Technori for my company 4 years ago. I was really left in a place of gratitude and humility looking at the pictures.
Wow…I’ve been at this for quite some time. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 19 years, but this is officially the longest I’ve ever been in the trenches on just one specific business as my “primary business.” I was left wondering just how many other tech startups run by black and latinx founders had launched and died within that same time frame.
For 5+ years, I’ve put the majority of my time, focus and every dollar I had in savings, plus anything generated from consulting into this endeavor. I’ve placed ALL my eggs into this basket. It has been a lesson in patience, because after all this time, I feel like my company, CANDID, is juuuuust now turning a corner, and has a shot at becoming more than a lifestyle business, and truly making impact at scale.
Looking back now, I know that it would’ve been extremely difficult to short-cut the time it took to lay the proper foundation from a tech standpoint, knowing what and who I knew then. Why? Because I was bootstrapping the business, and because I was doing so in an UNFAMILIAR industry. Having limited capital also limits the speed at which you can move, especially if you don’t know the terrain. In tech, if you don’t have a co-founder who can code, and team members who can design, EVERY SINGLE CHANGE to the user interface on a screen of an app, EVERY SINGLE CHANGE to a few lines of code to slightly adjust some feature, EVERY SINGLE THING has the ability to cost you hundreds to thousands out of pocket. And I mean the SMALLEST, SIMPLEST STUFF.
“I underestimated just how extraordinary that cost was, and just how much that would slow me down.”
It takes time to TRULY understand your customer base, on all levels, especially if you’re inventing a new narrative (#microfeedback). Unless your website, user experience and collateral materials are 1000% perfect (which they never are on version 1, or ever for that matter), this requires training, because what you’re really doing is asking leaders of organizations and the people connected to them, internally and externally, to fundamentally shift the way that they think about and do a specific thing, in a specific context. Carving out new space in the human brain is an incredibly difficult task.
Seems simple enough in theory, because if they just do it this way instead of that old way they’re used to, it would be SO MUCH EASIER for them, and they’d get access to SO MUCH MORE ______________ (fill in the blank with data, insights, clients, revenue, etc). Of course they’ll see that right away, and want to jump on board right? Why wouldn’t they? Riiiiiight. This is what I now understand to be “magical thinking.”
I grossly underestimated the time and resources it would take to move the needle just a LITTLE bit here, never-mind accomplishing that task on a large scale. Human beings are creatures of habit, and IT TAKES TIME to understand the nuances of why they do what they do currently, every single step in how they do it currently, and what they’re truly trying to accomplish by doing it that way. Once you have a firm understanding of all of that, now the task is figuring out how to articulate what you’re asking them to do in a way that is “perceived” to be seamless, and creates absolutely NO disruption in how they usually do things. Let’s not forget that you need to do this while simultaneously creating NEW value that they were previously unable to tap into doing things their old way. Ok so let’s recap, create massive value for them by doing some thing that is distinctly different than what they’re used to doing, but in your visuals and explanations, have them FEEL like this shift is easy, seamless and only a very slight shift from how they are already doing things. Of course, that will be no challenge at all.
“Whoever came up with this whole narrative of “disruption” actually did a lot of founders a huge disservice.”
Sure, it sounds good in theory, but in reality, NO ONE WANTS TO BE DISRUPTED. Not you, not me, not your potential customers, NO ONE. From time to time, a company comes with a software platform that turns a whole industry on its head. Here’s the misconception, the industry isn’t transformed because that software “disrupted” something, it’s transformed because that software made it so DEAD SIMPLE to do something that people are already doing that, en mass, people adopted this new way of doing a thing, and said goodbye to their old way of doing that thing. While the INDUSTRY itself may be disrupted, the people in the industry receiving the value of this new way of doing things were NOT disrupted. Their lives have been made easier, more enjoyable, because this new way of doing things was SEAMLESS enough to have them say yes to change.
Disrupting an industry has much less to do with what your software does, and much more to do with how effective your marketing, messaging, visuals, user interface and story are, and the way that you DESIGN THE EXPERIENCE around how your software does what it does, from live demo all the way to integration and implementation.
Even with great advisors, there’s just no way to short cut having a v1 product being used by real clients, and learning, scenario by scenario, moment by moment, what works, what doesn’t, and the insights about why. Some of these insights you only see from experimenting with it over and over and over with real people, and watching the tiniest things from experiment to experiment that give you clarity about what they REALLY want, but are not quite able to articulate to you clearly. Why can’t they just tell you exactly what they want? Because sometimes, they don’t even fully know that they want a thing until you give it to them, because how they were doing things up to the point you provide a new way doesn’t occur as pain…it just occurs as “the way it is,” and they’ve accepted it. They don’t even know they have the problem that you’re trying to expose to them that they have, for which you are then trying to sell them the solution. Holy moly, what an uphill slog.
“Building this business has been the slowest, most arduous thing I’ve ever done as an entrepreneur.”
It has also been the most fulfilling. I’ve gone through the patent filing process, secured three trademarks, worked with clients on the city-wide, state-wide and global level, raised 6 figures in capital, and generated some real revenue along the way, from this new category we’ve spearheaded that I call #microfeedback. I’ve been blessed to experience having really supportive and excited investors who believe in the vision now more than ever, after all of these years, and also to experience one nightmare scenario of an investor, who has been verbally abusive beyond what one could even imagine, to the point where I’ve threatened legal action, blocked their cell phone number and emails, and the only time I communicate with them is in sending out investor updates when new things are happening with the company.
This has ALL been part of shaping me, and shaping the way that I approach building my company. In going through this experience, I realized that if you’re an outsider, trying to build a software company, or even just a traditional product or service company that relies on a growth strategy that primarily leverages tech, the cards are stacked against you. If you don’t have money or access to money, the right relationships, a clear road map, a solid support community, no advisory board, AND you don’t have knowledge of predictable pitfalls that you absolutely WILL FACE as you try to build your tech focused company, your chances of failure are almost 100%. You just don’t have the time or resources needed to be able to make the mistakes along the way that are an UNAVOIDABLE part of building a startup.
“Without enough capital, and without a clear path forward, your time just runs out.”
I came face to face with that moment multiple times over the last 5 years, where I literally was over-drafted in all accounts, had no prospects for new clients, had software that MOSTLY worked, but was buggy enough to where the types of engagements I could sell were extremely limited, had bills due and past due, and had no clue how I would actually keep the doors to the business open. I cannot put into words what it feels like to be in that space, and then to figure out a way to stay alive one more, three more, six more months, and continue volunteering for that pain over and over and over again, day in and day out. Why would someone do that to themselves, to the people closest to them? It’s not noble, and it’s not grand or brave. It’s literally not even a choice for me; some people just are wired differently.
I’m not built for a job. There’s nothing wrong with working at a company, so please don’t hear this as me throwing shade on that. Nothing any entrepreneur has ever done at scale has been accomplished without employees working for them who commit themselves to the vision of that company. I can’t count the times over the years that I’ve wished I could just go take a job, get a steady paycheck, and live a life with some semblance of stability, instead of living lump sum to lump sum, mortgaging my present over and over to invest in some future that may never happen. But here’s the rub; I’d claw my eyes out if I lived life any other way. Not the mortgaging my present part, but the living life fully, and being willing to go ALL IN on what I believe in part. I wouldn’t trade my willingness to do that for a life time of comfortability, because I see so many people wishing they could go after what they really want in life, and never being willing to risk the normalcy and comfortability of their day to day lives to do so. Sometimes life’s circumstances make it incredibly difficult to do so, and I’m not diminishing that. I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to do so in MY life.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to scratch and claw my way through it, and am part of the tiny percentage of startups that are still alive 5 years after their launch. Am I out of the woods? Not even close, not by a long shot. Experiencing this first-hand has been a huge reason why I’ve built an entire global support community around myself along the way in ImBlackInTech Membership Network (ImBlackInTech.com), while I’ve been pushing forward over these last 5 years. I built this as much for myself as I did for others in similar circumstances who are trying to do what I’m trying to do, as an outsider in this industry. I need a community of those who’ve done it and are trying to do it as my support system, to celebrate and educate me as I traverse this path, just as much as the next person does.
“None of us can do this alone, and it’s naive to try to do so.”
When I look at the back stories of wildly successful startups and founders, so few people talk about the 5+ years they spent just plodding along, making just enough money to keep the lights on, and sometimes not even that, before it finally all came together, and massive success and exponential growth took place in their business, seemingly all at once. Because it happens so fast when it finally does happen, it looks like the company is a rocket ship, and everyone tells THAT Cinderella story of overnight success. I wish more people would tell the real story, the pain, the sleepless nights, the YEARS of putting all you have into something on nothing but passion and faith alone, without so much as a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and pushing forward anyway, one inch at a time, with absolutely no guarantees of an outcome you might define as “success.”
As a company, we are just now at a place where, in all aspects, we have the proper foundation to pursue large scale opportunities around public safety, conventions and tourism, transparency in policing, etc that we have in our cross hairs.
I can’t believe it took this long, but the reality is IT TOOK THIS LONG.
For 5 years, I’ve had the solutions below, for a “Feedback Chicago” program to integrate microfeedback into Chicago neighborhoods:
- Transforming traffic stops and creating transparency in policing in an entire city, overnight, using our “Police Stop Cards”
- Increasing rider safety on public transportation, using signage at bus/train stops and stations
- Insuring resident safety in neighborhoods, with our “Neighborhood Watch 2.0” initiative
- Involving the community in urban planning decisions for new real estate development, using our “Feedback Zones” initiative with permanent signage at key intersections and construction sites
I want to reiterate that my software has been able to do everything you see above for the last 5 years, but I’ve just now been able to finally get to a place with the user interface design, design of the actual collateral materials, and with the actual story of the company, and narrative I use to describe what we do and how we do it, where people are finally listening. Most people in my position would have been out of business 4 years ago, and never had the opportunity to build what I’m building. I’m blessed to be one of the lucky ones.
There’s untapped talent, ready to impact the world, and it resides in communities all over the country, with people from every background, every ethnicity, every orientation, and every gender.
Some of these people don’t even know they’re in tech, or ought to be, because the narrative of what a tech founder looks like and where they come from has been so carefully curated by people who don’t fit a mold like me or many of the people all around the world, who are members of the ImBlackInTech.com community. This narrative has to change, and it starts with me making sure that the next person in line doesn’t take 5 years to get their vision out into the world because they don’t have the capital, resources or specialized knowledge to traverse this perilous journey called entrepreneurship successfully.
“I wish more people would tell their real and raw founder stories, because I believe that if they did, it would temper the magical thinking that most people have when they are in the afterglow of “launching their startup.”
Is the road long, treacherous, exhausting and full of more downs than ups in the early stages of every founder? Of course not. However, if you look at the back stories of some of the most successful founders of tech startups that you know, is that the pattern you’ll most consistently see, BEFORE they have the massive breakout success that you now know them for? Don’t take my word for it, go do your own research, and draw your own conclusions. The all-star black and latinx founders who’ve been our stage for The Founders Summit since 2015 have raised + generated over $415MM in their startups.
In closing, what I can tell you is that, starting out, I was naive. When I started this company in late 2012, I thought that I’d be able to translate my 10+ years of other entrepreneurial experiences, including building and losing a 7-figure real estate investment firm, into tech, and within a year, be on a rocket ship of revenue. I was wrong. It wasn’t that my other experiences didn’t translate…they did. It’s the ONLY reason that this business is still alive today, and stronger than ever. It’s the fact that building a TECH business requires a different road map than building a strictly service based business, or any other type of business that does not require technology to run, vs only human capital. It’s also that building that business as a person of color, IN GENERAL, requires another set of instructions and support mechanisms that need to be cultivated, and they aren’t as readily or easily available to find.
If I can leave you with anything in reading this, know that as an entrepreneur, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if you’re willing to stay the course. But here’s the second part of the story that no one tells you; that tunnel is long as s#it. LOL. That said, settle in for a long ride, be intentional about surrounding yourself with some great travel companions who are just as excited about the trip as you are, and know that in and of itself, the journey of building the company is the real juice. Enjoy it, learn from the ups, learn from the downs, and don’t be “attached” to the outcomes you’re pursuing as a definition of “who you are” or what your “worth” is or isn’t. Whether you hit your mark or not, simply view it all as a learning process, and have a blast doing it. God speed; because you’re gonna need it. 😉
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Thomas started his entrepreneurial career selling luxury custom car accessories online from New York to California out of his dorm room at Tennessee State University, and never looked back. Over 15 years later, beard grayed from the trials of entrepreneurship, Thomas is an author, an emerging tech startup founder, a speaker, a Google Entrepreneur in Residence, and the creator of a global membership organization for Black and Latinx founders of emerging tech startups, with members in 40+ states and 11 countries, who have raised + generated over $415MM in their startups. Learn more about Thomas’ current projects at ThomasKRStovall.com.