The first of three short stories from my last startup. Check back next Tuesday for part two.
Career risk is real and can be daunting — whether it’s risk-taking at your present job or beginning a startup. A few months ago, I was invited to share thoughts on the topic “whole-hearted risk” at a Women Tech Council summit held in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the process, I realized that though it is difficult to isolate the risk I’ve taken, let alone give it so grandiose a descriptor as “whole-hearted,” I am able to more clearly call out the risk taken by those with whom I’ve operated. I cited three stories from different points in my last startup and have broken each story into three bite-sized blog posts. Here’s the first…
1st Story — Problems to Solve and the People Involved
A decade ago, my startup co-founders and I were young pups confident that we had ample resources to give our idea some lift- a little cash and some technical ability. What’s more, we were tackling a problem that all of us, the sons of 1st generation college students, could appreciate: a better way to find, choose, and get into college. We felt we were every bit the “young stars” that this magazine cover indicated. Only downhill from here, right?
However, there came a time just months before this picture was taken and early in our startup, when my personal life came to a screeching halt with the unexpected passing away of my kid brother, Stephen. He’s is just four years younger than I. We shared a room growing up, so spent a lot of time together with Legos and wrestling. When I moved back to Utah and started this startup, we became gym buddies. As you can imagine, my personal life slowed to a halt with his passing. Suddenly, our startup and the problems we were solving paled in comparison to my personal loss, which was all-consuming. How could I give my whole heart to something when I’d found myself with a gaping hole in my own heart?
One night at the home of Ryan Caldwell (current startup founder/CEO) and in a moment of complete honesty, I said to the team, “I’m out. I don’t have the will or interest in this and you can have my equity.” It was then, for me, that the startup horsepower came through my friend and co-founder, Brad Hagen, as he said, “No man, take what time you need. We’ll still be here and you’ll still have your spot.”
I took a few weeks, but with time, found myself interested and able in getting back at it with the team. There were a lot of teary days; it only took a familiar song or sudden memory to move me to emotion. I got in the habit of taking a quick walk outside the office to release a few feelings and compose myself. But look, the point of the story for me was that I was still in our startup, still lifting with our founding team, still pursuing what would eventually be a life-changing experience. Had that interaction ended differently so would the realization of success in the early risk that I had taken (our company was acquired 4 years later). Thank goodness for the risk early team members take with each other.
So… dream big and tackle big, hairy problems. And, be willing to concede that success may be something much simpler than just your big idea. It may be the people into whom you are putting your whole heart.
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