It’s been quite a while since I’ve chronicled anything about my life – two years to the date to be precise – so thought I’d dust off the old blog, share what I’ve been up to and a couple of things I’ve learned along the way.
TLDR: Stepped back from my venture after 3 years of building and toiling. Moved back to Vancouver from the UK. Stepped into the wonderful world of fish and ocean conservation. Began formally teaching entrepreneurship. Now heading to Singularity University for the summer as a culmination of all of these things.
Rewinding, one of the hardest personal decisions I had to make in 2016 ( / ever in my life) was stepping down from the active management of my venture. Quitting had never been in my DNA, but at the time I felt like I’d been hitting my head repeatedly against a board for three years trying to get serious growth and traction.
Side note- I’m very pleased to caveat that the company is now on the up-and-up after much perseverance from my co-founder Michael – serious props. But at the time things were feeling bleak. We were on a slow, 3 year drip of not being able to pay ourselves living wage salaries, going through year+ sales cycles on customer contracts, with some expat visa complications sprinkled on top. Despite the Silicon Valley mantra of failing fast, in practicality this is a very hard thing to do.
To me, all of this was exacerbated by an unexpectedly powerful and addictive force – grant funding. My advice to entrepreneurs is to be wary of the feeling of validation that a research grant can provide. Grantors are not customers. Some are well-aligned to customer needs, some are not. I always felt like somewhere along the path to product-market fit, grant funding convinces you travel in the tangent of a time and place.
Grants can absolutely help you move forward, but you have to be laser-focused on not getting too caught up in what funders think are the best solutions (in our case for reducing carbon emissions) and stay grounded in what customers really want / will pay for.
After much mental back and forth, the time finally came to make a change. There were a few triggers. Min and I had made an agreement when we got married to support each other in our entrepreneurial journeys, and after three years it was my turn to be the bread winner. But the straw that really broke the camel’s back was when my stepdad John became suddenly and unexpectedly terminally ill.
I wanted to move back to be closer to family and provide support, and he passed away within three months of me doing so. It was devastating and was one of those moments that made me think “well, I guess I’m a grown-up now.” I stepped down from my role as Chief Product Officer. The transition was bumpy and emotional. But overall the journey has made me much more resilient and broadened my perspective. I have no regrets about the entrepreneurial journey. It is a truly transformational experience, that leaves you hungry to do it again and again.
In getting back on my feet, I was incredibly grateful for the power of friends and networks. Through a good friend Mark, I managed to find my way toward an inspiring organization called Future of Fish who was looking for an Entrepreneur in Residence. The EIR is a very nice soft landing for an entrepreneur finding his way after stepping back from a venture. It starts to rebuild your confidence that yes, in fact, you did learn a TON of stuff you could never learn in school. My approach to business analysis is far sharper and grounded in reality. I can smell assumptions better than before, and be creative in finding multiple paths to achieving goals and working around obstacles. This has been my first NGO experience, and my first time dipping my toes into international development. In some ways it is way different than business and engineering – in some ways it is not. You realize in a big way that you can’t simply throw tech at the world’s most complex challenges – you need deep understanding of the people and culture where you’re trying to deploy. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Bali a couple times for work – understanding people and culture can be a pretty sweet gig at times.
Fast forward to 2017 – beyond shifting from carbon to fish, I also shifted from entrepreneur’ing to mentoring. It’s been a fulfilling experience to kickstart other entrepreneurs’ journeys. Paying it forward makes you feel good, but also makes you a better entrepreneur. You spend so much time vetting other peoples’ ideas, that it forces you to be much more critical of your own. That’s not to say I don’t encourage bad ideas though – I think that’s the secret sauce to good ideation (maybe we should grow kale on the top of transport trucks?).
Next on my horizon is Singularity University, taking place at NASA! (if NASA were a lowercase word that would seem more exciting). I’ll be joining a cohort of incredibly smart people from various geographic and disciplinary backgrounds trying to develop radically transformational solutions to the world’s greatest challenges with a special focus on climate change. There are no shortage of meaningful problems to be solved, and I’m excited to be back in the trenches with optimistic entrepreneurs for the summer.
That’s all for now. The early 30s are cruising along well. Until next time.