I quit my job 2 years ago and I don't regret it

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2 years ago today, I walked into my boss's office at NASA and told him I was quitting. I still remember that gloomy October day - I was absolutely terrified and absolutely excited at the exact same time. I loved the people I worked with, and when I spoke to my boss, I had to hold back the tears. After all, I was leaving a family, of sorts, and also leaving the opportunities and career path I would have had with them. But I knew I was doing the right thing. Day in and day out, my skills and talents collected cobwebs. I went through the motions to get that paycheck every week. I tried hard to convince myself that I was doing the right thing for so long. "They have great benefits", I would say, or "it's a really low-stress job and the people are great". Or even, "the job security is awesome". But I couldn't change how I felt - job security did not equal job satisfaction.  At the time, I had plenty of excuses for why I was leaving. I used my startup as an excuse, and as true as that was, it wasn't the real reason. I wanted to make a difference - I knew I wasn't cutout to be isolated in a lab somewhere running tests. As much as I respect the people that thrive on that type of work, I knew it wasn't me. I realized that even though I always had high marks on performance reviews, I got lazy...professionally. I wasn't involved in any groups outside of work because I didn't care. I was disengaged. I stopped trying to learn and challenge myself. This was a dangerous place to be, and I see now that I had to leave to discover my true potential So I quit. And I never looked back.

I was fortunate to have a strong network. It's no mystery, my network is the reason I've been able to survive on my own. I made a relatively easy transition into a another job with a small consulting firm. Even though I'm no longer with them, I'll be forever thankful, because that job is where I got to discover my strengths and where I fit in the workplace. I discovered I had the skills, talents, and passions to fit in the role of a relationship builder and advocate (the dirty word for that is sales). But I found that I could make sales my own. It's not a dirty word for me - I loved building relationships and trust with customers and the employees that I worked with. I had found my place in the world, and now that I knew that, I could move-on to another job where I could use those skills to support a field I was passionate about - startups.

So I quit again. I realized that you can only discover your true potential when you let go of the safety nets in your life.

I think our generation has trouble with patience. We feel uneasy in a place of uncertainty so we tend to jump from one job directly to another without thinking about it. I did the opposite, and I am so glad I did. I took months doing nothing but networking, exploring, and learning about the field I love (entrepreneruship). I scheduled hundreds of meetings, and met hundreds of new people. I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the field I wanted to work in, and it paid off. I eventually found a way to use my skills and talents and also work in the field I am passionate about (supporting entrepreneurs).

But I never planned for it.

I am a big fan of knowing what you want in life and what you're good at, but I'm not a big fan of plans. I find plans restrictive. Had I attempted to plan my career, I would have missed out on just about everything I've done since I left my job.

I let go of my financial planning. I know that sounds like a horrible idea, but to clarify, I let go of my obsession for investing I had acquired while working a regular job. I learned that like most things, you have to invest in the present to get a payoff in the future. So I invested in my career and myself. I drained my savings and my Roth IRA to take the time off I needed to find my next role.  Since I let go of the safety net and discovered my own potential, I am confident I can manage my finances. But I don't have to make a career of it. I was investing in myself today so I can live 70+ fulfilling years rather than investing in myself in 70+years and not living the way I want until then. I don't regret it.

I let go of my obsession with my pay rate temporarily, understanding that the payment I'm getting from the job I do now is worth more than millions. Being truly satisfied with your work and getting the non-financial payouts from the people you help is priceless. I let go of the high-paying salary I had after I left NASA and took a massive pay cut. I could barely survive, but I learned from that. I learned what is really important to me. And I'm happier. I don't feel like I'm working for money, I'm working for a greater purpose. And I know it will pay off. I know if I needed to I could go get a job. And I know one day I'll climb back up that salary ladder. But for now, I don't regret it.

So, if I could summarize these past 2 years and give advice to those reading this, here is it:

1. Decide what you're good at. What are those talents and passions where when you're using them, you feel absolutely fantastic.

2. Decide what you're passionate about and what you want to work for. Is it a particular industry? A special cause? A unique people-group? Find a way to work in that field and use the skills from #1

3. If you're not in the job from #2 using skills from #1, leave your current job, take some time off, and invest in yourself. It will be worth it

You won't regret it. :)

 

5 Things I’ve Learned Since Leaving my Full Time Job to Run a Startup

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For a short period of time after you make the ridiculous decision to leave the safety of an aircraft to tumble into the sky, you feel as though you’re in free fall. No control, just falling. Then, just as the weight of that decision to jump hits you and you realize how crazy what you just did really is, you remember something: you have a parachute. You remember that you’re not alone, that you’re not the first, and probably won’t be the last person to do this crazy thing. You can do this. And all of a sudden, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. You pull the cord and you drift back down to safety, if not landing directly on your feet, at least something close. And now you’re hooked. This is what it has felt like to leave my full time job to start my own company. Today I’m here to talk to you about what “falling” feels like, and what I’ve learned so far on the way down.

  1. The Importance of your ‘Why’: The first, and arguably most important experience I went through after leaving the security of a full time job was the opportunity to clear the clutter in my head and focus on me. Sometimes when we work for other people, we don’t have time to stop and reflect on ourselves and remember why we do what we do day in and day out. We are unhappy and we don’t really know why. We blame our bosses, we blame our coworkers, we blame our workplace. But we don't stop to think about ourselves. After I left my full-time job, I took time and was able to identify my strengths, passions, and gifts – the things I loves doing. With these in mind, I set new boundaries for my next job so that whatever I did, I would make sure my role revolved around my gifts. Now, I can serve the organizations I support better, and find lots of happiness in the day-to-day “grind”. I highly recommend reading Simon Sinek “Start with Why” if you’re at this point in your career.
  1. Potential without a Paycheck: Maybe this sounds obvious, but having a traditional job is limiting. The scary part is that I didn’t realize how limiting it was until I left. The comfort of a regular paycheck sets your own glass ceiling. Knowing that you only have to do “X” things to get “Y” direct deposited into your account every week is stifling, even if you consider yourself an ambitious, hard working person as I did. Once I left, I had no regular paycheck. I get asked all the time if this is scary. The logical answer is, well, of course, I have to be careful and have a plans for that, but scary? Absolutely not. It’s challenging, yes, and challenges bring out the best in people. All of a sudden my personal value is not defined by the numbers on my paycheck. My self worth is a product of what I actually do, not what time I clocked in and out of a building. My motivation shifted, I had energy and drive to go after everything and anything. Once I released limitation from a regular paycheck, I was open to re-defined who I am, what I do, and even what I’m worth.
  1. You Aren’t Falling Alone, You Have Your Network: I know what you’re thinking. Courtney, this all sounds great, but living without a steady income is still really scary! Remember what I said about jumping out of a plane? You do have a parachute, and you’re not the first person to do this. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute isn’t just stupid, it’s suicide, wouldn’t you agree? On the same note, I wouldn’t have left my full time job without having a solid network of people to support me first and break the fall if I needed it. (if you’re here, I highly suggest You Network is Your Net Worth by Porter Gale). When I left my job, my initial response was not to go looking for part-time work. I went after my network. I had meetings set up nearly every single day. Sometimes 2-3 per day. I’d meet with one person I knew, told them my situation, and they would refer me to two or three new people to talk to. My network grew exponentially in a matter of a few short months, and that network is valuable. Not only could I lean on that network to get a regular job if I had to, but within that network I’ve connected to potential investors, mentors, partners, and customers for my startup. Even more fulfilling, I’ve been able to make valuable connections between members of my network, and help people I never would have been able to help before.

“It's not about knocking on doors till the "right" one opens: it's breaking them all down until you reach your goal.

  1. Creativity Unleashed: I left a full-time job to work for a pre-revenue startup that can’t afford to pay me. I had two choices: opt for a part-time job, or look for creative ways to make a living doing the things I love. Of course I chose the latter. Following my passions, I’ve started consulting and speaking for an income. When you have the guts to leave a job and go after creating your own income, you automatically have a story worth sharing. I’ve found a way to use the story of my startup to do things I love for an income while supporting that startup.
  1. Instant Qualification, Now You’re ‘For Real’: whether or not you’re successful with your startup, when investors, friend, family, customer, etc hear you’re doing this full time, you are instantaneously qualified. There’s no longer any questions of your devotion to your idea. People trust you, and they trust you’re a safe bet to be leading a startup. Investors invest in people, not products, so the fact that I can now say I’m full-time with my startup is having an incredible impact on our ability to attract investment.

Today, I wake every morning both absolutely excited and absolutely terrified at the exact same time.

I’m not writing this to say leaving your full time job is easy, but I am saying that it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I love what I do day in and day out, help more people than ever before, and am accelerating my startup in ways I never could have otherwise. My advice to you: grab your parachute and jump!

 

The art of the business pitch: do's and don'ts for an effective delivery

dilbert_power_point The quintessential business pitch: the difference between the life and death of your startup could come down to this single element. At a more basic level - effectively communicating the value of your business to an investor with a limited amount of time and visual-aids is more critical than you may think. Of course, there are a thousand ways to kill a startup; today, I'm going to focus on this one.

First, to qualify myself a little: to date, I have delivered well-over 25 business pitches to drastically different venues/audiences over the past 4 years, and each of them has been different. I have been (and still am) in a constant state of pitch-perfection - continually biting the bullet and tossing-away slides that were the work-product of what probably amounts to months of my time. It is only by going through this (painful) process that I've collected a number of do's, don't and general tips and tricks for an effective pitch:

Stop focusing on the tools and start focusing on the content. Yes, yes, Powerpoint is the bane of our existence, so everybody needs to go waste time climbing the learning-curve to make fancy visual roller-coaster rides that will make your audience dizzy (cough, cough, Prezi...cough). Remember: nobody's investing in your visual aid, they're investing in your company - stay focused on making the content count!

Powerpoint isn't so bad anyways. If used properly, Powerpoint is great. Not every investor wants to download some fancy viewer to look at your pitch. Just about everybody has Powerpoint, and absolutely everybody can read a PDF. If you want to be smart about it, make a presentation that can easily be read/understood in PDF format, and you'll be ready for anything!

Speaking of Powerpoint....let's talk about animations. Just don't do it.  If you absolutely need two visuals under the same heading, here's the trick: just copy the slide and make a second one with the same heading (nobody will notice if you had an animation or just went to the next slide, AND this is totally PDF-able)! This way, when you're running your presentation off some machine that decided to auto-update during your presentation, you don't have to experience the embarrassing moment of pushing the clicker like you're playing Super Smash Bros. to get the animation to appear (and then the next moment when everything decides to work and you skip 10 slides ahead...I've been there, it's nasty). Just say "NO" to animations!

Let's talk quantity. You've probably heard of Guy Kawasaki's 10-Slide Rule. Fundamentally, I love Guy and his advice - it's great. But if you need more than 10 slides, don't freak-out. In fact, I don't count slides anymore. I use whatever amount I need to portray the supporting visuals necessary without ending-up with 10pt font on my slides. Guy agrees small fonts are a no-no, but what he doesn't really say is that in order to keep your fonts big, you may have to split slides into 2 like I mentioned above.

Now, quality. This is a big one. A mentor of mine once told me that your audience can either listen to you, or read your slides, not both. So make sure they are complementary, not redundant (I'm assuming you already know to NEVER, EVER read your slides...so that shouldn't even be a consideration). Also be sure to consider both visual and word-thinkers (so have a mix of supporting visuals and language on your slides). I've seen a trend towards slides with big pictures or single-words; I get it, it's sexy, but you're losing part of your audience unless you use both (sexy pictures + sexy words - duh!).

Practice makes perfect. I have a pitch coming-up April 14th. I started practicing March 1st. For the first few weeks, I'll do every-other day. This gives my brain time to process new information, come-up with new ways to say things, and add slides as-needed. You want this process to be analogous to boiling-out the impurities in your pitch. When you start, it will be messy, way too wordy, too long, and indirect. Over time, and with (a lot of) practice, you'll start to see the impurities yourself. You'll determine the perfect way to say "X", or decide "Y" isn't really important. You'll rearrange slides in such a way to make the pitch flow and build a good story. You can't get to that perfect boiled-down/pure pitch without repetition. If you're looking for a number, my general rule (and many others agree) is 20 x makes near-perfect.

Don't memorize! Don't back yourself into a corner by memorizing. If you slip-up during the pitch, you'll be lost and look like a bozo. You can also end-up sounding like an incompetent robot that doesn't know his/her material well-enough to speak without a script (ouch! I know, right?). It also makes it much more difficult to make those last-minute changes the night before the pitch (because your Marketing-guy just gave you a new slide that "has" to be in the pitch).

So I should just wing-it? NO! I always tell people to envision a scale where 0 is "winging-it" and 10 is "memorize it" - you want to be at a 15. By that I mean, go beyond memorization into comprehension. You want to understand what your audience is actually hearing when you show that slide or deliver that sentence, and you want to make sure they're understanding what you want them to.

To write or not to write? I do NOT write-out my pitch first. To me, it's wasted-time. Things never sound the same when spoken out-loud as they do when you write them down. So I practice out-loud from the very beginning, and figure out what sounds good. You should NEVER be reading your pitch anyways, so since your audience is going to listen to your words, you might as well start there.

How about practicing in-front of my parents/friend/etc? I know, I know, many people give advice to "practice in front of your mom or grandma, and if she gets it, anybody will". While this can be marginally valuable at helping expose areas of your pitch that don't make sense, I'd caution against it. Nobody understands your business better than you. Your goal is to communicate that as effectively as possible to your audience. When you start taking advice on how to structure your pitch from an "outsider" that doesn't understand you business the way you do, you run the risk of convoluting your message even more, and making things worse.

Bottom Line: watch other people pitch online, read articles on how to deliver a good pitch, but at the end of the day, it's your baby, and only you can craft it perfectly - so practice, practice, practice! Happy pitching!

 

 

 

 

The merits of working for a startup, and why you should do it (now)

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Just in case any of you are "on the fence" about working for startup (or small company), I figured I'd share my thoughts on the merits of doing-so. First, let me say that everyone has a unique set of circumstances in their life that may either allow or prevent them from working for a startup or small company (Let's abbreviate this as SoSCs from now-on). That's a decision only you are knowledgeable enough to make. But I can say this much - if you're on the fence, here are some good reasons to consider it, as gathered from my own workplace observations and experiences. 1. Risk. I know what you're thinking: "isn't risk a bad thing? Don't I want to minimize risk as much as possible in my life?". Well, to some extent maybe. But with all things, there is a balance to be had. Have you ever engaged in a chat with a grandparent, family member, or observed through TV shows/movies that one of the "regrets" people seem to have is they "didn't take enough risk" when they were young and able? It's usually up-there with things like "I didn't save enough money" or, "I wish I had eaten healthier". I find this interesting, because we often talk about the time-value of investing with your money, but then where is the discussion on the time-value of investing with the quality of your life? I'm convinced there are many non-financial investments to make, and accepting a little career-risk early in your life is one of them. (After all, nobody's going to read your resume at your funeral).

2. Results. You've heard it before - especially with all the talk about us Millenials being motivated more by challenging, significant work than money and bonuses at our jobs. In a SoSC, it's all about the Third Law - every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Simple terms: when I do something good or bad in my startup or even at the small company I work for, I see the result almost immediately. Everything I do is (1) observed by those around me and (2) affects those around me. It's very logical when you think about it. A small group of people working together = recognition (for the good and bad). A prime example of the opposite is government/big corporation work. During the time I spent at NASA, I would talk to engineers that often waited over ten years to see their hard work finally come to fruition - or even worse, waited ten years to see that their hard work turned into nothing because the project got cancelled. These circumstances run rampant in big business and government work - so if you're a little impatient, here's one great reason to try a SoSC.

3. Challenge. If you work for a SoSC, you will likely find yourself engaged in work that you never went to school for. You'll be learning all the time (mostly because you have to). In a SoSC, the organization is rarely compartmentalized (e.g. HR, Accounting, Procurement, etc just doesn't exist). Often times you're the one doing the engineering, ordering the parts, meeting with the customer, balancing the budget, etc, and there is a lot to be learned from that process. If anything, this will give you a better appreciation and understanding of the people around you when and if you do work for a large organization some day. Not to mention it keeps you motivated, busy, and ultra-marketable in your next job-search.

4. Accountability. When you work in a small group, you instantly become accountable for your actions. In part, because it's hard to hide from your 3 co-founders/roommates in that tiny office you now share, but also because you're probably the only guy (or gal) assigned to the job. There's really no way to 'slip through the cracks' in a SoSC, which is very motivating for a young, enthusiastic Millennial looking the change the world. And you have to think that your next employer might take note of this as well. If they see that you've worked (successfully) at a SoSC, they will likely make the connection that you were a devoted, accountable, hard-worker.

5. Motivation. In a SoSC, your work = impact. Not to hate-on the government or large corporations, but I've seen plenty of people get stuck in a vicious cycle of: lack of results (fruit of your labor) + no accountability = no motivation (which in turn leads to no work-product...not good for the company either. Leads to that nasty thing called 'overhead'. Yuck). Now don't think this is all fun and games. In an SoSC, sometimes your motivation is: "if I don't do my job I won't get paid", or "if we don't write this report the VCs will pull our funding". But because of this, I have seen people come together and do absolutely amazing work under pressure. Which leads to my final point...

6. Team. My favorite part of college was working with other students on extracurricular robotics projects. Why? Because these were the students that were doing this work for fun. They genuinely loved what they were doing - these are absolutely the best people to work around. When I had an opportunity to continue working in this type of environment both with my startup and now with the consulting firm, I was thrilled. The comradery that is formed when you work with a small group of people that share in your purpose, accountability, (stress), and motivation is outstanding (and just a lot of fun). At some times, I feel as-if I'm not even working at a job, but rather like I'm back at school working on fun projects with my friends. So, despite the additional stresses that come with a SoSC, I believe they can be completely off-set by the nature of the work environment. After all, when you're going through a rough time, don't you usually run to your closest friends and family for comfort? Now what if your co-workers were like family? You get the point...

I think if you have a choice on how you spend over 99,100 hours (11 years) of your life, it's worth your time to calculate your risk-tolerance, take a few years, and work for a SoSC.

 

 

MBA-Hacking

"I've always found it odd that people go to business school and study entrepreneurialism. If you want to study entrepreneurialism, you need to go be an entrepreneur." - Apu Gupta, Curalate founder and CEO

Off the bat, let me say that I am writing this post from my own perspective, which is that of a startup-company co-founder and entrepreneur. I have no interest in corporate america, or the merits of the MBA in such an environment (although from what I have seen, much of the same perspective now applies).

In recent years, I have been fascinated by the widely-accepted notion of "the more degrees you have, the more successful you'll be". When faced with starting my own company, I had to consider the merits of this opinion myself. I was (and still am), an engineer by education. I never had formalized business training, and would frequently find myself frantically Google-searching business terminology just to get-by. I hadn't much of a clue if I was even doing things right.

When I was considering leaving my job at NASA, I thought about an MBA. Surely, I thought, the classes would cover all the bases, and I'd build my resume. The more I thought about this, spent time as an entrepreneur, talked to other successful entrepreneurs, and read articles, the more I realized that there is simply no way formalized education would help to further my personal career goals. Let me explain...

I recently read an article featuring Entrepreneur Jay Bhatti, who co-founded Spock.com and also worked as a product manager for Microsoft. (He holds an MBA from the Wharton school):

"The MBA program is designed to teach people to look at prior data and patterns in order to identify future outcomes. In the real world, this just does not work when it comes to new markets or innovation. While there have been recent MBA startup successes like BirchBox (Harvard) and Warby Parker (Wharton), the founders of these companies were already high-achieving individuals who got into top programs and probably could have succeeded without their MBAs".

The conclusion? If you're already a highly motivated individual with a willingness (and need) to learn,  who's to say you can't define your own path to business education?

What is an "Applied MBA"?

Good question, I'm glad you asked. Simply put, it's real-world experience. There are no:

  • Classes
  • Homework
  • Tests
  • Pop quizzes
  • Class Projects

It is:

  • Rewarding: your work-product actual means something and impacts other people/organizations, it's not just a grade on a transcript
  • Financially beneficial: earning-while-learning!
  • Qualifying: you're gaining years of experience under your belt, which research suggests is what employers care about these days
  • Challenging: the job comes with significantly more pressure, complexity, and responsibility. So if you're in to that...
  • Diverse: you're pulled-away from your peers (i.e. "competition") and pushed  into an environment where you are surrounded by people with more experience than you (P.S. this is my favorite aspect of my new job)

"Successful people have certain characteristics that make them successful—and an MBA is not one of them". - Jay Bhatti

So let's get down to the specifics: what exactly do you learn in this type of job? If you look at the list below, you'll see:

  • Resource allocation & cash flow
    • Who works on what project for what % of their time
    • How does the above impact when we get paid by the customer?
  • Annual Planning
    • How do you plan to meet a profit target for a particular year?
    • What variables to do you track to measure progress?
    • What tools do you use to track these variable?
    • Who needs to know this information & how is it communicated to management?
  • Contract Management
    • How to initiate a conversation with a prospect
    • Deal-flow
    • Contract composition and modification
    • Budgetary estimates & how to work with engineers to get good estimates
    • Negotiating & closing deals
    • Management payment terms & conditions
  • Project Management
    • Using tools to record & track time on tasks
    • When & how to implement agile/SCRUM methodologies
    • Tracking progress on tasks (managing burndown)
    • Establishing communication methods with customers (weekly status reports, meetings, etc)
    • Resource-leveling
    • Projecting invoices and inputting information into cash flow projections
  • Relationship Management
    • Hiring/Interviewing
    • Working with outside contractors
    • Working with sub-contractors
    • Managing geographical distance & effective communication
    • Holding one-on-one meetings with engineers to identify issues/threats and plan for the next week's work
    • Budgeting for lab needs, software, and training classes
    • Establishing "best practices" for how we operate as an organization
    • Working with engineers to pick a standard tool-set for everybody to comply with
    • Establishing & managing employee-focused performance reviews

So how does one get an "applied MBA"?

So you say to me, "ok Courtney, this all sounds great, but how do you find/get a job like this? I'm not qualified to be a manger!". Qualified-schmalified. The fact is, we live in a pretty progressive time when it comes to hiring.  Nonetheless, for somebody to entrust you to a management role with no prior "formal" experience, you're going to need something to "qualify" yourself by. Here are a few tips I recommend:

1) Be credible. Go work for the "man" for a few years, and do it as soon as you graduate. Establish some credibility by first holding a regular job at a reputable organization. Do good work at that job and make sure you'll be missed. This shows you're a reliable, good worker and a professional. Things get awkward when you have explain why you didn't get a job in your field after you graduated, so it's best to get that out of the way. Also, some experience is always better than none.

2) Be famous (just a little). Do the extra-ordinary in your field to get noticed (video tutorials, publications, startups, patents, professional organizations, etc). Do it early, and do it a lot. Case and point, my new boss loves to "brag" about his younger talent to customers - in a way, he is qualifying his younger team by showing what they've accomplished.

3) Be patient. This ties to #1, and is particularly difficult for us "Millenials". Sometimes the perfect opportunity doesn't come around right away. Wait for the right one and analyze your situation. I didn't just up and quit NASA - I planned my exit, and executed at the right time. Being too trigger-happy can ruin your career if done poorly or ill-timed. Don't make enemies or burn bridges: in all cases exercise humility and thankfulness with your previous employer (references are still a thing).

4). Plan for the future. Try to think of where you want to be with your career in 5, 10 years, and consider your day-to-day life. A huge consideration for me was quality-of-life: I only work 5 hours a day, and for me, my time is extremely valuable. Think of what matters in your life now and what will matter in the future - make sure your actions lead to where you want to be.