Fighting the Good Fight: Looking Back Five Years
I (Mark Zmarzly, CEO) was recently invited to share the story of my company, Hip Pocket, with another startup community. The organizers’ stated goal for my talk was to help attendees, “hear your Fintech startup story” and because, “we need to inspire hundreds more like you.”
The organizers were lucky enough to catch me on a great week and my talk was inspiring…according to those who talked with or emailed me afterward.
But, the attendees were catching me on a pretty great week that was almost five years in the making.
The truth is, many entrepreneurial weeks — maybe most — feel like this:
Many — maybe most — of my fellow founders will identify with the feeling of being knocked down unexpectedly…from behind…then slammed around repeatedly…then pushed off the edge…only to fall face first and mouth open into dirty water…and I think I saw a bandaid in there…maybe two…and now I have an infection.
That can be the entrepreneurial experience in the bad times. The “we’re almost out of money, crying in the kitchen with your spouse” times.
I’ve been there! You?
When that happens, it’s easy to question why anyone would want to go on this ride.
For many, it’s a compulsion from the onset. Or a deep seated unrelenting drive to create.
But for others, like me, it was mostly accidental and only makes sense now in hindsight.
This September will mark five years since the Startup Weekend where the base idea for our company was first uttered aloud in a simple one-minute pitch format.
I went to that 2012 event by myself as a non-technical participant. I had been in the financial services industry for seven years at that point and was curious about how technology would impact our industry. This event could help me better understand how technology can impact industries as well as how you can take an idea to prototype in a short time.
Before going, a friend who would later go on to found one of the early GAN accelerators, suggested I consider pitching my own idea vs. just expecting to join another team. That day, I worked on this:
And yes, I still have this piece of paper.
The basic idea — with the worst name ever in “NetWorthing” — was that people often make less than optimal financial decisions on most products, while banks make a lot of money when this happens. But, what if everyone could easily see the best financial decisions of anonymous peers and then act quickly to never fall behind?
At the root of my pitch wasn’t the solution. The root was that banks make money unfairly due to customer inertia and technology could be an equalizer.
The idea received enough votes to recruit a team of three others to help build the idea out, and enough validation and traction to finish third overall that weekend.
Since then, here’s some of our story in numbers:
- Four co-founders in 2012
- Several co-founder “Come to Jesus” meetings over the summer of 2013
- Only one founder left by fall of 2013
- Two accelerators in 2013 and 2017
- Four angel investors in 2016
- One substantial pivot & two abandoned products in 2016
- Three brief times into negative cash balance
- Fourteen corporate clients over the years
- Countless wipeouts we only sometimes saw coming:
Oh yeah, nice try…we got this, we got this like a boss…..IEEEEEE!!!!!
After all of this, we were invited to share our “Success Story” at that event…as well as here on the Techstars blog.
I didn’t ask any of the organizers why they considered us a success worthy of a spotlight.
Are we a success because we’ve survived five years?
Are we a success because we’ve been able to generate sales, investors, and some potential large partnerships?
Or, are we a success because we’ve had our asses handed to us repeatedly and we still get back up again and again?
Something like this:
There’s something to that last one in hindsight. Something I didn’t understand before reflecting on it.
We’ve been through the startup valley of death in that we’ve experienced many of the top reason startups fail, and yet we haven’t stayed down.
You could label our story as obstinance or tenacity, but we came through the fray and now have assembled a team that has fallen in love with the problem of helping people save money from their phones in just minutes.
The solutions and partners and paths forward have changed a lot over time, but we’re still on a mission to compete with all we have! We haven’t forgotten why we got into the arena in the first place…because we believed we could win!
Or, at a minimum, that we had to get into the arena and fight the good fight. We had to fight the problem.
This despite selling B2B into a regulated industry…which has challenges:
Just one more corporate vendor vetting step to clear and then contract is…IEEEEEE….MY FACE!!!!
When you’re in the thrash of entrepreneurship, aka the wipeouts, it can be hard to take stock of where you’ve been as well as staying focused on what’s ahead. It’s hard because you’re experiencing the physical and emotional shock of the recent blow, which is understandably disorienting.
But the pain of each blow is eventually paired with time-tested knowledge that “this too shall pass.” Eventually, the time between shock/pain and recovery gets quicker.
NOTE: I’m referring to the outside pain of the startup journey and not the pain of depression, which is very real and can f*ck with a lot of us. That’s real and requires the strength to engage with those around you for help. A strong founder support group is vital for this and so many other reasons. Here are some resources on this topic.
There will be shocks and pain ahead. But, if you believe in your industry, in the problem you’re solving, and in your ability to address it, then you should stay the course. You should fight through and endure some of the pain.
It’s to be expected, especially toward a point of breakthrough. Recently, I’ve found it useful to reread “The Dip” by Seth Godin at these times of potential greatest pain and greatest breakthrough.
If the fundamentals of your industry are the same and you believe you can get through this, then you owe it to fight through the last mile at a time when so many give up.
I wrote this piece to share our own LONG journey with those are are on the same path.
I wrote this for those of you in pain.
I wrote this for those who may be starting and unaware of the potential obstacles — which despite the painful pictures above — are often just obstacles to be bested.
I wrote this for 2012 me who read and was told how hard entrepreneurship is and yet was still unprepared and had to experience the pain for himself to really understand.
And I wrote this for so many of you in the final dip.
Wherever you are, know this: You. Are. Not. Alone!
You have many, many fighting the fight with you.
Entrepreneurship isn’t an overnight success story, though it can seem so when you compare your own struggles with someone else’s exit.
I hope today is a great day. Or a good day. Or even just a day.
I hope the same for myself but I know you or I will still be OK if there’s some pain. I finally understand this. It just took me five years to figure that out.
Originally published on the Techstars Blog: http://www.techstars.com/content/startup-weekend/fighting-good-fight-looking-back-five-years/
Bio: Mark Zmarzly is your typical Creative Writing Masters graduate turned FinTech software entrepreneur. Along that journey, Mark has waited tables, sold direct mail, generated millions of dollars in sales, written copy (notice his flair for 3rd person!), and even taught kids to read. He also has a loving family of five and nice hair.