How my failed Harvard startup taught me the power of purpose

THE BIG IDEA

During the blistering Boston January of my senior year at Harvard, a conversation with my best friend sparked an idea that would change both of our lives.

At the time, I was finishing up a bachelor’s degree in fine arts on a full scholarship.When I had arrived at Harvard from rural Maine, I knew nothing about the discipline — I even remember wondering early in college, how exactly is a signed urinal art? So I felt blessed to have been able to spend four years studying what I loved. But as my time in academia came to an end, I found myself troubled by the elitism of my field. I wondered: how could I make the rarefied art world more accessible to people coming from communities like mine?

Enter our Big Idea: a “Rent the Gallery” company where customers could rent original artworks for their homes while earning credits towards an eventual purchase. Like Rent the Runway, we envisioned a platform that would lower the barriers to owning high culture. We were going to make it easy for anyone to be an art collector and, in turn, we were going to help artists make a better living.

We were fired up. Like many an aspiring Harvard entrepreneur, with visions of The Social Network dancing in our heads, we started hacking away on building our idea right from my dorm room. Soon, Palette — then “The Art Collectors Co.” — was born. By the time we donned our silly caps and gowns under the bright May sun, we had made a decision to move forward with our startup full time.

While my friends marched off to prestigious graduate programs or 6-figure salaries, I ate ramen and read thousands of pages on entrepreneurship and the economics of the art market.

My research wasn’t just on paper. I began talking to anyone and everyone who could help me understand our consumers’ needs. No one was safe from my quest for product/market fit. My friends still make fun of me for surveying strangers next to me in cafes or on the train. But in truth, those impromptu focus groups led to some of the most eye-opening conversations I had.

And my on-the-fly approach worked. Once, I ran into a former Christie’s executive who gave me a crash course on the realities of the mid-level art market. We’re still in touch. Another time, I stumbled upon a well-known interior designer, whose enthusiasm for the product inspired me to use designers as a sales channel.

Those early days were filled with passion. But passion won’t put a roof over your head, even in New York City. To make ends meet, I rented out my bedroom 15–20 nights per month and slept on my roommate’s floor. I became infamous for my ability to live on a diet of coffee and mac and cheese.

I lived and breathed Palette. I had no job and no money. But I had purpose: I was helping to democratize access to art, and I couldn’t have been happier.

By November, we were cooking. We began to get sign-ups from outside of our social network. I hand-delivered artwork to our first customers. Angel investors entrusted us with their money to build our dream. We pitched our product in the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute competition and won capital and resources to build bigger, better, faster.

I thought to myself, maybe I’m meant to be an entrepreneur.

THE PIVOT

The feeling didn’t last. Six months after our soft launch it became clear that the numbers didn’t line up.

Passion is a double-edged sword. It can drive you forward, but it can also blind you to the realities of your situation. Our projections had been far too optimistic. The cost to acquire customers was too high and our price point too low. We could either go up-market and become a niche luxury product, or we could pivot.

By then, the project was bigger than us. We had wonderful investors and we had an obligation to build a profitable enterprise for them. Our runway to focus on democratizing art was cut short: our objective was profitability.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. In trying to build a startup to democratize art, we had succumbed to the same market pressures that make the art world so inaccessible to begin with.

We pivoted. Our new offering was essentially a financial product to help wealthy individuals make smarter art-purchasing decisions. In doing so, we developed a product that met our new goal, monetization, and gave us a path forward to building a “successful” enterprise.

Yet I was left with the question: Successful on what terms? We had found a way to make our startup profitable. But was it still purposeful?


FAILURE OF PURPOSE

Six months after pivoting, Palette closed its doors.

July had turned Manhattan into an inferno, broken only by the occasional storm. During one such deluge, I found myself on the doorstep of our very first organic art rental customer — this time, to take the rented artwork back.

As I stood ringing a broken doorbell while the rain soaked through my clothes, I reflected on the poetry of the situation. Eight months earlier, filled with optimism and purpose, I had delivered an artwork to this door. It seemed fitting that my Palette journey would end on the same steps.

We sold our remaining assets and returned the capital that was left to our investors. These were some of the toughest six months of my life, and the decision to close down Palette was one of the hardest I’ve had to make. But I’m also confident that we made the right choice.

Startups fail for a lot of different reasons, as anyone in the game knows. Palette had some of the problems that affect us all: we overestimated the market size, underestimated customer acquisition costs, and were laughably naïve when it came to the technical challenges of order fulfillment. But I know we could have slogged through it all if we only had one thing intact: our sense of purpose.

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth writes that inherent “genius” is no guarantee of success. Instead, Duckworth argues that passion is the spark that begins a successful career, and a sense of purpose is what keeps our careers growing. When the intensity of our passion meets the clarity of our purpose, we flourish.

When my best friend and I began Palette, we had passion. This passion was kept alive by a deeper sense of purpose. As a Harvard freshman straight from small-town Maine, I had been awakened to the world of art. In starting Palette, I had wanted to make that experience accessible to everyone.

That sense of purpose didn’t erase the regret of missing my friend’s wedding because the plane ticket cost as much as my month’s rent. Purpose didn’t ease the sense of embarrassment I felt when I couldn’t afford to pitch in $50 for a friend’s birthday dinner without overdrawing my bank account. But it did make those experiences bearable.

When we pivoted, it was this sense of purpose that we lost.

Whereas before, renting out my room was nothing compared to the satisfaction of seeing our enterprise grow, after pivoting, it was harder to justify another night sleeping on my roommate’s floor while a stranger slept in my bed.

Without our sense of purpose, I was beginning to feel that sore back.

SEARCHING FOR PURPOSE

Sometimes, purpose comes when you’re least looking for it.

We closed Palette at the end of July. A week later, I accepted a job with the Hillary campaign as a field organizer in my home state of Maine. After election day, I moved back to Boston. I started applying to jobs and tutored to pay the rent. In my spare time, I volunteered as a consultant for local startups.

Since I was a kid, spring has always filled me with a sense of potential. I started my first business when I was three, selling my mother’s flowers on the side of the road. By age six, I had franchised, hiring a boy down the street to manage another stand in a nearby neighborhood. This spring was no different: the flowers were blooming, and I felt the old itch to build something meaningful.

When I told my friends and family that I was thinking about starting another venture, I felt like I was coming out of the closet all over again — this time as an entrepreneur. I half expected lectures on responsibility, urging me to do the reasonable thing and get a real job, or at least go to graduate school. But they just laughed and hugged me. Just like the first time I came out, they knew before I did.

…AND FINDING IT

This spring, I rapidly tested out four different startup ideas in one-month sprints. Initially, my goal was to determine basic business viability: Who were my consumers, and was I solving a big enough problem for them? Who would pay for my product and at what price point? Was the total addressable market large enough to build a sustainable business?

Impromptu-subway-focus-group Ethan was back.

My investigations revealed several interesting business insights but more importantly, they yield a fundamental understanding.

I used to think my higher-level purpose could be found in an individual startup, like Palette. In hindsight, I realize I wasn’t thinking big enough. My journey isn’t about the success or failure of one venture — it’s about the bigger project of investigating, understanding and building scalable social enterprises that meaningfully improve people’s lives.

HIGHER-LEVEL GOALS

If I’ve learned anything from my journey so far, it’s that success and failure all depend on having the right goals.

In Grit, Angela Duckworth argues for the importance of connecting what we’re doing at any one moment to a higher goal. For Duckworth, each of us has (or should have) one, singular higher-level objective that we are always working towards. It’s our ultimate personal compass.

Higher Level Goals chart, Duckworth

From scribbling my first startup idea with my best friend back in my college dorm room to closing down my first business, I’ve come a long way. Now, with compass in hand, my journey has just begun.