Hitting the RESET Button: Why I decided to close my company
Spreading the word about shutting down my business has been more taxing than I thought it would be. The actual act of telling people has been straightforward:
“Hey, I’ve decided to close down College Apprentice.”
The ensuing conversation about ‘why’ is my penitential act of liberation.
To start, let me give you some background.
(Feel free to skip this section and proceed to the actual “Why” further down.)
I spent the better part of my four years at Boston University helping to run a student organization/not-for-profit called the International Affairs Association (fka the Model UN club), an organization I am exceedingly proud of.
Unfortunately, I may have spent too much time on BUIAA and not enough time looking for a “real” job. After graduating, i.e. when the bills starting rolling in, I ended up temping for about a year and really hated my life.
So I did the millennial thing and wanted to start a business. After having brief delusions of grandeur, I started a Model UN company — thinking it was the only skill I had that people would possibly pay me for.
Just like that, All-American Model UN was born. I started recruiting high performing US high school students to become ‘All-Americans’ and travel with me to Beijing for a giant Model UN conference — twelve families trusted me with their sons and daughters on that very first trip.
As it turns out, I am a pretty damned good coach.
The company grew every year and in 2015/2016, I brought teams to Beijing, Hyderabad, Budapest, Costa Rica, and Washington D.C. to compete and win. And we did win; All-American teams have won all but one competition in which we’ve attended (9 out of 10).
Somewhere about three years ago, I knew that I wouldn’t make enough money just running Model UN programs so I started Whiteboard Youth Ventures, thinking I could apply the same educational approach to a different subject area.
If I’m honest, Whiteboard has been the bane of my life over the past three years.
The basic premise made sense. I wrote curriculum for a summer program designed to use entrepreneurship to engage students, recruited schools and students from around the world to attend, and organized the program.
I saw Whiteboard as my growth opportunity, and as I learned more about the entrepreneurship education industry, I launched new services and programs.
I continued to stretch my resources, time, and mental capacity until I could feel my mind beginning to fray like a rubber band right before it snaps.
Cool story, Bro, but why are you shutting down?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Because I want to.
But I know that won’t satisfy when I tell you. It will likely draw more questions, (all of which I’ve been asked in the past week), like:
- Couldn’t you hire someone to help with operations and sales?
- Why do you want to close a company that’s making money?
- What about the last four years? Was it all for nothing?
I appreciate your concern — honestly, your support and not wanting me to give up on this has kept me going longer than you realize. But let me breakdown my decision.
I have started to worry about my mental and physical health if I were to continue.
Over-the-top enough for you?
Only thing, though, is that I’m completely serious.
Calling yourself an entrepreneur is a sexy thing to do right now, but what isn’t attractive is openly talking about the unhealthy levels of stress, poor nutrition, and self-destructive habits of many founders — myself absolutely included.
What’s really scary is that those who do talk about it are lauded and, curiously, encouraged by some as being “passionate” or “all-in.” Sleeping 4 hours a night? That guy’s for real. Drinking yourself to sleep? Part of the job.
Here’s the thing that I’ve realized: I was all-in. I’m not stopping because I can’t do it. I can, but don’t want to anymore. I’m tired. I need a break.
I can feel the ceiling over my head.
It’s taken me four years to build a company that can sustain the salary of one employee — me. From every angle, it’s difficult for me to see a scenario where I can better leverage my current position for growth.
If I could see a path where I could grow 4x-10x over the next year by better utilizing assets and IP, I’d probably keep going. The only growth strategy that makes sense is to hire and scale until I have to hire again. This would involve me taking on more debt (since the business model is not an attractive equity investment option) and keep grinding along a geometric trajectory.
I could keep doing this and create a long-term, life-style business, but I’m craving bigger challenges and greater opportunity.
All the rest: I’m bored. It’s lonely. My niche is too small/too competitive. The cruelties of educational for-profit. Craving new skills.
I’m bored: I’ve established myself as one of the best Model UN coaches in the world. I do not think there are many people who can coach a high school Model UN team better than I can. But the process is repetitive. I spend what little time I have working with students to correct issues that should be learned in schools, but aren’t — skills like researching, writing, and speaking. I’m starting to find this process rote; a sure sign that I need to get out.
It’s lonely: One of the reasons I remember my time working on BUIAA as so memorable is the team that surrounded me. It was the first time that I have ever been on a high-powered, high-functioning team. I’ve spent the last four years in an echo chamber and need to find my next team.
My Niche is Too Small/Too Competitive: Staying with the All-American Model UN Programs, the market is not big enough. I could get into a war over market share with Best Delegate, the Model UN behemoth, but it’s a fight that would require too much energy for not enough reward.
High school entrepreneurial education, on the other hand, is a booming space. There are over 200 summer high school entrepreneurship programs in the US, many of which are aligned with universities or are so-called “non-profits.” Fighting against the brands of MIT, Penn, and Stanford is a losing decision right now — I have not done enough to establish my reputation as entrepreneur to effectively compete.
The Cruelties of Educational For-Profit: Chances are when you read “for-profit education” you already have a sour taste in your mouth. I feel the majority of people do. I have been called really nasty names and have had countless accusations of being unethical directed at me by parents, teachers, and guidance counselors.
I’ve developed a thick enough skin to have “No, we’re not interested” bounce off me, but what ultimately has ground me down are the multiple conversations I have that put dents in my soul.
Unfortunately, I have had to spend close to 80% of my time recruiting and convincing parents, teachers, and guidance counselors of the merits of my work. What little time is left with my students sustained me for four years.
Craving New Skills: To start my company, I had to learn a range of new skills: web development, branding and design, publication design and professional printing know-how, email marketing, content creation strategies, and more. I consider myself to be a life-long student and want to be surrounded by people who can teach me new skills.
Onto My Next Adventure
Ultimately, the last question people have for me is what’s next?
I have an opportunity to spend the next several months to figure that out. I’ll be running all of my summer programs one last time in July and August. Until then, I’m going to run a couple of experiments as I look for a company (that’s hiring!) and team that I can wake up excited to work for.
Follow my Medium blog (@frankpob) to see what’s in store!