6 Months Off the Beaten Path: From McKinsey to Life as an Entrepreneur

A 23 year-old’s reflections on life away from a stable job and building a business from scratch.

Kevin Zhang
Mar 9, 2019 · 11 min read

I graduated from Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2018. I spent my summer before my Senior year at McKinsey & Company. I decided to take a gap year after graduating in order to build my first clothing brand from scratch. 6 months since starting, we’ve generated $10 million in sales and are on track for $30 million in our first year.

Today marks 6 months since my original scheduled start date at McKinsey. The decision to venture off from the security of a great job was an incredibly scary one. This article is for young professionals, students, and other aspiring entrepreneurs that are considering making the jump to start their own business.

Reflecting on my experiences, here are five lessons that I have learned.

I. We often make important career decisions based on incomplete information.

When you’re in college, how do you decide what professional path to pursue? Within each industry, which companies were your “dream” places to work? How did you make these choices?

Given each of our backgrounds and environments, we have access to information that is a reflection of the things and people around us. Our decisions are ultimately bound by the information that we have access to.

Some of the popular employers that recruit at Vanderbilt. Students line up by the hundreds as early as Freshman year in order to attend recruiting events that these organizations host.

I believe that the reason why so many students on a particular campus are attracted to very similar career paths is because they share access to the same pool of information: recruiting events, career fairs, older students, etc. I remember telling myself that I wanted to be a management consultant as early as Freshman year — before I even knew what a management consultant did.

This is not to say that careers like investment banking, management consulting, or software development aren’t attractive for a reason — sought after employers can often promise a great office culture, lucrative compensation, and engaging work (all amazing things).

What about the opportunities and professional pathways that we don’t actively have access to information for?

I made it a goal of my gap year to meet and interact with people whose stories aren’t shared in the classroom or a career fair.

These are just a few of the people that I encountered:

  • An ex-Google employee that travels the world, rarely spending more than a week in the same city, while simultaneously running a SEO agency service with 100+ employees. He does all of this while only working 5 hours a day.
  • A CEO of a multi-million dollar marketing firm that decided not to attend college because he and his now wife had to raise their first child as seniors in high school. He is recognized as one of the top authorities in the automotive marketing space and he’s only 27.
  • An 18 year-old Senior in high school that runs a $20M business selling luxury smart watches. His HQ is his bedroom and desktop computer. You’ve probably heard of this brand and definitely have been targeted by one of his ads. College isn’t in his future plans anymore.

I’m not here to suggest that these alternatives are superior to the popular career paths that I was exposed to while in college. The point is that each of these individuals are incredibly happy with their current situations and would have never uncovered them without the courage to explore opportunities that aren’t reinforced by conventional institutions.

Don’t you owe it to yourself to experiment with or at least look into the opportunities that aren’t just ones covered by your environment? You’ll be surprised at even what a few hours searching Google can yield.

II. Living life as an entrepreneur means you live and die by your decisions. It’s incredibly fulfilling, but also the scariest thing on Earth.

Most people that glorify the life of an entrepreneur reference “you work for yourself” or “you receive all of the reward for your decisions” as primary motivators. I agree that these are wonderful things about the life that I am living. Nothing feels better than when my business partner (Raoul) and I craft a new strategy that works, make a big change to our day-to-day operations that generates significant value, or win a big negotiation. Whether it meant happier customers or more profit in our personal bank accounts, we can draw a perfect line between what we did and the value we created.

The past 6 months have been filled with these moments and I can confirm that they are among the happiest in my life.

The problem is there’s the other side.

There are times when you invest 200+ hours into a business and all of the money that you’ve saved from your summer internship only to lose it and have nothing to show your parents or friends for it.

There are times when you think you’ve tried everything under the sun and the results you need are just not coming in.

Concerned messages from my mother in July regarding my financial situation. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very fun few months of my life.

The life of an entrepreneur isn’t very alluring when you have $3,000 in credit card debt, delayed your job for a year, and are working harder than you’ve ever worked before with nothing to show for it except some hard lessons learned. Your parents confront you daily to tell you that you’re in over your head and you’re too embarrassed to open up to your closest friends.

The experience of self-determination is beautiful not just because of the wins you earn, but also because of the adversity that you face. It’s the ultimate test.

I believe that life is composed of three main freedoms: financial (being able to buy what you to want to buy), time (the amount of time you have for yourself to do the things you want to do), and determination (being able to have control over what you are currently doing and what you do next). While most people must sacrifice 1 or 2 of these freedoms to obtain another, entrepreneurship allows you to achieve it all.

At times, entrepreneurship feels like the ultimate prize, but it comes with an extraordinary cost — it’ll challenge everything about who you are: your work ethic, your values, your goals, your ambition, your grit — they’re tested on a daily basis with little to no guidance from authority figures.

III. You can’t do it alone.

Entrepreneurship is a massive roller coaster ride — can you imagine riding a roller coaster all by yourself with no one else around you? The good times are a lot better when you have someone else to scream at the top of your lungs with. I’ll never forget the moment when Raoul and I stared eagerly at our phones, waiting for the sale that would push our first business together over the $1 million threshold. It’s a memory I’ll replay forever. It meant so much more because he was there with me — we had built something incredible together.

During our first few months in business, Raoul and I would spend our Friday and Saturday nights processing returns and exchanges for our customers while our friends went out. It wasn’t very glamorous work, but we had each other.

The scary times are also easier to swallow with someone by your side. After a day of bad performance, Raoul is the first one I call. We assure each other that things are going to be ok and we start looking for a solution together. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve felt overwhelmed or nervous about my future — knowing that I don’t have to face it alone is priceless.

I know that no matter what happens to our businesses, I’ll be happy. It’s because I love the problems that I get to solve on a day-to-day basis and even more importantly, I love who I get to solve them with.

IV. Waiting is one of the biggest mistakes made by intelligent people.

One of the early lessons that you learn as an entrepreneur is that good today is always better than the possibility of better tomorrow.

The earlier you launch your idea into the marketplace or publish your website and the earlier you collect data on its strengths and weaknesses means the earlier you can make improvements. It’s a lot less work and a lot more fun to think than to do.

Nothing is more fun that “brainstorming” for the future — you don’t take any risks, you don’t actually have to do anything, you just think. Especially if you’re an intelligent person, thinking is even more fun. You feel like you’ve accomplished a lot even though there’s nothing tangible to show for it.

This principle is also extremely relevant to life. One of the things that I find most interesting during the internship/job recruiting cycle is the disconnect that exists between what people want to do with their lives and the opportunities that they pursue. You want to run political campaigns at the national stage one day and this job on Wall Street is going to lead you there? You know you want to be an entrepreneur and this job will give you the “connections, experience, and skills” necessary to be a successful one? Says who?

I’m not poking fun at my peers nor am I mocking the individuals that think in this way. In fact, I think some of my peers are very focused and honest with themselves — they know what they want to do eventually, they can pinpoint specifically why they need to pursue their current opportunity now and what they will gain from it, and they know that the present experience will help them do what they have always wanted to do. That’s brilliant, calculated, and logical decision-making.

Unfortunately, I also believe that many others fall victim to waiting. They’re waiting for a perfect opportunity to fall into their lap. They’re waiting for that magical moment or experience that will just direct them to what they’ve always wanted to do. Somehow, someone, or something will just appear that will bridge their current situation to their ideal situation. What if it never happens? Why leave it all to chance?

Be honest with yourself, your goals, and what you’re doing to prepare yourself for those goals. Doing something half decent tomorrow is always more beneficial than planning for the possibility of doing something amazing in the future.

V. When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to treat your business as your life.

While I was at McKinsey, it was clear what my responsibilities and priorities were each and every day. My role on the team was clearly defined and I had full transparency into what my workdays would look like. Although I was very engaged and passionate about the work that we were doing for our client, there was a clear divide between my professional and personal life. I would work intensely Monday-Friday, freshen up somethings on Sunday, and that was it. The rest of my life was my own.

An example of a typical day for me. The blue blocks represent parts of my day that are taken up by meetings just to make sure that my business stays afloat. The green represents the parts of my day that I can use to “get ahead” and make improvements to my business. If there is also some sort of crisis going on or if we’re having bad performance that needs an immediate response, the schedule is even more hectic.

As an entrepreneur, there are always 1000 things that I can improve on for my business and 1000 opportunities that I can pursue. Our business also has no foreseeable ceiling — the more hours we work translates to more value we are able to create for ourselves, our customers, and our clients. There is also constant pressure to outwork our competition since we’re always the underdogs. After all, we’re just two “kids” trying to convince the world to buy our products over established brands with bigger advertising budgets.

One of the earliest lessons I learned is that it takes a very special kind of motivation to work hard without a guarantee of a reward. In school, you know that if you spend X hours studying, it generally translates to Y grade. In a job, you know that if you deliver the things that your seniors ask for, you’ll get recognition.

As an entrepreneur, you can work harder than you’ve ever worked before, but still have nothing to show for it except some tough lessons learned. In a way, it’s highly irrational. You have to become obsessed with what you’re doing in order to keep working hard after continuously being denied. You have to be ok with the constant likelihood that the work you put in won’t give you the results that you seek.

There hasn’t been a weekend where I haven’t worked at least a few hours. There hasn’t been a night where I haven’t gone to sleep with thoughts and worries racing through my mind. When my business performs poorly, it affects every other aspect of my life — everything else feels a little more empty. I don’t rest until I find a clear path forward.

When there’s an ongoing crisis, I don’t have any life outside of my business. This means bailing on a few dates, canceling a vacation last minute that I spent months to plan, staying in when all of my friends are going out, and not seeing sunlight when there’s a lot of work to be done.

Organizations are always figuring out new ways to help their employees balance their work with their personal lives. As an entrepreneur, your business must be your entire life. There can be no divide.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

These are five lessons that I will internalize for the rest of my life. If there’s one message that I want to send everyone regardless of your goals or your current situation:

Stop waiting, take a leap, and chase something that you’ve always found rewarding. Even if you fail, you’ll learn more about yourself and what you need to do to get to where you want to be than any other experience you could possibly have. Just be prepared to give it everything you’ve got or else it’s not worth pursuing at all.

If you think it’s risky while you’re young, just wait until you’re older — it’ll be even riskier when you have a serious relationship or even a family to take care of.

As soon as my business hit the $1M sales mark, I booked a flight back home to surprise my family. I took them out to the nicest restaurant I could find and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. As Chinese immigrants, my parents sacrificed everything for the opportunities I now enjoy.

When I first started working with Raoul, I dreamed of building a business that would generate $1 million in its first year. My parents thought I was crazy and many of my friends thought it was just my ego getting the better of me. I don’t blame them. My parents weren’t businessmen. I didn’t have any connections in retail. I started everything with $2,000 left over from my summer internship and entered August with $3,000 in credit card debt and no stable income stream.

It’s been a wild ride.

As of a week ago, we broke the $10 million mark and have sold our products to over 125,000 customers across 60 countries. We are on track to finish our first year with $30 million in sales. We have over 50 awesome employees that are truly responsible for the success that we’ve enjoyed thus far. Even more humbling, individuals and brands that we admire deeply have begun to ask us for our advice and collaboration.

Our lives have changed, but we haven’t stopped reaching for the stars.

Here’s to the next 6 months.

Interested in eCommerce or my experiences? Looking to connect or collaborate? I’m always open to new opportunities and talent. Follow my journey on IG @kevinzhange.

Kevin Zhang

Written by

Just a boy chasing dreams | Brand creator and eCommerce strategist | Founder @ Kreator

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