From unpaid intern to Co-founder – my entrepreneurial journey

Like most people, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I “got older”. I knew I wanted to major in Business in college since I didn’t have any specific interests and math was my favorite subject. Besides that, I didn’t really know what type of industry I wanted to get into or if I wanted to work for a big or small company. Around my Junior year or so, I felt that any job will do as long as it pays and I suspect many college kids feel the same way. I was the typical broke college student but it was mostly my fault since I didn’t want a job during the school year. Either way, as my bank account began to dwindle down to zero, I really just wanted any job since I was desperate for money. The problem was, I didn’t know where to start.

I can’t remember if I was in high school or early college but for some reason, I vividly remember picking up a magazine at the airport one day about Entrepreneurship – it might have even been Entrepreneur magazine. I perused it on the plane ride and it was like a light bulb went off – this is what I want to do! I want to be an Entrepreneur. All the articles in the magazine were about these super cool company founders that were having great success and pushing technology forward. I figured it would be cool to be just like them. Unfortunately, I soon found out that no one pays you to be an entrepreneur, rather you pay yourself by creating a company that generates some sort of revenue. That would be a problem since a) I didn’t have any savings to get started and b) I didn’t have a skill that I thought I could monetize. Either way, I decided to take an entrepreneur class my sophomore or junior year of college just to see what it was about.

The class was very difficult and I ended up hating it. I wasn’t extremely fond of the professor since his story of being an “entrepreneur” was filled with what seemed like failures and a bunch of negativity. I also didn’t like the class structure and while I’m sure I learned some business skills, it really turned me off to this whole entrepreneur thing. Instead of chasing that path, I decided to major in International Business and minor in Spanish. At least I’d be able to study abroad, I thought. Fast forward to the spring of my junior year where I was walking down King Street in Charleston one day. I saw this big banner on this brand new building saying “PeopleMatter coming Spring 2013”, or something like that. The building looked really cool and I don’t know why but I told myself I wanted to work there.

I knew nothing about the company but it ended up being a software company that helped HR teams automate the hiring and onboarding process of new employees. I looked on the website and I didn’t see any internships available but I did find a company email -“info@companyname.com”. Even I knew that emails to those generic email addresses usually just got deleted. I figured I’d at least try so I shot off an email and that was that. To no one’s surprise, I didn’t get a reply. A few weeks later, my cousin was in town and we ended up going to a rooftop bar that was directly across the street from this company I wanted to work for. This must’ve been like the month after I turned 21 because I had never been up to this rooftop before. Anyway, I told my cousin my story about how I emailed them and was upset they didn’t email me back. She asked if I had followed up on the email. I was like, “You want me to reply to the original email they probably deleted? That doesn’t make sense.” She told me to do exactly that and so the next day I did. I can’t remember what I said in that email (I wish I did) but I think it was something along the lines of, “I’m a rising Senior at College of Charleston and I would love an internship. You don’t have to pay me, I WILL WORK FOR FREE”! I don’t think I wrote that in all caps but I made it clear that I didn’t need to get paid, I just wanted an opportunity. A few days later, to my surprise, I got an email telling me to come in to meet the Director of Demand Generation.

I had no idea what this guy’s title meant and to be honest knew nothing about business even though I was a business major. I went in and talked to this guy at the company’s rooftop bar which instantly became another reason I now really, really wanted to work here. Later, I would learn he didn’t want to hire me because I had long, shaggy hair and didn’t know anything applicable to what I’d be doing. I guess he thought I’d be a lazy or an inefficient worker. Luckily, he let someone else talk to me and he urged the Director to give me a chance. Fast forward a month or so and I had secured the internship. I told them I’d work basically 40 hours a week through the summer and then scale it down to around 20 during the school year. My very first day of this internship, I told my new boss, “By the way, I’m studying abroad in Costa Rica for a month this summer.” He said ok, when. “In three weeks.” I’m sure he thought it was ironic that the kid beating down the door to get a chance at this company was leaving for a month just three weeks into the internship but he said it was fine and that was that. I ended up working that entire summer, M/W/F from 9-5 throughout my entire senior year, got a real paying job with them in February before I graduated, and started working full-time two days after I graduated. I guess you could say that follow-up email really helped.

At this point, I felt so rich because after working over 500 hours and not getting paid one cent, any money felt like a ton. Anyway, I kind of forgot about that notion of being an entrepreneur but the CEO of this new company I was working at reminded me of the leaders I had read about in that magazine a long time ago. I thought that I should try to be like him but then again, how do I do that? I figured I needed to learn a skill and there was a popular thing at work called Salesforce. I  had never heard of it but it seemed like almost the entire company used it. I figured if I could be the company expert at this Salesforce thing, it would make me more valuable and somehow that would help me be an entrepreneur. Fortuitous enough, just six months after I graduated the girl that was managing Salesforce at the time decided to move to San Francisco and she left a void that I knew needed to be filled. As soon as she left, I told my boss (still the same Director of Demand Generation that first answered my email) that I could handle this, that I would take over her role and I would fit in seamlessly. I knew this was my chance but also knew that they probably should hire someone with more experience, especially because this girl was really good at her job.

After some back and forth, I convinced my boss that I was the guy and I moved into that new role. I studied my ass off and went from freshly-minted college grad to Certified Salesforce Administrator in 4 months. Less than a year after logging into this product for the first time, I was looked at as an “expert” within the community. I was 23 years old and I had finally found my “skill.” Now that I was an expert, I remember the girl I replaced was a “consultant” on the side and made money by doing Salesforce for other companies in her free time. I figured I could do this too so I called her up, got some tips and became a “consultant”. At the time, the extra income was so I could travel the world as I figured that would be fun more than this entrepreneur thing. I guess I didn’t know it then but I already was an entrepreneur with a “consulting business” if you could call it that. I got my first client and the project I agreed to was actually way above my knowledge level. It was really tough but I figured it out and the success of this project gave me some much-needed confidence. I was excited to keep picking up more projects now that I knew people would hire me as their “expert”. An extra $5,000 to pay rent and go out never hurt either. Over the next 12-18 months, I probably had 5-6 new clients and made some extra money and even though I didn’t think of it at the time, I was becoming this entrepreneur that I had wanted to be for so long.

So I ended up leaving that first company and eventually went off to travel and explore the world but during that trip, I made it my new goal to actually become a real entrepreneur. I was kind of back at square one because I was spending all my money on this trip and I kind of got sick of doing the same salesforce work over and over. Either way, I made it my goal and told my new and current boss that by age thirty I was going to be an entrepreneur and have a better company than his. Luckily, that is the kind of attitude he likes and so to get my feet wet, I began my new role as Director of New Ventures and began to get experience in many new facets of operating a business. About six months into this role, I saw a glimmer of hope in that my boss wanted to start a new company. I knew this was my chance so I went out on my own and wrote up a business plan and asked him for an hour of his time. During that hour, I laid out my vision for this new company (even though it was his vision and his idea) and went into all the details of how the software would look and interact with the user, who the target customers would be and what we would price it at. That kind of initiative impressed him and he said ok you’re up, go do it. And that is how I got to be living in Phoenix and finally feel like I’m a real entrepreneur as I am now a Co-founder of a software startup. It’s not going to be easy but I know this is my chance to become the type of person magazines write about. Hopefully, one day I’ll inspire a young college kid to follow a similar path as me.

 

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