Building a tech start up is much like riding a big roller coaster over and over again every day. And as a child, I was deathly afraid of roller coasters. There was a small amusement park in my hometown of Memphis, Tenn., called Libertyland. Its main attractions were the Zippin’ Pippin’, a wooden roller coaster, and The Revolution, a steel coaster that “went upside down.”
During my trips to Libertyland, I never had to face my fears because of my height. I was always the shortest kid in my classroom. By 4th grade, most of my friends were tall enough to get on the Zippin’ Pippin’ and The Revolution, but I still couldn’t. Every year, my friends would survey my height by having me stand in front of a stick at the entrance of the ride that determined if you was tall enough. With relief, I never met the requirement — until 7th grade. Up until then, I was the official bag holder at the park.
I had just started junior high. My friends and I were at Libertyland for the annual Midsouth Fair on a brisk September day. We approached The Revolution and we did our regular ritual of standing in front of the stick, but to our surprise, I was tall enough to ride. My friends were so happy for me. While they were jumping up and down, smiling, and excited that I could finally ride with them, my stomach was jumping up and down. It was more like back flips. I could no longer use my height as an excuse not to ride, and I was afraid.
One friend grabbed my hand and we got in the long line. Because it was the annual Midsouth Fair, the park was crowded. An hour later we were at the top. We had separated into different rows so we could all ride together. As the last person in front of me and my riding mate boarded the ride, I chickened out. Without giving an explanation, I ran back down the ramp, squeezing my way past riders who were behind me. When I got down to the bottom and back at the entrance, I heard my friends yelling at me from the top, “Come back up. Come back up.” I didn’t say a word. I was frozen. For about five minutes, I had a moment with myself about what could happen if I rode The Revolution. Would I die? Would I get seriously hurt? All of the worst case scenarios, such as falling out of the ride or having my head cut off from some trees, popped in my head. Then, I began to think about the alternatives. What if I enjoyed it? No one had ever died riding The Revolution. In fact, most people walked out happy. I made the decision to get back on. I made my way back up to the top, passing all of the people that I squeezed by on the way down. My friends were still at the top; they were letting people skip them in hopes I would change my mind. I got back in place. When it was our turn, I sat down in the ride. I was strapped in. There was no turning back. As the ride began to move, my heart was beating so fast. The ride slowly moved higher and higher and once it got to the very top of the first big dip, it paused for a second and then dropped quickly. My fear turned to excitement. I exited the ride wondering why did I let my fears take over.
That moment changed my life. I vowed to live a life in which I faced my fears and took on challenges. My latest challenge is my baby venture, kweliTV. Around 4:30 am on Tuesday, after being up for about 18 hours working to help get my streaming start up out of beta, my roller coaster experience from the 7th grade and every fearless thing I had done up to that point came to my mind. Starting kweliTV is by far one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s one big roller coaster ride after another. There are ups and downs. In one day, you can get the best news ever such as a cover story by a national publication and hours later, you get devastating news that could end your business. On Monday, you snag a major partnership that could positively change the direction of your company and by Friday your start up suffers a major tech glitch that costs more money than you have in your bank account to fix.
As I write this, we are extremely behind our official launch. And we are in serious financial trouble. Every time I think we’re close to launching out of beta, we’re faced with another obstacle. Honestly, most tech start up companies face similar issues: product launch delays, lack of cash. But as I mentioned in my piece, Diary of a (Mad) Black Woman Without VC Funding, black woman are inundated with unique challenges. We’re least likely to be funded. Black women get only 0.2 percent of all VC dollars. We lack the connections and the network that typical tech founders have. We can’t pull family resources together for a decent first seed round of funding because many of us are first generation college graduates. Our families are looking to us to change the financial trajectory for future generations.
kweliTV was founded after winning a $20,000 business competition through an organization called UNITY Journalists. Besides a micro investment of $4,000 from two close friends, I have not received any additional funding. We have gotten as far as we can with the initial 20K seed grant: paying subscribers, a partnership with EBONY.com, international coverage. But at this point, it’s not enough. We’ve never had the “runway” we needed to grow kweliTV. It’s been more like a one-car driveway. kweliTV has been “running on fumes” since day one. Every penny that we make right now goes directly to our filmmakers. On the surface, people think kweliTV is this well-funded engine. But in reality, we’re a skeleton crew working long hours because we believe in what we’re building. Every week we receive emails from customers proud of what we’re doing and the type of content we are offering them. I get personal messages from filmmakers on kweliTV, who are excited that their award-winning content finally has a home. While I am always humbled by the responses, it is also extremely scary.
Historically, I have been able to push through my challenges and overcome my biggest fears. But lately, I’ve wondered if I can make it. I fear that kweliTV will fail and I will let my customers and filmmakers down. I look at kweliTV’s bank account and I know we don’t have enough to make it to July 1. I have hustled the hell out of the initial $20,000 grant that I won December 2014. I have taken kweliTV as far as I can with no money. And it’s sad because we are about 95 percent done with the kweliTV rebuild. We’re right at the finish line.
Have you ever been at the cusp of completing a monumental feat that could change your life, but every time you get close to finishing a new, colossal boulder miraculously appears? Well, that’s been my tech start up life for the past 11 months. I’ve been working my butt off since I won the grant to create a media empire that produces dope sh*t. This is a challenge I wanted to take on because I was not satisfied with my viewing choices and I was tired of complaining about it. I wanted to do something. The black community is always debating about ownership in media — or the lack there of. We’re always talking about how it plays into how we’re portrayed in mainstream media. I wanted to change that. And, I still think I can. But with the few resources I’m working with right now, I honestly don’t know when we’re going to get out of beta.
Today, I was hoping to write a letter about our official launch and introduce all of the exciting, innovative projects we’ve been working at kweliTV. But instead, I’m still on the roller coaster and I’m moving down hill. I’m sitting in the front row, facing my obstacles head on. In the distance, I see the last big hill, I hold tight to the ride’s handlebars to brace for the dip. Below me I see well-wishers cheering me on, telling me to keep going. And then, I close my eyes and pray that I can make it to the end.
“Giving up is conceding that things will never get better, and that is just not true. Ups and downs are a constant in life, and I’ve been belted into that roller coaster a thousand times.” — Aimee Mullins