Two years ago, I was on cloud nine. I had just left my local bank to create a business account and deposit the $20,000 business grant I had just received a week prior from Unity Journalists. I opened my laptop and mapped out a simple, 12-month plan for kweliTV with the funds I just received: I would recruit a rock-star executive team (a CTO and CMO to start), we would launch a solid beta web app by Spring 2015, get feedback and make tweaks along the way, gain enough traction for a seed investment by the end of 2015 and then introduce our kickass 1.0 platform with mobile and TV apps to boot in 2016.
The $20K grant was a great boost for the start of the year. I was so excited about what I was building — that the few hours I did slept — I would dream about riding off into the sunset with my dope team and my dope business into a successful bliss. Of course absolutely nothing went as planned. Nothing. If there were some crystal ball that would have shown me that two years after getting the initial grant we would still be in beta and bootstrapping by a thread, I would be shocked.
Honestly, looking back on myself in January 2015, I was naïve. In the real world, most entrepreneurs fail; and those who don’t go broke, lose relationships, sleep and their sanity before they hit success. You read the stories on social media about the 20-something who starts his company in a garage and sells it for millions or the Ivy League dropout who’s able to get his first $1 million investment with just an idea written on a napkin. Those are fairy tales, not real life.
My 12-month map had lots of detours, bumpy trails and roadblocks. First, it took about a year and a half to put together my rock star team. In the early days, I was too quick to settle down, especially with tech people who did not share the same passion and drive that I have. One developer stopped working mid-way saying he needed double the pay even though we were under contract. He never delivered after I paid him thousands of dollars. Another one left us with an incomplete product with a lot of tech glitches and code errors that made it impossible to make the tweaks along the way. And a previous CTO didn’t showed up to an important scheduled meeting and I never heard from him again. I literally thought he had gotten hurt since we had a great working relationship. But no, he was living his life. He just never bothered to tell me.
All of those incidents taught me a valuable lesson: finding a CTO (or any team member) is like finding a spouse. I simply can’t read a job description and “swipe right.” I need to “date” them for a while to see if they’re serious about a long-term relationship. Startup life is hard. Everyone’s not cut out to keep pushing when the going gets tough. Hell, there have been times when I’ve questioned whether to continue when things have gotten really difficult. And the last 12 months have been the lowest points in my life as an entrepreneur. Beta customers are expecting us to have the same infrastructure as Netflix like yesterday. Our filmmakers are eager for us to get out of beta and scale so their award-winning content reaches a massive audience. The tech team has been a revolving door. I’m getting nowhere with investors. We’re running out of money.
Believe me, the desire to build this awesome company that I’ve been working on non-stop for the last two years is just as strong as my need to breath. But all sorts of things pop in your head when you hit rock bottom. Twenty-four hours after writing my last “Diary of a (Mad) Black Woman Without VC Funding” in September, I hit the bottom. I had just emailed my filmmakers telling them that we’re close to running out of money before the next quarterly payment. We had about $600 in our account. My CTO (at the time) was MIA. I hadn’t heard from him in weeks causing kweliTV to push back our scheduled official launch for the third time after making a big announcement (including in the LA Times). kweliTV was a finalist for an angel fund and an accelerator — both came with cash investments. I received both rejection letters a day a part. I was scheduled to have a third surgery for a recurring medical condition (which I eventually postponed). So, I questioned if I could ever get kweliTV out of beta by bootstrapping. I was in pain physically and mentally.
This is very difficult for me to write because I’ve always been very careful about how I present myself in public. When you’re a tech founder, you’re supposed to be a rock star — part genius, part innovator, part motivator. Vulnerability usually isn’t one of the adjectives that typically describes successful tech leaders. Whenever friends or associates want to know how things are going with kweliTV, they really want to hear the good stuff. No one is really prepared for me to talk about the dozen rejection emails that I receive every month or the dwindling bank account. They want to hear about what’s going right. People read the news features or social media posts about kweliTV and assume we’re “killing it” all of the time. But those few successes are sprinkled in between the insurmountable number of failures and no’s.
When you create something from scratch and gain a little traction, people tend to put you on a pedestal as if you have some type of Oprah Winfrey-Richard Branson magic. I’m just black girl born and raised in Memphis to a working class family who just happened to have big dreams and an even bigger drive to fill a void in media. I’m no different from anyone else. I just hustle really hard. While some people are binge-watching their favorite show, hanging out at the bar or simply sleeping, I’m working. This is no shade. I don’t knock anyone doing those things on the regular. From time to time I sleep, I watch three episodes of “Blackish” or “Atlanta” in a row or enjoy the company of friends with a glass of red wine or Bourbon in my hand. But if you’re trying to build a high-growth company from scratch, those indulges are far and few between. It’s a life I signed up for; and despite all of the stress, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
No one knows how things will all turn out when you launch a business. You’re building something on pure faith and determination. The road to success is rough for any founder, but I’m not just any founder. I’m a woman. I’m black. I don’t come from wealth. I launched a media company. I’m bootstrapping. Based off of those facts, the odds are against me. But I refuse to let things I cannot change determine my future.
While watching The Shawshank Redemption the other day, I noticed a lot of nuggets of wisdom as a bootstrapping, burnt out entrepreneur. The character Andy Dufresne was in prison for a double murder he did not commit. After being in prison for nearly two decades, he meets a new inmate who told him about a former cellmate who bragged about the murders Dufresne was convicted of committing. When Dufresne talked to the warden about this new turn of events, instead of helping him, the warden has the new inmate murdered and Dufresne is sent to the hole for two months. The warden used his power to crush any hope for Dufresne to have his case overturned. When Dufresne gets out of solitary confinement, he makes the decision to break out of prison. Dufresne had spent the last 19 years digging a hole in his cell wall with a small rock hammer. To gain his freedom, he had to crawl through a sewage pipe of human waste the size of three football fields. When he finally comes out on the other side, the pouring rain washes the sewage waste from his body.
The day before he escaped, a fed up Dufresne tells Red, a character played by Morgan Freeman who had given up on getting paroled: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
This brings me to the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past two years: I ultimately control my future — not investors, the gatekeepers at accelerators or even the developers who left me high and dry. The cavalry may never come. The reality is that I may never get an investment. It’s a hard fact I’ve had to face in recent months. According to Fundable, angel investors fund only 0.91 percent of all startups, while venture capitalists fund only 0.05 percent. And black women get a minute 0.2 percent of that small pie! Either I can throw my hands up in defeat or I could focus my attention on the things I can change: revenue, even if it means a slower scale.
Dufresne’s quest for freedom is similar to an entrepreneur’s journey to success. There will be forces that will attempt to block your progress. You will receive just one yes for every dozen no’s. The pursuit will take twice as long. You will feel hopeless and defeated. You will encounter a lot of shit. But you have to persevere.
Right now I feel like Dufresne crawling through the long tunnel full of waste. It’s dark; it stinks. But, I can faintly see the light at the end. I know that once I get there, things will start to get better if I just keep moving.