A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being part of Super Green Dot’s entrepreneur series. Super Green Dot is the brain child of artist, entrepreneur, and engineer, Sophi Kravitz. Her goal is not so much to focus on the companies started by entrepreneurs but rather to focus on the personal story that accompanies the launching of one’s own company. It was wonderful to be a part of this and share my story. I hope any aspiring entrepreneur can use this as motivation, while knowing that we’re all in this together
This is Robin. He is 29 years old and after leaving his job in banking several years ago, began working on two start-ups in the hope that one would take off. While launching these companies, he spent the first year sleeping on families’ couch in NYC, paying in kind rent via chores/dog walking, and watching his bank account dwindle. After a lot of hustle, up’s, downs, twists, turns, and good luck, both companies have launched successfully — he is now COO of BlueStamp Engineering (summer engineering program for HS students) and CEO of Alzeca Bio (Alzheimer’s diagnostic technologies).
What kind of work did you do prior to launching your two start-ups?
Banking, Venture Capital, a start-up that kinda worked, and a start-up that died a slow death.
How long ago did you leave?
What pushed you to stop working for other people?
I’ve been blessed to have great bosses all the way through — they were ambitious, hard working, passionate, and caring people. I have great respect and admiration for them.
However, I wanted to work on the things that I was truly passionate about. I have always believed that if I worked on things I enjoyed, then I would be good at them. And if I was good at something, success and fulfillment were inevitable.
Can you tell us about your two companies?
Along with one of my closest friends, I operate a summer engineering program, BlueStamp Engineering, during the summer.
Sophi’s note: I visited Blue Stamp Engineering in NYC this past summer. The students choose a project and spend the session finishing it. I was blown away by the types of projects these students were doing- Geiger counters, wireless communication, coding, electronics.
Robin: The second company and where the majority of my time is spent is Alzeca Bio, where we are developing novel diagnostic technologies for the early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease. About 2-3 times/year I go to DC and sit on review panels for the government, where we decide which companies should received grant money from the government’s SBIR program.
What was your first business?
When I was 7 years old, my sister had a paper route. It was a unique partnership: The work was split 50/50 but somehow her revenue piece was 4x mine. She said that my real earnings were immeasurable because she was forgiving the normal fee for hanging out with her. I went home and told my mom I was planning to file for divorce from my sister. I thought this was quite the ingenious plan…until my sister signed with no hesitation and deducted the legal fees from my next month’s wages.
However, there was a deeper lesson here that I was learning and has become even more true today. I believe that work as an entrepreneur follows a bell curve. In the beginning, where you are most likely to give up/fail, You put in so much work and get so few results – this is when most people quit and say things like “it just didn’t work”.
However, I believe that real entrepreneurs embrace this period differently — they take the feedback and they fine tune, they push through. I am not deeply spiritual, but I do believe you have to show the world you are willing to fight for your idea. I think about it this way: If I’m working on something that will improve education, health, or whatever field, then why wouldn’t the world want me to be successful?
Somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, it seems that effort begins to equal results. Finally, towards the end, it seems you put in much less (or perhaps are just more efficient), but the results seem to outweigh the effort.
Sophi: Yes, the beginning part can take much longer than you have the resources to keep going. It’s pretty important to wean yourself off of sushi lunches and similar before you get started.
Robin: Similarly, as an employee in my sister’s paper route business, I was gaining experience. 3 years later we moved to a new neighborhood and I got wind that the neighborhood needed a new paperboy/girl. One day after school, a herd of ten year-olds ran over to the departing paper boy’s house (apparently he was moving up to a bigger neighborhood) and stood in a line while the regional newspaper delivery director walked up and down trying to figure out how to tactfully break the hearts of all but one of us.
Recognizing this, I stepped forward and said, “Excuse me, I have experience”. “What do you mean?”, the director said. “Well, in my old neighborhood, I was an assistant paper boy to my sister”. And the job was mine!
I was 10 years old and I had my paper route! By the time I was 11, I had leveraged my paper route customers into lawnmowing customers during the summer, and shoveled their driveways during the winter. I was aware that I was earning money but quite frankly my only metric of success was that one driveway shoveled = 33% of a Sega game.
By the time I was 16, I quit the paperboy/lawnmowing/snowshoveling business to sell high end cutlery. I will tell you that convincing people to let you into their house to sell them overpriced cutlery is a lot easier when you’ve already pulled their weeds
How much money did you have saved up before you went on your own?
$30K, but it felt more like $3K.
Do you make more or less money do you make than you did as an employee?
A little more now.
When you stopped working for other people, describe how you felt.
I constantly had dreams of my old workplace…like I was still there and earning money. It’s amazing how much you take for granted…the $4 lattes, buying a round of drinks for your friends, feeling guilty every time you spend money on something that isn’t a necessity.
I remember trying to answer people when they asked what I did. I couldn’t really explain it. I thought people thought I was a total loser. Perhaps they did, but I made it so much worse on myself than I had to.
In my mind I kept thinking of my old work as the “good ol’ times” even though it wasn’t. When you’re at work, you often think about how much you hate it, but then when you’re not there, you simply miss the dignity that comes with having work. There’s an amazing emptiness when you think about how your friends are at work, earning a good salary, and you are left to an empty apartment, sitting there in your sweat pants trying to make some dream happen. It’s so easy to psyche yourself out, to get depressed, to fall into a lull. I noticed my voice was lacking confidence and volume…I just didn’t feel like a worthwhile person.
Are you passionate about what you do?
I love it. I thoroughly enjoy my work. I feel blessed and I am very grateful for the opportunity. There were dark days, but it was so worth it. I used to start thinking about the weekend by Tuesday. Now I spend part of the weekend working and somehow I don’t mind. I used to dread Sunday because of the impending Monday. Now all the days kind of run together and its quite enjoyable
Sophi: YES! I’m having the same experience. I’m in the beginning, so I’m working ALL weekend, all the days are the same and I love it.
How are you supporting yourself financially?
Both companies pay…perhaps not as much as I could be making but the satisfaction easily makes up for it.
Do you consider yourself financially stable or not?
Do you have health insurance and if so, who pays for it?
Yes, the company contributes.
How much time do you spend looking for new work?
Zero. I have found the grass can always be greener if you want it to be. At this point, I want to spend all of my time making the current companies as great as they can possibly be.
Do others support you emotionally or are they always asking you to get a “real” job?
My family and friends have been and are incredibly supportive. In retrospect I don’t know how my sis/bro in law tolerated me on their couch for so long coupled with my extreme early morning exercise habits. I can’t imagine what my mom was thinking when I was hopping from bus to bus trying to get these companies moving.
The only thing my family ever said was “If you exercise less, you’ll eat less. Please stop eating so much.”
I never discussed finances with my friends but they must have known. I have the kindest and most generous friends a guy could ask for. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in the apartment by myself and work all day. Going out with them was a daily tonic.
Do you continually need to explain why you’re doing what you do?
When I was in NYC, I had to explain this constantly. Everyone kept asking me about money, money, money. However, in a start-up rich community like San Francisco, its 180 degrees different. It’s almost like if you’re not in a start-up, that somehow makes you the unusual one. People here truly admire you for your courage and your desire to affect some kind of change. That seems to hold more weight than the numbers on your paycheck.
As for people wishing they could it too…I can only answer in two phases. When we were starting out, no one wished they could do it too. Justifiably so, people are naturally risk averse. However, after launching and having some initial success, it seems like a lot more people want to come aboard
Do you wish you could change things in your work life or are you happy with the way things are?
I think as an entrepreneur, there are always things you want to change – that’s why you become and entrepreneur.
However, what I’ve been working to find recently is a cruising altitude in a chaotic sky.
To focus on one thing at a time and to do it well.
To have faith in the world and just believe that if I’m trying to do good and if I am determined, then doors will open. It won’t ever be fast or easy, but nor should it be. I’m willing to bet the things we love most in our lives are the things that we had to struggle the most to get.
So to answer the question, yes, I am happy, and yes, there are still a lot of things I wish I could change. However, the difference is that now, after all of the trials and tribulations of the past few years, I know that I have the ability to change anything I don’t like with enough creativity and persistence.
Sophi: That was a very inspiring interview. Thanks for sharing so much of your experience and being so honest. I’ve posted a couple of links so that readers can learn more about your projects.
Link to learn more about the Bluestamp Engineering team
Link to what some of the Bluestamp Engineering Students worked on
Watch Robin’s fascinating TEDx talk
And finally, a link to his company Alzeca Biosciences