Photos by Joe Johnston
If you’re curious about what life is like as an entrepreneur, sometimes it’s helpful to start with what it’s not. For most, it’s not a glamorized shortcut to making millions. It’s not as easy as spinning up a two-minute pitch on Shark Tank. And it’s not a path available only to coders in hoodies or slicked-back business pros.
The Cal Poly network is full of examples to the contrary who have become pillars of their communities and innovators in their fields in California and beyond. Six entrepreneurs, including alumni, faculty and current students launching their ventures through the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), met up in the SLO HotHouse to discuss the lessons they’ve learned living the real startup life.
What lit the entrepreneurial spark?
Russ Nash: For me, I wanted control of my life. I had graduated with an accounting degree, and I went to work for a very large accounting firm with a lot of rules. That’s fine because I needed to learn, but I just always wanted to have control. I didn’t necessarily need to be wealthy, I just wanted to live and die by my own actions.
Kristen Hazard: I started my first business just so I could not have to travel so much, and then that business led to this business. I would also say what [Russ] said. For me, it’s some level of freedom and control over my own life. Or as my uncle says, “You can choose to work 60 hours a week instead of someone making you.”
Mary Glick: I’ve enjoyed being like an “intra-preneur” basically, working for organizations on new projects. That’s where I got the bug, within the context of working for a legacy news organization where I could actually be entrepreneurial inside that company, launch new sections, create new series of stories we were going to tell, come up with new ideas.
Tunmi Da Silva: When I was younger, I was always making things. I would be bored over the summer, so I would just pick up new hobbies. I was always in summer camp learning how to crotchet, learning how to sew, learning how to paint. I just was super engrossed with the fact that I could make something with my hands and that I could give it to someone or I could sell it.
I really think that’s where my entrepreneurial spirit came from. Once I got to college, I realized, “Man, I really miss making things.” That led me back on the path to wanting to create things and sell them because I really just get a lot of satisfaction from people enjoying things that I’ve made.
Glick: And now you’re having to learn about the entrepreneurial part of that.
Da Silva: Exactly.
Richard Smith: I can relate to that for sure as a kid. My dad was good at setting me up, but he was not an allowance guy. My dad was the one who said, “Hey, if you want a new mountain bike, for every dollar you save, I’ll match your dollar.” So, from an early age, I learned that I could make 15 bucks on a weekend from mowing lawns, or I could collect everybody’s recycling and get 5 [cents] per can.
The FLUID project wasn’t originally a business. The business was personal training and coaching, and then I would just siphon that money to make [sports nutrition] drinks. To make FLUID happen, it was a frustration that there wasn’t a better thing already there. Then I thought, “I can just make this. I can just whip this up.” It was a frustration and benign intention to help people who were giving me money, entrusting me with their fitness and wellness and performance.
Tal Kornfeld: Sounds like the consensus around the circle is that it all started from a pretty young age, which I think goes to show you that entrepreneurship is an attitude and a mindset that is a part of you. I remember this one particular moment where I was taking a coding class in high school and we visited Google’s campus. I remember as soon as I set foot on the campus, I could just feel like there was this energy. So, from the moment I got into college, I just wanted to get involved with whatever entrepreneurship programs there were. Thankfully there was a pretty robust entrepreneurship program, and the rest is history.
Hazard: I actually came to it late. I didn’t start my first business until I was in my late 30s. I think for me it was just the way I was raised. I was just stoked to get a job and then stoked to buy a house. Those things got settled, and then I think that allowed some kind of creativity in me to flourish to actually build a business. Then employing people — I took so much pride from that, creating jobs in this town.
Can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur?
Glick: Well, I definitely think it can be taught. People ask the same question, “Can I teach people how to write?” Yes, you can. I think that anybody can be taught the idea of entrepreneurship, and then it takes off at varying levels depending on what your motivation is and what you get excited about.
Nash: I think you can teach it and you can bring it out to people, which I think we do a pretty good job of at Cal Poly, but to truly succeed over a long period of time, it has to come from within. There has to be some tenacity inside you that says, “I’m willing to take a lot more chances than other people. I’m willing to fail many times. I’m going to hit the wall and get back up when society is not necessarily helping you up.” One of the advantages of [the CIE] is there’s plenty of us around you to help you, but once you walk out the door and you’re on your own, that has to come from deep down.
By teaching it, it becomes more mainstream or acceptable. When I graduated college, the idea of quitting a Fortune Top 20 [company] to become self-employed, people think, “This guy got fired, he’s not good with people.” This was 33 years ago. But now, for you guys, it’s more, not only acceptable, but it’s looked up to.
Glick: And the idea that you can develop an idea and that it may not go the way you wanted it to go from the beginning.
Da Silva: It’s the attitude that you have. You can bring a camel to the water, but you can’t make it drink. I think that it really depends on the camel’s attitude. Right? It depends on what’s already in them. I think it’s also that entrepreneurship is more accessible today.
Kornfeld: I think that there’s so much information and so many resources available now that the barrier to entry for entrepreneurship has been lowered considerably. I think that it’s two things. You need to understand certain fundamental skills, how to analyze a complex problem and solve that problem, being self-aware, being adaptive to change. But I think that successful entrepreneurs are people who couple it with this deep motivation. I don’t think there’s generally success when you have one or the other. It really needs to be both.
Hazard: I was thinking maybe the thing that can’t be taught is like the risk, either you’re averse to risk or not. I have a unique perspective because I have the small business consulting firm and then now a startup, and I think the amount I have to learn to make my startup go versus my consulting business is, like, times a thousand. It’s kind of astonishing actually.
Nash: It’s the risk, being able to take the risk, but it’s also how much sacrifice you’re willing to make.
Smith: My favorite part of entrepreneurship is it’s an application of our creativity. When we find what is interesting to us, and then we figure out how we can monetize that, it’s coolest feeling in the world that someone’s willing to give us their hard-earned money for our creation or our people’s creation. My gut reaction is to say it can’t be taught because of certain virtues or values, but I think I’m wrong. It can be cultured, and it can be learned, and that it’s unique to what we’re passionate about, and what we choose to assume the risk of purveying.
What role does creativity play in starting a venture from the ground up?
Hazard: I think that building a company is a creative act, for sure. My company, the culture of the company, how I want people to be treated, how I want our customers to be treated, is a creative act. I am a gay woman in San Luis Obispo, and like to wear men’s clothes. Being the leader of my company, I was able to embrace that part of myself and just own it, because I was the boss, and nobody could tell me not to do it. The other interesting thing in my business of software is that if you get two coders together, and you have them solve the same problem they will go down totally different paths — it was just two creative paths to the same place.
Smith: You have the genesis early on of what that product will be, how it’s differentiated from its competition … that is a very generative, narrative thought process and discussion early on, whether you’re mixing a formula or you’re formulating a color palette. So, creativity to me is an integral part of a successful startup for its value propositions and its ongoing day-to-day in problem-solving, and also for inspiration for the team.
Nash: You’re going to need the business person, you’re going to need the graphic design person, you’re going to need someone who can write, and also someone who can be a little more decisive. I grab the engineers and say, “Yes, the team needs you, but it is a team. This is not a one-man show, and you need that creative person.”
Kornfeld: I had a position on the board of Cal Poly Entrepreneurs last year where we would go and visit companies. Every time we’d go and visit these awesome, billion-dollar companies, we talked to the CEO and other executives. The majority of the people that we’ve run into went to a school that nobody has ever heard of and studied something completely unrelated to what they’re doing now. I think that that just goes to show that creativity is really the missing piece in that whole puzzle. It really doesn’t matter what your background is or even how old you are.
Da Silva: Also, to Tal’s point earlier, I think the root of creativity circles back to self-awareness. There’s the self-awareness that inspires the creativity, and then there’s also the conviction in how deeply this problem affects you and how inspired and convicted you are to solve a problem. I think that is the catalyst for entrepreneurship.
What lessons have you had to learn the hard way?
Kornfeld: I can already think of one. When we applied to the accelerator program, we had such conviction about our idea. We got into the program — it must be a good idea. Then I remember the first week, this sudden realization that there’s so much that we don’t know. There’s so much context that we’re lacking. I think once you understand what you don’t know, you’re in a better place to act on it, or at least navigate around it.
Hazard: Timing has been a hard lesson. In my business with Wildnote, I’m seeing the timing shift and people are adopting new technology. I thought I was late to the market but actually, it was a little early, and waiting out that timing was really hard.
Nash: For me, the biggest lesson is always patience. When you’re starting a business from scratch, everything takes longer than you think it should. Partners, employees, whatever — it all takes a lot longer. Then the other thing is understanding the role of the leader and making sure the boss does not transfer any of the financial stress to the employees. The last thing you want to do is make everybody around you extra nervous. If you’re short on money, the boss gets paid last, employees get paid first.
Smith: When I started my business, I had a partner. We worked together for almost five years. After that, we realized we wanted different things and that it would be best to wind down our partnership. Navigating that process was the hardest lesson I had to learn. We were determining what to do about our investors, our intellectual property, our future, and the future of our families. It was really tough to get through with a business partner and a good friend when we disagreed, and hard to face friends and family to whom we owed money, and ask for their continued trust and support.
Nash: One of the speeches that I give here to the young people is to make sure when you go out and raise money from friends and family, that it’s clear and concise what it is. Is it a gift? Is it a loan? Is it an investment? Also to make sure you only take money from friends and family that clearly have the ability to lose 100% of it without holding it against you.
Smith: That was another lesson I had to learn — am I going to do this or not? Am I going to double-down on my time or not? I’m going to do my best to keep my promise to these people and my fiduciary responsibility — I am going to get back to work. I remember the day the UPS driver came back to me with my prepaid envelope, and he said, “Here you go.” I said, “You know what’s inside here? I just bought the rest of the company. Now, I’m going for it solo.” It’s lonely and exciting and terrifying. That, for me, was definitely the hardest.
Da Silva: Fear never goes away. As long as you’re trying to scale, there will be more risk, and there will be decisions that need to be made. There is always a fear — I think the fear at the onset, especially if you’re bootstrapping, can be crippling. It’s what prevents a lot of people from even taking the leap because stability is a lot more comforting. I think that has been the hardest lesson to learn because I thought I would get to a certain point where I can breathe. I can wake up in the morning and not be fearful that my business might implode —
Nash: That’s a long time coming.
Hazard: Exactly. That’s been the hardest lesson for me to learn. I asked a local angel group for an additional $50,000. It was essentially, “Just get me through this bankruptcy.” I presented to a screening committee, and then I had to present in front of the whole group. I got food poisoning the day before. I shouldn’t have gone, but I was so stressed and I had so much fear in me that I went. I tried to bring my confidence, but they could feel my fear. I lost that room at that moment when I showed up with fear. Don’t show up if you’re sick. Don’t show up if you don’t have the level of confidence they need to see, because they’re not going to give it to you if you need it. It’s not going to happen. It was a really good lesson.
As the leader of your business, what keeps you up at night?
Nash: I’m kind of over that hump. If there’s any things that really would keep you up, it’s [that] industries are changing. It’s getting harder to make sales. I take the responsibility of taking care of my employees very seriously. I know that I’m feeding some families [by employing] the principal breadwinner. They’ve got spouses. They’ve got children. They’ve got houses. I’ve got to make sure they get paid.
Da Silva: When did you get over that hump?
Nash: Well, let’s see, it was about 20 years ago, so I would have been 39. Thirteen years in and being self-employed. By that point, that particular business was doing good enough that I hired some high-level people to take some of the stress. Also, my financial background always kicked in to make sure you’ve got plenty of reserves because there are going to be a significant down cycles for whatever reason.
Hazard: We just had our first cash-flow-positive quarter. It was either that or be done, right? It’s mostly payroll right now that keeps me up at night. It’s relentless… every two weeks. I got to make that payroll. I know we’re trending to a different place. It won’t always be like that, like you said.
Smith: I used to be up at night a lot. I would make up to 120 calls a day, just trying to generate business. I used to run back those conversations in my head. Now, I found that if I made a huge list right before I went to bed that something chemically would change. It would almost turn off. It’s pretty rare now that I’m up at night, other than with my six-month-old.
Nash: It’s worth it. The kids are worth it.
Da Silva: I think as a creative, what keeps me up at night is what I’m going to create next. As the one who physically makes handmade items, I constantly have ideas of what I want to put out next and who’s going to want it — it’s what I’ve been trained to think about that through this program. That keeps me up so much. Sometimes I try to keep my sketchbook right next to my bed so that if I know that there’s something that I just can’t get out, I just do a quick sketch of it.
Tal said this earlier: you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s like, “Man, what do I need to learn next? What do I need to learn next that’s going to get this thing going, that’s going to get this thing to a level that I’m really generating income for myself?” That can be very frightening, and that alone keeps me up at night as well.
Kornfeld: What you just said is very true for me too. I’m at this point in my life right now where there are so many things that could possibly happen in the next year. It’s unnerving, like a million different options. Obviously, I want [my startup] to work out or maybe something else is going to happen. I guess it’s just not knowing where I’m headed.
I think that you need to be comfortable in uncertainty to be able to survive and thrive in that place where you have no idea where your life is going to be tomorrow, but you have the… what’s the word I’m looking for? You have the composure to stay strong and keep doing what you need to be doing. That’s one of the hardest parts.
Nash: You have to thrive on being able to make decisions with limited data and not be concerned about making a mistake. Make a mistake, understand it, and get up. Try again.
Hazard: Make it early too. The earlier you make a mistake, you feel like the more you learn, you have less risk going forward.
Is entrepreneurial success really all about who you know?
Smith: I like the little adage that says, “It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.” Someone who really knows you, they appreciate you, they know what you can do, then they can lean on you. You can be of service to them with your products or service offering. I like to look at it that way. My goal is to make myself known in a sales offering and see if we can be of service to you or not.
Hazard: I just totally agree with everything you said. What Tal said earlier, its people. I think networking is about bringing your best self to first impressions and to first interactions. I may have never met you before. If we came to this space and someone asked you about me, what would you say about me? That would be 100% solely based on how I treated you. I think that the way that we talk about networking in today’s day and age is like, “Oh, you just have to go out and meet as many people as you can.” To me, it can get a little artificial. That’s a bit taxing as well.
Sometimes the best people to keep around you are people that you respect and people that you know respect you because at the end of the day, there’s an understanding. If I don’t understand what Tal is trying to do, how can I truly advise him?
Smith: I think on your point, I want to add one thing — I’m an extrovert. Getting up, starting a conversation, meeting people, making connections is easy for me. Managing the trains, staying on top of things, being more organized is not something in my primary wheelhouse. Part of entrepreneurship to me is realizing my contributions, my giftedness, my assets to the organization and where there are vacancies.
Da Silva: When I started, I really regretted that I didn’t have a bigger network to rely on. I got into the [Accelerator] program, and I had an instant network of consultants and people, advisors.
Nash: That was the goal of this whole program. If you’ve got an instant network, people will help you. I don’t think it’s just who you know. I think you can start with nothing and a little bit of luck, a little perseverance. Public schools like Cal Poly, you can come from nowhere and do quite well. Does it help to have some connections? Certainly. But you can create your own and new networks throughout life.
Kornfeld: I’ve been so astounded that since I got to college, it’s absurd how willing people are to help you. Even people [who] are really high up. Because you’re a college student and you asked them for help, they’re just so happy to sit down and talk with you. I think that’s something really important to remember for college students is that don’t be scared to ask for help. Don’t be scared to ask for advice or to sit and meet with someone, like, no matter what their stature is because chances are, if you frame your request in the right way, that they will take you up on it. Great things can come out of it.
Hazard: Even if they don’t know the right advice to give you, they’ll definitely point you in a direction of someone exactly who knows, which I’ve experienced throughout my time at Cal Poly, which has been amazing.
What advice would you give a fellow entrepreneur today?
Glick: That’s a tough one. I think the best advice out there that I can think of is to remember that this too shall pass. There will be devastating bumps on the road, but nothing will last forever. I think you’d have to go through life with that kind of attitude that the bad times are not bad times forever. You will weather the storms and sometimes you’ll go in a different direction. That’s okay.
Hazard: The piece of advice that I really liked was, “If you’re trying to figure out what industry you want to build a product for, pick one where you like the people that are in that industry.” I really like these biologists, these botanists, these crazy turtle people. You know what I mean? They’re just so awesome. They love nature. They’re protecting nature. They’re scientists. That’s why I ended up picking this product to put my heart into. Now, I’ve heard Geoffrey Allen Nuval, one of the most famous startup guys, say the exact opposite. What are you going to do?
Smith: I was talking with a fellow entrepreneur who started a successful bicycle company. He said, “Richard, how many different ways are there for you to grow your business?” I thought there were a thousand — he said there are three. No. 1: the number of customers you serve. No. 2: the frequency with which you serve them. You think it’s an accident that Starbucks gives you a treat receipt to come back after 2 p.m. to get a discount, bring a friend, and maybe get a muffin at the same time? If they can affect frequency, they can affect business. No. 3: the size of the ticket. You should know, on average, how many customers you have, how often you serve them, how much they spend. Don’t do any marketing or sales effort without knowing in advance which variable you’re trying to affect. My jaw hit the floor. I’ve got a thousand different buckets of what we’re doing from social media to newsletter campaigns to event marketing to a wrapped FLUIDmobile. I need to slow down and channel my enthusiasm into these different variables. For me, that was the best advice ever.
Kornfeld: There’s a quote on the wall of the HotHouse. It says, “Start before you’re ready.” I think that really embodies the entrepreneurial spirit. I think that a lot of the times, the only thing standing between somebody and creating a multibillion-dollar business is themselves because they think that they can’t. Know what you want to get done, and just start on the process of getting that thing done. Throughout the process, you’ll start to work out the kinks.
Smith: A bit similar to the phrase, “Don’t wait for the light to turn green before you go across town.” If you try to line up all your ducks in a row for it to be all perfect, you never get off the ground and you’ll never get going. All of a sudden, it’s too late. You’ve missed the moment. Now the luck has passed. The contact is no longer there.
Da Silva: I think as an artist, as an architect, as a young woman just trying to figure out where she’s going in life, some of the best advice that I’ve ever gotten is to really know myself in and out. Because knowing myself is what creates my uniqueness and what channels my creativity. I think that it’s not only a matter of knowing that at the onset. It’s also continuously coming back to it throughout your journey as an entrepreneur, and reassessing, “Where am I at? What do I need to do to better myself in order to better the health of my company, my relationships?” That is super-duper important to me, and that’s something that I try to practice every day.
Powering innovation is a fundamental part of a Cal Poly education and an area of focus for the Power of Doing Campaign. To learn more about how you can support entrepreneurship at Cal Poly, visit giving.calpoly.edu.