- Sonali Quantius
5 lessons that I have learned since leaving my corporate job to start a company
Image by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
It has been two years since I left my corporate career for the uncertainty of startup life. Although a pandemic and unemployment have been difficult to bear along the way, I have also experienced immense personal growth, self-awareness, and expansion of my personal network. I thought I’d share a few things that I learned during the past two years — they might help you gain some clarity in your journey.
1. No One Owes You Anything
When I left my corporate job as a director in a large company, I carried the baggage of my position and my title and the leverage that comes along with it. It is painful to admit it now, but I felt that people should pay attention to me because I used to be a big deal in my past life — or so I thought. I was hiding behind a false sense of importance, a feeling that creeps in unexpectedly and eventually becomes a part of your personality. The truth is that when you strip away education, title, and position, there is only you. And the only thing that matters is the value you bring to the world, that‘s all. I didn’t ‘deserve’ success, funding, or respect because I belonged to a certain demographic. The moment I realized that no one owes me anything, I stopped expecting anything from anyone. I stopped blaming them. I shed my past beliefs, my ‘heaviness of being’, and created with a beginner mindset, and that is when the real magic started.
2. You Can Do ‘Startup’ or You Can Do Work
It took me a while to realize that the startup world is in a universe of its own. Things are done a certain way, most of which is borrowed from Silicon Valley, which then gets regurgitated in different parts of the world as a proven model of success. Being a complete outsider, I attended some of the startup ‘training’ programs in the first year which promised to turn anyone into a successful entrepreneur. I was in awe of the speakers (usually successful founders) and would diligently note down everything they shared and followed their advice to the ‘T’. But soon I noticed that everyone started looking alike and talking the same way — I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had left the corporate cult to join the startup cult! I kept thinking to myself, “This is not freedom, there doesn’t seem to be any independent thinking here,” and kept on questioning this conventional wisdom but couldn’t find answers anywhere.
The turning point came when I started trusting myself more. I decided to listen to my own instincts and do what felt right for me and the kind of company that I was building. Since then, I have had the courage to go in a completely different direction than where the startup world wants me to go, and I am completely fine with that.
3. All Roads Lead to Rome
The specific path you take doesn’t matter as long as you are true to yourself and your vision. Conventional startup wisdom says:
Get a co-founder → Get funding → Create a product → Market it to potential customers.
I did the opposite:
Market the idea to potential customers → Create a product -> Look for funding when I need to scale → Look for a co-founder only when I know that there is a product-market fit and I need someone who has complementary skills who can take the company 10x forward.
The conventional path is not necessarily wrong–but my path might not be wrong either. There is not a single road to Rome–choose your own way depending on what makes sense to you. Define your idea of what success looks like, and then do what you need to do to achieve it. I might fail, but hey, I did it my way (to quote someone else).
4. There Is No Substitute for Hard Work
It’s a clichè, I know. But I never truly realized its significance until I applied it to Haplomind. I have worked hard before — earning my PhD., establishing my career, raising my family — but creating a product from scratch that someone will value enough to buy? That task has tested me in ways that I never thought possible. Luck is a huge component, of course — being at the right place at the right time makes a huge difference in whether or not your startup takes off. But what remains constant is challenging, demanding, and sometimes excruciating work — you just can’t escape it. Scratch the surface of any successful company and you will be staggered by the amount of hard work behind it. I have realized that the only way to move forward is to have an obsessive bias towards action — to work when no one wants to, to go that extra mile when someone else cant or won’t. It is the only way to create something worthwhile.
5. Always Operate from First Principles
Decades of conformism, social conditioning, and classroom learning had made me into a highly unoriginal, me-too person — I understood that once I started Haplomind. The first vision of Haplomind was so unoriginal and unambitious that it still makes me cringe. Even now, I struggle to keep my mind from slipping into a comfortable space in which I only envision incremental changes to today’s mental health arena. I continuously reject advice that says I have to build Haplomind in a certain way — from product features, to distribution strategy, to go-to-market strategy, to the market I am serving.
I strive to operate from first principles — to perceive the truth because it is the truth and not because someone says it is the truth. It is difficult, but it is the only way to change the status quo for perinatal depression. Otherwise, we might address a certain aspect of the problem, but we will never eliminate the problem as a whole. I am habituating myself to be comfortable with failure, and that’s where my training as a scientist has been invaluable. I’m getting comfortable with looking at my startup experience as a series of experiments and hypotheses that I will learn from until I hit the “ground truth”. I am learning to be OK with failure, ridicule, and to be unconcerned about anything except finding out what works. Here is a fantastic article by Tim Urban that explains how Elon Musk operates from first principles, how he is like the trailblazing chef — the kind of chef who invents recipes. Everyone else who enters a kitchen — all those who follow recipes — is a cook— and once you understand the difference, you want to be a chef for life (and not remain a cook).
I’ve learned many lessons along the way during the past two years, but these five have changed me as a person and a professional. Haplomind will be a better company because of it.
And if you are a founder reading this: I know you’re on a hard journey, and I wish you all the very best of luck and success.