By Nadira A. Hira
September 17, 2007

The continuation of Friday’s “My life as a first-year… Entrepreneur, Part I”:

Back to launching the business…

Armed with my great idea, I got to work. On the weekends and at night after work, I started to lay the groundwork. I did a lot of research to make sure that the need for this kind of service was there. It is. The entry-level job market is incredibly competitive. Many of the “hot” entry-level employers these days, including major corporations, government agencies, and even non-profits, hire less than 10% of applicants. That means that getting a job at the Department of State or at a major investment bank or consulting firm or at Teach for America is tougher than getting into Harvard or Williams. And liberal arts colleges aren’t doing much to help their graduates prepare for this competitive process: At Ivy League colleges, the average student to career-counselor ratio is over 1,000 to 1, and undergrad career-oriented clubs are rare.

I also worked on my business plan and budget. Since my goal is to grow this into a national company someday, I wanted to make sure that I built a solid strategic foundation. I came up with the name – no easy task — and I developed program materials. I even started marketing a little bit and working with some “pilot” clients to test the program. Pretty quickly, my focus shifted away from my responsibilities at my old job. Somehow the “direct costs task force” that I’d been selected to lead for my former employer didn’t seem as exciting as getting my new business off the ground, so, thanks to my ever-supportive husband, I got the green light to quit my old job and work on my new venture full time. In classic upbeat, entrepreneurial fashion, I remember assuring him that I’d be up and running in no time and easily generating the equivalent of my old paycheck in no more than a few months.

Not surprisingly, things didn’t move quite as quickly as I’d expected. And my costs weren’t quite as low as I’d expected. What I’d learned in Entrepreneurship class in business school is true. Building a business demands real investment of time and money, and getting to profitability takes a while! The first year was a learning experience and, in retrospect, a great opportunity to test the concept and my commitment to building a new company.

What was tough? Sticking with it, most of all. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but about six months in, I went through a real crisis of confidence and started interviewing for a new job. Springboard had hit a trough in demand — my referral networks were still at their earliest stages, I had no name recognition, and I wasn’t investing anything in advertising at that point. On top of everything else, a very early stage offer to acquire Springboard had fizzled. The crazy thing was that as soon as I went in to the interviews I had scheduled and started telling the story about Springboard, I couldn’t remember why I wanted to walk away from it. I ended up pitching my business to the interviewers pretty well but doing a ghastly job of telling them why I wanted to work for their companies. I remember walking back to my (home) office after the last interview completely energized to get back to work and with a renewed sense of confidence in the concept and my ability to get it off the ground.

The home office situation was also tough. West Village apartments are generally small to begin with, but when you move a bunch of office equipment and supplies in and commit to being there all day, claustrophobia sets in pretty quickly. To make matters worse, there was a seemingly endless construction project going on on our block for the full 12 months I worked from the apartment. At one point, they must have been blasting the piping system underground because for several days the whole building would shake every once in a while. Scary. Also, living in your PJs/sweats can sound appealing at first, but I started to feel really disgusting when I didn’t have in-person meetings and an excuse to pull myself together.

Working completely independently wasn’t easy either. I found very quickly that I needed people to brainstorm with and run my ideas past. I owe my husband, my mother, my brother, and my friends a tremendous amount for putting up with my midday “I need your opinion” calls and e-mails.

Strangely enough, dealing with naysayers hasn’t been a problem. As much as I’m convinced by the validity of and need for our services, there are plenty of people who question the concept. I love responding to these people and defending the business. It’s really energizing!

Despite the challenges, the benefits to launching a business have been tremendous. Knowing that we’ve given valuable, actionable advice to our clients and that it’s worked is incredibly satisfying. It’s so energizing to hear from a client that she was better prepared for an interview than she ever was before or that an interviewer told one of our clients that he was “thoroughly impressed.” Recently, a client called me right after an interview and said, “It’s amazing, they asked me every single question we practiced!” Most rewarding, though, is hearing how excited a client is when he lands the position he wants.

We’re on a roll now, and it’s exciting to look at where Springboard is now versus even a year ago, let alone two. Still, that start-up anxiety is always there. It’s probably a good thing, though, since it keeps me working hard!

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