Cortney Harding of Friends With Holograms: “Being a founder is hard and often sucks!”

Being a founder is hard and often sucks! The buck stops with you and you get paid last. All the social media founder porn is either super skewed or just made up, or someone burning through a trust fund and cosplaying a founder because it’s “cool.” But the upsides are great. You don’t have to […]

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Being a founder is hard and often sucks! The buck stops with you and you get paid last. All the social media founder porn is either super skewed or just made up, or someone burning through a trust fund and cosplaying a founder because it’s “cool.” But the upsides are great. You don’t have to deal with insane levels of bureaucracy and you can focus on building great things.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cortney Harding, founder and CEO of Friends With Holograms, a transformational VR/AR agency focused on creating innovative, powerful, and effective experiences for training. Clients include Walmart, Verizon, Accenture, PWC, Coca-Cola, and Eunoe Health. Cortney is also the winner of multiple awards, including “Best VR/AR” at Mobile World Congress, SXSW Innovation Award Finalist, and Top HR product by HR Executive.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

It’s a long and winding road! I started my career working in non-profits but had always written about music on the side. When I got the opportunity to write about music for an alternative weekly in Portland, OR, I jumped at the chance. I worked my way up in that industry and eventually became the music editor at Billboard magazine. From there I pivoted to working with music tech startups, helping international companies launch in the U.S. I saw VR at a gallery event in 2015 and it changed my life. In 2016, I started working at a small VR production company, and then in 2018 started Friends With Holograms.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I almost gave up very early on. I had originally founded the company with a good friend and former colleague, and we were just getting off the ground when he pulled a 180 and quit out of the blue. I was really hurt and shocked and honestly wanted to throw in the towel. Right as I was about to leave VR I landed our first big job, and that was the start of it all.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I agreed to our first project with no team in place, and I just pulled together some great people and made it happen. It was a rollercoaster ride. And I don’t know if it was a mistake per se, but right after we signed the deal I flew to Japan on a long-planned vacation and got up at 3:00 am Tokyo time every day to do calls with the U.S. Later in the trip I got sick and had to go to a Japanese emergency room, where I navigated everything with Google Translate and wound up fainting. A few hours after that ordeal, I was back in my hotel room on calls. You do what you have to do and when I saw all of the amazing things that came from that project, it was worth it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My colleague Pamela Jaber is the real MVP of everything. She jumped in at the very beginning and has been instrumental in the success of the company. She’s a great balance for me and has tons of technical knowledge and works really hard. Honestly, my entire team is incredible and I’m so lucky to work with them.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Where to begin? Women’s ambition is frowned on from an early age — we are taught to be quiet and stay in the background. I read a one-line obituary for a woman who passed from Covid recently, and her line was “she never called attention to herself,” which is…horrifying. That’s not a good thing! Women are also socialized to take on much more of the emotional labor of relationships and child care, and that is a huge distraction from building something. Not to mention, women have less access to generational wealth, which is a massive driver of a lot of start-up success. There’s plenty of support out there for young men in hoodies from the VC community but women and BIPOC founders have a hard time just getting their foot in the door.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

The onus isn’t on individuals, but there are a lot of systemic norms that need to be broken down. Women need to be praised for their ambition from day one. We need to stop work-shaming women and normalize all different types of life paths. Women need more access to capital from different sources and they need access to the same types of networks that men have had for years. Basically eradicating the boys club. You know, easy stuff!

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Being a founder is hard and often sucks! The buck stops with you and you get paid last. All the social media founder porn is either super skewed or just made up, or someone burning through a trust fund and cosplaying a founder because it’s “cool.” But the upsides are great. You don’t have to deal with insane levels of bureaucracy and you can focus on building great things.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

The myth of the self-made entrepreneur is so toxic. I am only able to build this because I am married to someone with a steady paycheck who can help me out during the lean times. Most founders I know have some sort of family wealth or scored some sort of windfall.

Being a founder doesn’t necessarily mean “freedom” as you’re pretty tied to your work. I had much more freedom when I worked inside organizations with paid vacation and other team members who could take over when I traveled.

But the upsides are great, honestly. I feel so much pride in all the work my team has done and no one can take that away from us. I’m not just a cog in the machine, I am the machine.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

There’s nothing wrong with a regular job and a lot of people who would be amazing founders simply lack the capital and connections to do so. For the most part, there are two camps of entrepreneurs; those that are able to secure significant funding/support from family and those that work and scrape to save every penny to fulfill their dream. Whichever camp you come from, if you want to take your business off the ground and to the next level — you’re going to have to work hard.

You have to be willing to work hard and be dedicated, but by the same token, you need the space to do that. Caring for elderly parents? Could be a major hurdle that makes the case to hit the pause button. Have health issues that require expensive insurance? Hurdle. Economic precarity, or dependents? Hurdle. All of these hurdles will make it pretty difficult to get a business going and sustainable — but remember, it’s not impossible.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Choose your team carefully. I should have vetted my first co-founder more thoroughly to make sure he wouldn’t leave me in the lurch, and if things had broken a different way I wouldn’t be talking to you today. When you are first starting, every hire is incredibly important and the wrong hire can really set you back. Make sure everyone on your early team is as bought in as you are.

Be prepared for things to take much longer than you think they will. If you’re an average middle-class person, and not someone with a magic money fountain, make sure you have enough cash stashed away to cover your expenses, should things not spin up as quickly. Have freelance work in your back pocket if you can, or a side gig to have something coming in. Everything takes a lot longer than you think it will.

Watch out for scammers. Conferences should pay you to speak, not vice versa, and those companies that promise you “access” to big companies for an upfront fee are basically just ripping you off. Hiring a PR firm can be a great move but pay-to-play journalism is deeply unethical, and won’t get you anywhere.

Cosplaying a founder is not the same thing as being a founder. Yeah, Clubhouse is fun — but is doing twelve rooms a day actually driving sales or signups or whatever your success metrics are? There are millions of founder networking groups and summits and dinners and while it can be really helpful to chat with like-minded people, spend too much time on those and you’ll have networked your way to nowhere.

The lows will be low, but the highs will be worth it. The first project we did was crazy. Aside from the adventure in Japan, there was a day toward the end of the project when I got home from yoga at 8:30 pm and then spent the next 13 hours glued to my computer, with breaks to let my dog out and eat peanut butter out of a jar so I didn’t faint. The friend staying with me at the time finally came home at 10:00 pm and forced me to take a bath while she cooked me dinner and poured me wine, as I was vibrating from stress. But you know what? It was all worth it. People loved that piece. They cried when they saw it. It won awards and changed lives.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I am so proud of the work we do that change lives every day. The piece we built for child welfare workers led to a 31% decrease in caseworker turnover in one state that used it for training — that means better outcomes for families who are really struggling. We built a piece on workplace inclusion that one man called “not a conversation, but an emotional experience” and led to him making a number of significant changes in his workplace. We build pieces around mental health and racial bias, and we are revolutionizing the way people train.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Taking employee training seriously. We’ve all sat through lame videos or been in awkward sessions, or had another employee show us the ropes without really conveying what we need to know. Good training is a worker’s rights issue, and using virtual reality to train people means they have better outcomes. It is a net benefit for everyone.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

If your powers extend to raising people who have left us, I’d love to eat with Anthony Bourdain and/or Jonathan Gold — two brilliant and deeply ethical writers and food critics. If we are talking about those still on this plane of existence, I look to true iconoclasts like Patti Smith or Rick Owens and Michelle Lamy, who have really just built their own lanes.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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