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These entrepreneurs left big corporations to start their own companies

According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), 57% of Americans see good opportunities for starting a business. This is what distinguishes the United States most when compared to the world's other 26 innovation-driven economies, where, on average, 41 % see entrepreneurial opportunities around them. Yet, way less people actually start their companies. Making that massive leap comes with risks that few are willing to take. I asked entrepreneurs who used to get a stable paycheck at Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder or JP Morgan, about they challenges at the turning point.

Kimberley Ho, from Goldman Sachs to Evereden

I landed a job at Goldman Sachs right after I graduated from Stanford in 2011. After that, I finished an investment banking analyst program and moved to Oaktree Capital, a firm that manages $100 billion assets across different industries. My focus was on consumer investments.

From the vantage point of an investor, I saw a whole range of safety and quality issues behind the scenes in the broader skincare industry— and learned how to solve these problems. Before long, I was determined to find a way to create a new standard for skincare and create better, safer products.That’s when I decided to leave the financial world and start my own company, Evereden.

At the beginning, my cofounder and I bootstrapped the company from our savings, so we didn’t have pressure to scale quickly before our concept was proven. We were very disciplined about how we spent company money — because it was our own money. Soon we had established our brand and raised over $2 million to grow. Our background in the investment industry helped.

This transition from corporate life to the startup world was a huge change for me. I went from a comfortable salary in finance to not making any money. I am still the lowest paid employee in my company, because I every dollar not spent on me is a dollar I can spend on hiring rockstar talent, product development, and improving the brand.

The main advantage of founding a startup is the freedom in managing your own time and your own goals. In big corporations, managers and bosses set goals for you.
In the early stages of launching a business, you have to decide who you are and what your company’s goals and priorities will be. There is a sea of opportunity and endless choices. Your goal as a CEO is to narrow down your doors. It’s the complete opposite of a corporate environment.

Another advantage is how you can really build things in your company. I take an enormous amount of pride in what we’ve built together as an ambitious and close-knit team.  There is a unique camaraderie that exists in a close-knit startup that is harder to find in much larger organizations, at times. For example, tonight, we are all cooking together as a team at my home. This never would have happened in my previous workplaces.

Lastly, I like that entrepreneurship pushes you to your limits. Every day, you’ve got to think through ten thousand different problems — and that’s on top of fundraising, product development, hiring, strategy and innumerable other issues. This would be unimaginable in a big corporation, but our startup has under 20 people total.

Of course, you have to sacrifice something for that freedom. In the past, I could take a vacation any time I wanted. Now I feel guilty about vacations even though I know that I should take time off sometimes. But in the end, what’s most important is that I really enjoy what we do.

Anton Kravchenko, from JP Morgan to Xena Exchange

I used to work for large financial corporations — JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, VTB in Russia. I started in Moscow, and afterwards worked in derivatives and structured products in JP Morgan in London. In the mid-aughts, international banks paid so much money, investment banking was the most lucrative industry.

The profits of investment banks have been decreasing tremendously from 2011 until today though, at least in Europe and Russia. Golden age in investment banking was before 2008, everyone had big margins and employees were paid huge bonuses. At some point, however, it stopped being so cool for students to work at an investment bank when the world switched to startups. Ivy League students who tended to go to the banks now go to tech companies such as Google or Facebook. After five years in Google and with good MBA, a person will be able to set up his/her own company, raise money, and try to grow it.

Tasks, at least from the derivatives and structuring perspective, became less complex. The fastest growing department in the banks today is compliance and it’s often easier for most of them to restrict complex deals rather than sort them out and create a detailed guidance for business to execute this complex deal. So business is always “battling” for the deals, while if the path for correct execution exists anyway, the compliance department should be the one to find it and propose to business. This organizational problem negatively affects business in banks now, because at some point business become unwilling to “battle” and stop evaluating complex deals, focusing on more standard deals with lower margins but where clear roadmap from compliance already exists.

There is also a lot of politics in the banks, as if there is a pie and everyone wants to get a piece. Unfortunately, sometimes politics is more beneficial than growing a business. Some people take advantage of it to get a higher position. Entrepreneurship is totally different. It’s all about how to create a pie rather than how to share it.

Of course, it’s hard to leave a corporation — you find yourself in at least two years of uncertainty. Your brain also needs to rewire into “Entrepreneur” role. Richard Branson’s book “Losing My Virginity” has a perfect name for this transformation. But after that, you start looking at everything from a different perspective. Instability is the main concern when you start doing business. On the other hand, if the business fails you will find some banking position anyway and you will be much stronger in management and business.

At some point I decided to give a try to my own business. Carlos Castaneda quoted that “a path is only a path, does this path has a heart?” In 2016 I was a Director at VTB Bank and I understood that I’m professional enough to try to get the ball rolling, my heart was looking forward to that. I went to FinTech 2017 conference in Silicon Valley, US and found out that many crypto exchanges generated significant revenue while none of them were good from trading perspective (their servers were in the slow “clouds” instead of the fast tier 4 datacenters, they had no derivatives, no standard trading features, that traders are used to). So I spent several years to build a proper cryptocurrency exchange with new derivatives and asset classes — this is part of my path, and I can now say definitely that this part has a heart.

Lisa Barnett, from Estee Lauder to Little Spoon

In 2013, I worked at the Boston Consulting Group, and that led me to Estee Lauder Companies. I joined them right when direct-to-consumer was becoming a thing.

There were real communities around those new companies like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker, and traditional brands like Estee Lauder were looking at their business models. We saw a shift in consumer behavior that went from shopping in department stores to shopping directly. Having a direct interaction and relationship with a brand was something new to traditional companies. At Estee Lauder Companies, I was there to understand high growth channels like direct-to-consumer and help figure out what DTC means in the context of ELC’s 30-something brands.

It was there that I first exposed to the role that direct-to-consumer trend could play in building a brand. In categories like beauty, wellness, nutrition, an inherent emotion is attached to a product. It’s as much (or more)  about the emotional purchase than the functional benefit.

That led me to getting into the venture capital world. During my time at Maveron Capital, Dorm Room Fund, and Sherpa Foundry, I was investing and working with many e-commerce brands across consumer sectors.While I was at Sherpa Foundry, I started noticing a macro trend — our generation, millennials, is now  becoming parents in critical mass: in 2018, 65% of new parents were of the millennial generation. We have seen billion-dollar companies emerge because of the generation, who is demanding higher quality, more transparent and reasonably priced solutions. Now that this generation is becoming parents, they are demanding the same things for their children, but those services and products don’t exist.

That was a big impetus for me to dig into the parenting space and nutrition. I noticed how many stages of keeping a child healthy have glaring gaps. The industry hasn’t changed in a hundred years, literally.

In terms of taking this jump, I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. My father has always been running a small business. Watching him hustle and create value through the company, was something that I saw to be very rewarding. I also saw how difficult it was, and it gave me the right expectations. I think it’s not worth working on unless you’re having fun and feel like you’re making a difference.

My co-founders came from wildly different backgrounds, which made my transition less scary. In the first year of Little Spoon, we delivered over a million meals. We were just a team of five, four of us being cofounders. We covered a lot of the basics, because we had such a wide range of experiences.

I always tell my friends who wants to start a company to jump as soon as they can. It only gets harder as you get older. Starting a company is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but as you get more accustomed to a lifestyle, salary and security, you have more inertia to stay where you are.

When you transition to a startup, you’re in a world of ambiguity. You don’t know what each day is going to bring. You also don’t know if it’s all going to come fall you down one day, or roll up the next day . You need to get comfortable with making the decisions even in very ambiguous and  uncomfortable circumstances. That’s not something that you do (as often) in a corporate environment where is just a lot more security.

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