In the summer of 2015, my business folded. That May, I should have graduated with my MBA. Instead, I sat out of my final year graduation activities and could not afford to go on the usual post-graduation travels with my classmates, choosing instead to sweat away in a warehouse in East LA, trying to change the world with a start-up I’d founded the year before with my high school research mentor.
Our company was called Wakunga Technologies. The specific technology my co-founder developed was a modern version of absorption refrigeration. The tl;dr to what this tech does: it moves heat without electricity or fossil fuels. It’s based on some pretty old technologies: absorption refrigeration and solar chimneys (Google it). We had patents and a proof-of-concept demo. I had always been a proponent of combating climate change, so it seemed like a great opportunity to try and change the world in a positive way.
Over the next year, I went through all the usual travails and challenges of starting a new venture. However, unlike what you’d see on Silicon Valley or hear about on TechCrunch, our struggles were compounded by the fact that we were pitching hardware, not software. We tried pitching to a number of VCs a number of business models – licensing the tech, building our own refrigerator, or selling a chain of units as a sort of heat battery. This last idea brought the most traction, and a potential customer – an engineering firm that produced green technology heaters and coolers – came to our lab to see the demo and whiteboard ideas for how the tech could fit into their product line. A group of their engineers and my co-founder calculated a potential 4x increase in energy storage capacity, compared with current solutions. It wasn’t exactly the vaunted 10x improvement most start-ups tried to hit, but hell – it was something.
This moment turned out to be the high water mark for our company. In fact, that day ran the gamut of emotions for me, and is probably the most representative of my time as a start-up founder. After the client’s team left, my cofounder rushed down to talk to his wife about everything. I stood there in the hallway, the evening’s darkness creeping into the spaces left by the setting sun, suddenly realizing I had no one I could talk to about it all. My parents had never approved of this leap of faith, my classmates were all busy partying it up in their last year of school, and I knew no other friends who had tried to start a company like this. So I retreated to my office and shuffled poker chips, as I’d gotten into cards and other games at the time as a means of decompressing.
As with most potential deals, this one didn’t go anywhere. There was also a growing rift between me and my partner. I was running out of money, and soon I couldn’t make rent anymore. Finally, my partner and I had an emotional conversation, ending with a mutual agreement to shutter the business. We both realized that money comes and goes, but the people you share the fleeting time you have on Earth with is what really matters.
Of course, it was humiliating to admit that I’d failed. It wasn’t fun having to ask my grandma if I could crash on her couch for a while. I also went back to school, having to explain to all the underclassmen why I was still on campus taking classes with them. And finding a job was hard.
A recruiter even told me: “Albert, I think you’re a very smart guy, but I can’t get you a job. Nobody will touch your resume.” Warehouse worker, high school counselor, punk musician, failed startup founder. Dang. She was right. My resume sucked.
That Christmas, I holed up and binged Breaking Bad, stewing darkly on my life and its direction. I started programming again; it had been my undergrad major for a reason, after all. Then, I entered and won a Google competition, which landed me an interview. In two weeks, I had an offer. I had been, coincidentally, coming from another job interview, and pulled over to talk to the Google recruiter. After we hung up, I cried.
That time in my life was tough, and I failed in my goal as a startup founder However, I’d still go back and endure the pain all over again. There’s a price to chasing your dreams, but it’s worth paying. Always bet on yourself. Because if you don’t – then who will?
“What is to give light must endure burning” -Viktor Frankl