Moving to Munich, Germany.

Before closing down my first startup, I had planned just about every aspect of my life around the company, which meant I was at the mercy of our potential success. Once it became clear that we were winding down Huma, the life I had envisioned for myself in San Francisco vanished, and so I came back to Ireland.

After taking stock and dusting myself off I packed my bags and moved back to Dublin, where I joined ChangeX―an ambitious nonprofit startup―as Head of Product. Over the past six months I’ve worked with a brilliant team here to turn the product around, putting to use everything I learned while building a high tech startup with my co-founder Thomas.

Now I’m making an even bigger move. I’m packing my bags once again and moving to Munich – the capital of Bavaria and the home of Oktoberfest.

Munich, Germany

Opportunities like this are few and far between. As someone who speaks fluent German and was born there, I’ve long wondered what it would be like to move back, so I’m finally going to take the plunge and answer that question.

I’ll be moving out to Munich in April and starting work on some exciting new projects! And who knows, maybe this is where the next startup I work on will be born?

What losing three co-founders taught me about hiring

As a first time entrepreneur, I made plenty of mistakes while building my founding team at Huma. I went through three co-founders in the first year, parted ways with my first key hire and hired for skills we weren’t ready for yet. Each of these events had a significant impact on our strategy and product roadmap, consuming two of our most valuable assets: time and cashflow.

Building a founding team is arguably the most crucial and difficult task every founder must face. Selecting your co-founders, and subsequently your first key hires, is a fine art that takes careful thought and consideration. If you think of each team member as a wooden block in a game of Jenga, then you’ll know it only takes one to go wrong for everything to fall.

CBInsights published a report on the top 20 reasons startups failed, in which they analysed 101 Startup Post-Mortems. The third biggest reason for failure was not having the right team (23% of those analysed), after no market need and running out of cash:

“A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starting a company,” says the report.

Building your founding team is nothing like hiring people in an established company. Over the years, I’ve learned to look out for important traits and characteristics that can make or break your startup. I’ve provided some additional links for further reading below as this is more of an introduction to the topic.

An appetite for risk

My first co-founder was a good friend and former co-worker: an incredibly talented and experienced designer, who brought our brand to life and brought creativity to everything we worked on. Together we had everything we needed to start a company.

Two weeks after quitting my job and leaving behind a six-figure salary, my co-founder and I went to interview a candidate for our first position. After the interview, my co-founder turned to me and told me that after a lot of thought he would not be able to quit his job. He had a family to think of, which meant that the sacrifice and risk were much higher for him.

You need to look at the people for who they are, the lives they’ve lived, the things that are important to them and the experiences that have shaped them.

My failure to assess his appetite for risk left me without a co-founder or the skills to complete our minimum viable product. Because it was no problem for me to risk everything, I never flagged it in my decision process and put all my cards on passion and skill.

It’s easy to mistake appetite for risk with eagerness and passion, but to truly get the answer you need you must play devil’s advocate and consider:

+ The worst scenarios you might be faced with
+ A person’s personal circumstances
+ How those circumstances affect that person if a worst case scenario unfolds: “If we run out of cash tomorrow, how many months are you financially able (and willing) to go without pay for the company?”

Questions like this are painful and uncomfortable. But if you’re looking for the people that will go to hell and back with you to succeed, ask them.

Passion and belief

My second co-founder was another good friend and also one of my roommates. An experienced and pragmatic software engineer with financial and business acumen – another perfect fit, or so I thought.

When he joined I knew he wasn’t passionate about the problem. I naively put this aside because he had the skills we needed to build a business. Four months later he resigned, unable to put up with the chaos and uncertainty of any new startup because his heart wasn’t in it.

Spend time with your candidates talking about when they last stepped out of their comfort zone and listen carefully to their experience.

About 18 months later I hired our first lead software engineer to develop our most complex intellectual property yet; another friend and one of the smartest computer scientists I know today. I was too focused on closing our first big round of funding that I did whatever I could to hire him, ignoring the fact that I had only ever known him to be passionate about one thing: security. My fear came true when we both realised it wasn’t the right fit only six weeks later.

Passion and belief are incredibly hard to find at the beginning, especially for those looking for the right co-founder(s). Again I made this mistake because I was so blinded by my own passion and belief that I didn’t flag this as a major problem. Without a network of potential candidates this becomes incredibly difficult, because finding people who care about the same thing as you, in just as big a way, is hard… very hard.

The ‘no-comfort’ zone

A few years back I wrote about going beyond the edge of your comfort zone. Little did I know that I’d end up living outside of that zone for the entire two years of my startup journey.

A coffee shop could open tomorrow and start generating revenue, while your startup could be in development for months or even years before you open your doors and see a paying customer. This kind of uncertainty forces people out of their comfort zone because each founding member is critical to the potential success of the company. It is imperative that each founding member you hire understands that they are taking on far more than the job they were hired for. The longer they have been in a secure and steady job the more difficult this transition will be.

My second co-founder, who left the company, previously worked as a contractor for large firms with big budgets, long roadmaps and processes for everything they did. In contrast, an early-stage startup is the complete opposite of this – in other words, total chaos. There was no structure and everything was changing all the time. As we approached the end of our runway I realised how uncomfortable this was for him – everything he was used to had been turned upside down.

Before taking the plunge and starting a company I spent several years working with startups. I enjoyed the chaos and learned to live with it, but again I was blinded and failed to consider some important signs. You need a good understanding of someone’s past to see how they will fair outside of their comfort zone. Spend time with your candidates talking about when they last stepped out of their comfort zone and listen carefully to their experience.

The overarching problem for me was that I was blinded by the things that seemed obvious to me, so I didn’t look for them in others. Risk, passion, belief and getting out of my comfort zone were not a problem for me.

It’s important to remember that skills should only be one of the variables in your criteria for building a founding team. You need to look at the people for who they are, the lives they’ve lived, the things that are important to them and the experiences that have shaped them, because when things get tough, and they will, you want to be amongst friends you trust – not people with job titles.

These were expensive mistakes to make and we were lucky to overcome a lot of them. One of the main reasons for this was hiring Thomas Cullen, who joined us few months in as a developer and shortly after took the reigns as co-founder and head of product. Together we spent two years facing every challenge together until the very end. Neither of us ever saw things playing out as they did, but I learned a lot about what makes a great founding team member from our time working together.

Further reading:

  1. Single-founder startups
  2. The founder’s dilemma
  3. Drawing the line between founder and first employee
  4. How do you know you’ve found the right co-founder

Huma is shutting down

I never imagined how difficult it would be to share that Huma (Formerly Shake) is shutting down after two years.

We’re incredibly grateful to the customers who supported us, the thousands of students from around the world who signed up, the investors who believed in us and the advisors who guided us.

Arran McCabe, Thomas Cullen, Dee Murphy and Kevin Holler (Huma Team)

Three weeks ago I was faced with my toughest decision yet as founder and CEO: Put my health at risk and fly back to San Francisco in an attempt to raise additional funding or put my health first and take time off. Two years of blood, sweat and tears hung in the balance and for the first time, I needed to put myself first in the decision process.

“If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

I was staring founder burnout in the eyes as I struggled with depression, anxiety and panic attacks, each exacerbated by mental and physical exhaustion. I no longer recognised myself and it was time to face reality.

An important realisation was that my burnout was a symptom of our failure, and not the cause. We shipped our MVP a year too late, we waited too long to raise funding, we didn’t raise enough when we did, we were clueless about marketing, our go to market strategy wasn’t solid, we rebranded two weeks before official launch, etc…

Rebranding to Huma, April 2016

Mistakes like this create additional work and obstacles for the team, and can easily take your startup off course. As a result we never emerged from the “struggle” during those two years. There is only so long you can operate in survival mode when the responsibility falls on one person, and unfortunately it took its toll on me.

On a sunny afternoon in early May, 2014, I left the office with a freshly sealed envelope—one which contained the company incorporation documents that were about to make my startup journey official, as a first time entrepreneur. I stood in front of the mail box and thought to myself “This is it… there’s no turning back now” before letting the envelope slide away into darkness.

The emotions I experienced in those initial weeks were a cocktail of excitement and fear, and before long they became one. I had just quit an amazing job, leaving behind a six-figure salary and lot of security, all in an attempt to solve a problem I was obsessed with – was I crazy? Sure.

Our apartment “office” — Summer 2014

The vision for Huma was simple. We wanted to help students find jobs they would love, in companies that would love them. To do this we would need to create a two-sided marketplace for students and hiring managers, which would match candidates with jobs in a friendly and personal way – similar to what OkCupid do with dating.

It’s been an incredible journey, one I am only beginning to put into words, but there’s no time to wallow in self pity. Looking back, I had the blind ambition I needed to risk everything knowing the odds were against me — and I’d do it again.

As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.

Despite our shortcomings, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. We built a team of 4, raised over $300,000 from investors in Dublin, Hamburg, Munich, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, brought a product to market, had paying customers, students who were successfully hired, executed a full rebrand, established US and Irish operations, received a lot of great press, designed an incredible looking product, and much more.

More and more people are talking about their personal struggle as entrepreneurs and founders. If you’re going through this or have been through it I’d love to hear from you – hello[at]kevinholler[dot]com or @iamkevinholler on twitter.

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Gaelforce West, in aid of Pieta House

On August 17th, I’ll be waking up at the break of dawn to partake in the largest one day adventure race in Europe, with my good friends, Nick Cunningham and Matt Whitely.

Gaelforce West is probably the toughest challenge I’ve ever taken on, both physically and mentally. We’ll be covering 67km of the most demanding terrain on the west coast of Ireland, on foot, by kayak and by bike.

While completing a challenge like this is personally satisfying, it is far more motivating and invigorating to put a true cause behind it. We’re doing Gaelforce West in aid of Pieta House, the centre for the prevention of self-harm or suicide. Pieta House now has 6 locations in Ireland, with staff of over 80. Last year, over 3,000 people came to Pieta House for help and that number is only growing.

There are many factors that attribute to suicide, and while I cannot speak to them professionally, I can speak to what I’ve experienced and what I see, specifically the pressures and stresses caused by the economic downturn, which have become a heavy weight on a lot of people’s minds, often so heavy that they have no one to turn to. Families who have lost their homes, businesses that have closed and the people who have been made unemployed. Some statistics to put things into perspective,

+ There were 507 suicides registered in 2012.
+ Almost 10 suicides a week
+ Males accounted for 81% of all suicide deaths in 2012.

Suicide is a big problem worldwide. Chances are most people have been affected one way or another by suicide. I have, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

Pieta house relies on charity and fundraising for 90% of their income. Nick and I have set a goal to raise €2,000 to support the time and effort these people give to helping others.

Thank you.

Beyond the edge of your comfort zone

I recall first hearing the term “comfort zone” when I was in school. A term that perfectly described where I felt safe, sheltered from life’s challenges and hidden from all my fears and stress.

Growing up I was quite shy and distant with people. I was born in Germany and moved to Ireland at the age of 4. As I grew up I was left with a vague sense of belonging, unsure of whether or not I was Irish or German; a problem that many cross-cultural children experience. For me, this established the personal boundaries that I now consider to have been my comfort zone.
During my early years at school I was reluctant to take any risks for fear of failure or making a fool of myself, and so I turned down opportunities and missed out.

It was years before I decided to challenge those very boundaries, after it became quite clear that my comfort zone was holding me back from achieving my goals and living my life to it’s full potential. It was time for change.

“A man grows most tired while standing still.” – Old Chinese proverb.

Starting small, I decided to take the next opportunity that presented itself. I was 16 when I had decided I’d never drive a car, for fear of being a terrible driver or even crashing. I knew there was obvious benefits as I lived in a remote area at the time, so going against what I had told myself, I went ahead and did my theory test. It was too late to back out now, so I asked my dad if he would teach me how to drive. He knew how much I’d been avoiding this and was eager to get me out on the road. So he took me out and had me drive to town, go through several roundabouts, overtake a car and every other possible scenario I had ever feared and could possibly encounter as a new driver – all in my first lesson. By the time we got back home I was no longer nervous. I surprised my dad, who claimed I was a natural, but most importantly I surprised myself.

I had willingly overcome a personal fear and won, which inspired an unfamiliar sense of confidence and excitement. Soon after I went on to pass my driving test with only two additional driving lessons. That rare sense of accomplishment I experienced that day generated momentum. Driving now gave me a new level of independence, which in turn continued to help my confidence. Even now I think back to this day and ask myself “what would have happened had I stayed in my comfort zone?”. One answer is that I might still be living a very sheltered life.

Over the past three years I’ve accomplished more than I could have ever imagined. The crucial part in challenging your comfort zone is understanding your personal boundaries and why they exist. The story above is only one example of this, but shows how one small change can lead to so many more.

Start small & know your limits

Starting small is the key to building momentum and confidence in yourself. Think carefully about the next opportunity that presents itself. If you turn it down, nothing will change, but take it and you never know what might happen.

Nerves and anxiety are still natural and shouldn’t be ignored. Overstepping your comfort zone can be dangerous too, so be careful.

Laugh at yourself

Try not to take yourself too seriously. If you can laugh at yourself for failing, you’ll be ready for those who criticise you when you do. It’s better to be criticised for trying than go unnoticed for standing still. It will also help you see the real challenges and the bigger picture.

Turn nerves into excitement

As you become comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone you will start to turn that anxiety into a sense of excitement. The unknown beyond your personal boundaries is an exciting place. Review your success and accomplishments and use this to grow.

Live your Life

Most importantly, live your life. Don’t let your comfort zone hold you back from all the great things you’re capable of doing. Take risks, jump into the unknown and watch your life improve. It’s yours to live… One of my favourite well known quotes is,

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donal Walsch

Oh, and if you asked me today where I’m from, I’d tell you I’m Irish.

Love what you do, not what you earn

When I was 14 I worked part-time at a local pub. It was my first experience earning an hourly wage and it was pretty exciting. On my lunch break I would sit and day dream about all the things I wanted to buy with my hard earned money. The job was mundane and the tasks were repetitive, but I was working for the money and that’s what kept me motivated. I watched the clock carefully made sure I was out of there the minute my shift finished.

A year passed and I came back that summer to work again. I already knew what tasks I had to do and how long it would take to complete each of them. The only real challenge I had was getting there. During my lunch break I’d sit near the bar where I could see everything that went on; watching the barmen work and the droves of customers as they came.

Something caught my attention one day. It was a late Sunday afternoon and the place had mostly emptied so I chatted with the barmen while I finished my lunch. One of them was busy re-organising the bar, while the other did the usual tasks and idled. I asked why he was re-organising the bar and he replied “These drinks are more popular this summer, so I need them up front“. The difference here is that one of the guys liked what he did and wanted to do it better, which also made the bar a place where he enjoyed work. The other barman simply did what he was paid to do and nothing more. He was also working for the money, like me…

The next day I came to work with a different attitude. I was going to be there for another 3 months and wanted to turn a mundane job into a fun one, so I decided to challenge myself. I started to take pride in how I stocked the bar, making sure the bottle labels face out and created a systematic approach that reduced the time it all took. Not long after I started having fun and enjoying what I did, knowing that I gave it my everything. It didn’t take long before I stopped watching the time and instead, learning and improving.

I became a barmen before that summer ended and continued to work there for another six years until my second year in college. By the time I finished I had learned so much more than I ever thought my job there could teach me. Changing my attitude that day was crucial in that it showed me that what I was doing for myself was far greater than what I did for my employer, which made me a happier person and a much better employee.

Soon after I started that part-time job I also began my adventure as a programmer. The lessons I was fortunate to learn at such a young age, set the course for where I am today. I now work at Engine Yard, as an Application Engineer, with some truly amazing people that share this passion and motivation. A team with that kind of drive, attitude and passion makes it possible to do some seriously amazing things.

A quote inspired me to write this post and I feel it sums up my experience perfectly.

If you’re doing it for the money, you’ll always be underpaid – Scott Bell