Kehlan interviews the former CEO of online recruiter Huma, Kevin Holler, who recently announced its closure. He talks about anxiety, the constant search for funding, and how it all took its toll.
How did Huma begin?
Originally, the idea came from when I was in my final year in college and just about to graduate.
I had become pretty frustrated about how difficult it was to find out what companies were out there for people looking to break into different industries.
So the idea behind Huma, which started out firstly as being Shake, was to help students find jobs that they would love in companies that would love them.
Effectively, what we needed to do was create a two-sided marketplace to connect and match those people with jobs.
What did you see the future of this being?
I saw it as a step in the direction of where recruitment was going.
For the last decade and more all the focus had been on the employer and you meeting the criteria for their company.
What’s happening now is that it’s changing towards a candidate-driven market where the person looking for the job has more selection and more opportunities.
The power has shifted to the prospective employee and what direction they want to go.
The bigger vision for us was, not just creating a marketplace for jobs, but being able to help millions of students around the world.
I’m sure you know people, as well as I do, who took their first job out of college and two years later are unhappy and disappointed with where they are.
You spent your last amount of capital on incorporating in the US. Was that a big risk?
It was part of the risk at the time, but it was also kind of crazy because we had just run out of money.
I ended up having to sell my car and put the rest of the cash from that into the company. I moved out of my apartment in Dublin and basically ended up living out of a suitcase for a year.
It’s much more difficult than people might think, going out and raising venture capital in Silicon Valley from an Irish perspective.
There is a huge amount of groundwork that has to be done in building a network of people.
You need to be there a while in order to afford the time to people and really make sure that you get to know people who you can connect with or are investors themselves.
So I lived without a salary for many months and managed to get a couch with some friends I had met out there for a while.
You managed to raise investment, but were warning signs already appearing?
At the time when we raised the money, we had already seen our own progress. People were getting hired through the platform and companies were engaging with it.
We were seeing the early signs that this had real potential.
What we were also seeing was that the market was getting more competitive.
We had competitors in the US and other parts of Europe and they were already backed by millions of dollars of funding.
We were a small Irish start-up trying to wriggle our way into the US market as fast as we could so we could compete.
We used our money to put more experience into the team and develop the knowledge base within the company.
It helped us launch the product, which we did earlier this year.
When did the cracks begin to emerge, there seemed to be a huge amount of mental pressure?
It was probably last year. The first year in I had noticed that it was beginning to have an impact.
I had no home, I was living out of a suitcase, I had no car and at one point ended up going back to live with my mother. All of those things just trash your confidence.
You are literally there with nothing in hand except your passion for solving the problem. I tell this to founders all the time.
If you 110% care and have a belief about solving the problem, then that will be your only shining light when everything goes dark.
That is the way I saw it, so I was still okay at the time. I kept telling myself that I could deal with the stress so long as it meant getting to the next level. A year later and that stress hadn’t really subsided.
We had raised around $300,000 and that was still nothing compared to the $7m that one of our competitors had raised.
So we constantly had to push and push and push in order to get ourselves to raising a substantial seed round of $1-$2m.
There is a certain time you can do that. Every founder goes through a stage of sheer hardship where you’ll do anything and everything, hit rock bottom and then work your way up to the top.
For me, the realisation came when I was coming back from San Fransisco on a flight.
It was going to be September before we could raise a bigger round again and it would be January 2017 before we got that.
Then maybe I might be able to pay myself a liveable salary.
That was hard because as a CEO of a start-up you always put yourself last, but at some point, it has to come down to what you’re getting out of it.
Did you sacrifice too much or is that just the way it has to be for a start-up?
I think there are lessons there, of course.
I could have done things differently in raising money much sooner in the process.
There is a certain level of sacrifice that goes into it, but there needs to be a good reason behind it.
For me, putting my health at risk was just not an option. No company is worth being burned out for.
For me what has changed is whether or not I would put myself through that again.
For everything I got told about running a start-up, I could never have imagined how stressful it would be and how much it takes from you.
I think what happened was that I also stopped drinking my own kool-aid for a while. I began to think more critically about the business. As a start-up, you say to yourself that you get through anything no matter what, but then I took my own health into perspective and asked if that was really true.
We also had more frank and honest conversation within the company. Conversations we probably should have been having a year ago.
At this stage my co-founder had run out of energy too and it was beginning to take its toll.
We knew within the company that we were going to need a huge amount of energy to go and take a run at the kind of funding that we needed.
We also knew what impact that would have on us.
In the end, the decision came about from the team as well, we talked about it amongst us all.
They were very supportive of us and knew that we had to put our health first in all of this. If we didn’t, something was going to break.
So you’ve been closed a month, have seen an improvement in yourself?
In the space of a month I feel totally different, much better.
A lot of the problems I talked about have subsided and in fact, the time has given me a better perspective that I made the right decision.
At the worst of it, I was getting panic attacks. I’ve had the time to get back running and to eat properly as well. So I do feel much better.
I’ve also had a few job offers that I am thinking about. However, it’ll be while before I make any decisions on those.
I would say that if you look at what happened to us, there are more teams in the start-up community who need to have the same frank conversations that we did.
There is a point where you need to ask about where the company is going and the reality of where you’ve come from.
I think in Ireland and in Dublin, there are a lot more honest conversations that need to start happening.
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