Till Death Do Us Part: Knowing when to walk away!

November marks a significant month in my life. That month, 8 years ago, two life-altering events took place. My first child, a beautiful baby girl was born on 11/11/11, and I launched a software company a week later. Who knew that two events of this magnitude would converge at the same time? I was told, “you’re brave for launching at the same time as the birth of your first child.” 

The company I incorporated at the time was called FreAgents. At the time marketplaces were all the rage. You had ultra successes such as Uber. Match.com and EHarmony were growing like wildfire. Let’s not forget about Airbnb. You couldn’t help but get excited to think you could launch something with a twist but a similar business model. And launch I did! That moment feels like such a long time ago. I’ve had a year to playback the highs and the lows, a year to mourn what was both my greatest failure and accomplishment. I’m already living a new chapter in the story of my life. The new chapter wouldn’t be possible without the years I, along with Raj (our CTO/Co-Founder), put into what is now called Sagents, but I’ve leaped into this new chapter, fully.

Side note: Two events, same time period, processed differently. It’s been 8 years. When I think about my daughter, I asked myself, “how has time gone by so quickly?” On the other hand, when I think about the company, I tend to say, “It has been a long 8 years”. It’s amazing how the mind processes specific occurrences.

Let’s rewind…

Mark Cuban once said every successful entrepreneur lies to themselves. And lie I did. It’s the way we exist. It’s in our DNA. When things seem bleak, you have to get up every morning and convince yourself that today is the day. He goes on to say:

“Behind the lie are the ‘wantrepreneurs,’” Cuban said in his speech. “The people who talk about doing it, but don’t take that step. And then you lie to yourself a little bit and you say, ‘I can do this.’ You’re scared s—less, but you know you can do this. You take one small step.”

With nothing but hope and the full support of my wife, I began to identify local resources that could help me refine the idea, develop a go-to-market plan, and pitch to local investors. As fate would have it, my city had just launched the Nashville Entrepreneur Center (EC)!

A couple of weeks before Christmas of 2011, I walked through the doors of the EC. The first person I encountered was a young man named Clay. After a 10-15 minute conversation, Clay introduced me to the Founding CEO. After a brief conversation, he asked me to come back and pitch my concept. I left that day with an exuberant feeling and ready to tackle the world. Michael has the unique ability to make everyone feel that way. I returned, pitched, and learned fairly quickly that I was not ready. The major takeaways were: 

  1. I need to better define the problem and size of the market
  2. I need to identify a technical Co-Founder 

Instead of turning me way in the wilderness to tackle these issues alone, Micheal assigned me a couple of advisors who would guide me through the process.

Off and running…

Fast forward four months later, Raj and I met the criteria to be accepted into the EC’s accelerator. The next three months were a blur. It was a rinse and repeat of pitch and refine. An exhausting time period, but one full of insights I would have never garnered elsewhere. By the time we finished the accelerator, we had pivoted from the supplier diversity marketplace to a data management, enrichment, and reporting platform with a three-year contract from a Fortune 100 corporation. 

What excitement! Here we are, a two-man team with a new product, full rebranding into Sagents, and a major contract. Up until this point we had not raised a single investor dollar. It wasn’t because we hadn’t tried, we just couldn’t find any takers! Oh well.

Side note: 1. Our advisory board did invest a total of $43,000. 2. Investment dollars to often are seen by startup founders as a litmus test for success or failure. Does it aide in growth and help you remain competitive, YES. However, I’ve seen many startups forget that those dollars in the bank are not from revenue-generating activities. Too often we celebrate the raise at the expense of revenue.  

The next 24 to 36 months were a joy ride. We landed several new contracts and tripled the size of the team. With such momentum in a short timeframe, it’s only a matter of time before we land a seed round, right? I wish I could confirm it. It didn’t happen for us. 

Guess what, we kept pushing forward. As a friend (Aniyia Williams) of mine once said, “Tech has this ability to make people feel like they can change the world”. And that is what I was out to do. On a shoestring budget, I can say we accomplished something that has eluded others. 

What we accomplished may not seem like much to others, but to us, we slayed many dragons in the face of adversity. We built an awesome team that built a kickass platform, was recognized by USA Today as one of seven tech companies led my minority co-founders, partnered with multiple Fortune 500 firms, and helped develop and lead a local conference focused on minorities in tech. Just to name a few successes. I’m so proud of what we did together.

Soooo, what the hell happened? 

“Know when you’re lying to yourself and when you’re telling the truth.” Mark Cuban

Have you ever been in a spot where you tell yourself that it’s time to cut your losses and move on? But just when you utter those words or begin to move in that direction, something new happens and you convince yourself that it’s going to succeed after all. 

For Sagents, there was no one single event. It was more like small incisions in one tire at a time. The air would seep out slowly, then an opportunity would appear to reinflate them. Events such as unexpected connections to sales opportunities that quickly materialized into fresh revenue. Opportunities such as being selected into a highly coveted tech program for emerging startups. Or participation in a non-traditional accelerator that paired you with investors that you ordinarily wouldn’t meet. Instances such as these can provide a breath of fresh air and at the same a false reality

Deep down, I knew it was time to move on, but my ego and fear of failure wouldn’t let me accept the TRUTH. There are two things I now tell today’s young entrepreneurs: 

  1. Don’t let your ego create a reality that doesn’t exist.
  2. Beware of optical illusions. 

Being accepted into a distinguished tech accelerator is exhilarating and a confidence boost. As a business owner, I believe there is a thin line between not giving up and letting one’s ego get in the way. You’re losing air, and boom, you get recognition, visibility, and support as a Code2040 and Google for Entrepreneurs EIR. That’s a HUGE honor. Especially when you are one of only seven companies accepted into the program. 

Yes, we had a nice book of business that covered all expenses, but deep down I knew we were not able to compete. I watched as our competitors raised millions of dollars, launched new products, and developed global partnerships. All of the signals needed to make a decision were there, but my ego wouldn’t allow me to see through the ILLUSION and accept TRUE REALITY

Yep, another damn quote from Mark, “You have to look at your own company and be brutally honest with yourself and say, ‘What do we do well?’ That’s great. But also be honest and say, ‘What do we not do well? Where are our challenges? And then how can we improve them?”

Lie, yet be honest…

Although the journey has come to an end, I know that there’s still value in what we built. I will remain an advocate for transparency in supplier diversity and economic equality/empowerment. 

As my close friend, Aniyia also said  “I’ve experienced enough now to know that failure is ALWAYS an option, though it’s obviously not the goal. Failure isn’t a bad thing. We must admit failure to enable success.” 

I wholeheartedly agree and I’m ready for the new journey! I don’t know what it will look like, but as I refocus my energy, I’m confident the stars will align!

One final Sagents sign-off!

With Love!

LeShane C. Greenhill