Five Learnings from Five Years as a First-Time Founder

I've been building GiveCard for 5 years now as a first-time founder, and I thought I'd share 5 of the biggest lessons.

Today marks my fifth year of running GiveCard, which for all intents and purposes is my first real startup (millions raised, many full time employees, a live product thousands of people use).

I’m now 24 years old, GiveCard has been the dominant part of over 20% of my life so far, and I’ve learned a few rules I thought I’d share here - for anyone early in this same journey or considering it.

1) Things default to finality, don’t let them

GiveCard should have ended 2 or 3 times by now, not for anything dramatic or controversial, but just because longevity isn’t natural for startups. GiveCard probably should’ve ended when we were graduating college, we’d just issued a few cards for the first time but had no money to keep working on this after graduation. Diksha (my cofounder) and I agreed to just try it for a year after we graduated, though we didn’t have any serious conviction or momentum to justify it. It was just a “I think we should keep trying” decision, and ultimately probably the most important one we ever made. If you’re building a company, there will be some points where it’ll feel natural to let that journey end - if you feel as though there could even remotely be more to the plot, don’t let it end. Last year we had a similar moment, where visa complications meant that I wouldn’t be able to work on GiveCard full-time without having to leave the country permanently - perhaps a story for another day but the motto was to just keep my head down and figure it out; after a few of the hardest months of my life I was awarded a special visa category.

Diksha and I deciding to keep GiveCard going after graduation - apparently I couldn't spell 'just' for the life of me. The 'other start-up' I'm talking about is Cantina, a collaborative browser we use internally at GiveCard. (if you ask politely I'll share the .dmg file)

2)  Don’t take this route if you want to make a lot of money anytime soon.

Earlier this week I met up with someone that was about to leave their job in big tech to try found a startup, and they were excited for the “financial freedom” a startup would give them. I laughed a bit too much. The least money I’ve ever had, including when I was a student working for minimum wage, is right now. I’m fully ok with that because I didn’t start GiveCard for a big payday (it started as a nonprofit), but even I’ve been surprised how lean you have to be to give your company the best shot at success. I take a $40k/year salary (as does my cofounder Diksha), a far cry from the salaries big tech affords you, and living in New York City obliterates that for me. Of course GiveCard has plenty of money at hand and we could pay ourselves much more (and we do for our employees), but as founders, every dollar spent on ourselves is a dollar that can’t be used for growth, hiring, culture, infrastructure or customer success. I have 3 other close founder friends, all well funded by VCs and based in NYC, with nearly identical salaries. Of course, whispers of a 1000x exit can always sit tantalizingly in the back of your mind and founders do often end up very comfortable financially after the fact, but it would be really foolish to assume it given, and even more so to think it has any bearing on your day-to-day financial reality.

3) Take lots of pictures

Five years is a long time, and the GiveCard from 2018 looks nothing like what it is today. I sometimes get teased for being overly-sentimental by the team, but this has been the journey of a lifetime, I work with some of my best friends and have got to live out a reality that was entirely unbelievable when we started. I take a lot of photos of us just doing GiveCard things, and every few months I’ll lie on my sofa and scroll through my GiveCard album and feel immensely blessed for the getting to be part of this.

I think a lot of founders, understandably, are in a constant state of stress and fire-fighting and it’s easy to lose any sense of drive and motivation for what you’re doing when work is simply an ever complicating knot in need of untangling. Being able to look back at how far we’ve come as a team and how fortunate I’ve been helps me distort reality a bit. I’ve got most of the classic existential startup stress completely under control now, simply because well I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. Pictures helped me figure that out.

4) Being nice takes you most of the way

This seems obvious but maybe it isn’t. Media often glorifies the cold omega wolf character that battles their way through every conversation and treats business like war. So much of your company is dependent on external forces that are beyond your complete control - customers, vendors, regulators, competitors, journalists. Far before GiveCard had any weight to its name, we’d always try to approach these conversations warmly and with a smile - and those principles have been reflected in the team we hired. Being understanding of silly vendor slip-ups, being helpful to potential competitors that years later became large customers, and always making ourselves available to other founders in a pickle have got us a long way, letting us play ball in an industry otherwise very high-walled. At 19 years old when we started GiveCard, being pleasant to work with was really all we had to offer, and I’m glad we kept it up.

5) Don’t be selfish

I’ve started throwing “don’t be selfish” in a lot of the talks I give, because you shouldn’t. This journey isn’t meant to be yours alone - figure out what kind of people you want to share it with, find them without compromise and give them meaningful ownership. Personally, I like to work with people that are:

a) highly compassionate
b) fast learners
c) self-motivated
d) fun to be around

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t ‘productivity 10xers’, but it’s just not something we optimize for, nor is deep industry experience.

Once you’ve got your people, let them experience startups like you get to experience them. Don’t be selfish with hard decisions, sometimes let someone else make a tough call. Don’t take the ticket to all the cool media events or work trips. We hired Sofia as our Head of Product, so she should get to make the big product decisions. Yes, I’ve done it before so I’d be faster at it, but if Anna (lead platform engineer) really wants to try build a complex banking integration, then she should get to do it. Give people the freedom and control to be able to meaningfully impact the course of your company: if you hired + trained right you shouldn’t have to worry about the consequences. When we hired Edi (our first Cardholder Support Lead) we offered him double his asking salary if he were willing to take complete ownership of the department - setting and tracking his own KPIs and ensuring no cardholder goes unserved by whatever means necessary. Our cardholder support experience is now one of the prize traits of our product, and drove a lot of our early growth. I can genuinely say that if I had to step out for a while, every member of our early team has the decision making capacity to fill the CEO role. (But lol don’t get any crazy ideas guys)
I’m more excited about GiveCard than I’ve ever been, we’ve got some really incredible things around the corner that I’m supposed to keep secret for now, but it’ll be magical. I’m really so thankful to everyone that packed our parachutes (a phrase I learnt at Boston College, to which I attribute much of GiveCard’s success).

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to if you’ve got some advice for me. If you run a business that has to move money to individuals for any reason, drop me a message, I think we can help.

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