Capturing Lightning
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Andrew Hoagland

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“If I had never started my own company, I would have 100 percent woken up some day and regretted it.”

Andrew Hoagland, co-founder of Vetd

Andrew Hoagland is the co-founder of Vetd, a company that takes the pain out of the B2B software buying process by making it easier and simpler for businesses to find the software they need. Here, he talks about how important it is to rely on those who want to help—whether it’s co-founders, friends, family, or the larger startup community.

What drew you to your vision for Vetd on a personal level?
I was really fortunate to get a job at a startup right out of college. It was this toy company in Chicago, about 13 or 14 people. They needed somebody who was young, naïve, and cheap who also spoke Chinese. So fortunately, I had spent time abroad in China and learned the language, and I was also all of those other criteria because I didn’t know what I was doing yet. They hired me for almost nothing. They told me: “You’re going to be working with U.S. operations during the day, and you’re going to be working with the Chinese operations during the night.” It wasn’t like a 24-hour job, but it’s a classic startup where you wear 10 hats. You’re doing a million things. I got the taste of what it was like to have an impact on a company. When I succeeded, the company succeeded. When I made a mistake, we lost money or we screwed up an order or something was shipped incorrectly to our customers, who are angry. I really loved everything about startups.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I got a job at Citibank, which is very much not a startup. And while I loved my experience—I think I spent three years there—I’ll never forget: I was sitting with one of my mentors at the time and we were talking about the product within Citi that we worked on. We spent an hour talking about we should innovate on the product, how we could make it so much more special and how we could take over the market in unique ways. We got to the end of the hour-long conversation, and she said, “Okay, Andrew, that was really awesome conversation. I’m glad we did it. But we’ll never innovate like that. We’re a big bank. We’re going to be slow. We’re going to be boring—all the things that a big bank needs to be.” I just looked at her, so crestfallen, and she was like, “I think you should be in the startup world again.” And I was like, “I think you’re right.”

Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Yeah. And if anybody says they don’t, they’re lying. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You almost have to be a little naïve and a little overconfident that you can accomplish something because you will talk to many, many different people who care about you and want you to succeed, but they’re more risk-adverse, and so therefore everything about the entrepreneurial journey is terrifying and is not something they would do.

Friends, family, co-workers, whoever it may be, when they hear that this is what you’re doing, it’s a scary thing. And some of them will say, “You’re crazy. Why would you leave this really good job where you’re succeeding and the company is doing great and you’ve built an awesome team? And you’re going to make no money for an undetermined amount of time just to potentially make something, and 90 percent of startups fail anyway.” All of these different things are just all you hear over and over again.

I could talk for days about reasons why it’s very terrifying, but—to pull back all those classic clichés—if I had never done it, if I had never started my own company, I would have 100 percent woken up some day and regretted it. I would rather fail now and known I had done it and gave it everything I had and had an amazing experience and learned so much than have never done it.

What has been your greatest struggle in founding Vetd?
There’s a bunch. If I had to boil it down to one, I would say that starting a company is very much like going on another roller coaster that only other founders have gone on, so it’s really hard to articulate to your friends and family that haven’t started a company just how severe the ups and downs are. When you’re on an up, you feel like you could conquer the world and everything’s amazing. When you’re on a down, it feels like you will never ever get out of it. You’re just stuck in this hole, and there’s nobody who could help you get out.

The moment you start to say, “Hey, this was really difficult,” and you want to talk about it, every other founder is like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there. Let’s commiserate.” When you try to tell friends and family, they’re like, “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry to hear that.” It’s not the same. Being able to try to communicate the ups and downs is incredibly difficult and challenging.

I think the thing I haven’t done a good job of explaining in this interview is that I need a co-founder. Zach [Shapiro, Vetd co-founder and COO] and I have been doing this from the beginning. Without him, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have drowned by now. Having somebody to balance you, having somebody who can be a sounding board, somebody who, when you’re down, can be up and vice versa or can challenge you and help you correct errors—there’s just an endless amount of reasons why having a co-founder who you can work with and you can trust is the most important thing ever.

What has been the greatest triumph in your founder’s journey so far?
For better or for worse, I view Vetd and this journey as: Can we hit the next milestone? So success number one is just jumping off, leaving my great, amazing job at Sidecar that I loved, and saying, “Alright, I’m going to try this.” Getting somebody like Zach on board right out of the gate meant we both understood the problem. We were both willing to sacrifice. And then every single step along the way says that this is an idea worth building and we’re making enough progress to get to the next milestone. It’s just this continuous journey. There are so many interesting things that we’ve done, but it’s really just, can we get to the next thing?

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“Zach and I have been
doing this from the
beginning. Without him,
there is no doubt in my
mind that I would have drowned by now.”

Andrew Hoagland, co-founder of Vetd

Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
I would say more people tried to dissuade me than tried to push me to do it. Whether it was directly saying, “I don’t think this is a good idea” on a high level, or indirectly hemming and hawing, or saying, “Wow, that’s a big risk,” or those indirect comments—I would say most people.

But on the flip side, the ones that said, “You need to jump and here’s why,” or “I believe in your vision and I believe in you”— it’s invaluable to have people in your network who will say, “You should jump. You should do this.” I’m sure other entrepreneurs feel this—you almost then have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder where you want to go prove it to anybody who dissuaded you.

One of the reasons I was able to do this now and one of the reasons Zach was like, “Heck yes, we should dive in head first,” is because we had both experienced this problem. We both knew that the entrepreneurial journey was something we wanted to go down. We already had two major pieces locked up at least in terms of our perspective. So when somebody else’s perspective comes in, it is very simply just that—it’s just a different way to look at the world, a different way to understand your own personal beliefs and what excites you and what scares you and what makes you go.

Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
They tend to be founders. They tend to be people in your network that you looked up to in one way or another. It goes without saying that we’re closer to them now than we were before because we’ve now gone through the journey. We’ve started to experience things they had already experienced or are experiencing.

There’s this fun little thing that happens in startups where you tend to experience things in stages. So, depending on what stage you’re on as a company, the founders have already gone through that and remember it fondly or terribly. There were things that were awful or good. So you get to be like, “We’re trying to raise a friends and family round.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay! Let’s talk and I’ll tell you all about what we did, and what worked and didn’t work and all the struggles.” There’s more reason to stay in touch with them now as opposed to less.  

You feel like you’re part of this really tight-knit community. What I love about Philadelphia is that almost everybody wants to help. So whether it’s introductions, advice, getting lunch or coffee or drinks—whatever it happens to be, the Philadelphia tech scene seems to be really tight-knit. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed. That is just so incredibly valuable. I can’t say that enough.

Tell me about your work-life balance.
You’re your own boss, literally. There is a never-ending amount of things you could be doing, and you just have to make sure you’re prioritizing the most important ones and focusing on what really matters in that given timeframe. And making sure that your mental health is intact. I’m really lucky to have a support system within the company and in my friends and family that understand that. If I didn’t, I think this would be 100 times harder.

Did you ever come close to giving up?
The answer is no as of right now, but that’s not to say we haven’t gone through some serious downs and had some major challenges. I’m sure every startup does. I feel like success comes quickly and sometimes unexpectedly, so while we were trying to get our first VC on board and trying to get into the Philly Startup Leaders accelerator and trying to do some of these other things, up until the moments they happened, it was unknown.

The highs and the lows are higher and lower than you could have imagined. When we got funded by [early stage venture capital firm] Village Global, I got to call Zach after we found out. It was just this insane moment. It was validation from the realest place ever. Then we failed many different ways and felt like this was impossible to achieve and were at the lowest of the lows, looking at each other in a room and being like, “What the hell are we doing?” We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re making this up as we go—the classic imposter syndrome. I would say the highs are incredible and the lows are insanely low and you just have to realize it and keep as even keeled as possible knowing that’s impossible.

What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Vetd?
There’s three major buckets. We’ve kind of accomplished all the bucket one objectives, which are like: We’re a real thing. This is not just made up. We actually are a real product and a real team. So that’s pretty amazing.

Bucket two is: Can we make this a company worth something? So somebody would potentially buy us one day or we could raise a ton of venture capital—whatever it might be. If you get to that section, then as an entrepreneur, you get to say, “My company was acquired or raised x amount.” Those are huge milestones on your journey, which show that I can do it again. I can raise money again. I can build a team—the kind of things that are unknown when you get started. So we’re in the middle of bucket two and feel really good about the future.  

I think the third one is: Can you make this a company that you stay at for a while? Or gets acquired by a big fish and you work at that new place for a long time? And is this an entity that will live on past its founders? In a perfect world scenario, Vetd becomes a commonplace name and anybody who’s buying software is already starting to think, “Are the vendors Vetd?” The end goal is, will businesses use software to solve all their challenges? Today, the answer is no because of how difficult and time consuming and frustrating it is to find those solutions. If Vetd works, it’ll be insanely to understand, “I have a problem and here’s how I solve it with software or technology.” That’s the goal.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Never be the smartest person in the room. The first thing I did was bring on Zach and I solved that problem. Then I just hired incredibly talented and very motivated people who wanted to solve the problem and wanted to be successful. You’re not managing them; they’re telling you how to make the company more successful and you’re just listening to them and learning from them.

There’s so much help out there and most people are willing to give the help. You have to assume you can never get enough help from people. That means, of course, that you should want to help others. It goes both ways. But I’m just endlessly amazed of how helpful people are, how they want you to succeed even if the problem you have doesn’t resonate with them at all. Help is there. You should take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.