Building a startup is full of emotional ups and downs: on the one hand, people are telling you your idea sucks, there’s a lot of rejection and you often have to forego paychecks. On the other hand, once you find believers, the upside is unlimited. You can feel on top of the world and as if you’re falling into pieces…often in the same week.
With so many challenges and obstacles along the way, a startup story usually makes for a very compelling movie plot and yet, there are surprisingly few movies about crazy innovators that make it in spite of everything. Yes, we know that there’s a Theranos movie underway and a WeWork movie in the works, but we’d really like to see a startup movie where the protagonist is depicted in a positive light.
With the Oscars just around the corner, we decided we’d round up the startup stories that we wish we could see on the big screen.
We all know the story about the two young designers who put air mattresses in their San Francisco apartment to make rent — a small idea that gave rise to a multi-billion dollar company. However, AirBnB did not find success overnight. In fact, the company struggled to gain traction for about a year, was rejected by multiple investors, each of the founders incurred $20,000 in credit card debt and had to survive on dry cereal for months. Even their YC interview might have led to a different outcome if they hadn’t gifted Paul Graham a box of Cap’n McCain’s in the end. The ingenuity and resilience this gift exemplified was what got them accepted and led to a Sequoia-led seed round. The rest, as they say, is history.
While less of a household name than AirBnB, Privy has one of the most badass startup comeback stories. The Boston-based e-commerce digital marketing startup started its life as a restaurant-focused platform. Sales were challenging and in 2014 the company found itself going from a venture-backed business with 30 employees to a 3-person company with $1,000 in the bank. Propelled by nothing but the sheer willpower of its founders, Privy pivoted to the DTC (direct to consumer) space and rebuilt itself into a company with 400k+ customers, 70+ employees and $2.5 billion in annual sales. #respect
Sarah LaFleur was not the type of person that typically started a clothing company. A Bain-trained consultant with a degree from Harvard, she was light years away from the glitz and glamour of fashion. In fact, as a professional woman in NYC, she couldn’t find work-appropriate attire that fit well at a reasonable price. After a 4-month stint at a private equity firm, Sarah decided to solve this problem with no experience or contacts in fashion. This didn’t stop her from luring away a Zac Posen designer as her co-founder. Together, they created designs women loved, the ‘Bento box’ and a company with over $70 million in revenue. On the way there, Sarah battled with depression, constant rejection and a negative balance on M.M. LaFleur’s bank account.
Catch has raised $6.1 million in funding to bring portable benefits to freelance workers, has tons of users that love it and an office overlooking the State House in downtown Boston. But a little more than a year ago things could not have been more different. After bootstrapping for a few years, in the end of 2018 the company was almost out of money. A client owed them $450,000 and they had been rejected or ghosted by more than 50 VC firms. The founders even had to do their contingency planning, afraid that they would go out of business. Then they got into YC, the client payment cleared and investors decided to bet on the company, paving the way for its success.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Elon Musk’s rocket company. Started with the idea of bringing plants to Mars, the early days of SpaceX involved trips to Russia and vodka-fuelled conversations about buying rockets from the Russians…until Musk figured out he could make cheaper rockets himself. Luring some of the best rocket scientists to SpaceX, he set out to create an aerospace company with no background in the field. The road was fraught with obstacles: the rockets kept exploding during test launches, money was running out and despite a successful launch in the fall of 2008, by the end of the year things looked pretty grim. Then, fate intervened: SpaceX was awarded a $1.5 billion NASA contract on Dec 23, allowing the company to stay alive and come up with seemingly impossible aerospace innovations. Talk about a Christmas miracle!