TMMBA alumni entrepreneur: Milkana Brace

TMMBA Career Management organizes co-curricular sessions for students and alumni to learn from business leaders on how they manage, grow, and change careers. We find that interest in entrepreneurism, either becoming a founder or joining a startup, continues to increase among TMMBA students. These sessions add extra insight and learning opportunities alongside our entrepreneurial curriculum.Milkana photo

In summer quarter, Milkana Brace visited TMMBA to describe her experiences and decisions in taking a new career direction, and joining the Seattle startup community.

Milkana is the founder and CEO of an early-stage company developing mobile applications in the education space. Previously, she worked in leadership roles for e-commerce consumer brands, including Expedia and Groupon.  She’s a TMMBA graduate and has an undergraduate degree from McGill University in Canada.  She writes about startup life and technology management here: https://medium.com/@milkana

How did you decide to make the shift from a corporate career to entrepreneurship?

I did my TMMBA in 2008 which was a great experience. My whole career up until about a year ago was in the corporate world, where I worked at companies like Expedia, Groupon, and American Express Travel.  I started my career in Product and Program Management roles and eventually moved into managing and leading globally-distributed engineering teams.  I have been very fortunate to work with great teams and inspiring leaders and to have had the opportunity to build global products, impacting millions of users.

But today, my professional life is very different.  Earlier this year, I founded a company developing a mobile product in the education space. We have an initial version of the product which we’ve been user-testing and are currently working on the next version, which we plan to commercially launch in the upcoming months.  It has been an exciting journey so far!

Trading the security of an established company for the thrill and discomfort of working on an unproven, unfunded idea is certainly a big and intimidating decision.  I know a number of people who contemplate starting a company, some of them even have really good ideas, but leaving their established careers is too intimating and they don’t end up pulling the trigger.

If I were to give up my corporate career, take a large risk, put myself out there, I needed to have a deep conviction and clarity on why I was doing it.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Instead of making this big commitment, “I’m going to be an entrepreneur” overnight, a less risky approach is to start with a single step, and build from there. I was fairly methodical about preparing for the possibility of starting a company at least a couple of years before making the switch.  I’m glad to have done so.

The first thing I did was to save money. I wanted to have an initial capital that would enable me to bootstrap for a while.  Second, I scaled down my lifestyle. Third, I tried to learn as much as possible from the entrepreneurial experience of others, and closely followed friends who had made the switch before me.  Finally, I spent a lot of time looking inward and preparing mentally for the journey.

For example, I spent a month locked up in a small cabin, here in WA. It was during the winter, so it was rainy and cold and got dark early.  There were days when I literally did not see a single person.  I had no distractions – no TV, no internet, no company.  Removing all of the noise from my life helped me hear more clearly my own voice and reflections. If I were to give up my corporate career, take a large risk, put myself out there, I needed to have a deep conviction and clarity on why I was doing it.

For me it boiled down to this: it was about the life experience, intellectual challenge and opportunity to do things my way. Regardless of the outcome, it would be a life experience that no one could take away from me.  I knew I would flex new muscles, pick up new skills and develop an appreciation for what it takes to get a business off the ground, regardless of its ultimate long-term success.

How can someone currently in a corporate job learn about startups?

Seattle has extensive resources for entrepreneurs and there are lots of ways one can get plugged into the startup ecosystem. There are startup events, meetups, pitch competitions, hackathons, startup news and mailing lists, etc. Also, because the community is relatively small, it’s highly interconnected and generally very supportive.    One thing I did thanks to an introduction from one of my TMMBA classmates was to become an angel investor a few years ago. I knew one day I wanted to be an entrepreneur pitching to investors, so I wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side of the table.  I’ve made small investments in a few local companies and in addition to hoping for a financial return, I’ve used the experience to learn from their progress and challenges.

Another way to gain exposure to startups is to become an advisor to one. Startup founders often look to round their skills, expertise and connections with a few key advisors.  I’m currently advising two startups, Seattle-based ShareGrid.com and an Austin-based stealth company in the travel space.  Following closely other amazing entrepreneurs go through the ups-and-downs of the startup journey, and helping them along the way, has been a very enriching and educational experience.

Finally, I find that early-stage entrepreneurs tend to form informal support networks. I often swap stories, best practices, contacts, encouragement and general advice with other founders. I learn from their experiences, their wins and their mistakes, and share my own learnings along the way.

How would you characterize your startup journey at this point?

Overall it has been a fantastic experience, which has challenged me to grow professionally and personally.  A “fantastic” experience, however, hardly means a “pleasant” one. There are so many myths and distortions that glamorize entrepreneurship.  The reality is that most days are an “unglamorous grind.”

Overall it has been a fantastic experience, which has challenged me to grow professionally and personally.

While there are moments filled with euphoria (for me, they’re usually triggered by customer validation), long stretches can be uncomfortable, lonely, disorienting, and even terrifying. It’s part of the process, it’s part of growing, it’s part of innovating.  When I accepted that discomfort was my new normal, I got to embrace and enjoy the journey much more.

For most founders, including myself, some of the biggest challenges are not related to building a product that works, but to keeping one’s head in the game – dealing with stress and setbacks, having emotions in check, keeping a clear and cool head, and sustaining high energy, day in and day out. Self-care is tremendously important. Sadly, it’s not a topic that a lot of entrepreneurs open up about.

Overall, the startup journey is one where the highs are very high and the lows are pretty low, but as a friend puts it, “the whole experience makes you feel more alive.” I’m certainly very grateful to have had the privilege to pursue my startup dream.