Improve Your Startups Chance of Success + Make Money Doing It

Traditional “startup success” wisdom tends to go something like this: you get a great idea, you quit your day job to focus on it 110%, finally it gets traction, you raise money (or are making money) and then get written up in FastCompany—where your story will look like an overnight success.

But with all fairytales, reality rarely shakes out like that. Instead, most of us either have to build our business while working, rely on savings, or scrape together friends + family investment as we try and validate our business idea.

Personally, I’m a fan of option 1. This means working externally (at least part-time) while building your startup, especially if you can swing working within a related field. Many successful entrepreneurs kept their “day job” as they built their company—Sarah Blakely of Spanx is a great example.

3 solid reasons to consider this:

First, unless you’re born wealthy, or have someone supporting you, an entrepreneur must eat and put a roof over their head.

Second, when your business starts to pick up and bring in revenue, it’s often far better to reinvest that capital into growth, versus carving out part of it as a paycheck to the founder(s).

But there is a third reason, that most people don’t realize, and it can massively impact your startup’s long-term success.

Removing yourself as the bottleneck: A prerequisite for growth


I run a business called AVRA. We’re a full-service talent firm that works exclusively with startups. Our mission is to help companies hire the best people, for the right roles.

For the first year, I did all of the work of the Recruiting Strategist (since unlike traditional recruiters we assign dedicated teams, each of whom specializes in one of the five disciplines of hiring). Now it’s not easy building systems, doing all the biz dev, and running point on every client—but in theory, working 60+ hour workweeks—I could keep it up.

But luckily (for myself and my loved ones), I realized that would do AVRA a big disservice.

The founder is rarely the best person for every job

As the founder, you often find yourself wearing ten hats—but in no way does that mean you’re within the 90th percentile of excellence for every one of them. Often there are hats you wear that you’re functionally bad at, along with some roles you can handle—but another person could produce 10x the results.

When you’re bootstrapped or haven’t raised money, it’s hard to justify delegating these roles because it (a) assumes new costs in the form of payroll and (b) makes it harder to justify your own pittance of a salary.

This is where the magic of working externally comes in. It forces you to hand over the reigns to all but the parts of the business you are the absolute best at, and it takes the pressure off your startup’s finances to pay you a salary. This frees up cash to for other people who can do the job better, or at least as good, and it lays the foundation for scale. If you want to build something bigger than a lifestyle business—you must continually put yourself out of “jobs”.

So what is the right type of work?

Obviously, that depends. It depends on your skillset, your expertise, and if you’re able to charge a premium for your talent. This business may be your first real job. So the decent pay and solid benefits of Starbucks could be a great fit (plus they give you a wicked deal on Frapps and everyone looks sexy in black).

Or, perhaps you are strong at design, coding or finance; skills you can leverage to help other people grow their businesses—and get paid for it. If this is the case, epic. If you’re lucky you may be able to work within the same industry as your startup.

IRL examples

  • You’re building a solution for X on the blockchain. You’re a product manager and can work half time at a Consensys company.
  • You’ve started a K-beauty blog and are beginning to sell products you import from Japan and Korea to your audience. Your background is in finance, so you work as a fractional CFO for a well-funded B2C startup that sells to female consumers.
  • You want to disrupt the office-chair market like the top sleep startups have done to the mattress industry. You’re fresh out of school, but you can work at Office Max, or on the floor at Herman Miller. It may not be your dream job but you’ll get to watch your target consumer on a daily basis and synthesize that information as you build your Aeron-chair-killer.

1PVR: The One Page Visual Resume

We are living in the most competitive job markets in recent history. So if you’re reading this in 2018—good on ya! I began working on my last startup in 2009… thus yours truly got her hustle on by bartending by night, working on other businesses’ social media profiles by day, while slowly building what would become Zirtual all of the time in-between.

But just because the economy is jamming, doesn’t mean you should get complacent. Through years of recruiting, for both my own companies and others, I’ve noticed that job-seekers assume hiring managers are at least partially psychic.

Spoiler alert: we aren’t.

So instead of relying on a boring traditional resume, create a one-pager with at least a partial visual component that tells your professional story and makes it easy for a hiring manager or client to put your strengths into context.

Below is my real life 1PVR. My goal is to communicate quickly and effectively, my strengths (with social proof) and allow for someone who is glancing at it so figure out whether or not I can help them solve their pain point.

*a larger version is here.

Do’s + Don’ts of the One Page Visual Resume


  • Niche-down and pick the ONE thing that you are best at (here is a great book on the topic)


  • List everything you’re good at, or are interested in. You will lose people’s attention and minimize the power of people sharing your strengths with others. (e.g. no one says “oh my friend Mary could help you with these [TEN] things”, instead they say “oh my friend Mary could totally help you with developing the marketing strategy for your blockchain startup”)


  • Make it EASY on the other party. This could be friends or colleagues who you ask for referrals or a hiring manager you’ve reached out to via AngelList. Give them something visually appealing and concise, that can express how you can help them within 30-seconds.


  • Use a boring traditional resume packed with details. Good design is so important nowadays and you can easily find a template, whip something up on Keynote, or pay someone on Fiverr to do it for you.


  • Provide a brief overview of jobs or experiences that back up your overarching ONE thing.


  • List everywhere you’ve ever worked. No one cares that you rocked the watermelon smoothie station at Jamba Juice when you were 19.


  • List social proof.

Startup Hack: Live Simply

If you decide to make your own one-pager that shows off your skills and makes it EASY for a company to say “yes!” and hire you part-time, or as a consultant, please drop me a line and let me know (happy to provide quick feedback as well!)

But before we wrap, a final word of advice. One of the best ways to destress starting your own thing—especially if you’re committed to bootstrapping or are pre-funding, is to live simply. I’ve been a minimalist most of my life, but every time I start something new I usually purge and pair down to the absolute essentials.

It not only does the ole’ wallet good but it clears space in your mind to really focus on the things that matter: your business, your relationships, and your health.

Questions, comments, recipes for baked goods…

Ping me @marenkate pretty much everywhere.

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Startup Focus Hack: Creating Guidepost Values


Starting a business is hard. Even if you’ve done it a few times. It takes a crazy amount of excitement and real vision to simply commit to making the leap, then after the high of “shiny and new” wears off, determination and continuous action must kick in to keep you going.

We’re now 11-months into AVRA Talent Partners. There have been three name changes, several rounds of figuring out our true product/market fit, and now we’re in the process of patching systems and refining our people product to deliver stellar results for our clients, every time.

Guidepost values

One hack I’ve realized that makes all of this a LOT easier, is creating a set of values, and words associated with those, that you use over and over. They’ll most likely transform, adapt and mature over time—but having 3-5 core values early on can act as guideposts along the blizzarding, mountain-climb that is getting to a viable and healthy company.

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The Case Small Batches, Versus Scaling Fast.

small batches

In Startuplandia the concept of “faking it until you make it” is accepted as part of the process of building a successful business.

When speaking to potential customers, partners or the press, the common wisdom is to pad your user numbers, growth trends or team size so outsiders assume that you’re larger than you really are—thus more established + less risky of a proposition.

The interesting part is that in other parts of the economy, scarcity, small batches and fewer offerings are seen as a sign of quality. Think boutique bakeries that only make a few dozen artisan croissants a day—and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Or Hermes, whose signature Birkin bags are in perpetuity (and purposefully) kept in short supply; and Bespoke Watchmakers who produce their craft in small batches and have customers waiting for years before their order is fulfilled…

But back in Startup Land, an ecosystem fueled by capital that needs to be returned in 8 to 10 years, these models are deemed “lifestyle businesses” and if not openly derided, then at minimum looked upon as not a part of the rarified air that is the world of scalable startups.

Though, the facts don’t bare this out. All of the massive companies, and household names, we now know, started as small businesses. In fact most of them started with small batches, and did things that “don’t scale”.

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A Return to Escaping the 9 to 5: Documenting a New Startup Adventure

The Escapingthe9to5 blog started almost a decade ago, and though I was greener than green to the world of business, I had figured out how to start and grow a profitable jewelry business through eBay.

The idea of documenting my journey appealed to me—partly it was the vanity of youth, assuming everything we do is new and unique. Partly, I loved the idea of sharing my experience with others—maybe to motivate, maybe to make friends, maybe just to be heard. This blog was started as a simple online journal to document my attempt to escape a traditional nine to five job. I have never had any love for cubicles, or mid-level managers, and they’ve never much taken a shine to me.

maren kate 2011
Riding the train, in 2010, between Reno, Nevada and San Francisco, just trying to get an idea off the ground… and clearly feeling EMO.

Nothing about my background, except the hard workers on both sides of my families’ genetic lineage (Armenian, Irish and Syrian), indicated that I would, or could, hack it in the business world. I wasn’t a star student, and had dropped out of college three classes short of graduating.

Yet, with some luck, and a lot of serendipitous relationships along the way, I’ve been able to clear my own path in the business world.

Alongside my co-founders, we grew a startup to a ten million dollar run rate, and 400+ people. I’ve raised over five million in capital (which is a crazy experience) and have been blessed to belong to strong networks of inspiring people in both San Francisco, and New York.

Now, after some intense personal and professional struggles, a decade older, hopefully wiser, and definitely much happier, I’ve begun again…

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An Update on Life, Love and Exciting New Business Stuffs!

maren kate donovanWell, the last twelve months have been a whirlwind, both full of exciting adventures, heartbreak, high highs and low lows.

As blessed as I feel to have experienced each and every one of those emotions, and for what they have taught me, boy howdy am I happy to be on the other side!

Professional recap:

Between May of last year and January of this, I was COO at an international co-living company that has communities in Miami, Bali, London and now Tokyo. I met amazing people, was lucky enough to travel for work (my fav kind!), and in Japan, the seeds of my next startup took root.

For the last few months I’ve been working with the lovely folks at Calm.comas interim COO, I wrap that role as they bring on an amazing VP of Operations and I myself move to New York City (a dream of mine for over 5 years!).

Personal recap:

After my breakup (almost exactly a year ago), I paired all my belongings down to two suitcases to free myself to travel for Roam. I’ve never owned a lot of stuff, but this time I even left my precious book collection behind (sob).

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Do You Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Freedom?


I certainly do.

In one sense I crave freedom… it’s what this blog was born out of. Freedom from the traditional 9 to 5 job, from a traditional life, from the (perceived) monotony of the same daily routine for months, years… decades.

Alternately, I crave safety. It’s biological. You probably crave it too. Safety, companionship, love, a family unit, community.

There is a continual tug of war going on inside of my head. Which do I prize more: freedom or the human need for closeness, for one’s tribe, and for roots?

The answer is: I don’t know.


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Escape the San Francisco “Summer” and Roam the World!

SF FogIf you can see me over that mountain of scarves you piled on to fight off San Francisco’s infamous summer chill, raise your hand… and if you can lift your arm with those three sweaters on, even better.

Listen… I know that summer in SF can be “cool” and not just because the thermostat is reading in the low-60s Fahrenheit. There’s Dolores Park to lay out in when the sun actually decides to shine; music festivals that carry on no matter the weather; and occasional days when Karl the Fog is on vacation and we actually remember why we love living in Northern California.

For the most part though (or at least IMHO), it’s pretty miserable to spend your whole summer in SF. Luckily, or unluckily (?), for me at the start of the summer I went through a breakup that was just the “get the hell out of dodge” kick in the pants I needed.

I decided to offload the majority of my belongings and spend the rest of the year exploring and working my way around the world, I’ve been looking for places to live and connect with other people who share my same passion for doing good work without all the tethers that used to keep me in SF.

It didn’t take long for me to start hearing about Roam, and since I stepped foot into their Miami house, I can see what the buzz is about…

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The Beauty of Living with Less

living with less

In May I moved out of the house I shared with my ex. It was a great spot, furnished beautifully, and spacious—a rare luxury for downtown San Francisco. The heartache of leaving a relationship of three years was compounded by the anchorless feeling of no longer having a place to call “home.” For the first few weeks I hauled several bags and containers from one friend’s apartment to another, silently cursing each time I had to repack all my worldly belongings and lug them to another location. Then something amazing happened…

I 80/20’d my life and learned the joy of living with less…

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Silicon Valley Has a Vulnerability Problem

vulnerability A few of us sat in a swanky restaurant, the air was warm and smelled faintly of the honeysuckle growing outside. Glasses clinked on the patio and a group of dilettante’s tittered over a handsome young waiter’s joke. The general mood of the place felt like a modern day Gatsby party… except to me. I was trying to keep my breath steady as a deep, angry blush crept up my neck as the man across from me continued…

“Well, I just don’t know how you could have made those mistakes, being CEO. I am a CEO now and I would never let that happen” he said.

Breath in, breath out. I nodded, shrugged my shoulders and after a long moment responded “I guess you’re a better man than me”. The table nervously laughed and I mentally checked out until the dinner was over.

I had been brought out to discuss joining this CEO’s company for some contract work. Over the past few days I had surveyed the company, talked to employees, and put together a detailed list of recommendations. There were a lot of “easy fix” problems but all in all the growth challenges were ones that could be handled as long as a strong culture and focus on community was in place.

But I had made the critical error. At dinner, someone asked what I would do to improve worker efficiency, I answered honestly. As I talked I could see the CEO’s face change, he was taking my feedback as a criticism of his leadership… I realized too late that I was dealing with an insecure, “alpha” male (the worst type). So before I had time to swallow a sip of red wine, he fired back a reply aimed to hit me where it hurt.

“…I just don’t know how you could have made those mistakes.”

In Silicon Valley, admitting mistakes and showing your vulnerable side is one of the biggest social faux pas that I’m tired of trying to follow.

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What is an Untethered Life?

untethered life

The word tether, as a noun, is defined as a rope, chain, or the like, by which an animal is fastened to a fixed object so as to limit its range of movement.

Human beings are animals, but the difference between us and the dog on a leash or cow tied to a fence is that we often choose our tethers. Those tethers cost us money, and many of us—sadly—believe that by collecting tethers our lives gain meaning.

What tethers us?

  • Debt: mortgage, credit cards, payday loans, college loans
  • Social obligations: networking events, “friends” we don’t really want to meet up with but feel we must, parties that we don’t enjoy but will feel FOMO if we miss them
  • Material possessions: more clothes/shoes than you need, anything that you either don’t actively use or don’t actively love
  • Work we hate: the 9 to 5 where you can’t leave your desk even though you would be more productive and happier if you were working remotely, the career you choose because of money—especially money that goes to buy you material possessions you don’t need or love
  • Unhealthy relationships: friends that tear us down, romantic partners that aren’t growing with us, any relationship that causes more harm than good… and yes, this can even be family members at times
  • “Shoulds”: I’m Y years old I should be married by now, I’m X years I should have a baby by now, I should go to college, I should… anything that you have to convince you should—versus innately knowing it is right, true or something you actually want.

Leading an untethered life is as simple as cutting out, or minimizing, as many tethers as possible. Instead of striving for material possessions (something that is proven to make us miserable), untethering means getting rid of everything you don’t either love or need (similar to the philosophy espoused in Maria Kondo’s book on tidying up).

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