Guest column

Why this Houston entrepreneur stuck with startups over a corporate gig

When Microsoft came knocking on this Houston entrepreneur's door, he realized leaving the startup world was not something he was willing to do. Pexels

Several ago, Microsoft dangled a senior leadership role in front of me, which included a high-compensation offer and the chance to move to Seattle. It was tempting. On the surface, this might seem like an easy choice. This kind of senior management position at Microsoft is something many people only dream of. And Microsoft was making a hard push for me.

Then, while pondering the offer, I imagined how I would change the company's website to capitalize on an urgent market opportunity, and then I thought about the bureaucracy I'd have to go through, which I imagined would have been like trying to get a bill through Congress. I called the hiring manager and asked for an example of his team advocating for such a change, and he confirmed that it would require jumping in slow motion through layers of hoops.

I couldn't get myself to leave the high-flying startup atmosphere where I had the freedom to move the needle in quantum leaps, not increments. It's a big decision to choose to share your talents with a startup versus a large corporation. Both options include benefits and risks. But if you have an entrepreneurial mind-set, you will discover, like I did, that startups can offer huge benefits. Here are what I see as the top four.

1. Fewery barriers of entry

While big corporations often choose to hire the candidates who went to Ivy League schools, are well-connected, or have loads of experience at higher-level positions, startups are interested in something else. They choose to hire people who think creatively, show a willingness to work hard, and demonstrate raw leadership qualities that, once cultivated, can help the company (and the individual) achieve breakthrough success. Startup entrepreneurs are creators, not maintenance workers, and startups need visionaries at every level.

2. Versatility in roles

Most jobs in big companies offer a limited range of authority, meaning no single individual, besides perhaps the CEO, has the ability to influence the entire company in a significant way. When you get hired to fill a role at an established business, that's exactly what they expect you to do: fill that role.

It's rare, if not impossible, to find the freedom to experiment and try your hand at filling different roles within various departments. Most startups don't hire with a set idea of your potential or career path, because the startup is young and undergoing massive change.

Founders may find it hard to predict what the company's needs will be as it grows. This is the perfect environment to try on different hats and find your zone of genius — the area where you work best — then move up quickly from there.

3. Financial rewards

Go to work for a big company, and you'll get a paycheck — a paycheck and a 4 percent annual raise along with a formal review from a manager who dreads delivering it. The potential upside is far greater at startups. And the initial financial rewards might not be too bad either.

Depending on the size and cash flow, a startup may offer a competitive salary right off the bat, or it may start you off with a modest salary with the potential to own a piece of the pie through stock options. The stock options could lead to astronomical compensation later on, if the company is successful. In my opinion, always go for the stock options.

4. Upward mobility

If you have enough drive, it is possible to climb the old guard corporate ladder but be prepared for a slow climb. Incumbent companies are burdened with incumbent mind-sets. Barriers to advancement are high, and opportunities are few. If you have set your sights on making it to the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company, your opportunities are severely limited. Among those companies, there can only be 500 CEO positions, maybe 5,000 in the rest of the C-suite. That means your odds of getting a job in the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company are lower than the odds of being drafted by the National Football League — way lower considering the NFL drafts 224 new players each year,and people tend to linger in the C-suite quite a bit longer than that.

Compare these numbers to the 46,500 startups in the United States, and it's easy to see there are far more executive leadership opportunities at startup companies. If you believe your corporate destiny is to become a leader, you can find a startup with a dynamic, fast-moving environment that values initiative and offers the opportunity to move up quickly.

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Steven Mark Kahan has successfully helped to grow six startup companies from early-stage development to going public or being sold, resulting in more than $3 billion in shareholder value. He is also the author of a the book Be a Startup Superstar.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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