To properly answer that question, I think it would be better for me to begin at how I came to the idea in the first place. I know when you saw the title of this article you weren't expecting my autobiography, but in order to know why I founded The Suite, you first have to know a little more about me.
Like many other soon-to-be college grads, I had no idea of what I wanted to do, and the four year degree that I earned (Criminal Justice & Forensic Psychology) was something I no longer had any intention of using. I didn’t spend my summers interning, or have plans of attending grad school next fall, I suppose you could say I didn’t have a plan at all. At the time people assumed it was laziness and to outsiders who didn’t know me, that probably seemed to be the case. What those people didn’t know however, was that I had a 3 year old son to provide for and rather than attending parties on the weekends or hanging out around campus (not that NYC schools have actual campuses), I spent 50 hours a week working dead-end jobs with time only to dream about the future I could have. A future that I greatly desired, but when my days consisted of scrubbing toilets for a music school, or waking up at 5am to work construction before classes started, I had a hard time believing I would ever achieve.
So how did I get here? Well if you hadn’t guessed it from the last paragraph no one handed me the keys to the palace, I fought tooth and nail to get here. My first big break and ultimately what led me to where I am today was landing a paid internship with a large contingent recruitment shop (I’ll let them remain anonymous) that resembled many of the work environments depicted in movies about stock brokers in the 80’s. Your call minutes were monitored, your phone pitches rehearsed, your butt in your seat for 12 hours a day. Sound terrible? To most people it probably does, but to me at the time, it was paradise. It was an environment where degrees and family connections could easily be beaten with grit and raw talent. Those who were successful received commission payouts and merit based promotions. All things that proved to be the perfect fuel for the ambitious soul.
I made a name for myself through the speed in which I worked and the fact that I was fearless. You could have been a Unicorn Founder or a Fortune 50 CEO… once we were on the phone, we were equals. It fascinated me how much I could learn, every 30 minute conversation was like taking a class for an eMBA.
Sometimes the top isn’t as sweet as you think
By the time I turned 26, I was Principal at a renowned global executive search firm running a team, a practice area, and having achieved what any person would consider an extremely high level of success in a very short timeframe. My journey wasn’t pretty, and my resume sure doesn’t read as cleanly as others’, but nonetheless I arrived at the same destination. Yet despite my perceived “success”, it was when I reached this point that I started to look inward and really pay attention to the person I had become and the industry that I worked in. I learned that after pouring all of myself into this field to climb the ladder of success, I hated everything about what I did.
It's funny because you would assume that recruiting agencies would have absolutely stellar talent strategies. I mean they're the experts, surely they know how to build kickass cultures and foster rockstar talent, right? Wrong. Recruiting firms suffer from high turnover, low employee satisfaction, and have perhaps the lowest employee development budgets of any business in the world. With their awful cultures and utterly uninspiring leadership philosophies, it was difficult to see myself spending another 30 years in a role that I had already achieved. To add to that sentiment, I grew tired of meeting talented people and telling them that they weren't right for the job based solely on my hour-long conversation with them.
After pouring my heart & soul into a business that I no longer had any intention of working for, I reached the point where it was time to take action. I didn't know yet what I wanted to do, but I knew that I was done telling people "I'll keep your resume on file and give you a call when something comes up". My friends & family thought I was insane for wanting to walk away from a career that provided that level of monetary gain. What they didn't understand though, was that I wasn't that same 22 year old dad desperate to claw my way up the ladder. I wanted purpose.
I wanted to do more, I had to do more to help
Enter fall of 2018, I had coffee with a startup CMO the day before who wanted to know how to find her first board role and despite her unquestionably impressive background, the most I could do was offer some tips and point out the handful of executive recruiters who manage what seemed like every board search that opens. We touched on the topic of just how broken this industry was and she joked that she expected me to be the one to fix it. She didn't know it then, but that conversation kicked off a chain of events that would lead to me founding The Suite.
On my walk to work the next day I reflected on our conversation and the world of recruiting and was perplexed at how it’s remained vastly unchallenged over the last 5 decades... but that’s also when it hit me. The same people who started it are the ones preventing it from evolving. Anyone who knows marketplaces will tell you that when both sides of a two-sided market cannot find one another and believe there to be a shortage of the other, you have a problem with the marketplace. In this case, the problem was me… I was the bottleneck.
Renewed with a level of passion that I had not felt since I began my career, I went to my friend and now Co-Founder Nick Cooke, to ask for advice. As a recruiter I did not have a real understanding of starting businesses or building a product, but what I did know how to do was find the people who knew what I lacked and sell them my vision. I had barely made it through the end of my pitch to Nick when he jumped up and shouted “let’s do it, I want to break it!” and at that point I knew I had found my CoFounder. To Nick, the concept of an industry with zero innovation and data intelligence, yet with so much importance to the world was irresistible. Almost immediately I went to work, eager to prove to him that we had something real and that it would be worth the risk I was asking him to take. I spent the next 6 months crafting the idea, testing it in the market, and shaping it into what would become our MVP.
I took every opportunity to discuss it, and funnily enough the job I had grown to dislike so much, proved invaluable to developing the business I had dreamed of building. After all, when your network consists of some of the most renowned leaders in their respective fields, you have amazing people to lean on (you know who are and I can’t say thank you enough for letting me talk your ears off). After hundreds of interviews and dozens of weekend white board sessions, I convinced Nick to join me on my crazy venture and we decided to build the world’s first career management platform for executives. Our aim was to create a network and platform that would give people the tools and coaching they needed to effectively manage & grow their careers and to develop a private job marketplace that would allow them to take control of their job search and connect directly with hiring teams. No more middle person passing judgement, no more ghosting or waiting for updates that aren't coming, only direct & transparent access to opportunity. That is what we are fighting for.
In having spent time building a business, I can definitely see why so few actually do it. Nick and I were constantly being tested and taken out of our comfort zones. One day we were messing around with website building platforms, the next day we were putting together powerpoint slides and future org charts that we were never going to use. We were running a million miles and hour in every direction and right there was the first lesson we learned as a pair. We needed help. We quickly enlisted a few friends to help us focus in on what we were building and how we were going to build it. We set weekly meetings and handed out tasks to everyone, we tore down concepts and ripped apart wireframes. We had heated debates around product market fit and what and when we would build features. At times it seemed like we disproved the entirety of our concept, but the next morning a solution would dawn on us and we were right back at it. Truly, that group of people who I proudly now call friends helped Nick and I more than they could imagine.
So we had the idea, we had the mission, but we were two business people who hadn't a clue of how we were going to turn our powerpoint wireframes into a fully functioning platform worthy of the audience we sought to help. After coming this far we were not going to give up so easily, so we had two choices: spend what little money we had on a dev shop and hope for the best, or use the skills I had honed during my career as a recruiter to hunt down a CTO and recruit him to the team. You can probably guess which we chose (here’s a hint: we couldn’t afford the dev shop). Like I had done countless times before, I sat at my computer and scoured Linkedin for suitable profiles to approach. I sent message after message with a hit rate that would discourage most, but as you may be learning from this article I don’t give up easily. After nearly three months of unreturned emails, Nick and I returned from a much needed joint vacation to a surprise that neither of use were anticipating… a response!
I met with J (As they are currently balancing a couple of roles at the moment in stealth, I won’t use their real name) for coffee before work one day and knew going in that I needed to wow them. I rehearsed my pitch, practiced any objections I could foresee them making, and told myself I wouldn’t leave without a yes. Can you blame me for the over-preparation? It's not like everyone is crazy enough to put time into an idea that had never been done before and for only the promise of what future wealth it could bring. To my surprise, J instantly saw the opportunity in front of us, connecting the dots and drawing comparisons to similar tech platforms that have disrupted other legacy industries. I walked into that meeting completely unsure of what would happen, but I walked out with certainty that the idea that I had nurtured for so long would finally come to life.
Without Nick & J, I’m not sure I would have made it this far as their personalities and ways of thinking proved to be the perfect counterweights to my grandiose way of envisioning. Thinking back, the story of all of us finding each other really is one of chance that, if just a single thing had changed it may have set off an entirely different chain of events that may have led to a completely different outcome for all of us. I suppose that's how most things in life work, right? The universe opens a door and we decide whether or not to step through it. Now with a team, a fully functioning platform (after J worked their magic), and enough passion to monopolize any conversation we entered, The Suite began its journey from part-time hobby to fulltime venture.
It was shortly after these events that I decided to leave my fulltime job. Giving up a salary was one of the most difficult decisions I had ever made, but if I didn't burn the boats, I knew I would never take the island. The day I left my fulltime job will be forever burned into my memories. Recruiting firms are notorious for their contentious exits and mine did not disappoint. Although I was not certain at the time of my exit that I had made the right choice, I knew as soon as I exited the building that I was one step closer to becoming the man I had always wanted to be. Naturally, Nick had given his notice the following day to join me. Afterall, he wasn't going to let me have all the fun.
“If only we knew back in January that what seemed like it could turn out to be the most successful launch we could’ve imagined, would run headfirst into COVID19”
At first things seemed too good to be true, and looking back now I can see that’s because they were. Each meeting went better than the last, with companies seemingly lining up to list their roles on our site. If only we knew back in January that what seemed like it could turn out to be the most successful launch we could’ve imagined, would run headfirst into COVID19, and a chain of events that would lead our economy into the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment had risen to over 40 million people, layoffs mounted from some of the world’s leading venture backed companies, newsfeeds became filled with sad messages of people losing their jobs, and hiring stopped entirely. I remember the last week of March as being one of the worst I had encountered on our journey thus far. With news of layoffs mounting customer after customer called to put their accounts on hold. In one week we went from securing profitability within 2 months of launching to not knowing when/if our customers would return.
That weekend I wasn’t sure if I could handle doing it all again. Afterall, Nick and I had spent 100’s of hours manually scraping our contacts to build our database, we sent out thousands of cold emails prospecting customers, and for the better part of a year we had put all of ourselves into this business and still had very little to show for it (or so we thought at the time). Most people would see this as the universe telling them to pack it up and go home. They’d probably say “it just wasn’t meant to be”, and those people would be right because nothing in life is meant to be. We must WILL IT into existence if we want to achieve it. So rather than making the easy decision of chalking it up to bad timing and walking away, my team and I dug our heels into the ground, with our backs against the wall, and decided to fight for the mission we yearned to accomplish when we started building The Suite.
“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” - Victor Hugo
Overnight our focus had shifted and we began building products that would add value to our members’ careers beyond accessing jobs. We leveraged compensation data to build first of their kind compensation tools (Compass & Boardview), we designed job search coaching curriculums and built a concierge service to answer our members’ most pressing career questions. We evolved. The Suite started as a job marketplace, built to disrupt the world of executive recruiting. Through adversity, The Suite became a complete Career Management Platform designed to impact people’s career trajectories and expand their networks. We saw our opportunity in the market disappear as hiring stalled, and instead we created an even bigger opportunity in helping people grow their careers, cultivate their networks and find purpose at work.
Our journey here has been one of ups and downs, but also one that is only beginning. So what comes next? Keep checking in to see where our journey takes us!