When I was a lifeguard stationed in Korea, part of my job when the pool was closed was to train pilots for emergency water landings. We had a sort "cage," built out of PVC pipe (learn more in this New York Times article), that was supposed to mimick a cockpit. It had a seat and harness where we'd strap the pilots in, fully clothed in their flight suits, then place goggles over their eyes that were painted black so they couldn't see. We handed them a little oxygen canister, then tipped the whole cage over backwards into the deep end of the pool, where it would quickly sink to the bottom. The pilots were supposed to escape from the harness and use the oxygen to get to the surface without being able to see anything, all without panicking.
Sometimes starting a business feels a little like that.
Let me start at the beginning
The fact that I'm an Army veteran surprises most people when they find out (I don't have a buzz cut or wear camoflage -- though I'm still a pretty good shot). I joined when I was nineteen years old, halfway through my first semester at Grand Valley State University. I honestly hadn't even considered military service when I went home for Thanksgiving break, and my parents sat me down and told me that unless started contributing to my education financially, they were no longer going to pay for my tuition.
For an upper middle class white girl who'd never really done anything hard in her life, the may have well as announced they were disowning me. I flew into a panicked rage, and there was great gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. But weirdly, my parents held firm, and left me bereft and sobbing on the couch in order to go pick up my grandmother from the airport (she was flying in for the holiday). Literally as the garage door was closing, the phone rang. An Army recruiter was on the other end, and the first thing he asked me was if I would like $30,000 for college.
He had my attention.
Talk about timing.
When someone asks me why I joined the military, I answer "To piss off my parents." Which is only half true. In the end, it was just the kind of push I needed to find a life with meaning. College, while kinda fun, wasn't really offering me much in the growth department. Even at 19 I knew there was more to life than going to parties and attending class (in that order). So in another weird turn of fate, my future came down to the flip of a coin in the recruiting station bathroom, just before I was scheduled to raise my right hand and swear to defend the United States of America: heads I would join the Army; tails I would continue with college.
This sounds crazy to people. But again, even as a naive college kid, I knew somehow that whatever side the coin landed on, I would be okay.
So I took a dime out of the pocket of my jeans, looked hard at myself in the mirror, and flipped it in the air.
So I joined the Army
Today I tell people that the Army's best lesson was teaching me what I didn't want to do for a living. I didn't want to take orders from people whose only qualification was that they had more seniority. I didn't want to dig fox holes and I didn't want to move and upend my life every 12 months. Plus there was the GI Bill waiting for me (it ended up being $25,000 in exchange for a three-year enlistment), and by the end of my enlistment I had a husband and a baby on the way - so it was back to college and civillian life for me.
Time passed — almost twenty years. I earned a degree in Advertising & PR with a minor in writing, had developed a fairly successful career in the corporate world, and was recovering from an amicable divorce. I'd lived a mostly safe life. Worked a 40-hour week job, bought a house, gained & lost weight, started writing a novel - you know, things that a lot of normal people do.
But something was missingThis is where the business part comes in. My life was kinda empty, and I couldn't help but notice that old nagging feeling that there was more to life than what I was experiencing. I guess I missed the adventure; corporate life was killing me, as I was working for someone else's dream, to line other people's pockets. I wanted to meet life, and all its inherent failures and successes, on my own terms.
In the spring of 2013 I attended a conference in Chicago for women veterans who wanted to be entrepreneurs, through an organization called V-WISE. There I learned about managing a business, raising capital, marketing to a target audience and more (I wrote about it here). I came up with a business idea to create an online community of divorced, professional moms, and started writing a business plan to submit to V-WISE's business plan competition that was being sponsored by Citi.
The idea wasn't a bad one. But after trying to explain it to both strangers and friends, I discovered that somewhere along the way I'd lost my interest in talking about being divorced. But I didn't know what else to do.
Then one night I was having drinks with co-workers from my job at an insurance company, and someone mentioned that her boss was going to be gone all week camping in the Porkies with her sisters. I thought that was an amazing idea; a camping trip just with women?
But I knew that creativity and true business innovation comes only when you combine two (or more) concepts that had never been brought together before. So I thought about all the things I loved: writing, running, dogs, books. Books? What about taking books outside? Plenty of women had book clubs, but had anyone ever had an outdoor book club? (I also looked into calling the business the Adventure Book Club - but in the end decided to hold on to that name and pursue that idea at a later point.)
The Outdoor Book Club was born
I wrote the business plan, with the help of friends, family & colleagues, and submitted it. I spent nearly a month in constant anxiety until I found out I was selected as a finalist. More weeks of anxiety, but this time with a purpose: a finalist presentation. In January I flew to Long Beach, California to compete for a share of more than $130,000 in prize money. Never in my life have I been more prepared for anything. I read the books. I bought the suit (which I ended up trading for hiking boots & a frame backpack). I practiced my pitch in front of anyone who would listen.
In the end, I beat out 14 other semi-finalists to take third place in my program, netting $10,000 to start my business. [INSERT FIST PUMP HERE] I'd be lying if I said I was disappointed that I didn't take home first, but the women who took first and second simply did a better job than I did in the 90 second presentation that decided where the money went. As we say in the Army, "Suck it up and drive on."
Turns out, earning $10,000 was the easy partI flew home, and flying high on the energy from the competition, and after two weeks of my brain slowly melting as I sat in my cubicle at the insurance company, I decided to quit my job.
"You've got bigger balls than I do, Jill," said a good friend over drinks. I smiled, secretly freaking out inside.
That was this past February. In the last two months I've set up this website, planned three trips/workshops and have been telling everyone I know about the business. A lot of women seem genuinely interested, which has been incredibly inspiring. But this is hard work - pulling in money has been scary and weird and it feels like I'm flying blind half the time.
But my life has meaning. It has flexibility and excitedment and boredom and I learn something new every day. Which is exactly how I want to live my life.
I love books. And awesome women. And doing hard things.That's what my business, and my life, is all about. But those hard things can't be too hard, but hard enough so that I feel a real sense of accomplishment afterwards. I love intelligent conversations about deep subjects, like politics and moral compasses and how we can work together to change the world for the better. I love campfires. I love summer. I love wine. I love dogs. And all those things combined is why I started the Outdoor Book Club. Because I want to discover my own inner heroine, and help others do the same thing.
So when people ask me why I started this business, this is what I tell them: because it was time. Because no one had done this before, and that some things are worth doing even if you fail. And despite a lot of anxiety, self-doubt and frustration, I've never been happier. Never.
Time to put on the goggles and fall into the deep end.
Jill Hinton Wolfe