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How Getting Laid Off Pushed Me To Start My Own Tech Company


start my business

I have a strict “one-day” rule.

When I go through something discouraging personally or professionally, I allot myself just a single day to feel sad before I regroup and move on from it. That’s it. If I have a falling out with a friend, a work project I’m excited about falls through, or even when I lost my job, I put on a sad mixtape, let myself cry, and have a “me” day.  

When that day is up, it’s time to get up and move. I put my head down and mentally prepare to execute the next plan. After all, the world doesn’t understand, the bills still come, and it’s recommended that kids eat daily. But I’m ready, because I’ve taken the time to fully process the situation, which provides clarity and fosters clear, concise, and decisive decision-making.  

So when I got laid off on January 9, 2016, I had no idea what I’d do. I took my day to process that next day, and on January 11 I signed the LLC documents and registered my business. By the end of that night, I had a logo and a website. It was go-time.

I didn’t commit 100% to my business—at least not at first.

I was actually still interviewing for jobs while setting up HarpData.

If given a good enough offer, I was prepared to take it and put the business on hold. And I honestly thought that would be the case. With a relatively rare skill set level for data storage architecture and design, finding work had never been very difficult. I had never even been on an interview where I didn’t get the job offer.

But for the first time in my life, I couldn’t land a job. Multiple interviews led to nothing. It was like all of a sudden, no one wanted me.

So with no money and no clients, I began cold calling and reaching out to people I’d worked with in the past. I didn’t know when it was going to happen, or even if. But I knew that I had something. I just needed to find someone to give me a shot.

But I want to fast-forward here and paint a complete picture: Everything worked out. At 39, I feel like I’m the best possible version of myself. Through my business, I’ve created a comfortable and happy life for my family, but I’ve also been able to help others and give back to the community in a city close to my heart. I feel it’s God’s plan that I’m where I am doing what I’m doing right now.

I could talk for hours about all the things that had to fall into place just right for me to get to where I am today.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned some tough lessons along the way.

Here are a few of the most important:

1. It’s extremely difficult to start a business until you educate yourself.

Whether it be by school, by trade, or even just reading books.

At first, I struggled with the basics: building relationships, landing customers, processing orders, developing a solid business strategy. I had no business training, I didn’t go to business school. Really, all I knew is what I’d observed—in my previous roles, I’d had the privilege of working closely with some gifted businesspeople.

But I quickly learned that wasn’t enough. Looking back, I’m grateful I didn’t land my first customer when I thought I was going to, because I wouldn’t even have known how to process the order.

Early on I started reading, and I’ve now read piles of books on every aspect of business. My company wouldn’t be where it is today if I hadn’t.

2. You have to know when to submit and when to stay the course.

Running a startup requires both steadfastness and flexibility.

When you welcome talented, motivated people into your company, they’re going to bring their own ideas. I know that, and I respect that. When I choose people to join my team, I let them enter in an advisory role as well. The ability to adapt to new ideas and changing circumstances has really allowed me to grow in business over time.

However, the real skill is the discernment between when to implement new ideas and when to stay the course toward your goals.

3. Make decisions at the right time.

This philosophy is where my one-day rule comes from. Just like people always warn against making decisions when you’re mad, I firmly believe that you can’t make big decisions when you’re sad, angry, or upset. You’re never going to get the right outcome that way.

So if I have a tough day or week, I give myself time to let my feelings wash over me before I make any choices. That way, I get to feel sadness or anger in my chosen moment rather than letting it choose me.

4. Do things the right way.

Not just technically, but ethically, too.

Unfortunately, you can get away with being a successful, unethical businessperson a lot of the time. In fact, screwing people can be one of the easiest ways to the top. But it’s not right, and it’s not worth it.

I learned this most important rule the hard way.

After I got laid off and set up my business, it had been a while since I’d gotten a paycheck. The bills were piling up. I needed to sign my first client desperately.

Previously, I’d done some contract work for a large tech company in Seattle. The client was using a data storage platform that wasn’t exactly working for them. They knew that they needed another solution. The company that I was contracted to wouldn’t show them other options, no matter how much they asked. Even though they were already selling this same client’s perfect solution in another business unit.

The client asked me if I could suggest an alternative, so I showed to them the better solution, and they loved it, because it was the right for them. They were sold—or so I thought, and they wanted to buy it from me. It was a big deal, and I was already counting the money when I found out it had fallen through.

The company I’d been contracted to found out, offered to provide what the client needed, the client agreed to actually pay more for the solution than what I proposed. Why? The CEO had a relationship with his rep at the retailer, and he valued that relationship more than a discount.

That type of client poaching, even when you’re trying to give them the best solution for them, is a big no-no. I knew that, tried it anyway, and received a lesson in doing things the right way.

Now, I am straight up with everyone in my life to the maximum extent possible—people in my organization, partners, clients, friends, family, everyone. What you put out into the world comes back to you tenfold.

I had to learn that lesson to set me straight for the rest of my entrepreneurial journey.

Despite all the challenges, setbacks and tough lessons I’ve learned in the last two years, I’m certain that I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I notice subtle signs that confirm that belief every day. And though it was a painful, stressful experience, I truly believe I was laid off on that fateful day a few years back for a reason.

Otherwise, I never would have started my business—this incredible venture that has grown bigger than I ever could have imagined. I can’t wait to see what the future holds in store for us.

Ivory Robinson is the founder and president of HarpData and the Father of Dragons.

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