Face Down In The Dirt

Here's a conversation with Walter Ley, founder of Branch, a tech startup in Atlanta, Georgia. He talked about how not having an MBA can create self-doubt when you’re a new entrepreneur. He also talked about having the courage to create something from scratch to solve a problem and understand that you’re going to have some “face down in the dirt” lessons in life overall, not just entrepreneurship. 

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Many say that startups equal the unpolished MBA. Anyone who has built a business from an idea can attest to the fact that the experience is another level MBA. And there's nothing quite like it. Since you must be extremely resourceful and scrappy as a startup founder, quite often doing many things unconventionally, the conventional corporate MBA's considered the experience "Unpolished", but is it really? Honestly having been on both sides, as an engineer in corporate, and then as a startup founder with an MBA, I'd have to agree with those who say that you don't need an MBA to be a startup founder. In fact, I think you learn more on how to build a company as a startup founder than you do in a structured MBA program. In fact, you certainly earn an MBA while on the job building the company piece by piece. "Build the plane on the way down" they say. Well, that's exactly what it is, but there are lessons to be shared to help both sides learn from each other. The Unpolished MBA podcast will be the sharing of candid conversation related to topics on both sides of the fence. One is not better than the other, just different. Let's jump in.

Host – Monique Mills

Hi, I'm your host, Monique Mills. And in my work, I get to have great conversations with a lot of smart and interesting people. Some of them are tech startup founders and entrepreneurs in various industries, and others are corporate employees. Here I'm sharing a conversation I had with Walter Ley, a startup founder in Atlanta. And he shares some of his thoughts about starting a company without an MBA and how it has caused some self doubt at times. We dig into the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. And to give you context, today it's August, 2020, and we're in the middle of a pandemic, high unemployment, and a major election coming up. I always talk about luck in timing when it comes to the success of companies and Walter's company is one that is positioned just right, because it helps people become informed about their state and local elections during the time where it's so important. Listen in to this conversation as we dive deep into the pros and cons of entrepreneurship.

Guest - Walter Ley (02:45):

I am an entrepreneur. Okay.

Host - Monique Mills (02:47):

MBA or no MBA?

Guest - Walter Ley (02:48):


Host - Monique Mills (02:50):

Okay. So how did you arrive at entrepreneurship?

Guest - Walter Ley (02:56):

Let's see. So I was a Georgia Tech graduate. Worked in the financial tech industry after I graduated for some time and mainly within startups. And it's always been something that's interesting to me. Both of my parents are business owners. I think my dad's dad was a business owner and my mom's family was business owners. So it's just kind of something that definitely had like a good example for how to take that dive and kind of start your own thing. So after working for a couple of years in the the last startup I worked for, really had a passion to want to do what I'm doing now. To create a startup that was both--use technology, but also had a social impact to it. And thought that I could do that best kind of on my own. So decided to, to leave my job and kind of go out on my own.

Host - Monique Mills (03:52):

So wait a minute, you also had experience working for a startup before you started your own thing?

Guest - Walter Ley (03:59):

Oh yeah.

Host - Monique Mills (03:59):

Oh, so wait a minute. So some people say that encourages them to want to do their own thing and it shows them that, Hey, if that person can do it, I can too. But then some people, itscares them away. They're like, Hey, I need more structure. So what was your experience working for that startup?

Guest - Walter Ley (04:17):

Yeah. You know, now that I am in my own thing, I now I'm aware of how much it kind of entails. Right. I didn't really learn that from the startup that I worked for previously. Like I wouldn't have been able to tell you how difficult and grueling it can be. So I probably would have been, would have been a little bit more scared before this, but I, and I don't know why that is. The startup I worked at beforehand you know, I guess it was just that they were well-funded and so that they kind of had the security that I think comes with a normal corporate job. You know, I was never in danger of losing my job. They were never in danger of having to, you know, downsize or anything.

Host - Monique Mills (05:01):

Okay. Okay.

Guest - Walter Ley (05:03):

Yeah, definitely. Wasn't afraid of that.

Host - Monique Mills (05:05):

Okay. All right. So yeah, so it wasn't necessarily early stage. They had funding, they were basically trying to scale at that point. They, weren't still trying to figure out if their business model worked.

Guest - Walter Ley (05:18):

Yeah. And they they had a couple of, of, you know, big name investors, which I think provided a lot of that security. Also any, I think startedup within the financial tech industry, especially what we were doing, working it was B2B service working directly with financial credit card processors and financial institutions. So they, they had to have that sense of like security to be able to work in that industry. So yeah, it didn't have much uncertainty there, but at the same time, I think it provided a lot of the the exciting parts that kind of made me interested in entrepreneurship. So, you know, I could work on what I wanted to, for the most part so long as it was something that was helpful. I wasn't stuck in a you know, very like restrictive role that had a very specific career and growth path. Like it was, it was very dynamic. I could you know, put in a lot of extra work and be rewarded for it. I could, you know, think of an idea for a project that I thought would add a lot of value to the company and pursue it. So they were very encouraging.

Host - Monique Mills (06:23):

Wow. That's the great part about working for a startup, especially when you compare it to being in most structure corporate environments. It's night and day. So, this is the thing, let's talk about where you are right now in your startup. So you're very early stage, right?

Guest - Walter Ley (06:46):

Yeah, that's correct. Yea, working on this full time.

Host - Monique Mills (06:51):

You're working on it full time. So if you don't mind share the name of your company and what you do and what impact you're expecting to have in industry that you're pursuing.

Guest - Walter Ley (07:05):

Yeah. So the startup I founded is called Branch and we are right now just focused in the Atlanta area. Our whole mission is to empower people, to vote with knowledge and with power. So we're really focused on providing information in a very like convenient and digestible way for people to be informed about state and local elections is our whole thing. Kind of look at it like the TurboTax but of voting. So somebody goes in and turns in their address and we walk them through the process of, you know, here's, what's going to be on your ballot. Here's, who's running for what, what ideas they stand for. Who's funding them, why it impacts them. And that's kind of the gist of it is just to make that process of voting for the smaller elections below the presidential level, really accessible for people.

Host - Monique Mills (07:54):

Yeah. The local, the local elections are really where it's at. Right?

Guest - Walter Ley (07:57):

Yeah, exactly.

Host - Monique Mills (07:59):

And so, with that being said, being in these early stages, what would you say is the most, has been the most challenging part?

Guest - Walter Ley (08:08):

You know, I think, and one thing that I think ties well into the topic of the podcast is having to learn a lot of things that I don't know.

Host - Monique Mills (08:20):

Can you give me an example of one?

Guest - Walter Ley (08:23):

Yeah. So one of the immediate ones that come to mind is funding, right? So I, and my previous startup worked as a software architect and then a product manager. And so I was kind of exposed to revenue generation, but when you're talking about, you know, raising capital, I was not anywhere near those conversations. And so just the whole process of going about raising funding and also learning how to do that. Especially as someone that didn't have any sort of formal MBA background, that was very difficult.

Host - Monique Mills (08:56):

Whoa. So can I enlighten you on something?

Guest - Walter Ley (08:59):

Yeah, definitely.

Host - Monique Mills (09:00):

So you know that I, I was a startup founder with an MBA. I actually went in to start creating a startup while I was doing my MBA. And let me tell you this, they don't teach you how to fundraise when you get your MBA.

Guest - Walter Ley (09:14):


Host - Monique Mills (09:15):

No, they don't teach you about that. They, if you like certain schools have different tracks. Like I did, I did my MBA at Georgia Tech and the track that I took was Management of Technology, which they do have like a capstone project where you create an idea and it is kind of a, you know, a mock of what a startup founder would go through. So, but it's not as intense. Right. And they do talk a little bit about pitch deck and all that, but I learned by doing. And so those who are startup founders, like, Hey, I think I would have known this or known that had I done my MBA. You may have heard of the terms and stuff before, but you still wouldn't have known how to do it because they don't teach you that in MBA. And no MBA program that I know of. That's, that's something separate.

Guest - Walter Ley (10:06):

Yeah. And it's interesting because the only reason I was able to fumble my way through it is just talking to a bunch of people who I'm not, not people that have been received education, but people who have just done it before, right. People that were, you know, 20, 30 years ahead of me within the industry that could provide that sort of guidance. But that's very interesting.

Host - Monique Mills (10:26):

Yeah. It's not, it's not a formula. Like, you know, I come from a background of engineering where everything is literally a formula, right. And so, you know, you got two plus two is going to be four, but that's not how business works. And I think a lot of people expect that, like, if I do this formula, if I do the classes at ATDC, if I do Create X and then I get into Venture Atlanta, and then I do this, and then I can raise money like that. That's not true. I know people who have done all of those things and their business still did not go any further, then, you know, it was in the early stages. So...


Host - Monique Mills (11:01):

This next section, we're going to talk about how the entrepreneurial journey can really, really affect your mental health and how to sort of deal with that. Take a listen.

Host - Monique Mills (11:22):

I think we are too hard on ourselves about allowing ourselves to feel. And it's okay to allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself in the moment. You know, we all go through that, but then being able to pick yourself up and be like, okay, what's next? Like who can I, you know, get to help me think through this. This is one of the main reasons why founders are still so frustrated as well as. Because they try to figure out everything themselves when they're embarrassed to say, Hey, this didn't work out.

Guest - Walter Ley (11:57):


Host - Monique Mills (11:58):

You know, it didn't work out and they don't want to share that with anyone. And so

Guest - Walter Ley (12:04):

Yeah, that's real.

Host - Monique Mills (12:05):

Yea, that's very real. So you've got to let people in. If there is something where I'm saying, like, you know, the ups and downs in entrepreneurship, I've been there. I've been there when it's days like, you know what? I don't want to get out of bed, but I have to. And it's been those days where I wake up at four o'clock in the morning or three o'clock in the morning, like, Oh, this this'll be great for the business. And I gotta write it down. I've got to put it in my Evernote. So I I've been there.

And so when people are excited or at the point where they are in a valley about the business, I know how to pull them through that because I've been there. Done it. And I know that a lot of times it's a matter of them just kind of talking through it and then seeing what's on the other side of this, because it's not over. And even if you do pivot the business, like you did, you may pivot the business and come up with new ways to keep things going. And then just always know, it's not you. If you decide to shut the business down at some point, that's okay. You personally are not a failure. You just did not find product market fit at that time. And timing and luck has a lot to do with startups success.

Guest - Walter Ley (13:23):

Yeah. I would agree with that.

Host - Monique Mills (13:24):

Both of which you have no control over.

Guest - Walter Ley (13:26):

Branch, we, at the beginning of 2020, we had this concept, took it to our advisor who at the time was a guy that, you know, had worked in campaigning all of his life. Right. He's worked as a senior staff member for one of the big 2016 presidential campaigns. Like he, he's a really smart guy. Published author on, on the topic of campaigns. And I went and talked to him about this new concept about state and local elections. And he was like, Oh, it's, it's a bad concept. It's like, what do you mean? He was like, there's no way you get people to pay attention to it. Cause in his perspective was that, you know, his whole life, he had worked for state and local elections and just had an impossible time getting people to pay attention. And I think part of how we kind of proved him wrong through launching was, you know, we, we made this a lot easier and a lot more accessible for people which naturally drew people in.

But a lot of it had to do with luck as well. Like both with COVID and the recent, like black lives matter movement have just highlighted the importance of these state and local elections to where everybody's looking for ways to get more involved in their state and local elections. Then we have come up at that point, we have already launched the product that, you know, a month before the election where people could actually like use that momentum and, you know, find a way to kind of turn that passion into action. That was something that we had zero control over. I think what you said too is very insightful. I think we never hear about startups until they're successful. Right?

Host - Monique Mills (14:57):

That's right.

Guest - Walter Ley (14:58):

We never, we look around all of these companies, even like startups within the Atlanta community. We don't hear about them until they're successful. So we don't hear about the, you know, months and years of, you know, growing dead ends and you know, all nighters and things like that, that go into.

Host - Monique Mills (15:16):

And the tears. There are tears. There are grown man and grown woman tears in this process. Yep.

Guest - Walter Ley (15:26):

Yeah. And like you said, the flip side of waking up at 3:00 AM with a good idea is waking up at 2:30 am having a panic attack about, you know, how you're going to make enough money that. And it's, it's just all part of it. But nobody, nobody talks about that. And so, you know, if you're having to do these things, you're, you're on the right track.

Host - Monique Mills (15:44):

You're on the right track, Walter. You are, you are doing all the right things that needs to be done for a business to be successful. You're doing those things. And it's certain things are out of your control and then you're controlling the things that you can control. Right. So right now your product is something that people need to know about in order to engage in their local elections and understand what's going on. So if you don't mind, I'd love for you to share with the audience, what Branch does, right, how they can access it, and how they can reach out to you if there are any questions or if they would like to be a part of your movement.

Guest - Walter Ley (16:24):

Yeah, absolutely. So like I said, Branch is a free nonpartisan website. It quickly informs people on their state and local elections in very clear, digestible terms. We interview all of the candidates that are running for federal, state, and local offices around the Atlanta area, within Georgia. I'm primarily focused on Atlanta and then we present that information through our website. So it's a really easy, intuitive experience. Our next election coming up next big election is the November election here in Georgia. For which we'll have coverage for, you know, Fulton county, Dekalb County, and probably Cobb and Gwinett as well.

So I mean, first of all, we're going to be around in November. We're going to be a tool for people to use and definitely check that out and use it. Especially if you haven't voted in some of these smaller elections before. They are very impactful. And that's what we kind of aim to highlight for the website. But you can learn about our product on our website, which is www dot Branch dot vote. And one of the other things that we're doing right now is we're running a Kickstarter campaign to fund our coverage for the November election, which you can also find a link to on our website. But that is running through the end of August. So if you're somebody that believes in the mission we would definitely appreciate your financial support as well.

Host - Monique Mills (17:44):

That's awesome, Walter. This is great timing. You can't get any luckier than one of the most historic elections and time periods in the history of the world, not just our country. And so I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and us to kind of talk about the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. But also I hope that as we end this conversation, you know, that an MBA would not change your trajectory as far as what you're doing right now.

Guest - Walter Ley (18:16):

I definitely take comfort in that because I do, I do think sometimes I'm like, Oh, this might be easier. But yeah. And I appreciate what you're doing and just to highlight that. And hopefully, you know, more people can be encouraged to go through the entrepreneurship journey and not feel like they have to, you know, have all the degrees and certifications first.

Host - Monique Mills (18:39):

Okay. That's it. Walter shared some real truths in this episode. There are seriously grown man and grown woman tears shed on entrepreneurial journey. And having an MBA won't shield you from that because the truth is nobody knows it all. And there's no amount of education that can prevent you from going through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

If you have questions, go ahead and send us a message using the link in the show notes. Your questions may be incorporated into a future episode. And if it is we'll notify you, the Unpolished MBA conversation continues and you can be in part of it by going to unpolishedmba.com. Thank you for listening.

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