How I Got Here: Episode #6

Sarah Ahmad
Co-founder & CEO of Stable

Entrepreneurship has always been an interest of Sarah Ahmad’s, and when The Garage at Northwestern opened her sophomore year, she knew it was a space she wanted to be in. In her junior year, she launched HotPlate, an app designed to help people find the best-rated dishes at restaurants. But during the summer before her senior year, she had a difficult decision to make: take the prestigious internship she was offered that would pay well and look good on her resume, or spend the summer working on HotPlate? Looking back, Sarah’s glad she chose to work on her startup.

Since graduating and moving to the Bay Area, Sarah co-founded another company called Stable with her Northwestern classmate Collin Pham, which has since raised venture capital and participated in Y-Combinator. Sarah attributes much of her success to trusting her gut and pursuing what she is most interested in instead of focusing on exterior pressures. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern University.

Sarah Ahmad (McCormick School of Engineering ‘19) joined The Garage at Northwestern (thegarage.northwestern.edu) at its opening her sophomore year. During her time she created Hot Plate, an app to help people find the best-rated dishes at different local restaurants. Sarah ultimately decided to stop working on Hot Plate but the experiences and connections she gained stuck with her. She met her current co-founder, Collin Pham (https://www.linkedin.com/in/collin-pham/) , while working at The Garage together and a year after graduation founded Stable, formerly known as Mistro (https://www.usestable.com/). They participated in the 2019 Y combinator cohort. Sarah speaks passionately about following her gut feelings instead of succumbing to the pressures of following the known and safe path. 

Stable Website: https://www.usestable.com/

Sarah’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/SarahAhmad120 

Sarah’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-ahmad-077049b5/

Additional Mentions: Wildfire, Residency, San Francisco Trip, Hot Plate

Mike Raab (00:06):

Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals working at exciting companies and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there. My name is Mike Raab, and I love dissecting nonlinear and non-traditional career paths and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them.

Mike Raab (00:24):

In this episode, I’m joined by Sarah Ahmad, the co-founder of Stable, a San Francisco-based startup providing a virtual address and mail room to other startups. Sarah founded a company called HotPlate as a college student, but ended up working for a small health tech startup afterschool. While working full time, her and her co-founder, Collin, worked on dozens of startup ideas on the side before quitting their jobs after just a year to found their own startup. Since then, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in venture capital, participated in the Y Combinator accelerator program and successfully pivoted their business during a global pandemic. There is so much wisdom shared in this conversation that it’s difficult to distill, but shines through it all is Sarah’s optimism and authenticity. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Sarah Ahmad.

Mike Raab (01:06):

Sarah, thank you so much for being here today.

Sarah Ahmad (01:15):

Of course.

Mike Raab (01:16):

I thought a good place to start might be if you could kind of take us back to when you were a student at Northwestern, what you were studying and what you thought you wanted to do after graduation at that time.

Sarah Ahmad (01:26):

Yeah. So back in Northwestern, I actually was a chemical engineering major for the first half of college and ended up switching my junior year to the integrated engineering studies major, which is basically a build your own major within engineering. And so I combined my a chemical engineering background with design and industrial engineering courses, and then also double majored in economics. And so I was really setting myself up for I knew I wanted to be in startups and tech and figuring out a career in that industry.

Mike Raab (01:55):

Got it. And I’m curious how you got involved with The Garage while you were there.

Sarah Ahmad (02:01):

So I was always really interested in startups, even back in high school, I was involved with DACA, which was a business organization where you would create a business plan and pitch it. And so going into college, it was like in the back of my head that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial and it happened to be that The Garage started my sophomore year. And so I was always thinking about what type of ideas I wanted to work on at the back of my head.

Sarah Ahmad (02:23):

And then the summer before junior year, when I was interning at a company in Chicago, that’s when I got the idea for that first startup called HotPlate. And it was basically an app that helped people find the best dishes at restaurants. And when I had that idea, it was one of those things that, okay. I knew that I wanted this to exist in the world and The Garage would be a really great place to start it. So it was this natural progression as our team wanted to continue working on it and we’re really excited about HotPlate and then yeah, to get really involved with The Garage.

Mike Raab (02:53):

It’s interesting timing that The Garage starts through sophomore year, but also it seems like your first couple of summers of school took more traditional internships. And then in-between your junior and senior year, worked on HotPlate full time. I’m curious how you kind of compare those two different experiences of traditional internship versus I’m working on my own thing full time. And was there any anxiety around that of like, Oh, should I go out and get another kind of traditional internship?

Sarah Ahmad (03:23):

Yeah. So very different. So the summer before my junior year I was interning at a paint company. So for context, I was still a chemical engineering major at the time. So it was the research and development role. So I spent my summer literally watching paint dry as I like to say. I was making paint samples and doing a bunch of tests on them. And honestly it was a very boring experience. And I think it wasn’t just the work day to day didn’t excite me that much, but it was also the work culture. And I could see that the people I was working around were very complacent. It was just not the type of culture role that I knew I wanted. And a lot of chemical engineering roles, if you go into that traditional path, that is the type of industry and work environment that you’re in.

Sarah Ahmad (04:06):

And so fast forwarding then to junior year, I did recruit for a number of different roles in the fall, like any ambitious student. Right. And I ended up accepting an offer at Whirlpool and then winter quarter, my co-founder was interested in doing Summer Wildfire, which is the program where essentially you get some money and get to work on your startup full time during the summer with The Garage. And when they were really committed to it, I definitely felt like that feeling of FOMO. Right. Like I was going to miss out on getting to do this. Then in my head, I knew like if I followed my intuition, what I really wanted to do was work on the startup full-time because I that’s just a more enjoyable experience. Right. But of course there was that weight of, okay, I had already accepted this internship. And of course, having that internship it’s that the idea of stability. Right.

Sarah Ahmad (04:57):

So it wasn’t really hard decision at the time. Looking back, it should have been obvious and I should have just gone with working on my own startup, but at the time it definitely felt like I was taken away obviously a really good opportunity, paid pretty well, right, for just like a summer. And of course had that level of stability. Going after that, I was like, okay, maybe I could take this job, even though it wasn’t even an industry that I was interested in. But yeah.

Sarah Ahmad (05:24):

So at the time it was like, I was talking to everyone, a lot of mentors, friends, and honestly getting a lot of different advice. I think it just depends on someone’s risk tolerance. If they’re like, Oh, you should take the internship that you’ve already took, or if you should work on your own startup and yeah. Looking back, I’m like, that was the most opportune time to be working on your own venture. And that last summer too, it’s just like, okay, if you’re going to go into tech and startups, what when you’re working on your own startup actually gives you that experience to parachute into that even more than working for any other company.

Mike Raab (05:56):

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I love so much what you said, that it was obvious to you that you wanted to work on HotPlate, but there are all these like external validation factors of like stability and money and all these things that I think sometimes students have a hard time parsing through what the right decision there is.

Sarah Ahmad (06:14):

Yeah. And at the time too, I mean, I feel like Northwestern culture, a lot of it is like, you have a really great internship that summer between junior and senior year. And if you don’t then there is this feeling of failure almost associated with it, or it’s a little taboo. But it shouldn’t be, I think it shouldn’t be. And I think University of Northwestern it’s definitely gotten better about that as like The Garage has more of a presence where it’s become more of the norm to do something like that the summer before your senior year.

Mike Raab (06:42):

Well that’s because of the success stories of students like you, alumni like you starting your own companies. Tell me a bit more about HotPlate. How big did you guys grow it? What did it look like on campus? What was that experience like?

Sarah Ahmad (06:54):

Yeah. So I was working on it pretty rigorously, the last two years of college. And at its peak, we had grown it to a few hundred users or 500 users in the Evanston area. And so we had a fully functioning app, had a few iterations of it also that we had launched. And the big launch was around Big Bite Night in fall of my senior year. And so that was basically an event where Northwestern students could go and try a bunch of restaurants in the Evanston area. And that was a really cool partnership opportunity because we basically got a bunch of downloads just the day of to help people like full-time Oh, like what can you go eat? And what are the ratings on there? And so yeah, from there, it was basically a lot of iteration and seeing how far we could take it.

Mike Raab (07:41):

Very interesting. So your summer before senior year, you got through Wildfire, you’ve grown this to have hundreds of users. What was your thought process around getting a job after school at that point? I know you mentioned that you knew you wanted to work in tech and startups. So, were you recruiting with kind of the big tech companies? Did you know you were going to move to the Bay Area after school? Or what were you thinking kind of fall of your senior year?

Sarah Ahmad (08:07):

So fall of my senior year, I basically just wanted to see how far I could take HotPlate. In my mind, the goal would be to take it full-time. And at the time too, I was very much in the mindset that if I did this full-time, I’d probably do it in Chicago just because the cost of living was very cheap. And of course, through Wildfire and some of like The Garages’ grants, we had enough money where if through that and how much money I saved could probably do like six months at least of full time. And so that’s probably what I was pushing for in fall. And then it’s not until winter and spring, then that I had the more of a reality check that, okay, this… And we aren’t quite getting the metrics necessary to take this full time. And of course it was a consumer app, so it didn’t have any good revenue model behind it and so we’d have to raise money and it didn’t necessarily have that kind of engagement around it.

Sarah Ahmad (08:59):

And I did my winter quarter in San Francisco through the Bay Area Immersion Program. And so that was a really good experience to get hands-on experience in their Cisco and see what it’s like to be working alongside tech and startups. And I love that culture, just how fast-paced it is. You’re walking around, it’s just like, everyone’s in tech, which I learned a lot of people find very negatively, but for me it was that kind of energy that I thrived in. And so by the end of that quarter is really where I was like, okay, it’s time to start looking for a job and then spent a lot of spring quarter recruiting then.

Mike Raab (09:35):

It’s an interesting comparison of your feelings about San Francisco compared to what you said earlier at the paint company where there wasn’t like that ambition or that excitement. And it seems like you found it. Yeah. So you ended up after school, starting at a health tech startup in Oakland. How did that opportunity come about?

Sarah Ahmad (09:55):

And so when I would knew I was going to be recruiting, a lot of the big tech companies do recruit earlier in the year for roles around product and engineering. And so I was looking more for like a design role anyway. So I was applying to a lot of places, both big tech companies and small startups and both in Bay Area and Chicago. And I think it helped, my network was stronger in Chicago, so I was getting a lot further in the interview process with companies there. But this was the only opportunity that I had that I was actually interviewing at focusing in the Bay Area.

Sarah Ahmad (10:29):

So I found the opportunity through a Woman In Product Facebook group. And so I posted in there basically for design, a lot of times you have your design portfolio of all the work that you’ve done. And I was asking for feedback on it, on my personal portfolio and really it’s like a way to get in front of people that might be hiring. Right. And I think the people who responded knew that as well. And so I ended up taking a call with someone who ended up being my product manager at the health tech startup. And that basically was the first catalyst into like, okay, it seems like it might be a good fit where hiring someone for a user experience engineering role. And yeah, I ended up going through the interview process and actually was in San Francisco through The Garage trip at the time that weekend after I had that call. So I was able to meet the VP of product in person and obviously that really helped as well.

Mike Raab (11:24):

Super interesting. And what was your experience like coming into, a tech startup in San Francisco after school you’ve been like waiting for this, your college career. Did it live up to your expectations? What was that experience like?

Sarah Ahmad (11:38):

Yeah, it was interesting. It was about a 20-person startup and so very small, right. We had a team based out of Oakland and then we also had some remote folks all across the US, primarily in Denver. And so going into it, it was like, I think with any first job, you don’t necessarily even know what to expect. And so there’s a lot of excitement and energy around that though. Right. It’s like, okay, I’m in this new role. I’m ready to give it my all and really understand how it’s like. But yeah, I mean, I think it was an interesting experience overall, because you do get to see firsthand a company that small, how all the different disciplines work together, like how does marketing and sales impact product and engineering and design.

Sarah Ahmad (12:22):

And I think specifically being in healthcare, there’s a lot of differences working for a company that’s so in such a regulatory space versus a company… I think typically when people think of startups, it’s like, okay, you’re moving fast. You’re breaking everything, you’re defying all the rules. In healthcare, it’s like, it’s very important to make sure that you’re following those guidelines. And so sometimes I would mean that, okay, we’re moving a little more intentionally or a little slower than I’d expected for like a Silicon Valley startup, but it’s still gives you that crazy amount of experience that you can then take to any job, or of course like your own startup as well.

Mike Raab (12:59):

Right. And speaking of Silicon Valley startups after about a year there, you ended up leaving your job to start your own company. I’m very curious, how the idea for Mistro came about and what gave you the confidence to step away from a steady paycheck to start your own thing.

Sarah Ahmad (13:17):

Yeah. So I was working with, or still I’m working with a fellow a Northwestern alum, Collin. So he and I both decided to do Wildfire the summer before our senior years as well. And so we’ve always been pretty entrepreneurial and ever since we moved out here, just a few months in, we started ideating on bunch of different ideas. And so there’s an evolution of probably at this point, like 10+ maybe ideas that we were at some point kind of testing. Right. And so just like on the side of our jobs, we would work evenings and weekends, figure out what was working, what was not. And so Mistro in its pure form of how most people would recognize it, it was a platform to help provide benefits to remote teams. So everything from home office equipment to co-working space memberships and health insurance.

Sarah Ahmad (14:11):

And we landed on that idea middle of summer last year. So 2019. And at the time, soon after that, we had to closed two customers and have them sign basically a service agreement saying like, okay, if you build this we’ll use the product. And so that was really what gave us a lot of confidence and okay. People want what we’re thinking of building. Right. It was like, we didn’t have anything at the time. We basically describe what the product was. And they were installed a big enough problem for them where they were like, okay, I’ll be willing to pay for this. So I think the combination of that, and on my side, I felt like my growth at the startup was kind of stagnating, like personally what I wanted to learn wasn’t necessarily in line with what the kind of responsibilities I was getting.

Sarah Ahmad (14:57):

And I think that that nature of that is like being in a junior role and having that it was a lot of engineering work and I would say like, not necessarily the most excited about the engineering work. And so the combination of that was like, I knew that I wanted to either switch roles, what ideally I would work on this full time. And so I had about six months of savings. And so I knew that if we couldn’t raise money, then there was always that path to go and get another full-time job, which at the time it was like, the economy was great and there was a lot of people hiring. And so that prospect was okay, that’s totally fine with me.

Sarah Ahmad (15:38):

And so doing the whole risk assessment, just where I would be happiest and what I wanted to do professionally, it made sense. And yeah, when I put in my notice, we didn’t have any money raised. It was just like, okay, we have some people that maybe would be interested in writing a few checks. Yeah. We weren’t in a accelerator or anything like that. It was just like, we had some semblance of traction and then we would see where it would go from there.

Mike Raab (16:05):

That’s super interesting. I love that you had the kind of external validation or customer validation before you decided to step away.

Sarah Ahmad (16:12):

Yeah. I think that was a big one too. I think it would be hard to make that decision without any semblance of like, why we’re building, if people actually want this, would they use it. And I think for us, it was like, we didn’t have so much savings that we could just bootstrap this for years. Right. We knew there was a deadline there and so raising money was top of mind. Right. We knew that was one of the first priorities for us to just even have the opportunity to work on it full-time.

Mike Raab (16:40):

Yeah. I’d love to hear more about your experience of raising money for the first time. Did you feel comfortable doing it? Was it awkward? Were there like resources or guides your had or what was kind of that experience with those first initial conversations with investors?

Sarah Ahmad (16:54):

Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely a little awkward at the beginning because you’re not used to going into these conversations, especially yourself and basically asking someone to write a pretty big check into a company. And it’s basically like, especially at the stage where it’s just like you and your co-founders like basically for your team so you can live. Right? And yeah, I read so many guides and I think that’s something that I’ve always just been interested in. Right. Like if you are going to be a founder of a startup out here, more than likely you are going to raise money at some point, so really understanding how to do it, like how are you supposed to craft a pitch deck? What are you supposed to talk about in those 30-minute calls? Like if you have a second call, what does that look like? And how much to raise, what are the types of notes that you can raise on?

Sarah Ahmad (17:41):

I remember that was just such a mystery to understand like safe notes versus convertible notes, and what’s the difference and what are the terms that are favorable for whom. So there’s a lot to learn. And I think it’s one of those things that sometimes it’s taken for granted that if you were raised or you were more exposed to that at a young age that you might assume that people know, but it’s definitely like a big learning curve to understand. And so we’re fortunate that there’s so many great resources online now for that. But I think also what really had helped us was like The Garage, having that experience with The Garage in undergrad, because two of our biggest supporters were people that we’ve met through that network.

Sarah Ahmad (18:22):

And so as I alluded to earlier, so the trip that we had to San Francisco with The Garage senior year, so we had met so one person, so Chris Erickson, who is the co-founder of Apartment List and then also Keval Desai. And so we had met with both of them, stayed in touch throughout that year, before, while we were working on these ideas on the side and constantly pinging them, getting their feedback. So they had seen how the different ideas and iterations even before the benefits part of it had evolve with time. And so then when, it was like very serious, like okay, quitting our jobs, like going full time. They were the ones who really helped. They were some of the first people to put money in, but then also help to get other investors on board. And so yeah, without that, it would’ve been definitely a lot more challenging, but that helped a lot with getting that process started.

Mike Raab (19:16):

I think that’s so important to highlight is that these are people that you had had relationships with and they’d seen you make progress on an idea before they wrote a check. For the other investors, I’m curious if during your pitcher, your meetings with them, you and Collin talked at all about your experiences with HotPlate and with your startups in school.

Sarah Ahmad (19:35):

Yeah, we did. So a lot of early stage investing too and especially at that pre-seed level is investing in the team. And so a lot of, being able to show who we are and our experience, that was a part of what we did and what made us really like, the things the experiences we learned that sets us up for success moving forward. And it definitely helps you, like we’re working in this remote workspace, we’d both worked with remote teams at our previous jobs and had real work-life experience, which I think a lot of them do value where. It’s like, okay, you’re coming from some sort of experience that you’ve had. And you also kind of understand a lot more of those soft skills. So what it’s like to work in a team environment.

Mike Raab (20:19):

Yeah. Makes sense. So you and Collin with Mistro eventually you were accepted into YC or Y Combinator, which is obviously, highly desired accelerator program. What were the biggest lessons that you learned there or what were kind of the biggest benefits of being in that cohort?

Sarah Ahmad (20:37):

Yeah. It was great. Especially looking back, it’s funny. It was like that that was the last in-person, mostly in-person fact and really the biggest value that we still take from the network is just like the people itself. So definitely I met some really great friends throughout the batch itself that we stay in touch about, right. And then when you have those quick questions of like what tools should you use for, I don’t know, like accounting or sending emails, it’s like, these are the people that you end up asking. And then the second layer of that is just like the alumni network is pretty big by now. And so that online community really helps to also just get really great advice, but also just people who have been in your shoes might be a little further along and can really help out or be a customer of what you’re doing. Right. And show their support in that way.

Sarah Ahmad (21:29):

And so I have to say that, that that network is the number one benefit I would say. I think like secondary too is just like, yeah, the whole experience of YC it really pushes you. They give you permission, right, to say no to everything else. Like your startup for these three months, it’s like the most important thing, which is like equivalent of a quarter. Right. I mean, it was a really intense three months. I think, looking back too, it was kind of like, I think at Northwestern, you have a quarter was like, obviously really tough, and then you would have these midterms in the middle.

Sarah Ahmad (22:00):

So we worked really, really hard. And then you would kind of have a small break and then you’d work really hard. Right. It’s like this up and down and YC was like this entire up. It was just definitely like a busy, stressful time. But it also shows that if you really focused, how much you can get done. And I think that’s like something that’s really great to know, just like for yourself, like what are your limits and how much can you put into something that you care about?

Mike Raab (22:26):

Yeah. And it seems to me kind of those two points combined are the exposure to other people working on their startups and what they’re doing and how they work or it’s helpful rather because otherwise you’re just kind of in your own bubble, like, am I doing this right?

Sarah Ahmad (22:41):

Yeah. Yeah. And that energy too, of just being around people that are also super passionate about what they’re building was just amazing to be at. We would have dinners every Thursday night. Right. And you would have dinner with people in your batch and then a talk. And I think just being able to touch base with your peers and you’re just having that relation of, okay, we’re going through the same thing. And at times it’s like you’re really excited, you’re really happy, but there’s also a lot of downtimes. I remember there being in the middle, I think around the midpoint of the batch where it became very apparent, like how hard it would be to hit the goal that you set for a demo day originally. I mean, know of course like when you were very optimistic, for about three months. To be in that, with other people, there’s something really rewarding about that as well.

Mike Raab (23:30):

Yeah. Makes sense. So after you guys had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mistro, you had participated in YC, you ended up pivoting the business to what you’re working on now, which is called Stable. Can you walk me through what that process was like, I’m sure it was a difficult decision to make.

Sarah Ahmad (23:48):

Yeah. Yeah. So soon after YC, so this was right when COVID-19 was really hitting. Right. So our demo day was the day that the shelter in place in San Francisco was put out and things were changing really rapidly, both in, I mean, the day-to-day life that we all experience, but especially working on a startup,, what is that fundraising landscape like, what is the sales landscape like? What are your customers like, what are they thinking about? And what’s important to them, like all this was shifting very, very quickly. And so we were in the HR space, which is notorious already for having long sales cycle and just being very enterprise sales-driven. And so you couple that with the fact that a lot of companies were struggling, right. And so there a lot of budgets being slashed, and then also HR folks were very busy because they were taking care of their teams.

Sarah Ahmad (24:41):

And so all those combinations really made it clear that it was not quite working the way that we needed it too. We needed to get more mid-market enterprise customers on our platform for it to actually like the economics of it to work. And so we started iterating on a bunch of different ideas that were tangential with the input in the remote work and HR space. And so this was between April and May, primarily of this year and what we had noticed with remote teams and talking to hundreds of them through all the research that we’ve done is that there was always this question of, if you don’t have a physical headquarters or office anymore, what does your address end up being?

Sarah Ahmad (25:22):

So this is the question that would come up in calls about Mistro because we were working with remote teams and we had noticed this trend occurring, right. And a lot of people were getting rid of their physical offices. And so we started seeing a lot of people ask these questions even more than before. And so that’s really where the idea of Stable came to us. And so Stable is a virtual address and mail room for startups. And so essentially we give them a permanent business address that they can use on their taxes, government documents, vendors, et cetera. And then we also digitize any mail that comes in for them. And that’s really helpful for these remote teams, but yeah, they either don’t have a physical presence or they’re getting rid of their offices.

Sarah Ahmad (26:02):

And because of the timing of it, so we were like, okay, let’s test this idea in May. And we just put out a post within the YC network and got a lot of interest from companies that wanted to sign up today. And at that point we didn’t even have any product or anything. We were just like, okay, like testing to see if people were interested. And that response was so much more positive than anything that we’d even seen with Mistro. And so we knew that this was a path to explore and to go down further. And so, yeah. And sure enough, that was the right decision. Right. So in June we ended up onboarding our first customers and then fast forward to a few months today, we’re already working with over a hundred and building a platform as fast as we can and really keeping up, right, with the demand that’s out there.

Mike Raab (26:49):

That sounds very exciting place to be.

Sarah Ahmad (26:52):

Yeah. Yeah. It’s been a fun journey and the ball’s very fast.

Mike Raab (26:57):

I think anyone listening to this conversation will hear how positive and passionate and optimistic and how much you enjoy being around exciting cultures and that you’re willing to take on risk. I’m curious if you ever have doubts or if you ever feel like you have an imposter syndrome, or if there ever any of that kind of anxiety or stress being the founder of a company, especially as you’re going to start hiring people and having more responsibility. And if so, how you kind of work with that or deal with that.

Sarah Ahmad (27:34):

Yeah, of course. I mean, I think it’s something that most founders do feel as like some level of imposter syndrome. Right. And I think that falls at every stage of the company. I think early on when we at first raise money, it was hard for me to wrap my head around. We somehow convinced these people to give us a few hundred thousand dollars to just broke on a bunch of ideas. And I think even that level of acceptance of like, no, if people really believe in you and they want to see you succeed and whatever form that might be. It’s like, that’s real. And that’s validating. And I think even today, right, it evolves through a different form. Right. It’s like in every state it’s like, okay, am I making it the right decision for the company? Is this the right decision for the next three, six, 12 months?

Sarah Ahmad (28:18):

And at every point you’re making a series of bets, right? It’s like, okay, how much confidence do you have that this is the right idea to be working on or this is the right decision in the company. And so I think that’s something that never quite goes away and I’ve seen a lot of tweets too, of founders who’ve been doing it for five plus years and they still attest to that. Like, it just evolves in the way that what you actually feel. And I mean, I think for me a lot of it’s also just like the way that I think I deal with it best as just invest in yourself. Right. And it’s really easy when you’re the founder of a company to work incessantly.

Sarah Ahmad (28:54):

And I probably do have a lot of unhealthy work habits. But I think for me, it’s definitely becoming more and more important, like on the weekends to totally unplug from work and just like, it’s more than likely like nothing’s on fire. Right. And so just getting that time to focus on relationships and doing, taking care of yourself. I think that really helps because it gets you in a good mental state and make sure that you’re in the right mindset to really tackle the week then when Monday comes around.

Mike Raab (29:26):

Right. Like it’s healthier to be in a good place mentally than overwork yourself.

Sarah Ahmad (29:31):

Yeah. Because I think that’s also just like a coping mechanism where it’s like, if you’re unsure of yourself like, well, if I just work hard, then things will get done at least.

Mike Raab (29:41):

Yeah. I’m curious if there is one lesson or learning that you have from your experience all the way back to the HotPlate and Mistro and stable as an entrepreneur that stands out of skill or quality or lesson that you’ve learned that is important to be successful.

Sarah Ahmad (30:00):

Yeah. Yeah. I think that the two things that come to my mind, I think the first I’ve touched on, so investing in yourself, right. Because at the end of the day, at the early stage, you are basically the company or 50% of the company. And then I think the second thing is you’re investing in your relationships. And so professionally a lot of people that you decide to work with, you’re going to be working with them for a really long time. And whether that be your co-founder or investors, and so being really mindful of that and what is that relationship like with them and how do you manage conflict and how do you make sure that you have a positive working experience. I think that’s all things that are so important.

Sarah Ahmad (30:38):

I think when I was [inaudible 00:30:40] foster, I don’t think I was as intentional about necessarily like who I wanted to work with. I love my HotPlate team, but I think a lot of it was like happenstance, right? We were in a class together and we’re all ended up on that same team. And then slowly, we would handpick people. And I think like now fast forward a few years and it’s like, I feel like, because of those sessions, like really lucked out, right. Like me and Collin have this amazing working experience together. But it’s like, okay, that could have been anyone. And I don’t think I knew exactly what we were getting into. Right. You’re literally like with that is like you’re both married essentially for that amount of time.

Sarah Ahmad (31:19):

And some of them like with your investors, you want to work with people you trust and those relationships, they don’t just carry through just your first startup. It is like one of those things that are like for life. And so being intentional about it and just how you handle it and always putting your best foot forward. I think Collin and I were both very genuine people. And I think the way that we come across with investors or anyone professionally that we’re working with, whether it’s customers, partners, that’s the thing that we really strive to be. And so thinking about, I guess, what’s your, I mean, it sounds weird to say like your brand as a founder, but I mean, it’s true. If you want to be someone that people will continuously want to work with. We’re just at the beginning stages of this, but I think being intentional about that early on can help in the long run.

Mike Raab (32:07):

I think that’s really smart. Okay. Last question here. What would your advice be for a young Sarah who’s still in school, who knows she wants to start her own company one day?

Sarah Ahmad (32:16):

I think the biggest thing that can happen, no matter what path you end up taking right out of college, it’s easy to grow complacent in that first job, or maybe even second job, whatever it might be. But if you know that you want to be a founder one day, is important like exercise that muscle and figuring out how to make time for that endeavor. I think it is difficult to make that first job that you have, like your own startup that you’re working. Obviously a lot of people do it, but it’s challenging, a lot of pieces have to align. And just because that’s not going to be your first job doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get to do that sometime soon.

Sarah Ahmad (32:53):

And so I feel very fortunate that I ended up going on this path where Collin and I like started working on all these things on the side where we were able to just continue to exercise that muscle of like, how do you build something that people want? How do you test that? And how do you explain what you’re doing? And those are the things that eventually then if you get enough traction while working on it on the side, just similarly, you can quit your full-time job, work on it full time, or get into an accelerator, raise the money, whatever that path might look like. And so yeah, I would just say keep on, keep on hustling.

Mike Raab (33:28):

Yeah. I think a lot of students feel like if their first job out of school isn’t like their dream job or they haven’t scaled their companies so they can work on it full-time afterwards, like they’re a failure when in reality, careers are so long. It doesn’t really matter where you begin. It’s like where you grow from there.

Sarah Ahmad (33:47):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s easier, right, a few years out to then also have that perspective. Right. Because I see so many of my friends still changing their careers. Right. Or like the first job wasn’t what they expected, even if it was a dream job, so to speak at the time. And I think that’s really common. And so to think that at 21, 22, that you would know what you’re going to want to do for the next five years, five years is a long time. And it’s probably unlikely that that’s the first thing is going to be something that you’re super excited about, but it’s about, yeah, not being complacent and figuring out what does make you excited and getting on that path as soon as you can.

Mike Raab (34:24):

I think that’s a great place to end. Thanks so much for your time, Sarah.

Sarah Ahmad (34:28):

Awesome. Thanks Mike.

Mike Raab (34:30):

If there’s one lesson I would take away from Sarah, it’s that she follows her intuition and curiosity over external pressure or validation. Going into her final summer as a college student, she had secured a high value internship that looked good on her resume and would provide stability and a good paycheck. But what she really wanted to do was work on her own startup. And although the decision to turn down that internship was difficult to make at the time she says now “Looking back, it should have been obvious that I should have gone with working on my own startup.” Her experience that summer was invaluable to the knowledge and skills that have aided her in founding Stable and raising money from investors. If you’re deciding between two options, I encourage you to consider which one you are more excited about instead of which one you think others will be more impressed with.

Mike Raab (35:11):

How I Got Here is a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern, and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams and Elizabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.

Questions?

Email us at thegarage@northwestern.edu