About the Unemployable Series: Writer Katherine Karaus talks candidly to founders in our community who never quite fit the corporate mold about their entrepreneurial journeys. This month we're featuring, Topher Kingsley-Williams, Co-founder of Porpoise.
Katherine: What did your career arc look like before you started your own company?
Topher: I dropped out of university, well, got kicked out of university. A combination of the two. While I was in university I always felt as though I could be creating a business and creating value some way. I ended up moving to Australia, buying a small boat, and racing sailboats for 4 years semi-professionally. It was incredible, but there wasn’t much purpose to my life. I was just playing with boats. I wanted to have some sort of impact, and do something more business oriented. I decided that I’d quit sailing and try to get into business more formally. I fell into the tech world by accident. I got a job working for a company with a contract with Red Hat. After a period of 3-4 years working with that organization I found myself at a point where I was quite bored. I was limited because I didn’t finish my degree, so that was an educational barrier. I didn’t have the qualifications necessary to move up. It’s less that I wasn’t employable -- I didn’t feel challenged, and the corporate hierarchy was limiting. So I quit that job and worked with a number of startups on a consulting basis. That was my first solo role in the tech world.
Katherine: Tell me about how you started Porpoise (am I saying that right?)
Topher: Yes, it’s like the mammal. It’s a play on the word purpose. We joke with clients, “You can’t give your employees purpose, but you can give them Porpoise.”
Katherine: That’s dumb, and I like it.
Topher: [Laughs] It works really well. It started off as a joke, but people really liked it. It breaks the ice and allows people to talk about something serious in a playful way. But how we got started -- essentially, one of my co-founders said “You should start a software company.” I was like “Nope. Absolutely not, it’s way too much work.” And 3 months later we started a software company. I think my initial reaction came from knowing how much effort would be involved. That co-founder hadn’t worked at a tech company before. He saw the glamorous side of tech exits. But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. After a number of conversations with him and our other co-founder, my gut was saying we could figure this out. We had three different strong suits, and we were all bringing something very different to the table.
Katherine: What’s Porpoise all about?
Topher: We’re a proudly Canadian company spending time in New York. It’s all about helping companies recognize their employees for who they are, and try to establish an amazing workplace culture. We really want to build employee-centric workplaces that are designed around people's values. We also wanted a business that supported our lives, and where our employees felt supported. We wanted to marry our work lives with families, kids, and traveling.That’s difficult at a fast-paced startup that’s trying to grow really quickly. You’re constantly challenged with long long days and tight deadlines and not much money. For the most part we’ve been able to keep the balance.
Katherine: What has been the most challenging part of starting your own company?
Topher: All three co-founders are control freaks, which is interesting. None of us is particularly employable. Because of that we have a roving leadership model where depending on the situation you can all take charge. We’ve managed to work well within these boundaries. I think one of the main tradeoffs of entrepreneurship is you have to be very cautious and aware of your health and stress levels. I’ve gotten better at it. Not being able to leave work at work is definitely a challenge. But well worth it.
Katherine: What advice would you give to the younger, sailboat-racer version of yourself?
Topher: Read more books.