The Corporate Plunge (Startup Stories 18.02)

Caleb Diaz, Bulk, 2018 Hacker Fellow

Caleb Diaz, Bulk, 2018 Hacker Fellow

The Beginning

Before I started my own company, I never took any dramatic risks. Growing up in Miami, Florida, the hustle was always the mentality. That’s probably why I changed my major at Florida State University from Graphic Design to Electrical Engineering during my freshman year. Enough Googling showed me where I would most likely end up with my first passion, so I let it find its place as a hobby and continued the path of a guaranteed future. Even then, entrepreneurship was never the goal, let alone being a CEO. In fact, my dream during my Electrical Engineering days was to build hardware for Apple during the Steve Jobs era.

During my senior year of college, things began to take form and I thought my future was becoming clearer. I was filling out grad school applications left and right and started shifting my focus to robotics research. I didn’t have a solid plan of where I wanted to end up, but I knew that it had to be out of Florida and needed to align with wherever my college sweetheart was going to attend law school. (Spoiler Alert: We are currently engaged to be married after 8 years of being together, so I guess you could say things worked out!) Everything was looking bright and decisions were being finalized until I threw a wrench into the mix when I got my first real taste of OO programming—mobile applications. Adding Java programming to my resume started to mix things up and turn some heads. I was no longer looked at for my hardware skills, but for my software experience. I felt dirty—okay that’s a messy segue, but in all seriousness, there were now more opportunities and options than before, and things got confusing. This is when General Motors took the recruiting scene by storm.

The Not-So Corporate

GM knew how to sweep a person off their feet and butter them up with the best sweet-talk you have ever heard, guaranteed.

Internship? How about a full-time gig with the sexiest benefits package you have ever seen?

Grad school? One year in with us and its paid for.

Oh, what, Michigan? Test drive a corvette and keep it for a week on us.

At the time, leveraging job offers was overwhelming and it was so hard to decide a future on what felt like a whim. What became important to me was no longer what was on paper. The GM recruiters treated me like I wasn’t just another smart person in a chair surrounded in a room with a million other versions of me. I was told I could make a difference and as cliché as that may sound now, it worked. I embarked on a wonderful journey from the beautiful beaches of Miami, to the, um, snowy winters of Michigan.

Thus began my journey into the corporate world. Interestingly enough, I got to experience the professional wardrobe, 3 coffee cup minimum and super passive aggressive emails right out of college. To be honest, it wasn’t all bad and I adapted quickly. Yes, the nerves right up to the first day I started were exhausting and it was hard to shake off that feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I for one, felt like I had gotten away with murder as I slid into the shoes of a software engineer at General Motors with a self-proclaimed knowledge of Android. Let’s just say my interviewing game was on point. The funny thing is, on the outside you would think that a company of that stature would be gray and bland and run by machines. It was the opposite. The office was down-to-earth, as laid back as it gets, and my first three months allowed me to catch up on what my team needed of me. I learned the most I had ever learned on the job surpassing my 4 years of college by a mile. Then, things got stagnant and I felt my steady growth depleting with every day that passed by. This is that defining moment where you realize that work isn’t everything and you begin to define a side hustle that usually finds you before you even have a say in it. For me, it was the idea of starting my own company. That’s right, it’s pitch time.

Caleb and Tre at AfroTech Detroit with John Holmes, all 2018 Hacker Fellows.

Caleb and Tre at AfroTech Detroit with John Holmes, all 2018 Hacker Fellows.

We all know misery loves company and I was lucky enough to find my co-worker turned co-founder, Tre. We happened to be dealing with corporate’s life-draining horrors at the same time which led to the first breath of our company. I was extremely skinny, weighing 128 pounds at 5’ 8” and Tre was a lean track and field athlete. We both wanted to get “swole” but for some reason were finding it impossible to reach our goals. We took the internet by storm, squeezed the life out of the app store, and ate more Taco Bell than you can imagine (allowing Tre to win a PS4 but that’s a story for another time). That’s when we took it upon ourselves to build an app that was aimed specifically for gaining healthy weight and muscle using what we had learned from our personal training and nutritionist certifications. In that time, I gained over 30 pounds and began to realize that what we were building could satisfy that craving of making a difference. Bulk: The Weight Gain app was born right then and there.

Bulk App visualizations from app store.

Bulk App visualizations from app store.

Oh…This is Corporate-Corporate

These new aspirations still weren’t enough to convince me that I was an entrepreneur. I still felt like I needed to be at Google or Microsoft and sit on bean bags every day to feel like I had made it in life. I wanted to challenge myself and prove that I was in fact a worthy software engineering warrior. That’s why, when General Motors offered applications for their OnStar team, I dove in and started my new corporate chapter. This was exactly what I was looking for at the time. My team was young, clearly smart in a not-so-arrogant way and the work was beautifully complicated. Again, I began to learn new technologies daily and started feeling that stench of importance and self-worth. Yet, as I tend to find the wrong in everything possible, I felt over-worked. The pay started to seem minimal and work started becoming life and life started becoming non-existent. These experiences allowed me to cross off yet another item on my get-filthy-rich-scheme as I came to the realization that work-life balance was required unless I was going to be paid my self-entitled value. It was clearly time for a change and as great as things were going, I made another move that at the time felt in line with my goals: six figures.

The Smoke & Mirrors in Six Figures

Through the powerful art of negotiation, I landed my first six figure job doing even less than I was doing at GM. It was satisfying and comfortable and the rain I poured was like no other I had seen before. I took this time to prepare for the future and rather than focus on moving up another corporate ladder, I shifted to my end goal: making Bulk happen. By this time, I faced the music. Google-like atmospheres, beer at the office, and more money just wasn’t cutting it for me. When you have that entrepreneurial itch there really is no other way of scratching it, no matter how many luxuries you have or how lavish you try to make your lifestyle become. If this sounds familiar and you have that gut wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach, my best advice is to follow that instinct. Bring it to fruition and even if you fail, that feeling is better than the regret you will have for not taking the leap. I planned my escape. Tre and I tried to become as well known in the startup community as we could and left our footprint wherever we went. We created a 6-month plan that included saving money and ramping our traction and revenue to help us stay on our feet when we took the plunge. I’ll be the first to admit that the decision was never easy. In fact, I never even felt prepared to do it. I needed that extra push that would take me over and it came when we met Sam from Hacker Fellows.

Leap of Faith

Hacker Fellows presented us with a very interesting opportunity. We could become 2018 Fellows and when all is said and done, work for our own company. We were going to be able to participate in Invest Detroit’s technical bootcamp and meet a plethora of mentors and connections as long as we made that final move. We had to quit our jobs and work on our startup full-time. Whether or not we were prepared at the time, it didn’t matter because that push is all I needed. I boarded my plane to California for a much-needed vacation, leaving behind a 6-figure job and for the first time, a blurry vision of the future filled with one certainty: a spot in Hacker Fellows.

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Caleb Diaz is a 2018 Hacker Fellow who studied Electrical Engineering at Florida State University. He is currently working with Bulk in Detroit.