Venture For America Fellow Experience

How Venture For America Kickstarted My Career at Leverege

Since taking that entrepreneurship course at Brown, I’ve learned that it had not taught me what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’d but dipped my toe into a vast ocean much deeper than I’d ever imagined. The experience of helping to build a company is hard to capture in words. It’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling, draining and movitating, painful and delightful. I absolutely love it and there is no place I’d rather be than where I am right now.

Calum McClelland

“...when I was finally able to take Danny’s course it proved the most useful by far; it taught me what it means to be an entrepreneur.”

The above is excerpted from a post I wrote almost 2.5 years ago about my Venture for America (VFA) experience and how it led me to Leverege. Over that time, Leverege has grown from 8 of us to 25 and I’ve grown from starting my first full-time job to a Director of Projects managing a team of 5 awesome people.

Since taking that entrepreneurship course at Brown, I’ve learned that it had not taught me what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’d but dipped my toe into a vast ocean much deeper than I’d ever imagined. The experience of helping to build a company is hard to capture in words. It’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling, draining and movitating, painful and delightful. I absolutely love it and there is no place I’d rather be than where I am right now.

In this post I’ll be sharing why VFA and Leverege proved to be perfect choices for me, what my professional journey has looked like, and a few things I’ve learned in my 2.5 years so far.

Why VFA & Leverege Were Perfect Choices

I joined Venture for America because I wanted to learn how to build companies, and I haven’t been disappointed. VFA provides a 5 week training camp, cultivates a network of partner companies to provide startup job opportunities, and has created a community of amazing VFA Fellows and VFA Alumni. Several of my best friends today I met in VFA (in fact, I’m writing this on a bus to NYC to visit one of them!) and there are many more who consistently inspire me with their accomplishments and drive to do good.

VFA also led me to Leverege. In the post mentioned above, I wrote that I was ecstatic because Leverege had everything that I was looking for at the time. Three of those things were:

1) “I sought a company whose leadership had experience successfully building companies so that I could gain mentors to teach and guide me”

Leverege was founded by Eric Conn and Steven Lee, who combine for nearly 50 years of hands-on experience designing and delivering mission-critical, big data systems to both commercial and governmental customers around the world. One of their crowning achievements was developing the nation’s first comprehensive air defense system and delivering it to the US Air Force, NORAD, and the FAA 73 days after the events of 9/11.

Given my experience at Leverege, I can’t understate the importance of having experienced leadership. Time and time again it’s proven invaluable to me as an individual and to the company as a whole. As an individual, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can draw on the deep experience of our leaders to receive guidance and to improve. As a company, our direction and our culture is set by leaders who’ve been there before.

2) “It was important to me that the leadership share my values and would thus be a good fit culturally for me”

“Culture” is a term that’s used often in the world of startups, but what does it actually mean? I can only speak for Leverege, but to me, our culture means we empathize and we treat people as people. We mentor and provide opportunities for internal growth. We work extremely hard, but also laugh and relax in each other’s company. We face challenges, but we face them together. We pay attention to the details because every detail matters. We don’t tolerate assholes and we give a shit about what we do. We do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing.

There isn’t a single right culture, but there are certainly many wrong cultures. I’ve spoken with friends who’ve worked at other organizations, both within VFA and without, and I’ve witnessed the full spectrum. It’s clear to me that Leverege is an incredibly rare and special organization, and I’m so grateful to have found a place that shares my values and fits me culturally.

3) “Given my desire to gain exposure to a multitude of roles, I wanted to work at a smaller company”

As we’ve gone from 8 people to 25, I’ve definitely gained exposure to a multitude of roles. I’ve moved from business development to content marketing to project management to operations and done countless miscellaneous things in between. Leverege is a place where employees aren’t boxed into a single role forever and are instead given the opportunity to earn responsibilities far afield from the role in which they originally began.

I think that getting exposure to many roles is true of startups generally, but also particularly true to my professional journey.

What My Professional Journey Has Looked Like

Imagine a 4-year old drawing a path through a simple maze, there are few (if any) straight lines and it isn’t clear if the path is even leading in the right direction. That’s basically me! Although my professional journey has been circuitous and often left me feeling pulled in a thousand directions, every step has been essential in leading to the next:

Months 1-8

My initial role at Leverege was in business development and I was very bad at it. For months it felt like I was banging my head against a wall, making no progress and not sure what to do differently. In retrospect, I think this was a combination of me being inherently unsuited for business development and our business model being inherently unsuited for the sales approach we were trying at that time. If interested, I go into greater depth on this podcast episode.

Months 1-Present

As I was banging my head against the wall in BD, I wrote many blog posts in an effort to provide value to Leverege. We believed (and still do) that by creating and freely sharing valuable content, we’d build trust and earn customers. Rather than publish directly under Leverege, we opted to create a separate brand which we called IoT For All (https://www.iotforall.com) to help spread education and encourage knowledge sharing. The publication has since grown to publishing over 2 articles per day produced by a community of 111 individual contributors and partner companies, earning over 350K page views per month. I’m proud to say that two of my early posts currently bring in almost 10% of the overall traffic.

Months 6-24

True to our belief in content sharing, a whitepaper we’d written about LPWAN enabled us to land a Fortune 500 customer. We soon kicked off a major project for the customer and Eric chose me to be the project manager. I struggled initially, but with the patience and mentorship of Eric and Steve I improved immensely. That project has since grown to become the largest commercial LPWAN deployment in North America involving hundreds of thousands of sensors.

Months 20-Present

In April of 2018, we hired Reilly Dunn as the first project manager aside from me and I became a manager. We’ve since hired 4 more and today I manage a team of 5 project managers as Director of Projects. I’m much less involved in the day-to-day of project management and instead assist where/when needed and manage across all our projects.

Months 0-Present

Throughout my entire time here at Leverege, I’ve been drawn to identifying, building, and implementing tools and processes that enable us to operate more effectively as an organization. When I began in business development, one of the first things I did was to create an overall sales process and implement a CRM. For tools and process, my initial focus was on my own work in business development, content creation, and project management, but has since extended out to the entire organization. I’ve since helped to identify, build, and implement our project management, roadmap management, content management, resource allocation, and incident management tools and process (and many smaller things in between).

Connecting the Dots

In his Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards”. In my brief career so far, I’ve already experienced the truth of this. When I began, I believed strongly that business development was a perfect fit for me, but I’ve since built a deep passion for operations. The path may have been winding, but it’s led me to where I am today.

What I’ve Learned So Far

It would be impossible for me to capture everything I’ve learned, but I’d like to provide a few of the lessons that will hopefully be helpful to you whether or not you end up here at Leverege.

Building something valuable takes a long time and a lot of effort

Successes are often portrayed as happening overnight, and perhaps from the outside they really look that way. But true success is measured in years and is achieved through thousands of small actions and decisions all taken together. This applies to the team and to the individual. The takeaway is to be patient but also to treat every small action and decision extremely seriously because every single one matters.

There is no replacement for experience

I love to be constantly learning, whether it’s from physical books, audio books, podcasts, you name it. However, even when I’ve already “learned” something from a book/podcast/etc., when I experience it my understanding always deepens further. So make sure you pursue opportunities that will enable you to get as much real experience as possible as there is no better way to learn.

Experienced leaders and mentors are critical

I already touched on this in the previous section, but it bears repeating. While there are some things that can only be learned through experience, that doesn’t mean it has to be your experience. If you find leaders and mentors who have been there and done that before, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can learn from their deep experience, avoiding the mistakes they’ve already made and therefore become freed to focus on entirely new areas of growth.

Importantly, learning from deep experience isn’t just from explicit teaching. While getting direct feedback and training is absolutely valuable, I’ve found that the greatest value is in simply observing how our leaders act and make decisions. It’s all the little things I’ve absorbed in how to do things, whether I’ve realized I’m learning those things or not.

“Find your passion” is terrible advice. Work really fucking hard and do a bunch of different things

This is particularly important for those early in their careers. The word “find” implies that your passion is predetermined. Passions are not found, they’re created. It’s an active process, not passive. When you work really hard and do a bunch of different things, two important things happen.

First, you’re able to identify the things you hate doing and the things that fill you with excitement. What I thought I’d like when I began at Leverege is quite different from what I’ve found I truly enjoy now. I only learned that through the process of doing.

Second, as you work really hard you build a sense of ownership which naturally leads to being more passionate. So don’t worry about “finding your passion”, instead be open to trying many things and, whatever they are, work extremely hard at them.

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As I said, these are just a few of the many things I’ve learned in my time here. It’s shocking that it’s already been 2.5 years since I began at Leverege because it still feels like our journey is only just beginning!

Calum McClelland

VP, Operations & Projects

Calum is VP Operations & Projects at Leverege and graduated from Brown University in May 2016 with a major in Philosphy. Striving to change himself and the world for the better, Calum values active living, life-long learning, and keeping an open mind.

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