The Highs and Very Low Lows of an Entrepreneur

Ellen DudleyThe entrepreneurial life has its highs and lows.

But you’d practically get vertigo looking down at some of the lows Ellen Dudley has faced.

The Limerick woman has overcome cancer, a broken marriage and has seen more than one potentially lucrative exit from her start-up fall through.

Speaking at February’s Entrepreneurs Anonymous, Dudley (@MeetFoReal) told of how her illness had shaped her decision to become an entrepreneur. Her 5 tips for entrepreneurs are in the sidebar.

It was while studying for her Master’s degree in the Netherlands that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. An initial diagnosis said it was at Stage III, but a subsequent exam found it had spread and advanced to Stage IV.

With a then-terminal prognosis and studying for a degree she was not interested in, Dudley faced some tough questions about what direction her life would take.
Her then-husband was laid off, and with the cancer in remission, they moved back to Ireland. The team knew they wanted to work for themselves so they set about brain storming.

Both enjoy traveling and meeting new people, so their first business Meet for Real was formed. This was an events based social network to let new people meet based on shared interests.5 basics for an entrepreneur to get right

Although they ran a lot of events and had a lot of fun, Dudley said their model needed refinement. Following a pivot in 2011, and a stint redeveloping their platform in New York, they returned to Ireland to raise more money.

This next iteration was more scalable than the first version. Funding was via friends and family, and signs were good, Dudley said.

But “by 2012, we were a bit screwed for cash,” she said. Nevertheless, there were a number of encouraging developments that year that included paying gigs at a BMW show in Berlin and an NYU student orientation.

They also met Esther Dyson that year. Known as a cosmonaut, among other things, Dyson’s investments have included 23andMe, EverNote and many others. She was ready to invest, Dudley said.

Two big-name VC’s in NY also expressed interest, and a popular events based website made an offer. “We told them ‘no.’ We were doing well and we didn’t want jobs,” Dudley said.

All the while, their app still needed refinement and it had too many technical challenges to work well at events. Now based in San Francisco, the founders had run out of friends and family funding and were living on couches.

“It was horrible. I really don’t recommend being that poor for any length of time,” Dudley said.

It was while trying to get in to accelerators in the Bay Area that Dudley got “good at applying” for programs and she cast her net wider.

Startup Chile offered a place and the couple decamped to South America for a good part of 2013. Funding was used for user-acquisition strategy and to use metrics to drive the business.

However, by the end of the program, Dudley’s marriage had broken up and she had stopped working on the project.

The same events company came back with an offer to buy afterwards, but they were unable to get a US visa to complete the sale.

Dudley was asked by a member of the audience about the advisability of working with a spouse — his wife is also his business partner.

She said it would help if one spouse had a regular income while the other worked on the start-up. In her case, neither were willing to take a job and that led to friction, she said.

Asked if she could go back in time to tweak some decisions, Dudley replied, “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Image of Ellen Dudley via Ignite.