By Jon Cooper WG’09/CAS’03, Founder of Life.io
Here’s where I am right now: somewhere above Europe, en-route from Dubai, a screen reads 10h 24m until touchdown in JFK. Here’s what’s going through my head:
Won’t be home until midnight. Must be fresh and ready to go to by 6 am. Duty free had a great toy selection. Thank God. It’s my son’s birthday. He will be 4. What? He’ll be 4!? Wow. Time is flying. This also means Life.io will be 4 soon. When did this all happen? Crazy.
This is my tenth JFK/Dubai leg in under a year, and my mind is racing. There are so many things to prep, deliver, adjust (no, enhance. Enhance sounds better…). With the stress, jet lag and three hours sleep, it feels like I’m caught somewhere between a good dream and an anxiety dream.
This feels like as good a time as any to muse on how I did get here. It all began at Wharton, in 2007…
Pre-term was over. I was excited. This place was so cool, and I was learning a ton. There was just so much to do: HCM, Huntsman, Quantico, Wharton Graduate Associate, entrepreneur club, venture club, Japan trip, wine club, healthcare club, this club, that club, and more clubs. Pub, banking, consulting, accounting, finance, technology, pharma, big company, little company, public company, private company, for profit, not for profit.
I wanted to do it all. But even more, I knew that I wanted—no, needed—to prioritize. I needed to find something big, something meaningful. Something I could only do at Wharton. Something I could be proud of.
With access to world-renowned experts in pretty much everything, super talented classmates, and an environment that fosters intelligent risk-taking… What do you do? Here’s what I did: I decided to start a company.
I stumbled into what was then Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs and politely knocked on what was effectively the first co-working space I had ever seen, and I was greeted by a dozen aloof MBAs and undergrad students. Typical of Wharton, there were students from all over the world, from many different backgrounds, each impressive in his/her own right. Less typically, each of them desperately needed a shower and a crash course from Miss Manners. The smell stung at my nostrils. Was this what success smelled like?
At the time, unicorns were still mythical creatures. There was no Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Jet. Our Wharton hometown heroes—Warby Parker and Flatiron Health—hadn’t been created yet either. In 2008, PTSD from the “.com” bombs was still fresh. We also didn’t know that the global financial system was on the brink of unprecedented turmoil: CDOs, CDSs, MBSs, QE2, PIGS credit crisis, liquidity crisis—suffice to say, troubled waters.
Yet, here they were. This unhygienic, rag-tag group of misfits. They weren’t primping for the evening reception at the Rittenhouse Hotel (RIP: Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, etc.) They were maniacally focused on building their own businesses. Making their ideas into reality.
I had found my people.
I set out to learn about everything Wharton offered entrepreneurs: from the Summer Venture Award to seed funding, to the many classes on entrepreneurship and venture capital, mentorship programs, office hours, etc. etc. etc. In other words, absolutely anything a person needed to learn about, fund, start and build a business.
I got to work. Recruited my best friend from high-school, now an MD/PhD, and started MedVolution.
In short order we had something viable. When we launched our Wharton-incubated company, the level of support the school provided was incredible. MedVolution started to take shape and it started to get noticed. It was selected for the Snider Seed Award twice and for a Wharton Venture Award—both of which are amazing and unique grants Wharton offers to help launch student-run startups.
With another decade of fundraising under my belt, I can now tell you just how rare and valuable non-dilutive funding is—itself a unicorn of sorts—and how uniquely suited Wharton is for those who want to start a business.
So, what’s happened in the last decade? The world has been transformed, again. The 2008 financial crisis reminded everyone that sometimes avoiding risk (aka working for an established big company) can be risky (Bear, Lehman, etc.), and to refocus on the fundamentals: make things people want. The world’s top talent increasingly eschews the traditional corporate career path to channel their vast energy, creativity, and enthusiasm to put a dent in the world by launching and joining bold and creative new businesses.
MedVolution, our Wharton moonshot, was the right idea, but everything else about it was wrong. Way ahead of the market. Too capital intensive. Massive barriers to entry and not enough ramen noddle packets and caffeine to change the fact that things weren’t heading in the right direction. So, a few months before graduation, my co-founders and I shuttered the company and decided to pursue more traditional career paths. My personal journey took me from Wharton to a medium-sized technology firm where I learned the intricacies of building technology and running a business.
Fast-forward three years, and in February 2012, my son Gil was born. If you want a startup experience, try having a kid. (But that’s a different topic.) Suffice to say, my life changed forever. For the first time, I experienced this insane and wonderful, visceral and unconditional love that one possesses for one’s children. And I was simultaneously slapped across the face by how abruptly my life, and our lives, had changed. My wife and I took a few (staggering) steps back to rethink our priorities.
Together, we made the decision that I should abandon the perceived safety and cushy salary of a large corporate job to reclaim the life I loved far more. This was the life I had at Wharton. It was a life of working with friends to turn a vision into reality. It was a life of extreme uncertainty and of high adrenaline. But it was a life of opportunity, of purpose, and of clear ownership of direction. So, with a three-month old in tow and more bills on the table than I care to share, I handed in my resignation, gave myself a big pay cut, and launched Life.io with my best friend from undergrad at Penn.
Like almost any startup, there have been more than a few scary times. Yet in this same time, I have seen enormous companies close shop, friends get restructured, spinouts, synergies, ups and down. What’s become clear is that risk is inescapable. Whether you transact in software or commodities, the earth beneath your feet can and will shift. Do what you love because passion is the bridge that allows you to cross the inevitable failures on your path to success.
For me, it’s building a business brick by brick and one sleepless night at a time. Going into our fourth year, when I look at my to-do list, it’s never been longer. I feel like we still have so much to do and so many milestones to achieve. Yet, when I look out the window somewhere over Norway, I can’t help but also think about how far we have come and how far we will go.
Bio: Jon Cooper WG’09/CAS’03 is an entrepreneur with expertise in technology, insurance and healthcare. Jon is the CEO of Life.io where he helps life insurers reinvent their business by transforming the customer experience.