It happened to Steve Jobs. It happened to Groupon founder Andrew Mason, too – not to mention Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. So when Tina May was essentially fired from the company that she had co-founded, at least she was in good company.
“It was honestly a total shock,” Tina says now after being unceremoniously cast aside from the website she had spent eight months developing in early 2015. “I couldn’t believe that someone I considered a mentor and a friend could cut me out only weeks before the final launch without a single dollar of compensation.”
While Tina’s story does ultimately have a happy ending (she went on to found The Institute of Code alongside her partner Emilio), it should serve as a warning to anyone entering a business agreement – even if you do have a contract in place.
“When he cut me out of the business, he was still in clear breach of the contract that I thought would protect me and also in breach of Australian employment law,” explains Tina. “You can’t have someone work for you for eight months full time without any compensation. Naively I believed that this would protect me, but what I didn’t realise about contracts is just how difficult and expensive it is to enforce them.” When Tina tried to pursue the case through legal channels, her lawyer warned that it could cost $30k before she even made in into a courtroom. Her only option was to walk away empty handed.
The saga – which Tina cites as one of the most challenging and defining experiences of her life – began after launching a boutique marketing agency with a friend during her second year of university. Tina worked with small to medium businesses on branding, marketing and social media and it was here that she was approached by a client with an idea for a new business.
“He was vegan and he wanted to create a website where you could view on a map app the businesses in the area that were vegan friendly,” Tina recalls. “We’d already worked together so successfully on their current project that he invited me to come on as co-founder and help drive the project forward,” she explains.
“I was thrilled. I saw a real problem to be solved within the target market and I pretty much had free reign – I conducted market research to validate the idea, designed the logo and branding, hired and trained staff, wrote all the copy for the website, set up social media channels, built the website, oversaw the tech team developing the app and developed a monetisation strategy,” says Tina. “Seeing all of the these pieces of the puzzle come together was exhilarating, and for my first real start-up all the feedback I was receiving was great.”
While Tina’s co-founder contributed the capital (roughly $50k), Tina was tasked with the responsibility of managing the majority of its development. “I was working roughly 70 hours per week over eight months while he was working on multiple businesses,” says Tina, who – crucially – was dissuaded by her co-founder from having a lawyer look over the contract they had both agreed on. After all, she was told that it would just drag out the starting cost by thousands of dollar that would come out of their eventual profits and she didn’t want that, did she?
“The day he told me he was cutting me out I was in total shock,” Tina admits. “All the typical self doubts ran through my head – maybe I wasn’t good enough, maybe I just didn’t have what it takes.”
However, what Tina did next is testament to her entrepreneurial spirit. She vowed that she wouldn’t allow her worth to be determined by someone who couldn’t see it and would launch a new venture. What’s more, she would do it in just one month’s time. “I needed to get back up on the horse – to prove to him, to myself and to the world that I did have what it takes. It was an absolute whirlwind,” she explains. “That afternoon in between bouts of tears my partner Emile encouraged me to try and see the silver lining – an opportunity to create something that was totally our own.”
It was then that a friend messaged for advice on where to go to learn to code. Realising that there wasn’t anywhere she was particularly happy to recommend, the concept for The Institute of Code was born – an all inclusive code retreat in Bali. “We set ourselves a deadline to launch this concept that sounded crazy to just about everyone we spoke to in 30 days – If it failed it would fail fast and we could move on,” says Tina.
Of course, The Institute of Code didn’t fail and Tina is ultimately grateful for the life lesson that lead her to it.
“It was one of the more challenging days I’ve had: to lose something that I had worked so damn hard for and be betrayed by someone who I really admired, but it pushed me to create something that I’m in total control of and so passionate about,” Tina concludes. “We just celebrated our 100th student and reflecting on the past 18 months I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change it for the world.”