You are planning your dream wedding and an even dreamier honeymoon. When you and your partner set out to fill out your wedding registry, you realize you already have all the plates, small appliances and cocktail shakers you need – you’re both adults, after all. What you really it takes some time together to start your life in an unforgettable way.
That’s what happened to Sara Margulis and her fiance Josh, when they decided to ask their wedding guests to help provide the honeymoon instead of gifts. They founded their business to help others do the same, and today, Honeyfund is the most trusted cash gift site. The platform has allowed 6 million donors to fund more than $640 million in gifts for more than one million couples. I spoke with Sarah about her career transition from marketing to a tech startup Shark tank effect, striking out on her own and balancing family life with running her company.
Shelley Zalis: You previously worked as the associate director of marketing at Golden Gate University. How did you decide to make a career change and start your own company at Honeyfund? What was your light bulb moment?
Sara Margulis: Honeyfund’s co-founder and I were engaged to be married and planning our wedding, and we had this dream of honeymooning somewhere exotic and far away like Fiji to get away from the stress of two full-time jobs. But we had no funds after paying for our wedding. So instead of signing up exclusively for the traditional household items, we created an impromptu wish list for the costs associated with our honeymoon in Fiji – things like excursions, resort nights, island hopping, etc. Our wedding guests showered us with more than $5,000 in contributions, but more importantly, they loved the idea. We were asked to do something similar for other couples. Thus Honeyfund was born.
I had just finished an MBA in marketing and my co-founder is a software engineer. I had worked at Golden Gate University on marketing projects such as the new university website, email marketing programs and a CRM implementation. We took the idea and enthusiasm from our wedding guests, and all that professional background, and created and launched Honeyfund.com from our couch.
SZ: How much prior experience, if any, did you have in the startup industry before starting Honeyfund? How time passed Shark tank catapult your journey?
SM: We were in San Francisco in the early 2000s when the tech startup boom was happening all around us. We had Twitter friends when it first launched, for example. Neither of us really had direct startup experience, but we could create and manage projects. And we both had a dream to be financially independent and have a flexible schedule so we could be there for our future children.
In 2013 we were living that dream: the business was supporting our family and we had all the flexibility we had envisioned. We had bought our dream home and had two healthy children growing up in an idyllic town in Sonoma County, California.
When Shark tank We had to make a tough decision – do we grow beyond our lifestyle business and enter the world of a fast-growing startup? Getting investment capital, knowing exactly how we wanted to set it up, knowing how to open the next stage of growth – all this was unknown to us. Starting something is very different from growing it.
However, we felt it was the right thing to do for the Honeyfund brand and our member community. So we applied for the show and got cast. Our episode aired in October 2013 and was a hit! Our site crashed from all the traffic. We were so excited to have our attention on the Honeyfund brand. We knew that once people heard about Honeyfund, they loved the idea. So our Shark Tank appearance and deal with Kevin O’Leary put us on the national stage. This drove a lot more traffic and members, but it also brought us notoriety for creating high-end partnerships, such as our register integration with Target.
SZ: What are the pros and cons that come with a career transition and branching out to start a business?
SM: We were extremely fortunate that Honeyfund was well received and grew to the point where we were able to make a good living before we were in Shark tank. This was the first stage of transition from working for someone else to working for ourselves. It was what we had dreamed of. So we felt we were enjoying all the advantages of doing our own thing.
But the business was growing faster than us. More was needed from us. We did not have enough staff to serve our couples and maintain the site. That put us in a growth phase that was really tricky to learn how to manage – we didn’t have the experience there. Ultimately, after a long and winding road, we parted ways and I bought my co-founder out of the company. So that growing up phase came with a lot of stress and challenges. And I felt pulled in so many directions as a mother, wife and business owner. I stopped taking care of myself and burned out. Then Covid hit and I faced another big challenge with the business, this time alone at the top. I had to take a long look in the mirror and ask myself if I had what it took to ensure Honeyfund could survive a 90% drop in revenue and a pandemic with no end in sight.
I decided to step up and do my best to keep the company running for its members and employees. I invested heavily in growing as a leader, hired a leadership team to manage the growth, and clarified my role in the company. We launched a crowdfunding campaign to invite our members and gift donors to invest in the company’s next phase of growth. And we did it! But those were some of the hardest years of my life. Being responsible for a company, a team and customers – sometimes it’s a big burden.
However, the opportunity to grow and become a leader of something extraordinary comes once in a lifetime – so the pros outweigh the cons for me. I see it as a journey and I’m developing along the way.
SZ: In recent years there has been a growing trend of women quitting their jobs to start their own businesses during the Great Recession. Based on your experience, is there a “right” moment or are there ideal circumstances for a career change?
SM: The pull between career and family is so difficult. In many ways, a job with a set number of hours you can leave and come home to is much healthier for that family balance and your personal self-care than a start-up. I would say that there is no right time to start your job; if you are passionate about it, just do it. But with this caveat: women with partners and/or children should think long and hard about the time and focus they want to give to their family. And then devote what’s left to a new venture. Everyone will tell you that you should give 200% to a startup, but in reality, this is not true. And that will lead to burnout so quickly if you’re not careful.
Instead, start your venture with a team that can fully focus. If you keep the vision and goals, you can and should set aside time to take care of yourself and your family. I know it can be so hard to do, but I’m a realist, so I break it down as a simple math problem. I look at how many hours I have in the week and try to prioritize my self-care first, then my time with my kids and partner, then work priorities.
I also take into account the seasonality of my business and my children’s school. Summer is a great time to give a little more to the kids and a little less to the business. But if you’re starting a business (like mine) that has high demand during the summer, it can be difficult. The key is to be very realistic with yourself about how many hours of focus you are willing to devote to a new venture.
SZ: What advice would you give to women who are looking to change their careers but feel discouraged or unsure of where to start?
SM: I’d say start with a shift to the industry or skills you want to learn and get really good at them while working for someone else with steady hours, benefits and pay. Or join a volunteer organization. Once you are confident in your abilities and know exactly how you will manage your time and focus, then set your new venture within these parameters.