Sara Margulis On Turning A Passion Project Into A Business
By Shelley Zalis
You’re planning your dream wedding and an even dreamier honeymoon. When you and your partner set out to populate your wedding registry, you realize you already have all the dishes, small appliances, and cocktail shakers you need – after all, you’re both adults. What you really need is some time away together to launch your lives in a memorable fashion.
That’s what happened to Sara Margulis and her fiancé Josh when they decided to ask their wedding guests to help underwrite their honeymoon in lieu of gifts. They founded their own business to help others do the same, and today, Honeyfund is the most trusted cash gifting site. The platform has allowed 6 million givers to fund more than $640 million in gifts for more than one million couples. I spoke with Sara about shifting careers from marketing to tech start-up, the Shark Tank effect, striking out on her own, and balancing family life with running her own company.
Shelley Zalis: You formerly worked as the associate director of marketing at Golden Gate University. How did you decide to make a career switch and launch your own company at Honeyfund? What was your lightbulb moment?
Sara Margulis: Honeyfund’s co-founder and I were engaged to be married and planning our own 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 didn’t have the funds after paying for our own wedding. So instead of registering exclusively for traditional housewares, we created a makeshift wish list for the costs associated with our Fiji honeymoon – things like excursions, resort nights, island hopping flights, etc. Our wedding guests overwhelmed us with more than $5,000 in contributions, but more importantly, they loved the idea. They asked us to make something like it for other couples. That’s how Honeyfund was born.
I had just graduated with an MBA in marketing and my co-founder is a software engineer. I had been working at Golden Gate University on marketing projects such as the university’s new website, e-mail marketing programs, and a CRM implementation. We took the idea and enthusiasm from our own wedding guests, and all that professional background, and created and launched Honeyfund.com from our couch.
Zalis: How much prior experience, if any, did you have in the startup industry before launching Honeyfund? How did your time on Shark Tank catapult your journey?
Margulis: We were in San Francisco in the early 2000s when the technology startup boom was happening all around us. We had friends at Twitter when it first launched, for example. Neither of us really had any direct experience in startups, but we could create and manage projects. And we both had a dream of being financially independent and having 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 envisioned. We had bought our dream home and we had two healthy children who were growing up in an idyllic town in Sonoma County, California.
When Shark Tank called, we had to make a tough decision – do we grow beyond our lifestyle business and enter the world of a fast-growing startup? Taking on investment capital, knowing exactly how we wanted to deploy it, knowing how to unlock the next phase of growth – those were all unfamiliar to us. Starting something is very different from growing it.
Nevertheless, 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 it was a hit! Our site crashed from all the traffic. We were so thrilled to have the attention on the Honeyfund brand. We knew that once people had heard of Honeyfund they loved the idea. So our Shark Tank appearance and the deal with Kevin O’Leary launched us onto the national stage. This drove a lot more traffic and members, but it also brought us the notoriety to form high-level partnerships, such as our registry integration with Target.
Zalis: What are the advantages and disadvantages that come with a career transition and branching out on your own to launch a business?
Margulis: We were extremely lucky that Honeyfund was well received and grew itself to the point that we were able to make a good living prior to being on Shark Tank. That was phase one of the 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 we were. It needed more from us. We didn’t have enough employees to serve our couples and maintain the site. That launched us into 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 split up and I bought my co-founder out of the company. So that phase of growth 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 huge challenge with the business, this time alone at the helm. I had to take a long look in the mirror and ask myself if I had what it takes to ensure Honeyfund could survive a 90% drop in revenues and a pandemic with no end in sight.
I decided to step up and do my best to keep the company going for its members and employees. I invested a ton 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 givers to invest in the company’s next phase of growth. And we got through! But those were some of the hardest years of my life. Being responsible for a company, a team, and customers – it’s a huge burden at times.
However the opportunity to grow and become the leader of something remarkable comes once in a lifetime – so the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for me. I see it as a journey and I am ever-evolving along the way.
Zalis: In the last few years, there has been an increasing trend of women leaving their jobs to start their own businesses during the Great Resignation. Based on your experience, is there a “right” time or are there ideal circumstances for a career change?
Margulis: The pull between career and family is so difficult. In a lot of ways, a job with a certain number of hours that you can leave and come home is so much healthier for that family balance and your personal self-care than a start-up. I would say there’s no right time to start your own thing; if you’re passionate about it just do it. But with this one caveat: women with partners and/or children should think long and hard about the amount of time and focus they want to be able to give their family. And then dedicate what’s left to a new venture. Everyone will tell you that you have to give 200% to a startup but that’s really not true. And it will lead to burnout so fast if you’re not careful.
Instead, start your venture with a team that can give their full focus. If you are holding the vision and goals, you can and should reserve time for self-care and your family. I know this can be so hard to accomplish, but I’m a realist so I break it down like a simple math problem. I look at how many hours I have in a week and I strive to first prioritize my own self-care, then my time with my kids and partner, then my work priorities.
I also consider the seasonality of my business and my children’s school. Summer is a great time to be able to give a little more to kids and a little less to the business. But if you’re starting a business (like mine) that has high summer demands it could be tough. The key is getting very real with yourself about how many hours of focus you are willing to give to a new venture.
Zalis: What advice would you give to women looking to change their career but who feel discouraged or unsure of where to begin?
Margulis: I would say start with a shift toward the industry or skills you want to learn and get really good at those while working for someone else with steady work hours, benefits, and pay. Or join a volunteer organization. Once you are confident in your skills and know exactly how you will manage your time and focus, then set up your new venture inside those parameters.