Harry Doull is the founder of Keap, a design-led benefit corporation making candles better and bringing access to affordable, sustainable light to communities without access to the electrical grid. All Keap candles are poured in their Brooklyn studio.
Prior to founding Keap, he worked in a variety of roles spanning economic development, entrepreneurship, design and innovation, including with Google and the UN World Food Programme.
1 – What is it you do that you love?
I work for an amazing organization called Keap, making a physical product that I love (scented candles) and solving an economic development challenge (providing access to light through solar lamps).
2 – How and when did you realize what it is you love to do?
I’ve known for years that I wanted to build something, to be at the origin of something; and I’ve been thinking since family visits to South Africa as a teenager about doing something in the realm of social entrepreneurship.
Aside from that what I’ve always really enjoyed is learning. Everything that I’ve done where I felt I improved at a skill or as a person has given me satisfaction, and brought me closer to my dream job.
Entrepreneurship is learning on steroids, so it was appealing to me—and the great thing about going on your own is that you can pick something that you love; so we shaped the company to correspond to our dream job.
3 – When did you decide to make a commitment to doing what you love? What does that commitment look like, e.g. full-time job, part-time hobby, etc.
I decided to make the leap with a friend of mine from a comfortable desk job a bit over a year ago. We made the decision to go full-time right away, rather than start off part-time.
First, we figured that if we failed with our project, we might as well fail fast rather than drag it out over a long time. Second, we believe that when you commit 100% to something, you create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise arise.
My brother shared with me at the time a quotation from W.H. Murray, a Scottish mountaineer and writer, which illustrates this idea perfectly:
“… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, W.H. Murray (1951)
4 – How long have you been doing what you love?
Just over a year now.
5 – What was the toughest decision you had to make when making a commitment to doing what you love?
I was in a context that made taking this jump not as risky as it would be for most people. I was single, without children. I didn’t own a house, didn’t own a car, didn’t own anything really. But I had managed to finish repaying my student loans, and had no financial liabilities.
I had a privileged childhood with access to great education opportunities, which eventually allowed me to get a job at Google; that educational and career background is a significant safety net.
Because I’m doing something that I deeply love, the only sacrifice I had to make is a financial one; I was by no means affluent before, but I could live comfortably in Brooklyn, which is in itself a significant financial achievement. A year later, I’m a 30 year-old man living like a student. But I couldn’t care less about that. I thought initially that the quality of life adjustment might be difficult, but it’s easier to see now what truly matters.
6 – Was there a time that you had doubts about doing what you love? If so, how did or do you overcome those doubts and keep doing what you love?
Doubt is an integral and constant part of starting something new. Whether it was family, friends or acquaintances—especially at the beginning—I got a lot of doubt from people around me, for trading off a linear, predictable career for something completely unproven.
I have a quietly rebellious personality, and I am stubborn, and that has no doubt helped me stick to my guns. I also had some people that I really respected and admired encourage me to take the leap, and I doubt I would have been able to do it without them.
What it really came down to in the end was simply thinking from first principles about the choices. People often give you advice based on their social norms, on their levels of risk-aversion, and on their preference curves, whether it’s money vs. personal fulfillment, helping yourself vs. helping others, valuing conformity vs. individuality, etc.
I thought about the arc of my entire life, and how this experience would fit into it. I thought about how much I would learn versus staying at my job, or even versus going back to school.
That allowed me to rationalize it: I’m learning more than anything else I could do (for a fraction of the cost of a Masters degree), I’m doing something that I can look back on with pride at the dusk of my life, and most importantly, I’m doing something that I deeply care about.
7 – What are some of the things you enjoy most about doing what you love?
What I love about my job are the people, the purpose, and the soul.
We’ve been incredibly lucky with the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with, whether it’s our employees, our advisors, artists we’ve worked with, or companies we’ve collaborated with. Standing for something helps us attract like-minded people, and I have never had a job where I was so energized by the people around me.
The purpose is the second thing I really enjoy; when I get up in the morning I never have Dilbertian thoughts about the horrible monotony and mind-numbing lack of purpose of what I am doing—and that is a real luxury. Everyone here cares about doing things to perfection, about making a wonderful product, and about having massive positive social impact. You can feel it in the little things, like how everyone takes care of the space we work in.
Finally, there is so much soul in our work. It comes from a deep desire to do something meaningful and to do something expressive, original, and human. That vibrance is really hard to describe, but it makes me want to give everything I’ve got for this.
8 – Do you have any advice for people who are struggling with making a commitment to doing what they love, even if they know they want to make the commitment?
There is no one-size-fits-all in life, especially when you go off and do something independent.
My advice would be to start from first principles and try to rationalize the irrational. How much do you value doing what you love vs. your other commitments? These types of questions are the hardest to answer because there is no right answer. You are unique and only you can decide what’s best for you.
Another piece of advice is about advice. Get lots of it; but understand where it’s coming from. Your boss, your parents, your lovers all have different inherent points of view and agendas—they are all valuable but you need to discern what to take from each of them. While it’s hard to get too much advice, advice from some people is worth much more than others. Find the people who have the best point of view to inform your decision, bring it all together, and at the end make the decision yourself.
Also, it helps to have a plan. Learn as much as you can beforehand about what’s involved in your project; you’ll get better advice, and you’ll be more confident.
9 – Is there anything else you’d like to add about doing what you love?
In my specific case, my project was started by two people—and I’m one of them. The hardest thing in the world of entrepreneurship is finding the right partner to do it with.
I have been extremely lucky with mine. Mutual intellectual respect and boundless trust are the foundation of this and they are rare in any relationship. That foundation allows us to crush through challenges like a bulldozer. Finding this has been for me the key element of sustained confidence throughout this rollercoaster ride.
Don’t do it alone if you don’t have to!