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Problem-Founder Fit: How Having a Felony Makes Me a Better Founder

Some people know they want to be entrepreneurs, and then search for ideas and markets. Some people, like me, decide to start a company because they themselves are acutely familiar with a problem that no one’s solving.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, is credited with coining the concept of Problem-Founder Fit in “How to Get Startup Ideas” in 2012. He argued that having the problem yourself increases the likelihood that you’re solving a problem that actually exists (not always obvious), that there are users who urgently want a solution (even an imperfect, scrappy one), and that you’ll have good hunches as you make decisions in unchartered territory (organically noticing opportunity).

The problem I had is that it’s exceptionally hard to find a job when you have a felony. I have two felony convictions, spent 427 days in prison, and was rejected nearly 100 times for jobs I was qualified for. This is a problem that 19 million Americans with felony convictions face. My company, Honest Jobs, is the nation's leading employment platform helping people impacted by the criminal justice system find better jobs faster.

Here are some of the ways having a felony myself makes me a better founder of a company solving this particular problem.

  1. Clarity. I have a compelling vision of the world I want to live in: “A society where every person with a criminal record has ample opportunity to thrive at work, at home, and in their communities.” I’m obsessed with making that true for me, for my employees with felonies (i.e. the majority of my company), for our job seekers, and for the greater good.
  2. Credibility. I’m very open with my story and my struggles. My lived experience earns me credibility with investors, customers, employees, and the general public. This has helped with fund-raising, sales, marketing, and building and inspiring my team. I know my market and it’s not hard to prove it.
  3. Insight. My hunches about what’s needed, what’s important, and what’s urgent are very often right. For example, early on, I added an extensive resources database to our platform (for housing, food, and other basic needs). It costs money and isn't core to our business, but I know all too well that our job seekers need more than jobs.
  4. Persistence. Every successful startup founder believes in their company, sometimes irrationally so. Because of my deep, personal connection to the problem Honest Jobs is solving, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t imagine not building technology and services to enable fair-chance hiring at scale. This isn’t an idea or opportunity for me. I will do whatever it takes to solve this problem.

Having a felony isn’t the only way I have Problem-Founder Fit. After prison, I worked my way through college and graduated with high honors with a degree in Business Administration. This exposed me to foundational business knowledge and skills. Well before starting Honest Jobs, I wrote a book to share my lessons learned with other job seekers with criminal records. This prompted me to reflect on and synthesize my experiences, as well as to think about audiences and marketing. In retrospect, I was preparing myself to found and run Honest Jobs, though I didn’t know it at the time.

In the future I foresee, fair-chance hiring is the norm and Honest Jobs continues to be the category leader. It will be “flamingly obvious in retrospect” (Paul Graham, 2012) that it was foolish and cruel to exclude people from the workforce just because of their criminal records. The clarity, credibility, insight, and persistence that I brought to the problem by having a felony will have been instrumental in the solution. Imagine that.

About the author: Harley Blakeman is the Founder and CEO of Honest Jobs, Inc., the country’s largest fair-chance hiring platform. Formerly incarcerated himself, he knows how hard it is to get a job when you have a felony, as 19 million Americans do. He collaborates with partners across private, public, and nonprofit organizations, with the goal of helping people with criminal records have ample opportunity to thrive at work, at home, and in their communities. He can be reached at Harley@HonestJobs.co.

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