Entrepreneurship is notoriously tough on founders’ health. Kevin Stephens, founder of Career Cinch, is walking a rough path: he’s fighting a rare cancer and has had to withdraw from Halifax’s Volta accelerator, but he’s sharing his struggles on social media in order to connect with others.
Fredericton-based Stephens has been developing Career Cinch, a Software-as-a-Service product that uses graphics to improve the recruitment process for employers, recruiters and job-seekers.
His cancer battle has meant putting his venture on ice, which is frustrating as he’d already found an investor and was looking for early adopters. But sharing his health issues helps.
“I wanted to share my challenges with people on LinkedIn using the hashtag #startwithhi because I find it's incredibly therapeutic to talk about the things that hurt the most,” said Stephens, who also works for the federal government as a software developer where he is a peer supporter for mental health.
It was while he was in discussions with potential early adopters of his recruiting tool that the mass in his temple was diagnosed as Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC), a cancer that begins in glandular tissues, most often in the salivary glands.
He’d experienced his first symptoms in 2000 with a slow onset of bell’s palsy. Fourteen months later, he’d seen nine experts and had three CT scans and three MRIs (including a set in Halifax).
No one saw anything and he had exploratory surgery to fix what was thought to be a broken nerve. It revealed the disease. The cancer was removed along with Stephens’ impacted seventh facial nerve. His palsy then became permanent.
Nineteen years later, the disease returned and the mass in his temple was detected. He is now undergoing exploratory surgery to assess which nerves are impacted.
“This is the basis of my next operation – to find the infected nerves,” he said. “Likely this will affect my capacity to chew and use my tongue.”
As the father of a teenage daughter, Stephens is determined to fight the cancer. He knows the stats: the 15-year survival rate for people with his cancer is around 40 percent. The disease often progresses slowly and people can live for years with metastatic disease, but how the stats apply to himself is unknown. He has chosen to postpone radiation therapy and is currently pursuing surgical options.
“What I do know is that the end result will always be that I will have just as much time left as I had, or I'll have more time left,” he said of the surgery. “As a father, I'll take that chance.”
The prospect of continuing with his venture helps him find peace of mind.
“As the question of my mortality comes to the forefront, I have to wonder what I’m leaving behind,” he said. “Starting a business is something I can do that could provide a nest egg for my wife and education funds for my daughter that we haven’t been able to save before due to financial hardships.
“The question is how much can I accomplish with the time I am given?”
He said his business would not be as far along without advice and support from organizations like Propel, Ignite Fredericton, Planet Hatch, Opportunities New Brunswick and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. Many in the community have also reached out.
“That’s the real definition of an entrepreneurial community,” he said. “I love New Brunswick for that.”
He is willing to talk to potential early adopters as long as conversations can fit around his treatment schedule. That schedule means he has had to delay the start of the early adopter’s program he devised with help from a former member of the hugely successful social media monitoring company Radian6.
“It’s better to build business relationships and get my requirements laid out to ease the path,” said Stephens, who is not allowing cancer to rush him or distract from building his company in the best possible way.