There’s Life After Failure
Why the failure chasm is never as deep as it seems
Two weeks ago I shut down my startup.
I called my team members, notified our users, and made the decision that it was time to bring Glipple to a close. Retrospectively, the writing was on the wall. Now is the part where you wait for me to share some zen philosophy that I could only learn through failure.
Don’t hold your breath.
Don’t Gloss Over the Emotional Toll
Yes, I did learn a lot and in the end I’m glad I had the experience. But I’m not about to write another diatribe of cutely composed “tips for closing your first startup” which you will inevitably skim through until you read the next such post-mortem blog post on Medium…probably in about 30 minutes. Because in startups, it’s become the epitome of chic and cliche to write a post-mortem blog post when(ever) your startup fails.
Ultimately, though, so many of them gloss over the emotional toll it takes on you, so I’m going to write exactly what I’ve really wanted to know every time I read through one of these posts. Frankly, I’ve only seen a few people actually brave enough to publicly tell it how it is. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading this post from Andy Sparks and this one from Poornima Vijayashanker.
I’m not really 100% sure why there’s such a fascination with failure in our business. Probably because people shape that perception of failure into a positive reflection thereafter and attempt to use it as a drive for the next idea. That’s not a bad strategy, objectively speaking. But I sometimes wonder if it creates a flippant attitude toward failure which unintentionally misunderstands human behavior.
All these post-mortem blog posts make the whole process seem relatively easy; ok we failed, but here’s our end-of-the-run coffee party, and we’re off to better things tomorrow.
That’s not where failure gets you — not in the immediate moment.
The 3AM Blog Post in the Dark
You wanna know where it gets you? Right here, sitting in the dark at 3AM, typing out your bitterness and frustration in a draft as quietly as you can because you girlfriend is sleeping in the next room and there’s no point in waking her up to share your misery. It’s not perpetual bitterness, but temporary bitterness bristles just the same. Failure leaves you temporarily raw, and if it doesn’t, you didn’t care enough in the first place.
Emotional pain is the normal reaction. There’s a part of you that now feels lost, and grieving is a major part of the process. That emotional toll is what makes startups different than hobbies.
It’s ok if — for a moment — I sound like one of “those” entrepreneurs who couldn’t hack it. I’ve got news for you: chances are you’ll experience this feeling too at some point — I’m just choosing to be very public about it. Because in the end I’m human, and to pretend that everything’s ok and that I’m impervious to extreme disappointment and disillusionment isn’t being strong and resilient — it’s being fake.
Tech’s “Failure” Failure
In Silicon Valley — and in tech at large — failure is a great thing. It means that you took a shot, that it didn’t work, and that you supposedly learned something very valuable to draw on for your next venture.
And hopefully these things are true, but the reverence with which we look at failure — with which we make it a club that people should want to be in or be happy to join — is pretty ridiculous. To construct a system where failing is revered — almost required — is remarkably jarring. There’s just something about it that doesn’t seem realistic or dialed in to human emotion.
To Feel Like an Abject Failure
I believe in my heart that most if not all of the people who write the positive tweets that we read mean well. Usually they’ve been in similar situations and figured out ways to surmount challenges and failures and move on to greater successes.
But sometimes, that unbridled optimism and pragmatism — well-intentioned though it may be — comes off as disinterest and disconnect. As if one has somehow forgotten what abject failure feels like. True, it may not actually be abject failure, but it sure feels like it in the moment.
And the worst part? When you feel this level of failure, it pulls you into a place where you don’t want to speak to anyone — don’t want to admit to anyone — that your failure is real, and that your need for help is even more real. You’re even more determined to strike out again on your own and prove to yourself and everyone else that you are a “real” founder — a “real” entrepreneur — and that you can pick yourself back up by your bootstraps. Those of us who struggle with depression feel this even more acutely.
But this is a mistake.
When People Are Your Strength
In the lull during which my startup started to fade — and during which I knew in my heart there seemed little recourse to keep it from doing so — I began to pull away from people. This was a mistake, especially for me. I’m a people person, and I gain so much of my energy from talking to people and helping people. When I started to pull away, I began to lose a part of myself. Actually, I began to lose another part of myself, because I was already losing a part of myself in losing my startup.
Only through recognizing that the disappointment and disillusionment which follow failure are part of the entrepreneurial fabric can we begin to open ourselves up to other people and possibilities after failure. This is the danger in fetishizing failure and spectacular flameouts: it is devastating for those of us who draw our energy from other people. Bragging about failure in a proud way is something distinctly Silicon Valley and very much of startup tech DNA; outside that realm, doing this is simply not done in such a way, and certainly not done with such gusto.
It’s equally important to emphasize to founders that failure isn’t simply a milestone that they should mark on their startup belts as they would raising a fund or releasing their 2.0 product. Failure is debilitating and it is in these very fragile states that founders need the most support from each other. Everything is easy when it’s easy; but when things go to hell, you need to be open to grasping someone’s hand when they offer it.
When people are your strength, it’s important to remember that heading back to that harbor is precisely how you recharge your batteries after a defeat. If you’ve done anything right along your startup journey to that point, you will have formed at least a few solid connections with others in your network who you can speak with candidly. If you’ve done at least this right, all the rest will fade into background noise.
Coming Back from the Brink
And after all of this — all the nights spent in cold sweats with stomach pains worrying about money, looking yourself in the mirror wondering if you’re a failure (are you even that?), skating over the “so what do you do?” question at parties and family holidays — you find a way to crawl back. You’ve stood on the precipice of failure and looked into the depths — spat it in the face — and somehow stomped your way back onto solid ground.
The funny thing about the failure precipice? It doesn’t ever exist as starkly in reality as it does in your mind. You stepped out over the edge expecting to fall a thousand miles into darkness, only to find yourself ankle-deep in a deceptively dark pool of water. So in the end, crossing over to the other side — finding solid ground again — isn’t as hard as it seemed before. The haunting chasm was only miles-deep in your mind.
Taking the Leap Again
There’s life after failure. That’s what I’m learning. Slowly but surely I’m learning it.
Will I do a music-startup again? Probably. Will I do a number of things differently now that I’ve learned new things? Absolutely. Am I as scared of my next potential failure as I was of my first one? Not even in the same ballpark.
I started drafting this piece in my apartment, sitting in the dark at 3AM, alone with only my thoughts of failure because I thought that’s how it had to be. Or how it was going to be regardless.
But I’m finishing it now, sitting in a bustling Starbucks in downtown Atlanta, drinking a large coffee, listening to Eve 6, and emailing people, looking for my next leap. I have drafts open of the next few articles I’m writing, and my phone is buzzing every ten minutes with new possibilities.
Startup life isn’t easy, and failure isn’t fun. But it’s also not the end. As Eve 6 put it:
The monster in the closet, when the light’s turned on/
Is just a jacket on a hanger and the fear is gone/
And the world keeps turning, sun keeps burning/
We are the lost and found, gonna make it through another day.
I’m so grateful to my cofounders for taking this journey with me. I know we’ll have another one together some time. To all those in my support system who have listened and helped me through this dip, you know who you are, and I am more grateful than you know. You took so much time out of your busy schedules to support me, and that does not go unnoticed. You all are a huge part of the reason I can write this post with a determined smile on my face.
Lastly, to my parents and siblings who are always my biggest support network.
If you’re struggling with your startup journey, reach out and let’s talk.
Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!
Originally published at adammarxsmind.wordpress.com on June 2, 2017.