I’m usually a pretty optimistic person and advocate for starting and shipping things, but that’s only one side of the story. The other is dealing with failure. And while we all have theories for why startups fail, there’s isn’t a lot of discussion around how to deal with the failure and manage the shame of shutting down a startup.
There have been others who have shared their story before me like Danielle Morrill (Danielle Morrill) and Nilofer Merchant (Nilofer Merchant). I’d encourage you to read their stories as well, to see that why startups fail is more normal than you think. Of course, it’s a painful reminder that we didn’t get it right. We feel shameful because we didn’t have a glamorous exit or a soft-landing like getting acqui-hired.
Not everything we do is going to be successful, especially on the first try. We all have to embrace our ugly first pancake. It’s going to be ugly, but we gotta put it out there if we’re going to learn to make a pretty stack later on!
About a month ago, I shut down my second startup BizeeBee. I had started it back in 2010. It was a bumpy ride from the beginning but at the end of 2012 things got really rough. We met with a series of unfortunate incidents that made it hard for us to make payroll.
Our investors had recommended that we get acqui-hired and a few companies were interested. But my co-founder and I didn’t want to give up. We had enough customers to keep it alive and running. We had also built a pretty robust solution from the beginning, so putting it in maintenance mode and checking on it periodically wasn’t too challenging.
Some people might have thought that we were stupid for not pursuing the soft-landing. However, my co-founder and I valued our freedom above everything else. The thought of having to work for another company for a year or more didn’t seem worth it.
It also wasn’t the first time I had turned down money in exchange for freedom. So while I wasn’t confident about my startup’s future, I was confident about my abilities and knew that they thrived given creative freedom. It’s something I discovered about myself very early on in my career through introspection, and I’d encourage you to figure out what you need to make yourself happy and productive as well.
Why we decided to shut down
Over the past two years, my co-founder and I have started separate companies. I decided to turn the blog I started back in 2007 into an education company. While my co-founder decided to start a company in ag-tech.
Last year each of our companies started to take off, and at the end of the year, we had the conversation around shutting BizeeBee down. It was a bittersweet conversation but we knew the time had come.
Even though BizeeBee as a product was relatively low maintenance, it was on our mind. The only way to free ourselves from those thoughts was to shut it down. We wanted to recoup that mental energy and focus it on our new companies.
We messaged all our remaining customers 6 months in advance and offered to offboard them. Many were sad to see us closing down. It was nice to know that we had added value to their lives and businesses.
Don’t waste your time wondering why startups fail, take the learnings with you and move on
Shutting down a startup isn’t the failure. The failure is when you don’t apply all your learnings to your new projects.
Even though BizeeBee was unsuccessful as a startup, I learned a lot! I learned how to hire and run a remote team from my co-founder. I learned how to attract investors. How to deal with difficult customers and search for the right ones. I even learned how to spot criminal activity like money laundering 😉
These are things I wouldn’t have learned from b-school.
And now that they are part of my DNA, I’m a bit stronger and hopefully smarter.
Searching for your next thing
Danielle talks about the fear of being a zombie startup and why startups fail. A zombie startup is exactly what BizeeBee had been. And between 2012 and 2015 I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was searching for answers. I was desperately looking for the thing that would get me out of bed in the morning, and give me what I needed spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and financially.
People kept reaching out. They wanted me to come and work for them. It was flattering, but I knew that every opportunity I was presented with wasn’t quite right.
Of course, I felt pressure. My parents worried about me being financially solvent. I didn’t want to take handouts, and I didn’t want to rely on my husband to foot my pipedream.
I preferred making small changes in my life like living frugally by renting out a room in my home to accepting a lucrative job that didn’t make me jump out of bed. But that’s me, and maybe I’m a weirdo.
Meanwhile, people around me were getting married, having amazing weddings, taking vacations, and buying homes. While I was just searching.
Make your search active
I’m not one who likes to sit around and contemplate what to do next. I know myself enough to know that creative breakthroughs happen for me when I stay busy. So between 2013 and 2015, I stayed busy by discovering new things. I wrote and self-published two books one on building software products and another on public speaking. I was an EIR at 500 Startups and a MIR at Techstars. And I spoke all over the world and shared my experience.
When I spoke I shared the success I had with Mint.com, and equally shared my failure with BizeeBee. I didn’t want to paint an unrealistic picture for my audience. I think they appreciated that I didn’t sugarcoat my story and that I was fallible.
Sharing was how I healed and learned to move on from worrying about why startups fail
Funnily enough, that healing process led me to discover what I wanted to do next, which was to transform Femgineer from being a blog into a business, an education company helping techies build products and companies.
So if you’re contemplating shutting down a startup know that it’s OK. It’s normal. And it happens to a majority of us. Some of us are willing to share our experiences. While others are more tight-lipped about it. That’s OK too!
If you feel overwhelmed, anxious, and dispassionate about what you’re working on it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re doing. You might be held back because you’re worried about letting other people down. The truth is you customers will find alternatives to use, your investors will find other founders to fund, and your employees will have learned, grown, and become even more valuable to a new employer. Realizing that you’re dispensable is a hard pill for many of us to swallow, but it also means you can drop that giant chip that is weighing down your shoulders 😉
Once you’ve dropped it and learn to move past why startups fail, you can focus on doing the one thing that only you can do: answer that little voice between your ears. Ultimately, the decision to shut down is about valuing your mental health. You owe it to yourself, and there is no shame in that!
Now I want to know, have you had to shut something down that initially brought you a lot of joy? How did you do it, and what did you do to cope while doing it?