As we look into a new year, people are making changes. Promises to try harder, accomplish new goals and perhaps, give up whatever is toxic or negative. I thought this would be the perfect time to share my thoughts and feelings on walking away from something. For me, this happens to be about walking away from the company I started nearly 7 years ago now. Choosing to walk away from something you started is never easy. You recall the time you put in, and how you identify yourself by "it", this thing, whatever it may be. When you think of the awkward conversations you'll have to hold with your peers and loved ones, you cringe. Although you know they don't fully understand, you can't bare the thought of having to respond to questions like, "... why now?" "...you put so much time into this" "...there was so much potential there" and God forbid, "...you were so close". As much as we like to retweet photos with inspiring quotes such as "if at first you don't succeed, try try again" we never think we'll have to "try try again". We think our ideas are the good ones. We're the exception to the rule. In our society, walking away from things has adopted a negative connotation - almost as if it is analogous to failure. Why do we associate walking away from something (when we know it's the right decision) as a "failure", and why has it become so hard to do?
I want to make a case that walking away, when the time is right, can be actually be the definition of success for you. I've mapped out a series of questions you can ask yourself to evaluate if it's time to go, or perhaps stay. There's no one right answer here, but had I been honest about these before, I might have left sooner.
Question 1: Are you producing, or are you just doing?
Entrepreneurs (and entrepreneur-types) are particularly bad at saying "no" to new opportunities. Oh, and they're definitely worse at giving up something they once said "yes" to. If you want something done, ask a busy person, right? Even if it's subconscious, entrepreneurs tend to define how successful they are by how many "things" they can do at once. How many boards can I be on? How many student groups can I volunteer for? How many side jobs can I pick up? Entrepreneurs aren't so great at stepping back to evaluate if they're actually being productive with their busyness.
Ask yourself: is what you're doing helping to move your company/thing forward?
For my startup, part of our issue was that while we were doing things (entering competitions, heck, even winning competitions) we weren't moving forward as an organization. Just because you're winning business competition doesn't mean your company will actually be successful. It's easy to get caught up in award ceremonies and big checks and fall into the illusion that you're doing fine. Why? Because it feels good. Hard work, accepting feedback and re-doing your business plan isn't fun!
Nobody ever congratulates a chef for buying the ingredients. - A damn-good piece of advice from a silicon valley investor on how we over-glorify success funding rounds
Don't forget you're here to make something real, not play pretend. I know it doesn't feel as good as winning pitch competition after pitch competition, and having nice articles written about you, but just think of how silly you'll look if you don't actually follow-through. Focus on getting the work done - the "fame" will feel much better once you're successful.
Question 2: Do ya love it?
Another one people love to quote/tweet about: "it's all about the passion", "passion is key to the success of your startup". I wish I could take a poll to see how many founders actually feel passionate about their startups vs how many just like the idea of being a founder (because startups are sexy, right?) If I were to guess, it's less than we let on to, and I'm sorry to say it's been true for me. I've been interviewed countless times, stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and put on the "I love this stuff" face so many times, when honestly, I haven't "felt it".
Why do we do this to ourselves anyways?
Much like a failing marriage or long-term relationship, I think we feel pressure to "be" a certain way with our startup. It's taboo to admit it when something is seriously wrong, even though that's exactly what you should be doing. Now that I've left and found other work I am truly passionate about, I see the difference, and it means everything, folks. I think a lot of people simply haven't experienced "true startup-love" before. So they settle and try to make it work for the sake of that potential big exit or the money. Treat it like a real-life relationship: if you're in it for the money, you're in it for the wrong reasons. Trust your gut, it's gonna get rough, and you can't fake it long-term.
Question 3: Do you have the right team? Really
I am convinced that the biggest contributing factor to your startup's success is the people behind it. Hands down, no questions asked. It is not your product. It is not your business model. It is not your funding.
It's your people.
This was ultimately our biggest pitfall as a company. And the best way to explain it is by telling our story (I can't many details here but hopefully you'll get the point):
We had a great technology, a reasonable business plan, plenty of investment potential. Timing was good. People were interested. We were winning competitions. The team started off great. But the minute we decided we weren't good enough to run our own company, we lost our potential. We decided we needed somebody with "experience" and "a name" to run the show. Even though he never really "fit", we thought we were doing what you're supposed to do - hire a resume and the funding will come. Not to say all experienced team members and strategic hires are bad. It was the fact that we didn't trust ourselves or trust our gut with this person, and decided to hand-over the fate of our company to them when we had a feeling he didn't share our values & goals. Gut-instinct is more important than you think...another lesson-learned.
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. - Steve Jobs
So how does one team member take down a company?
High level answer? See questions #1 and #2 (in case you forgot and don't feel like scrolling - are you really producing or just doing "stuff"?, and do ya love it?). This person didn't share our passion, goals, and vision and was always chasing the shortcut rather than putting in the hard work. But part of this was on us too:
- We lost faith in ourselves - we let somebody else drive
- We didn't trust our gut when we didn't feel this person was a fit
- We didn't act soon enough when things went bad
- We didn't invest in the operating agreement, corporate governance, and employment agreements
- We didn't go to other people for help until it was too late
But it's not really all doom and gloom...
Some people wanted us to fight our way through it. "Isn't there some way you can work this out with this team member ....?". It's tempting (again, for what reason exactly I don't know) to keeping beating the dead horse. When trust is broken in a relationship (business or personal) the relationship is done. We knew that no matter what pieces of paper we all signed, how much money we spent on attorneys, how much time we put in "mediation" (startup marriage-counseling, basically), we couldn't trust him anymore. Further, we didn't share common goals. We knew nothing would change his personal objectives, and nothing would change ours. Some things, even as you put time and money into it, you simply cannot change. You can't change people - people can only change themselves.
Time to go!
"Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be" - John Wooden
How does our story end? Well, it's still in process, but today there's a chance that through a variety of ways, our technology can live-on and be transferred to the hands of a team that is actually capable of bringing it to market, which is our only real goal. To see our work in practice. Sometimes you have to let something go in order for it to reach it's full potential and sometimes you're not the right person to do it. As entrepreneurs, we need to get better at accepting these facts and moving on.
In my opinion, this is not giving up, and this not failure. This is smart, and something we should have done a long time ago. But just as there's never a perfect time to start a company, I guess there's never a perfect time to walk away either.
The positives of walking away:
- There's always some way we can use the knowledge we've gained to do good in the industry we've gotten to know so well. I now have a chance to be on the Board for a cleatech organization and help other startups in the same field- really exciting!
- We can start another company with the members of our team that worked. For the parts of our team that shared the same goals, we can do great things together in the future. The time we invested together is not lost.
- We can use the network we've developed to start something new, or help others within that network.
- Most importantly, you learn a lot in 7 years. Now, we can now go and help other startups avoid the pitfalls we fell into.
I love the startup environment, and my time with DFT has led me to career that I'm incredibly passionate about - serving other startups through a great local nonprofit called Launch League. And maybe that was the purpose of all this for me in the first place, who knows? I can't wait to see what's next in 2017. It's the mystery in life that makes it exciting, right?
Thank you DFT, and my founders, Tom, Terence, Richard and Zac, for the many years of learning, travel, meeting great people, and challenges. You've made me a better person, and for that I'm forever thankful.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” - Denis Waitley