The startup-childbirth analogy ranks among our most overworked business clichés. We talk less about the deathbed vigil that accompanies failure. But as this recent Tumblr post attests, that metaphor is just as apt. Founders watch helplessly as their companies expire, comforting themselves with memories of early promise. Ultimately, though, they descend into recriminations (directed at themselves and others); regret over opportunities squandered; resolutions to do right by survivors; and–above all–personal desolation. Post-mortem, their grieving traces the arc described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five-stage model. Though perhaps “acceptance” is made easier by the investment community’s lionization of failure.
I read the Tumblr post, titled “My Startup Has 30 Days to Live,” during a break at a conference for entrepreneurs from emerging economies, sponsored by Michael Porter’s AllWorld Network. In the session before the break, Alan Lewis, chairman of the $700 million travel company Grand Circle, had asked attendees to raise their hands if their revenues exceeded $25 million. No hands rose. (It was early in the morning. The larger-company CEOs must have been coffee-ing up.) Lewis seemed disappointed as he looked around the room. “Eighty percent of you won’t be here in five years,” he said, “because you are not able to grow.”
Lewis wasn’t urging attendees to climb aboard “the VC rocket-ship,” as the 30 Days post calls it. He was talking about momentum and taking risks and bringing on people who naturally set their sails for the next level. But his words touched off the same kind of insecurity felt by the Tumblr writer. Mentors and investors had advised that mournful soul that there is but one goal–to get big–and only one way to get big–to do it fast. So he made a series of against-the-gut decisions that led to his start-up’s impending demise.
That post released an avalanche of comments on Y Combinator’s Hacker News, debating–among other things–the nature and purpose of a start-up. Some of it devolved into Valley-centric semantics. Is a bootstrapped start-up really a start-up or just a small business? Imagine a pause, and then a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
The Tumblr entrepreneur suggests that had his company eschewed the accelerator and accelerator principles, it could have succeeded. Of course that supposition is impossible to evaluate. Another speaker at the AllWorld conference was Ken Morse, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and a serial entrepreneur. Morse railed against incubators, which he contends both isolate and insulate start-ups in unhealthy fashion. But Morse also offered a panegyric for ambition, exhorting attendees to create billion-dollar babies.
High tech is a rarified, occasionally wacky world that values innovation above all. Yet it treats entrepreneurship as a formulaic enterprise, in which companies strive to create unique value propositions while pursuing identical goals and operating from identical rulebooks.
What’s sad about the Tumblr post is that it confesses not only failure, but also lack of courage. The entrepreneur loved and trusted his idea and his people. But he didn’t love and trust them enough to resist the presiding fast-growth culture. He believed in his creation’s distinctiveness. But he didn’t believe in it enough to pursue a distinctive path. He dreamed of success. But he hesitated to insist that his personal definition of success had value.
There is glory when you succeed on your own terms; satisfaction when you succeed on someone else’s terms; and regret tempered with growth when you fail on your own terms. When you fail on someone else’s terms, there is only failure.