The end of my world as I knew it and I (now) feel fine…[a retrospective on startup grief]

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 6.48.44 PM(from the cover of How To Survive the End of the World as we Know it by James Rawles]

Today, at the urging of a friend, I told the story of the past year of my life in a private forum for women entrepreneurs that I avoided for that period of time. The women on the list urged that I share this story more publicly, so here it is.

THE END WAS NIGH

For those of you who are new to this story, I am one of the founders of Buyosphere, a website for helping people search for fashion by using real people instead of algorithms to uncover gems and interesting ideas. Going to a 1920’s party and don’t know where to find a cool flapper dress that is in your price range and won’t make your arms look like sausages? Post a question on Buyosphere and there will probably be someone in the community that knows of an affordable, adorable, flattering dress that has your name on it.

I’m fiercely proud of what we built, though we made lots of mistakes and wrong turns to get there, which cost 3 years of my life and over $525,000 in angel and friends and family money (plus lots of our own…I lost count). By the time we course-corrected, the money was gone and there wasn’t really any runway left for the newly launched (September 2012) awesome 1.0 version of the site. Instead, we needed to find jobs and move on.

THE FALL

Moving on was incredibly painful. My dream was dashed. I was broke. I felt like a joke. I disappointed the friends and family who had invested in me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life anymore. I hadn’t made a fall-back plan. I had no idea how to operate in this new paradigm.

Just when I thought I couldn’t feel lower, I took a job that I ended up despising for a wage that was worse than wat I made when I was in my 20’s for a company who didn’t value my experience or ideas…who fired me after the trial period because “I didn’t fit in.” I went from feeling like a failure to wanting to disappear altogether.

I really didn’t know who I was anymore. And I certainly didn’t know how to express that. I felt numb. I was in a state of numb for 6 months. I tuned out everything. I didn’t want to hear about struggle or success or anything that was going on in the startup world or tech community. I unsubscribed from everything. Every group, every list, every newsletter. I stopped talking to people who mattered in my life during my startup/tech days. I gave a talk during this period at a conference. Frankly, I don’t know how I did it. I barely remember it.

THE DISTRACTION

I needed a BIG change. Luckily a friend turned me onto a job on a political campaign (Justin Trudeau) and I was able to throw myself into a completely different world. It was awesome and exactly what I needed, but I eventually had to come out of it. I’m passionate about politics, but I didn’t want to make a career out of it.

And I also had ‘my win’. Justin won the Leadership race with 80% of the popular vote and the social media plan and content I came up with brought in a big part of the new votes. I remember thinking at one point, “Yep. I still have it.” And that was the kind of confidence boost I needed to get out of my slump.

THE RECOVERY

Recovery is a funny thing. It was so gradual that I didn’t even realize I was getting better. The myth persists that you wake up one day and – poof – you feel better again. But that wasn’t my experience. Slowly but surely, I just started to get my mojo back and I really didn’t even notice it. Not until today when Melinda asked me to talk about my ‘absence’ from the group.

Slowly I had ideas. Inspiration. Drive. A desire to do something again. I slowly stopped feeling afraid. I slowly stopped feeling dread. I slowly regained confidence. I slowly stopped asking, “Why would anyone want me?” and started believing in myself again. The question, instead, started to become, “Why would I want to work for anyone else?” more and more. And then I found myself sitting with a couple of potential partners to discuss setting up a new agency.

I think everyone has different ways of dealing with grief. Even the most social of us can be SO devastated that we need some space and time to reflect and get our bearings back. I didn’t even know how to talk about it and I certainly didn’t have the desire to reach out to anyone. I needed distance from it. A new perspective. I’m not back to my pre-startup chutzpah quite yet, but I do feel okay about everything.

And I’m also feeling hopeful about Buyosphere again. It has at least a few more versions to go to make it a fully functioning, amazing tool, but it’s got the basis of it. Nearly a year later, I still love looking at it and I still believe in the core premise. Fashion search is pretty damned broken. I think this is the right approach. Hell, if you know of anyone looking to buy a startup in the fashion space, I have one that is WAY undervalued. ;)

THE CONCLUSION

People will tell you that there is life after your startup fails, but I guarantee you won’t feel that way when it happens. And that’s cool. Because you need to mourn it. And you probably need to figure out who you are again without the startup. And, like me, you probably won’t want to go back to what you were doing before. The pressure will be immense to do something bigger and better and altogether different. Go do that. Or just give yourself as much time as you need. And just fall apart as much as you need to. I recommend a time-consuming distraction that is completely different from what you were doing. I’ve heard of ex-startup founders getting married, going back to school, climbing a mountain…whatever works.

And for those of you who know someone who is going through this: they don’t need/want your advice. They certainly don’t need/want your condolences. Don’t tell them to look on the bright side. Don’t try to fix anything. They probably don’t want to talk about it at all. The best thing you can do for them is be normal and let them be normal and give them space. And if they don’t want to see you it is because you somehow remind them of their self-loathing pain. Don’t take that personally. I know. It’s hard not to.

I can honestly say that I’m a much stronger, smarter, more interesting person for going through all of this. And my next venture? It’s going to be better for it.

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Categories: Buyosphere, entrepreneurship, featured, personal

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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9 Comments on “The end of my world as I knew it and I (now) feel fine…[a retrospective on startup grief]”

  1. June 27, 2013 at 12:33 #

    Tara, I am so grateful to you. I am at my own cross-roads at the moment with my reinvented self. Looks like I may be on my next path. Thanks for sharing your soul. It is already helping me with my own.

  2. June 27, 2013 at 12:33 #

    You are amazing! Good for you for sharing this; it’s very brave. When my first company failed, I spent a year (or three) trying to recover. I was a single mom with $100k in debt and no job; totally devastated. But now I wear that mutha like a BADGE. I am no longer scared of failure; I know I can cope with anything. This is the shit that can make you fearless. You, my friend, are a fucking champ. xx

  3. June 27, 2013 at 12:36 #

    What a fantastic story. But not a story – a life lesson. A lesson in humanity. A lesson to those experiencing grief (any type of loss) and (may I say it?) depression. you are a strong woman to share this with people. Sage words.

  4. June 27, 2013 at 12:56 #

    I have respect for a very wide range of accomplishments, and business accomplishment is one of them, but it is a tiny, tiny one. I just don’t see substantive human value in being able to institutionalize an idea in such a way that it functions economically, to bring in funds amounting to on the order of ~110% of the funds needed to make that idea work, evaluated on a quarterly basis. While I recognize this creates jobs and material wealth, and enables a wide range of other activities, a “failure” in this rubric is something which only brings in 97%, which seems to me a ridiculous scale to ascertain accomplishment. There is, however, substantive human value in being passionate, caring, ideas-driven, brilliant and appreciative of others — all characteristics which you have. There is substantive human value in understanding what people want and need, knowing how to give it to them, and wanting to do so. There is substantive human value in wanting to know what other people want and need.

    Having been on the edge of career catastrophe myself (years ago), I recognize that it is emotionally perilous to define myself by what I do. I certainly know that most other people define me by what I do. During that period, I was asked, “Are you a human doing? Or are you a human being?” And this led me to the exercise of valuing myself for all those things about me which would exist, after I evaporate everything I own, sever every human relationship I have, and move to a city where nobody knows me. This is the part of me that I see as a human being, and if I’m not entirely happy with the human being that is me, then I know that I have work to do on that, and I do it; and I’d recommend this intellectual exercise to others as well.

    A final note: there are some human relationships I cannot imagine severing.

  5. June 27, 2013 at 14:38 #

    I worked across that desk from you for the 6 months that we threw ourselves into that crazy political campaign. It was fabulous and exhilarating and a great thing to have worked together. But, I only ever had a very small glimpse of what you’ve revealed here about how you were feeling. To me, you were confident and sure in what you were doing, with the swagger of success behind you. You never forgot your instincts. It says a lot. Coincidentally, I was dealing with a different, but completely devastating failure where I felt I had lost myself as well. It is amazing to me that we came together at the same time, each with our own baggage in tow, to create something groundbreaking in Canadian politics, and to find ourselves in the process. Serendipity at its finest. Hugs to you, and cheers to us!

    • June 28, 2013 at 13:45 #

      xo Funny how that campaign was the catalyst to both of our healing (yet a source of so much pain! ;))

  6. June 27, 2013 at 15:44 #

    Thank you for writing this. I just want you to know that I love you, and have tremendous respect for you, and I’m always cheering you on from this side of the country. You are an inspiration.

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