There are hundreds of articles that suggest we should celebrate failure. That failure is good and gets us ahead of the game. And that we win if we fail more often than our competitors.
The ideas behind these slogans make sense and I have preached them to others when they failed miserably. But you know what… failure sucks and celebrating it is easier said than done. Still, that does not mean that we should not strive to learn from it.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10.000 ways that didn’t work.
About six months ago, two engineers I knew from a previous project approached me to talk about a new startup concept. They had built a mind blowing video streaming platform and needed guys to create a brand and design a website. A designer I had worked with at a different startup and I took on the job and accepted a generous offer to become part of the company. I came up with a concept, story and name for the company, and we built a beautiful website that got great feedback.
As the launch got closer I shifted from a creative role to a marketing position. I studied new marketing techniques and experimented a lot since I felt the growth hacking approach was the best way for us to go. A few weeks later, the product was built and tested with some launching customers. It was time to get the word out. We even brought on a new guy to take on sales.
But then… things went south. Not everybody was satisfied with the approach I was taking. There were a few meetings to see if we could straighten things out. We agreed that I would give more updates on my experiments and the progress I was making. But at the same time I did not feel comfortable within the team anymore. The new mixture of people in the company had changed the dynamics in the office — and not for the better.
It was time to part. They sat me down and told me to leave.
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.
They moved on with the company and I went home to reflect and write this post about the things I have learned. Getting kicked out was not the best that could happen to me, but the experience taught me some lessons that will be valuable in the future. The purpose of this article is to share my experience and tell you what I have learned. And hopefully you will learn a few things along the way about life and startups as well.
What I learned when I got kicked out of my own startup
I am a Master of Arts and my heroes are Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud. The other team members are engineers and their heroes are people like Guido van Rossum and Ken Thompson.
All four heroes are disruptive in their own unique way. Poets are always on a journey to go beyond the known. Programmers — no matter how disruptive they are — always depend on fundamental functions. Where the poet often lacks discipline and structure, the programmer is always working in a structured and logical way. And since that logic is inherent to their work it also influences the way they think, and they therefore expect the world to behave a certain way.
Things are either good or bad. Black or white. And marketing should be done in the traditional way they had read about in marketing textbooks. Easy as that.
Understand and respect each other’s language
Do you start marketing when you are intensely pivoting or do you wait for the concept to be crisp and clear and you have a product-market-fit? Our proposition changed weekly so I did not get the message out too strong. There was no point in getting in the papers since there was a good chance the story would be outdated by the time it got published.
Instead of getting us ‘out there’ immediately, I kept on planning and keeping our copy in sync with our latest proposition.
One of the mistakes I made was not letting my team know what I was working on — and how much work writing copy can be. The world of code is insanely different from the world of words and I should have communicated better that minor changes in functionality can have a big impact on your brand and the way you tell your story. I had my hands full and I did not let them know.
It is the same the other way around. The marketing guys may want a small extra feature cause it could get some extra users. But that little feature can require a programmer to spend a week writing or changing code. In order to work together effectively, you should not just know what your team members their skills are, but you must understand and respect their work.
It was my mistake to not let them know how much work all these changes were giving me. And that it was not wise to get our story out before we had our product-market-fit. We simply did not understand each other’s language and expertise well enough.
Once people lose trust in someone it is incredibly hard to repair
Startups are strange entities. They are driven by dreams and founders have little more than trust to go on. Anything can happen. You put a lot of time into building the team that is ultimately going to build your business, but what do you really know about each other? Not much, you simply have to hope for the best and trust each other.
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
So how does this work in regular companies? You have a bunch of co-workers that you see daily and sometimes grab a beer with. But do you really know them? And more importantly, would you trust them with your future? Would you vouch for them?
You have a lot riding on the success of your startup. You have often given up certainties in life. A stable salary. Health insurance. Pretty much every evening and most weekends. And yes, the relationship with your family and spouse suffers since you are not around enough. You give up a lot but once your startup becomes a success it will be well worth it and the future will make up for all struggles now.
So when you feel there is someone in your team that jeopardizes the chances of success, and therefore your future, you get nervous. You are on your toes. You carefully keep an eye on the guy who is slacking. And once you catch him doing one little thing that leads you to believe he is not the right person for the job anymore, you are already considering getting rid of him. Trust is broken. And once that thought gets into your mind for the very first time, it becomes incredibly hard — and maybe even impossible — for the other person to fix that.
When people lose faith in you, and the pressure is on, this situation becomes hard to fix. Even if they only consider once that you may be jeopardizing their future, their perception of you has changed. It has changed so fundamentally that you will never be able to go back to those first few months. That great period when you were a small team messing about in garage, coming up with an invention that would change the world forever. That period where you were a caricature of Jobs or Zuckerberg and nobody took you seriously, but that was OK… it really was, because you were determined to prove the world wrong.
In a regular job it is not as big a problem if you only have little faith in your colleague. You need to be a team that can trust each other blindly to achieve great things, but at the end of the day everybody goes home and gets their paycheck. In a startup you may be the person that could stand in the way of the future everybody has always dreamed of, therefore a single doubt can make things come to an end immediately.