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STARTUP

What to Do When Your Start-Up Doesn't Fail--But Doesn't Succeed

Ellie Cachette, CEO of ConsumerBell, reflects on the middle ground of running a business.

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There were so many times our start-up almost failed, we joked it was a cockroach, a life form in its own right that, simply put, would never die.

There were times when we barely could pay our Rackspace bill, and one time I distinctly remember our blog being down because we forgot to pay that bill. There was also the time one of our investors cut our credit line in half, unexpectedly, right as we made a huge payment. And then the time our lead customer, two days before integration, committed suicide. Then the time a few weeks after that when our CTOs wife committed suicide.

There are so many things privately and publicly known about ConsumerBell that its nearly a miracle that we’ve made it where we are today. Any person close to us will say we have had no shortage of miracles and most startups that really make it far have similar stories; years where founders did contract work, or full teams were let go. We even moved my full apartment into the office hallway for a day while I was 24 hours between a lease, and experienced two hurricane blackouts in NYC and an earthquake that rocked our Park Ave office one summer.

Many of these things happened in our first year as a startup when our sole focus should be product. I remember after a trip to D.C, a water pipe exploded above our printers. We just went around the corner to a cafe. There’s always a wifi spot, a cup of coffee or an employees apartment to stakeout. ConsumerBell just would not die.

Similarly to a recently engaged couple and the way grandparents always ask, “When are you having kids?” there reaches a point where for a startup people are wondering, when you are going to IPO or raise the next round? Or have rocket ship growth? And sometimes it just never happens or even worse, sometimes like with Pandora or Tumblr it takes a while. There is this correlation between staying alive and rocketship growth. To get there the first part is staying alive and many other variables added to rocketship growth. Simply put just breath.

Yet at some point something changes: the founder gets bored, the company starts making money in a pivot that wasn’t part of the original vision or even funds run low but not low enough to justify shutting the doors - especially when there's revenue involved. Sometimes a startup is well funded but just can’t seem to see a path of success like it thought and returns its money to investors, sometimes the market changes or the industry changes and now what was a “big” idea is only a feature but something need and so is true for the opposite when what was once a feature in time becomes a company. Not every startup becomes a huge success like Facebook but not every startup fails either. There are plenty of startups in the middle, in purgatory of success waiting for the right VC or new CEO or market environment to change.

In the meantime, what is a team or founder to do?

1. Sabbatical

From what I have heard, founders who take sabbaticals or vacations actually come back refreshed and with a new sense of balance. There's a couple reasons for this: after massive sleep deprivation and zero separation between work and personal life, taking a step back often reminds a founder of the things that they want in their personal life and gives motivation to the work life and while in a lull this can upset investors or look like avoidance, its in almost every case helped the company and lets be honest, if a company is going to die it isn't going to die in one week but be surprised at how much sleep a founder might need and you probably wouldn’t want many friends around. Stories of founders sleeping for days straight are not uncommon.

2. Reflect and Document

Having a lull or time for reflection can also be inspiring, its a good time to document all HR files, product road maps, organize digital assets, clean up email boxes and media content accounts like YouTube, upload missing content, re-share content on twitter. In many cases potential acquirers will be want to know many of these things like how many digital assets (files and images) to taxes and press lists. It never fails that when the acquisition opportunity arises founders are usually too busy with other things so doing it when possible is not only therapeutic but efficient. Also in the process you might find a gem or two of inspiration.

3. Help Other Startups

Dedicate a portion of time to help other startups in different phases. This will be refreshing to transfer knowledge and also help spread the word of what you are working on in a way that could spark new ideas or allies. When all seems lost helping others often reminds a founder of the world outside its own startup and can give perspective.

4. Do Something Different

One thing founders certainly give up is their personal lives and can albeit even forget what a personal life is making decision one sided. Take a class, do something random, spend a week with family somewhere far. Do something totally different and step out of the founders role.

5. Don’t shut down

airBnb had to sell cereal at one point to keep their company alive, in the early days of FedEx their CEO gambled his money at blackjack to win and make payroll. Evernote the night before closing its doors received a $500k investment from a user in Sweden and Blogger (which sold for rumors between $20MM and $50MM) to Google had to lay off every single employee before finally getting acquired. That founder, Evan Williams went off to start what is now Twitter today, so the greatest thing a founder can do when their startup isn’t failing is to make sure it doesn’t die. Timing is everything.

This post originally appeared on Business Insider

IMAGE: Kitsune Media
Last updated: Jun 12, 2013




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