It’s been almost two years since I confessed, “We didn't leave enough money in the bank to pay off our debt, so now we need to tell people we can't pay. Are they going to come after me, or my house and my car? I'm broke and I'm scared.“
This was part of a larger confession, which I originally wrote anonymously, sharing that the company I had bled over for the two prior years was about to shut down.
It was, without a doubt, one of the lowest points of my professional life.
One of the anonymous commenters said something that really stuck with me,“One of the most liberating experiences you can have in life, and one of the healthiest, is to have your ego utterly decimated. It’s also really really hard to go through. You'll find out what you're really made of. The real liberation is when you abandon for good that voice in the back of your mind that tells you you are special.”
They were 100% correct. Looking back, one of the hardest things to deal with was the blow to the ego. No longer believing that I was immortal. Not being able to raise money at the drop of an email. Falling out of the limelight. Thinking my talents were too worthwhile to spend them on somebody else’s project.
It was a painful mental breakdown, but it’s exactly what I needed.
Now that the smoke has cleared a bit from the Zirtual debacle, I felt it was important to give a perspective that’s been largely overlooked.
My perspective isn’t rare, but it is grounded in lots of testimony. Testimony from founders leaving an endless amount experience, hurt and advice on Startups Anonymous. Real experience, not the highly filtrated BS that spews from tech blogs.
And, from my own first-hand experience. Granted, it was merely a fraction of the size of Zirtual, but relevant nonetheless.
I don’t know Maren personally. We’ve never met or exchanged emails. But I do understand her.
Maren has been highly criticized this past week for waiting so long to confront the financial issue publicly. Whether that meant, being up-front with employees/customers, or doing more to prevent the disastrous shut-down.
Let’s be clear, this decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. There is more to the story that we haven’t heard, but that’s beyond the point.
As an outsider, and in hindsight, it’s super simple to see the mistakes that were made. As a founder, it’s not as simple as it looks.
Founders are highly delusional by nature. We take gigantic risks and more often than not, they don’t work out. We know this, we accept this, but we don’t believe this.
We all think we’re the exception to the rule. And, why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t Maren?
Maren was propped up on a high horse and rode into town with a calvary of supporters--ecstatic customers, happy investors, rock-star employees, millions in revenue. Not to mention, Jason Calacanis singing her praises, calling Zirtual the next unicorn, only days before D-day.
All of this amounts to further delusions of grandeur. The belief that your shit doesn’t stink and that you’re “too big to fail”.
It’s what leads a founder to believe that a customer or investor will come through at the 11th hour. Or, to hire its contractors as employees without fully understanding the financial impact. Or, to believe that monthly burn will be supported by capital injections.
Founders are forced with explosive decisions at every stage of growth. Sometimes the choices seem stupid and completely irrational, but they work. More often, they end in disaster--or as we phrase it in startupland--failure.
The line between stupidity and brilliance is nearly invisible to the naked eye.
I’m not defending Maren’s decisions, but rather, I’m stating that failure is never as simple as it seems.
I can tell you this is NOT what she wanted to happen. In fact, up until the exact moment, she probably didn’t believe it would happen.
Careless or not, had any of her “stupid” or “irrational” decisions worked out, she’d still be riding her unicorn into town while we threw rainbows and butterfly’s at her feet.
Instead, she’s coming to terms with that realization that she’s not so “special” after all.