A failing startup can feel like death. And if you aren't careful, it can take you with it. It was April 2000, I was 29 and my startup had just failed. I had maybe $200K in assets and owed $5M.
The experience shattered my persona as a smart, successful entrepreneur and exposed me as a failure. Like a traditional Near Death Experience (NDE), this journey reordered my priorities and changed me as a person. Without it, I wouldn't have quit drinking and taken up authenticity as my guiding star. Learning how to be me without armor and jazz hands has been a challenge but ultimately worth it - allowing me to be more successful in business and life.
Thankfully, I figured out how to get through that experience -- one painful step after another. There was no way around it, just through it.
And it sucked. Hard.
If you find your startup failing, here are some strategies to get through.
You Come First. Period.
Once I accepted outside capital, I felt compelled to give my startup everything I had, including my health. In 2008, I was able to raise capital in the midst of the great recession. Given how hard it was to raise that capital, I felt I owed our investors everything and exhausted myself completely. Within 36 months, I was hospitalized for two weeks and eventually had to step down as CEO. This experience became one of my greatest teachers. Lesson learned: You are your health. I have become a big believer in spending the time and money on the full annual physical. If you have nagging symptoms that you keep ignoring, no more excuses. It's time to get yourself checked out. Stat!
You Can't Handle Everything
As entrepreneurs, we tend to think we can overcome anything. And yet life can and will throw things at us that we are not capable of overcoming.
A few months into my newest startup, Custom Reality Services (CRS), I lost my mother and then my sister. The grief impacted my ability to read. I negotiated a leave of absence for six months. I resigned from all of my boards. My recovery needed to be put first. Thankfully, I had partners who were willing to make room for me. If that isn't your situation, you still matter. Get into conversation with your key stakeholders (e.g., co-founders, board and/or partners) to figure out how to make a leave of absence work or how to exit gracefully. There are things in life you cannot muscle through.
Let's Get Physical
We don't tend to think of startup life as an extreme sport - but we should. Today, I eat like I am an ultramarathoner. When it comes to diet, it's easy to get lost in the hype and fabs. I found working with an accredited nutritionist to be the key. All our bodies have different requirements. If you are experiencing brain fog and/or fatigue, I recommend working with a physician on an elimination diet to see if food sensitivities or allergies are at play. And yes, they were for me!
Beyond the Physical Plane
In my early career, I couldn't imagine being alone with my thoughts. Today, meditation is my happy place. Recently, Harvard released a series of studies on how meditation increases gray matter in the frontal cortex, which handles executive function. I don't know about you, but I need all the executive function I can muster. Today, I meditate by either walking in nature or using an app called Headspace.
There is life after startup life. If you find yourself in the midst of Near Death Entrepreneurship, reach out for help immediately. Ask yourself: Who is most likely to tell me what I need to hear not what I want to hear? Now call. This experience can and will change everything. It's your job to make sure that change is ultimately for the better.
About the Author
E. Kelly Fitzsimmons is a well-known entrepreneur who has founded, led and sold several technology startups. Recently, she co-founded Custom Reality Services, a virtual reality production company whose first project, Across the Line, premiered at the New Frontier program of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. She is also the co-founder of the Hypervoice Consortium, which researches the future of voice communications. Previously, she was the co- founder and CEO of HarQen. Prior to launching HarQen, she founded Sun Tzu Security (1996), an information security firm, which merged with Neohapsis (2003), where she led the combined company as CEO through 2006. Cisco acquired Neohapsis to enhance its information security offerings in 2014. In 2011, the Angel Capital Association awarded her the Silvertip PwC Entrepreneurship Award. In 2013, Speech Technology magazine honored her with the Luminary Award. She is a regular contributor to Information Week and Inc. magazine. Recently, several of her Inc. articles were published in an anthology Been There, Run That. She serves on the board of the Executive Women's Forum, the largest member organization serving female executives in the Information Security, Risk Management and Privacy industries. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester and holds a master's degree from Harvard University.