Monday, October 29, 2012

Killing Your Startup

The post below should be required reading for any entrepreneurship class or prospective entrepreneur.  I've lived it this more than once but did not write it so poignantly about the experience. Anyone who starts "up" is more likely to end here than on top of the mountain simply because there are fewer black swans than we think and we can know only post facto.  The reality is even more grim, because after the difficult and seemingly heroic decision and the catharsis of thank-yous, the drudgery of closing takes months of endurance, one day at a time without the excitement of a dream in the making. It is not for everyone.

Some crazy dreamers have it in their DNA to do it more than once, learn from the experience, try again until they succeed (my bet is that Lucas Rayala is one of them). When they do they will value their success the more knowing how rare it is, but the pain he feels is very real nonetheless.
A note for students: in this shutdown, in the ashes, there may be the seed of  the phoenix's rebirth - If you go to the original post below and read the comments, you'll see that there is one entrepreneur, a stranger, that sees the value of Lucas' dream and efforts.  He offers to discuss collaboration to try and keep Lucas' dream alive. Always keep dreaming, the night is darkest just before the dawn starts.

Killing Your Startup on a Thursday Night

Lucas Rayala (Founder of Altsie)
This is what you do when you close down your startup: you call Rackspace and cancel the Windows SQL server plan. You email SendGrid and give them notice on your Silver SMTP Service Package. You close down your Wells Fargo Business Checking account and your Paypal Merchant account. Glamorous stuff. Harder than that: you email your cofounders and tell them you’re jumping into the deadpool. Your fingers will hover over the keyboard for a long time as you decide what to say. Because now shit is getting real.

This is what I told them:
“I’m folding up Altsie. It’s been a great experience but we didn’t get the outside interest I was hoping for, and I want to end things neatly instead of bludgeoning a great project to death over time. Want to have a postmortem beer?”
I put three years of my life into building and running Altsie, a bootstrapped startup funded out of my back pocket. You probably haven’t heard of it, but then I probably haven’t heard of your brilliant idea, either. Altsie was a new, live theater market for the growing pool of independent films that don’t make it to the big box theaters. We basically turned bars into movie houses, with all the infrastructure (business profiles, showtime dashboards, and ticketing) housed on the web. I built Altsie from scratch, weaving it from a web of nothing. I emailed and called filmmakers and distribution companies around the country and slowly built a portfolio of films. I learned how to talk to producers. I went door to door to businesses and asked them if they wanted to work with Altsie. They said “No.” I printed flyers and went back. They said “Maybe.” I did it again. They said “Yes.”
As we approached launch last May, I started to understand what buzz was. Paul Carr over at PandoDaily did an exclusive for our launch. I traded emails with Tony Hsieh and Fred Mossler at Zappos and was invited out to the Crash Pads in Las Vegas. Two weeks after the launch of my business, I was having lunch with people I’d been reading about for years. I primed the pump with a LivingSocial deal to make sure people showed up to the movies, and my little idea began taking root. I was showing awesome films, businesses were selling food and beer, and in short order, I was in three states and seven locations.
That’s the nice side of the story. At the same time, however, I was exhausted and I was a nervous wreck. Sometimes we struggled to get people in the door and I called my friends to make up the difference. I started smoking with the servers and getting tipsy at the bar to keep my nerves down. I gave out too many free tickets.
Elon Musk said that running a startup was like eating glass and staring into the abyss. When I first heard those words they sounded brave and romantic. I watched him repeat this line recently and hated him for it. He’d made war sound glamorous, and I’d signed up to fight on the front lines. I still had a job, which made everything near impossible, that I couldn’t afford to quit. I worked during the day as a report writer, snuck in emails and business calls for Altsie over my lunch, and worked late into the night to take care of hundreds of necessary details to keep the project going.
I was confronted with my own limitations and began to see myself in the harshest, most honest light ever directed on me. This was a humbling experience and a blessing. I always thought of myself as a great conversationalist and an intelligent person, one who could take on any challenge in front of me. Now, I watched myself blunder into meetings with businessmen, asking for help to raise money, and I realized I had no idea what I was saying, or even asking. Distributors were upset because their paychecks weren’t as large as they thought they should be. I didn’t know how to ask people for help, and so my plate was too full. But it’s somehow liberating to run up against these barriers in yourself.
Two years building and eight months running Altsie took its toll. I’m overweight for the first time in my life. My cholesterol is up. Despite my downward physical spiral, I managed to marry the love of my life, and last Thursday we sat down at the dinner table. I kept trailing off, getting lost in simple conversations about the election or what we were doing that weekend. “I’m sorry,” I’d say to Kathryn, smiling ruefully. “I lost it—what was I saying?”
Then everything I actually wanted to say suddenly boiled up, and I started to talk — really talk.
I talked about success and failure. What did those words even mean? Which was Altsie? Had I failed because I hadn’t spread across the country like wildfire? Was I giving up too early? Kathryn and I wanted to start a family in a couple of years, and while Altsie wasn’t breaking the bank, it was a big expense and it was eating up the honeymoon portion of our marriage. We wanted to travel and restart our social life, which had become thinner and thinner because of my business. We wanted some room to enjoy life.
And at the same time, was it possible I could say Altsie was a success? I’d launched a business. I grew it. I learned a lot. We’d shown seven movies over eight months, done thirty shows and sold over a thousand tickets. On one hand the numbers were lower than I’d hoped, on the other they showed a history of perseverance I could be proud of. I’d made something very real, and it had functioned in the world. I took a swing at Hollywood’s destructive distribution model. Granted, Hollywood didn’t notice, but there was a certain personal satisfaction in the act.
I imagine what I’m going through isn’t that unique. Lots of people try to launch businesses, with lackluster results. Many startups only get a couple of hundred people on their email list. I’ve decided that success and failure are all relative, or even irrelevant.
And I’m closing down my startup.
I need to go for a run. I need to clean up my desktop and emails. I need to hire a tax attorney to straighten the jumble of receipts and ticket sales, so the government understands that Altsie was definitely a net loss.
I need to send my last checks to my last distributors and thank them for their trust. I need to throw a party and tell my friends I appreciate their support. I need to find my friends again and thank them for sticking by me. I need to call my filmmakers and thank them for taking a chance with me. I need to take my wife to dinner and thank her for her love.
This is what you do when you close down your business on a Thursday night.
You say “Thank you.”

No comments: