Monday 23 June 2014

The Valley of Despair: In Between Success and Failure

“Do you ever hate Pillow Talk?” my mum asked me tonight as I wearily stumbled into my family home at 8pm. I was hungry and irritable after emerging from a long stint in a hot, stuffy electronics lab and I didn’t know the answer. 

For the past 4 days I have been in Scotland, staying with my parents. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. 1) Free meals. 2) My dad is an electronic engineer and I don’t have to pay him. 3) My dad’s office has a fully-equipped electronics lab I can workout of, rent-free. Can you spot a pattern here? 

Due to an unexpected financial situation, my company is currently in a slightly-less-than-ideal place. As a result, I’m trying to do as much as I can on my own to keep costs low. It’s really hard. It is a ridiculously steep learning curve (ever tried to get your head around 3 different programming languages at once?) which results in a near-constant state of mental exhaustion. 

Today I spent the entire day in a small electronics lab. The plan was to build four working prototypes. As another cost-cutting measure, I was also attempting to hand-solder a collection of surface-mount LEDs. For those of you to whom that means nothing... imagine wielding a chainsaw and trying to neatly cut a stamp-sized photograph out of newspaper. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well. 

In a brief break from my soldering in an attempt to prevent my head from imploding,  I read a blog by Nikki Durkin, founder of 99dresses. A refreshingly honest and emotional article, Nikki talks about the experience of having your startup fail and how isolating it is. As she points out, there is very little in the public domain about how failure feels. There is a lot of media about failure and learning lessons, but very little about the emotional rollercoaster it shamelessly drags the founder(s) on. 

Reading Nikki’s post was mildy unsettling as I can already relate to a lot of her story. And the fact of the matter is, there is absolutely no way to tell if my startup succeed or fail. I want it to succeed with every fibre of my being, but the reality is that a lot of things haven’t gone to plan lately. I’m tethering on a tightrope and I could fall either way. 

This, amongst other thoughts, has rolled around in my head for the rest of the day. And the more I think about it, the more unhappy I feel with the startup stories that are shared in the public eye. The extremes are generally the areas we hear about. 

The hardship side of startup life is heroized, cheering on every startup founder as he or she struggles defiantly onwards, toiling to change the world for the better. The late nights, the empty bank accounts, the garage offices; they verge on status symbols in the ever-cool startup world.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is the sudden and often unexpected success. The acquisitions, the million-dollar investment rounds, the press that results in server crashes or sold out product runs. These people talk about their ‘struggling startup’ days wearing the kind of rose-tinted glasses you can probably afford when you’ve been acquired. 

But what no one talks about is the bit in the middle. As some cool-startup-infographic once labelled it, The Valley of Despair. The bit in between coming up with the idea and shipping it. Sometimes this period is weeks or months - and for some unlucky buggars (including myself) it’s been years. 

I mean, I guess no one is talking about The Valley of Despair because it’s full of people who are just getting on with it. That’s all you can do. There is no glory here. There are no status symbols. The late nights are real and never-ending, and no one cares when you’re still working at 4am. Being broke isn’t something you can laugh about when your debit card is being declined in the supermarket; no matter how much of a hero you are, that ominous feeling rising from the pit of your stomach is enough to make anyone feel nauseous. 

I am tired of being a startup. I want to be a real business that makes money. I want to ship my product. I want people to use it and hopefully find some value in it. I don’t want to slump on a beanbag or play ping pong or drink independent beer. I want my problem to be fulfilling the demand my product is experiencing... not crawling around on the floor, wondering where that 2mm square resister went. 

My name is Joanna Montgomery and I am in the Valley of Despair. I’ve been here a really long time and I don’t know when I’ll get to leave. And I have to stop writing this blogpost now, because I’ve got more soldering to do and you can be damn sure no one else is going to stay up all night doing it. Except maybe my dad.