I just shut down my first startup. Here’s my retro.

What I learned to start, stop, and continue doing as a founder.

Lillian Cartwright
16 min readFeb 13


Me at the top of a hike. (October 2022)

Three years ago, when I founded ShelfLife, odds were I’d be writing this post about shutting down. The greater majority of startups fail. Although the definition of failure is up for debate, more than two-thirds of startups don’t deliver a positive return to investors.

Couple this with the fact that in 2022, just 1% of venture capital went to Black founders and less than 2% went to all-female founding teams. And Black female founders raised…er, let’s not even go there.

Against those odds, we went on to raise $3M from VCs and angels. More importantly, we met and partnered with some of the most incredible people along the way. ShelfLife launched an unparalleled tech platform — helping hundreds of passionate food and beverage entrepreneurs access quality ingredients.

We experienced our fair share of lows too. We quickly learned that it takes more than venture capital, a strong product, and a smart idea to grow at VC rates. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building bullet-proof product that really never saw the light of day. We tried everything to boost our painfully low retention rate and completely failed to hit any of our revenue targets. And last, but not least, we ran out of money and time.

Turns out, startups are hard — like really hard. And the decision to walk away, to say goodbye to the team, to throw away everything we’d built together? The hardest part.

Everyone talks about the lack of “fun” in fundraising or the battle to reach true product-market fit or how to hire (and fire) a rockstar team. For better or worse, failure certainly wasn’t the topic that I was running to my mentors to chat about. And when I googled “How to wind down your startup?” — I came up empty.

My co-founder introduced me to the practice of retros or retrospectives. They’re used at the end of any engineering project/sprint to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and why. For us, they took the form of things we should start doing, things we should stop doing, and things we should continue doing.



Lillian Cartwright

former founder. mountain lover stuck in BK. hmu if you're building something cool