When should you give up on your startup?

My partners and I have found ourselves pretty disturbed by the way things have gone at the beginning of our adventure. After almost a year of struggling, you could say we’ve become pretty much bipolar due to all the ups and downs we’ve had to endure. And it’s not over yet. Nothing is ever set in stone. We can barely survive on the money we make but we love what we do and what we’ve been trying to achieve.

We care a lot about the users we’ve met along the way and can’t give them up now. I’ll try to explain why.

Of course we knew that building an innovative service in an aging industry would be a rollercoaster ride. We’ve read all the books and watched all the same videos as anyone trying to start something from the ground up with no certainty about the market, being sure only of the pain.

Everybody knows that creating a startup is a test of nerves and flexibility. It can genuinely mess with your mental health and sensibility. Advisors may not always tell you much about this.

It’s easy to understand why fresh entrepreneurs are always so positive and smiling when they talk about their business or write blog posts. They depend on their appearance a lot. Sometimes it’s barely the only thing they own. They may not even have a product yet, but they have a good pitch. They want you to subscribe to and support them.

Smiley face with confidence and shiny eyes.

For example, I often think about all these food delivery startups that have been launching over the last 3–5 years. When you listen to them (or read any of their job offers), it’s seems like a god-given gift to work as a runner by their side “making the world a better place”, and being a part of a great team. Of course it is the “best team” and their product a “game changer”. Well ok, that’s basic startup branding and storytelling.

I’m not saying there’s something wrong with it. It’s natural and we all do the same over-positive-branding. However all this happiness and energy within “success” & “friendly” communication can affect your nerves as a smaller entrepreneur especially when you’re tired or just had some bad business news.

And you get a lot of that at the beginning. It’s not only disappointing news, but also mockery from distant or close competitors refusing to understand what you do because they don’t want to take you seriously, even after telling them about recent deals. You also get calls from anonymous prospects insulting you and arguing that your expensive service does nothing but destroy honest jobs. Which isn’t true of course. But they are not willing to listen just yet.

Anyone will tell you that these kind of issues are actually really good because at least there is some impact and you’ll soon turn these naysayers in clients. This is why your mindset matters so much. You have to hold on to the positive side of everything and turn it into growth. OKAY !! But that’s exhausting as hell.

A mindset can change and be educated, your personality is less flexible.

Sincerely, no matter what your guts are made of, you can end up feeling depressed about all the mess happening at once even if you try hard to hold on to the “good” and smile back.

If you experience outstanding success in a short term, good for you. You’ll be of great inspiration for other entrepreneurs and only get growth related issues. I call them « rich people’s issues ». You will logically solve them by raising money because your numbers are significant enough.

But you can also stand in the middle.

Not good, not bad considering you came out of nothing. Just not on a proper “product market fit” yet. “You’re on to something really interesting, but we’ll have to wait and see where it goes before moving forward. Good luck! Thank you, bye.”

Shit happens.

Failing is hard. I mean it’s hard to admit and to recognize that your business is currently failing (or not growing enough). It’s hard because you can always pivot, change your business model or improve some features.

Time and Lean management are killing you from a personal point of view. I get the “Failure is OK, not trying hard isn’t. » Still…

Iguess you need fast and tangible success whatever people say. Nothing else. Not a great product. Not something your grandmother can understand (how could she? I don’t get it either when most CEO’s explain what they do). You need growth. And growth is not only how many Facebook or LinkedIn followers you have (actually sometimes it’s enough to begin with) but more frequently it will be about how many deals you’ve closed or how many prospects actually asked for more and signed up. These are some real and basic indicators.

When we started to build our product we felt confident it would be easy to sell because the need was clear and had been identified through our CEO’s previous job as production administrator in the french film industry. We were wrong. It’s never easy to sell. I think it’s called reality check.

That part wasn’t so much of a surprise. We knew that the film industry was like a “small family”, hard to penetrate. But we had worked in it for 5 years ourselves so we were already small members in a way. This wasn’t enough. Simply enough to begin with skepticism, silence or “sometimes” real enthusiasm when we finally had a chance to make a demo. We understood quickly that it would grow little by little, not tremendously fast. And I felt this slow pace could eventually kill us.

One question remains.

This one haunted me for a while : “Should we give up?”. The answer depends a lot on the cashflow and KPI’s of course. But it’s not obvious when you “stand in the middle” : when you are in a small niche or when your first clients don’t pay enough to support a long term development.

Today our product interests more and more people. We’ve closed “important” clients and started get more attention but we still have to find money to struggle for a little longer and figure out best ways to achieve our vision.

Many options lie ahead, and at every turn. Giving up for a regular job is easy to consider but also hard to live with. My only advice to anyone in this kind of situation would be : think twice, execute even harder. I consider myself warned. In the end it’s all on us and it won’t be a smooth journey.