Some people might say that it’s success that defines a person, but for me, it’s failure.
Four years ago, I lost everything — my life savings, all of my company’s assets, even my sense of self-worth. The business I had poured my heart and soul into had failed, and as I curled myself into the fetal position on my living room floor, I thought I wanted to stay there for good.
But something kept me going — and that something led me to create The Muse.
Looking back, I’ve always been thrilled by doing the impossible. In high school, my drama club put on a production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. We hit a crisis when our costume designer got mono two weeks before show time, and the rest of us not-so-skilled designers had only $120 to make 17 Jane Austen-period costumes. When everyone started panicking, I ran to all of the thrift stores in town and cobbled together anything I could find. The costumes were held together with masking tape and safety pins, but at the end of the day, the play was a success. It was an amazing experience, and I realized that I love coming up with moonshot ideas that everyone expects will fail, but just going with my gut and making them happen.
That said, I didn’t always know exactly what kind of career that would turn into. Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I was intrigued by the idea of becoming a foreign service officer or an ambassador, and the summer before my senior year in college, I interned at the U.S. embassy in Cyprus. But after taking part in a Marine hostage training exercise — and just about losing it in front of dozens of people — I realized there were aspects of being a foreign service officer I just wasn’t cut out for.
That precipitated a crisis and a period of extreme career exploration. I tried out stints as a McKinsey consultant and with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, but it wasn’t until I started on my own project, PYP Media, and started spending nights and weekends on it, that I realized I’d found my real passion.
Which brings me back to failure. I had originally created PYP Media with three other co-founders as a community platform for smart, passionate, career-focused women. I quit my job to focus on the business full-time, and after about six months, I had invested my life savings, about $25,000, into the company.
To make a (painfully) long story short, we four founders had a disagreement over advertising, which snowballed into two of them taking over the company. Unfortunately, we’d never formalized ownership — we just had an agreement on a couple sheets of notebook paper — so co-founder Alex Cavoulacos and I were left with literally nothing, not even our work email accounts.
I then had the humiliating task of calling the team I had recruited over the past half year — about 10 people in total — and explaining the situation to them. I told them that they were free to go with the other founders, to leave entirely if they chose, or to stick around while Alex and I tried to build something new from scratch. That’s when I crawled into a fetal position — and waited.
But then, something interesting happened. Every single person we had recruited, most of whom had yet to see a paycheck, said that they believed in me, they believed in the company, and that they’d follow us wherever Alex and I went. It was pretty incredible: While the other two founders had all of the assets, they had none of what was really important — the people. And even in the midst of the biggest failure of my life, those people saw something in me that I wasn’t seeing in myself.
It was then that knew that I could get up and start all over again. And, in fact, that I had to. I may have been the underdog, but isn’t that often what provides the spark to get started and the grit to keep going?
I had thought that building a company from zero — again — would be as hard as it was the first time around, but The Muse took off right away. I hadn’t factored in the knowledge I had acquired through building PYP, and more importantly, the value of the team I had around me.
Just two months later, we launched The Muse, a career-development platform for people who are beginning their careers or making major career changes. That was three and a half years ago. Today, we have over four million unique visitors every month. We’ve also just raised $10 million in Series A funding, and we’re growing the company from 33 to 45 employees by the end of the summer.
In short, that failure has led to the biggest accomplishments and triumphs of my life. What’s more, I learned from that experience that even when you feel you’ve lost everything, you haven’t lost what you learned from that experience. And that can sometimes be far more valuable than all of the paper assets combined.
Cover GIF shot on a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge by Ike Edeani
Illustrations by Thoka Maer