The Hero’s Journey Is a Lie
When I started my first company, I didn’t know what to put on the “exit” slide of my venture capital pitch deck. Why would I ever “exit” the role of a lifetime?
I raised over $50MM in VC funding with only the vaguest of exit plans, arm waving in the general direction of huge valuations when we got to that point in the meeting. This page was so lacking in detail that I literally put a BREAK in the chart of our revenue trajectory, a veritable “dot dot dot” and then a star burst with “$1 Billion valuation” on the far right hand side. That “break” might have been the most straightforward part of my presentation. I was saying, “I really have no idea how I’m going to do it, but no one will work harder trying.”
I start companies because I believe in trying to do something better. I believe in engagement over non-engagement. No matter how painful, heart-breaking, and terrifying, no matter how many times I’ve ended up in the fetal position alone on the bathroom floor, I am all in. I believe in learning. And I am fueled by connection. These are my “whys”.
As a woman of color, and an immigrant who didn’t speak the language when she first arrived in her new country, I also feel the weight of putting some numbers up for the team. I know this weight is shared. When I ask for advice from a brilliant woman business leader I admire, she doesn’t hesitate before saying, “You should go take the biggest job you can get, because we need more women to do that. Don’t poop out now. You’ve gotten this far, don’t waste it.”
This advice makes me feel exhausted. I am reminded of the time I was waiting in line at the grocery store, and I tried to push some literacy on my toddler who was seated at the front of the cart. Pointing to the Oprah Magazine at checkout, I said, “Look Yumi, do you see that circle? It’s the letter “O” — it’s part of the alphabet!” My 3 year old immediately sniffed out the work and responded by slumping down, pressing her forehead head into the handle bar of the shopping cart and rebuffing my efforts: “Mommy when you talk to me like that my body feels mad and tired.”
This scene popped into my head when talking with my mentor. I wanted to say, “Ms. CMO of Publicly Traded Company, when you talk to me like that my body feels mad and tired.” But instead I just smiled.
So instead of going for the biggest job possible, I created the most meaningful job I could for myself. I started a new company.
I called the company a “small business” instead of a “startup”.
As I round out the first anniversary of this new effort, one of the biggest questions I’m grappling with right now is, “Does the ending even matter?” And one step further: does the obsession with how a story “ends” blind us to the beauty of the moment before us?
When I started my first company, the way in which the “ending” mattered most to me was my hope to have a financial “exit” for my team. I wanted to make their lottery ticket in coming to work for me to matter. My favorite stories in my time working at Starbucks were the ones of baristas who were included in the IPO because of the “Bean stock” they earned as retail employees.
My fixation on the “end” made every day even more stressful than it was already. Every challenge loomed larger when it seemed like it was a harbinger of the ultimate outcome.
So I worked hard to shield my team from these stresses. If it’s all about the end, it’s hard to share the times that we were close o not making payroll. How we really needed the retail account to sign up because we were at a size where there was no Plan B.
Then one day, because we were starting down the barrel of “the end” of our offices in Seattle (the buyer after the initial buyer decided to move operations to New York), I was forced to let them in, all the way in. In the final, awful days before shutting down the office where we worked so hard to change our corner of the world, the executive team and I developed a saying: “Let’s make it as good as we can for as long as we can.”
We chose fun. I threw the best karaoke party of my life (and I’ve thrown quite a few). I launched a “Next Step University” series, edited resumes and made introductions. We also cried and grieved over the loss of our potentiality. The rumor is that on the last day, I smashed a plaque with the corporate-speak “mission statement” that appeared in our main conference room one day. But videos are notoriously unreliable…
In the years since, I’ve learned that the people I worked with treasured each other. That’s what they got out of the experience. It wasn’t (just) for the money, or the promise of more money. It was about each other all along.
When I started my new company, I asked myself if I would still sign up for this entrepreneurial journey if I knew things would turn out the same way. In the abstract, I said “yes.” Because of engagement, learning, “us”-ness, see above.
Then coronavirus decimated the revenue of our fledgling company and my “yes” became more concrete.
It is freeing to think that we could be careening towards disaster but we pick this anyway. We are going to “make it as good as we can for as long as we can,” and that’s pretty crazy badass.
The hero’s journey is a lie because the beginning doesn’t even really exist. Every entrepreneur knows that your company is prettiest on paper, before the first bug on your website, before your first unreasonably nasty review, before your first operational hiccup where the truck holding all your inventory moving from one fulfillment center to another get stuck in a ditch.
The minute you step into action, you are learning, which also means you are failing. In public.
You are in the messy middle. In minute one!
And just like good fiction, it turns out the plot is less important than the character development.
And where is the end anyway? As I’ve learned by watching billionaires covet their rival’s bigger private planes, you can always be chasing more.
Today, I work with some of the same people who helped me to build my first company, and we reference the lessons learned in those days all the time. About doubling down on what worked, and tweaking what didn’t. So has that company “ended,” or is it still alive in us?
What happens when you stop caring about the ultimate endgame is an opening to focus on doing the best for your customers, your community and for each other today.
I used to rush through today because I thought it was in service of tomorrow’s goal. But I got the relationship backward. Now I see that the dream of tomorrow is what makes today richer. The whole point of the goal is to add meaning to today.
There is no beginning, and no end, just always the messy middle.
I’m just getting started as a writer, so let's do this together from the beginning. Follow me here on Medium, sign up to keep in touch at “See Jane Wonder” or on Instagram @janehspark. I also started a company called Tokki, where we are working on making gifting more memorable and sustainable.