How to Survive Startup Failure
5-step approach to getting something good out of a bad situation
And so the unthinkable happened, your startup failed and now you feel like a failure. It’s easy to feel like that when you invested months or even years into living and breathing your startup, while all around you are widely publicized stories of big success.
I invested one year into a startup that led to debt, burnout, and failure, so I know how devastating that can be. But debt, burnout, and failure weren’t all I was left with.
Only it was hard to see anything good coming out of it when I had to decide whether to kill it or not to kill it.
It was not a hard choice, though, for I had no choice. I ran out of money (a small loan, to be more precise) and couldn’t find an investor or other available funding in time to save it. This was despite receiving two awards for the project and making sales as soon as I launched the landing page.
What I didn’t know back then when I despaired over my failure was that there is no such thing as a failed startup. What we call a ‘failed startup’ should be known as a ‘major lesson.’ The lesson you wouldn’t be able to learn and master any other way but by trying and doing it.
Among other valuable things, my startup taught me how to deal with and survive failures. Here follow five cognitive-behavioral steps that helped me get back on my feet and start looking at things from a different perspective.
1There is no such thing as failure, there is only learning. Even though my startup failed and I lost everything I invested in it, I still wasn’t left with nothing.
Whenever you do something as demanding as running a startup, you learn a whole lot. Looking at it that way, a startup that failed does not equal failure.
So do not say to yourself ‘I wasted so much time and money on this.’ The truth is, you wasted nothing. You are now a lot richer than you were before, for there is nothing more valuable than wisdom gained from experience.
This is so important even J.K. Rowing took the time to tweet about it.
2 Not everything is in your power. There is only so much you can do given the circumstances. Learn to accept and be cool with it. If, like me, you did everything in your power to succeed and your startup nevertheless failed, you have nothing to regret.
There is a reason why so many startups die and it has a lot to do with forces beyond the control of their founders. The universe is far greater than us and thinking that everything is in power of an individual is delusional.
The key is to do the most you can, while knowing and accepting your limits.
Things began to brighten up for me as soon as I let go of trying to control everything. When I accepted the limits to what I can do and became more relaxed, unexpected help and new opportunities emerged.
3 Focus on finding your calling. Startup failure can mean you were headed in the wrong direction and are meant to do other things. I have a distinct feeling this had something to do with why my startup failed.
For some people, finding their calling is easy and comes early in life. For most, it takes years of exploration and the original course can change through the years. In hindsight, I can now see that I wasn’t sure deep down inside was my startup really it.
Like with love, once you find it, that gorgeous feeling of ‘coming home’ and finding your place will be unmistakable. When that happens, what seemed to be bad before might lead to the best thing ever.
Redefine success — it’s finding your mission in life.
No matter how long it may take, the search for your calling will bring invaluable lessons and experiences with it. So again, it is not a time wasted and it will ultimately help you succeed.
4 Set realistic expectations. We live in times when magical thinking and desire-manifestation approaches such as the ‘law of attraction’ became a major trend. According to these ideas, all you need to do is be positive and have a strong desire to make it.
Believing this can be very bad for you if it leads to complete disregard for facts. An important fact you should be aware of is that most startups fail. Some say as much as 90%, but all agree that the majority of startups fail.
It’s far more likely that your startup will fail than succeed.
I’m pretty sure most of the founders have a really strong desire for their startups to succeed, otherwise they wouldn’t start working on something so demanding, draining, and time-consuming. Yet most of them still fail.
So much for positive thinking. The main problem here is that the higher and more unrealistic the expectations (e.g. my startup will succeed because I wish strongly it would), the more devastating the failure will be.
5 Avoid other people’s negativity. There will always be someone who will come up with a nasty comment or try to hold your failure against you. This was the hardest one for me to deal with.
When I offered my advice to a person who was struggling with her startup, for instance, she sarcastically said to me: “Oh, if you know so much, how come your startup failed?”
That hurt and it was unfair, for I was trying to help her in the area where my startup was strongest and where I had years of prior experience. Besides, we can learn most from those who failed and the lessons they learned.
Some people will be nasty to make themselves feel better by diminishing you. Others may be magical thinkers who choose to ignore the effects of any outside forces and believe individuals are in full control of their destinies.
We are not in full control of what happens to us and our startups. If we were, insurance companies wouldn’t thrive.
No matter why people say mean things, it’s best to stay away from them while you are in a fragile post-startup failure phase. It hurts enough to have to kill something you invested so much in. The last thing you need are those who make it hurt even more.
Mateja started to write short stories at the age of ten and later became a freelance writer, radio personality, and counselor. Her life resembles a roller coaster ride full of ups and downs and some pretty wild turns. Among other things, her car was destroyed by tanks and she survived several brushes with death. She graduated in psychology from Arizona State University and is now a founder and editor at Transform the Pain and Personal Brain Whisperer, but her secret love is writing weird stories for The Rabbit Is In. Connect with Mateja on LinkedIn.