What I Learned When I Got Kicked Out Of My Own Startup

And why celebrating failure is easier said than done. 

There are hundreds of articles that suggest we should celebrate failure. That failure is good and gets us ahead of the game. And that we win if we fail more often than our competitors.

The ideas behind these slogans make sense and I have preached them to others when they failed miserably. But you know what… failure sucks and celebrating it is easier said than done. Still, that does not mean that we should not strive to learn from it.

I have not failed. I've just found 10.000 ways that didn't work.
Thomas Edison

About six months ago, two engineers I knew from a previous project approached me to talk about a new startup concept. They had built a mind blowing video streaming platform and needed guys to create a brand and design a website. A designer I had worked with at a different startup and I took on the job and accepted a generous offer to become part of the company. I came up with a concept, story and name for the company, and we built a beautiful website that got great feedback.

As the launch got closer I shifted from a creative role to a marketing position. I studied new marketing techniques and experimented a lot since I felt the growth hacking approach was the best way for us to go. A few weeks later, the product was built and tested with some launching customers. It was time to get the word out. We even brought on a new guy to take on sales.

But then… things went south. Not everybody was satisfied with the approach I was taking. There were a few meetings to see if we could straighten things out. We agreed that I would give more updates on my experiments and the progress I was making. But at the same time I did not feel comfortable within the team anymore. The new mixture of people in the company had changed the dynamics in the office — and not for the better.

It was time to part. They sat me down and told me to leave.

I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.
Jack Kerouac

They moved on with the company and I went home to reflect and write this post about the things I have learned. Getting kicked out was not the best that could happen to me, but the experience taught me some lessons that will be valuable in the future. The purpose of this article is to share my experience and tell you what I have learned. And hopefully you will learn a few things along the way about life and startups as well.

What I learned when I got kicked out of my own startup.

  • Programmers see the world as an if-else statement.
    No matter how disruptive they are they always depend on logic, whereas the creative often seeks to go against logic.
  • It is important to understand and respect each other's language.
    The language of words is different than the language of code. But they influence each other so it is crucial to understand how the other language works.
  • Once people lose trust in someone in a startup it is almost impossible to repair.
    There is so much at stake that a single doubt in your capabilities is nearly impossible to recover from. Your team is your ticket to fame and fortune, and if you do not trust your team members for the full hundred percent then parting is almost inevitable.
  • If you suspect people are talking behind your back then people are probably talking behind your back.
    You are not imagining things. When you suspect they are plotting against you, chances are that they are plotting against you. Trust your instinct. Prepare yourself for the bomb that is about to explode.
  • Working at a startup will teach you more about people, life and business than any education out there.
    University is great. But at a startup you will learn the things that cannot be captured in text books. The way people behave when they are under stress cannot be described, it can merely be experienced in a small and smelly office.

Programmers see the world as an if-else statement

It was my first time working with programmers. My life has always evolved around looking at things differently, creatively. The world is not the way our teachers tell us it is but the world is how we see it.

I am a Master of Arts and my heroes are Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud. The other team members are engineers and their heroes are people like Guido van Rossum and Ken Thompson.

All four heroes are disruptive in their own unique way. Poets are always on a journey to go beyond the known. Programmers — no matter how disruptive they are — always depend on fundamental functions. Where the poet often lacks discipline and structure, the programmer is always working in a structured and logical way. And since that logic is inherent to their work it also influences the way they think, and they therefore expect the world to behave a certain way.

Things are either good or bad. Black or white. And marketing should be done in the traditional way they had read about in marketing textbooks. Easy as that.

The programmer's mindset

Understand and respect each other's language

Do you start marketing when you are intensely pivoting or do you wait for the concept to be crisp and clear and you have a product-market-fit? Our proposition changed weekly so I did not get the message out too strong. There was no point in getting in the papers since there was a good chance the story would be outdated by the time it got published.

Instead of getting us ‘out there’ immediately, I kept on planning and keeping our copy in sync with our latest proposition.

One of the mistakes I made was not letting my team know what I was working on — and how much work writing copy can be. The world of code is insanely different from the world of words and I should have communicated better that minor changes in functionality can have a big impact on your brand and the way you tell your story. I had my hands full and I did not let them know.

It is the same the other way around. The marketing guys may want a small extra feature cause it could get some extra users. But that little feature can require a programmer to spend a week writing or changing code. In order to work together effectively, you should not just know what your team members their skills are, but you must understand and respect their work.

It was my mistake to not let them know how much work all these changes were giving me. And that it was not wise to get our story out before we had our product-market-fit. We simply did not understand each other's language and expertise well enough.

Once people lose trust in someone it is incredibly hard to repair

Startups are strange entities. They are driven by dreams and founders have little more than trust to go on. Anything can happen. You put a lot of time into building the team that is ultimately going to build your business, but what do you really know about each other? Not much, you simply have to hope for the best and trust each other.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
Ernest Hemingway

So how does this work in regular companies? You have a bunch of co-workers that you see daily and sometimes grab a beer with. But do you really know them? And more importantly, would you trust them with your future? Would you vouch for them?

You have a lot riding on the success of your startup. You have often given up certainties in life. A stable salary. Health insurance. Pretty much every evening and most weekends. And yes, the relationship with your family and spouse suffers since you are not around enough. You give up a lot but once your startup becomes a success it will be well worth it and the future will make up for all struggles now.

So when you feel there is someone in your team that jeopardizes the chances of success, and therefore your future, you get nervous. You are on your toes. You carefully keep an eye on the guy who is slacking. And once you catch him doing one little thing that leads you to believe he is not the right person for the job anymore, you are already considering getting rid of him. Trust is broken. And once that thought gets into your mind for the very first time, it becomes incredibly hard — and maybe even impossible — for the other person to fix that.

Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.
Lady Gaga

When people lose faith in you, and the pressure is on, this situation becomes hard to fix. Even if they only consider once that you may be jeopardizing their future, their perception of you has changed. It has changed so fundamentally that you will never be able to go back to those first few months. That great period when you were a small team messing about in garage, coming up with an invention that would change the world forever. That period where you were a caricature of Jobs or Zuckerberg and nobody took you seriously, but that was OK… it really was, because you were determined to prove the world wrong.

In a regular job it is not as big a problem if you only have little faith in your colleague. You need to be a team that can trust each other blindly to achieve great things, but at the end of the day everybody goes home and gets their paycheck. In a startup you may be the person that could stand in the way of the future everybody has always dreamed of, therefore a single doubt can make things come to an end immediately.

If you suspect people are talking behind your back then people are probably talking behind your back.

A break up never comes as a surprise. When the guy or girl you are in love with sits you down, looks you in the eyes, and says those horrific words `we need to talk', you know what is going on.

It may hit you as a surprise at first. Sure. But once you have cooled down with a cold beer and have had the time to think things over, you realize you knew that things were not going as they used to. And yup, there is no reason to think these things would be different in startup land.

When you first started out as a team you were important. Your input was valued, sometimes even applauded. You suggested something crazy and the whole team went to explore and test your ideas. You were the man.

But then something happened. Maybe you disappointed the team. Perhaps you had a different opinion on what the next step should be. What market you should enter or who would be your target audience. It can be anything that gets an irritation in the team or gets people to doubt whether they should continue to trust you with their future.

Things changed when the first person stated that he was not sure whether my approach to marketing was the way to go. We had a meeting and he dropped his statement on the table. It was laying there and we all stared at the center of the table. Speechless. My heart was pounding. It took one sentence to set in motion the inevitable outcome of me parting with the team six weeks later.

I said I would step up my game and involve the team more in all the decisions I was making as marketeer. That way they could intervene more easily if I was doing something they did not agree with. But there was no point, I was an outlaw from that day forward. Subconsciously I was already given up on.

Every day the marketing plan would be improved and tested on the internet. Some blog posts got a great response and others were shit, I studied it all and kept on improving. But soon I was missing out on things.

There would be a meeting planned that I did not know about. There would be a little field trip planned that I was last to hear about. Technology scouts from large corporations visited us and it got planned at moments were I could not attend. I blamed me missing out on things on the fact that I was soaked up by work. I was in the zone and thus not always paying enough attention to what was being said in the room. That was going to change though, from now on I would make sure to be part of everything going on. But it was too late. I was shut out.

Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.
Cees Nooteboom

In the following weeks I could not get a word in edgewise. I was not important anymore. My input was not appreciated, and sometimes even ignored. Whatever idea I had it was not relevant, it was not taken seriously and my insecurity grew day by day. I felt out of place. Lost.

The feeling that they were shutting me out got stronger. Friends told me I was imagining it. `If you start such a journey together,' they said, `there is no way people throw one of their captains overboard. It would be immoral. It would kill the startup.'

But a few days later I was cornered. `We need to talk,' they said. They looked me in the eyes and told me it was time to part, that I would no longer be on board of the ship that I had named, and which route I had navigated when it first tested the open waters.

The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.
Marcel Proust

Working at a startup will teach you more about people and business than any education out there

Like many I always dreamed of studying at Oxbridge or some fancy Ivy League university. But at the same time there are things I have learned in my startup that I would not have learned elsewhere. I learned more about business and people than any official education could have given me.

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
Oscar Wilde

People say no a lot. Investors, potential clients and mostly friends. People do not believe in the one thing that gets you out of bed every day. And that is fine. You cannot blame them. In a startup you learn to deal with rejection. You have to.

People must like you. You have to sell yourself. People like to do business with people and not with companies. Besides being an entrepreneur you have to be a likable professional that people enjoy being around.

You have to be your company. The level of conviction that is necessary to be successful in business, or whatever it is you decide to spend your time doing, is insane. You have to breath and be your concept. That is the only way outsiders will ever take you seriously.

Ask for help. You do not know everything. Besides, the things worth knowing are not in books. And in startup land the things worth knowing even change daily. It is OK to ask for help. Asking questions is one the most important things in startups.

Be careful with who you trust. And sometimes it may be wiser to deal with people you cannot trust since you can always trust them to be dishonest. With an `honest' person you just never know when he is going to stab you in the back.

Go with your gut. And roll with a good crowd. When something does not feel right do not pursue it. Do not waste your time chasing a dream that is not for you. Open yourself up to new opportunities and soon you will have a better project to focus on.

What pressure can do to people. When people are under pressure their true nature comes out. And this true nature can be a scary monster. In the heat of the moment all elegance and social manners go out the window. And the animals that we are become visible. People shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. You realize Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote:

In creating men God somewhat overestimated his abilities.
Oscar Wilde

Startup life is intense. You have to discover everything on your own. You are under stress and are taking a big chance. But you are with people that are just as mad as you are.

You commit yourself to an idea, to a dream and a team that is committed to making it happen. You keep going and going and going. Things move quickly. One minute you are up and the next you are down. That big venture capitalist you would like to get on board may walk through the door any day. And every day the moment where you have to pull the plug may be sneaking up on you.

It is a hard life. A challenging life. A wonderful life.

You get to meet other idiots from other startups. Some are working on projects that are destined to fail. Others could be the NEXT BIG THING in the tech scene. You never know. And that is the point.

When you are in a startup you do not know anything. The uncertainty is the essence of startup life. It drives us. Keeps us going. Keeps us jumping back into the trenches every day. And this is what nobody in university will ever be able to teach you.

Some final words

You will fail. Over and over again. It is part of winning. Failure is not easy but it will help you get better. Failure is learning. It is the secret ingredient that will eventually make you a winner. But that does not mean that failure is easy. It smacks you in the face and makes you doubt yourself. It sneaks up on you. Makes you tremble. It attacks you but it will not kill you. Yet, celebrating failure is easier said than done. But you will overcome it. It helps to write it off. It helps to think of all the mad people that you met and who you will meet in the future. Maybe you should not celebrate failure. Maybe not. Perhaps you should just appreciate it, learn to deal with it, and talk to the people that care. Well, I did learn a few things about life and startups when I got kicked out my own startup.

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Jack Kerouac

Thank you for sticking with me until the end of this article. If you enjoyed the read, please recommend or share it. It would mean a lot to me.

I also want to thank Klaas Freerk van der Pol, Loretta Lasaponara, Simon van Oldenbeek and Tomas Bagdonas for proofreading this piece. They helped me keep it as friendly as possible.