9 Young Entrepreneurs Explain Why and What it Takes to Say Good-Bye to Your Business
A realistic representation behind the decision to let go
This article is originally written by Aubrey Lim. Aubrey lives in Fresno, California where she’s close to the best of rock climbing and fresh produce. She currently works for Five Microns, a start up creating devices to manage tremor for people with Parkinson’s Disease.
Over the final month of my undergraduate career, I interviewed 9 entrepreneurs in their 20s about the topic burning in my head:
How does it feel to close a business?
This article briefly shares the collective reflections of those entrepreneurs on their experience.
It is not meant to be a “how-to” for making the most of or avoiding closing a business. Rather than reading for applications, I recommend reading to reflect.
Think of your own closure experiences, whether with a business, a project, a relationship, and consider what stands out to you from the entrepreneurs’ narratives. Perhaps something describes a feeling you’ve had but didn’t articulate, or you’ll be reminded of a past experience.
Really, my motivation in calling up the 9 different people was to answer some questions for myself.
My Entrepreneurial Journey
In the summer after freshman year of college I started a jerky business.
“What am I doing?”
This question ran through my head constantly during the jerky days. I had no idea what it meant to run a business, but I reached out to people who did.
One year in and my jerky won “Best New Product” at a regional food expo next to some of Central California’s star food companies. People believed in me. They started pointing me out as a young person who had the passion and creativity to do great things.
I remember getting my first big order for 1,200 bags shipped to New York: I tried to respond to the customer’s email like I had it under control, then scrambled to make product and figure out shipping.
It was an exciting time, yet success was scary because I knew how amateur my efforts were.
Two years in and there were more and more decisions to make regarding packaging and recipes, what events to attend, and who to target. I felt like a fraud, promoting a product that I inwardly doubted. The summer passed with little progress, then fall came with classes and homework.
A sense of burnout led me to make a choice that I think on often:
I decided to quit.
It was a decision I thought through carefully and discussed with advisors, but still:
How do you deal with having to explain to yourself and others why the business you were working on for the last few years of your life is done?
As I cleared the extra bedroom in my parent’s house of boxes of jerky labels, I listened to podcasts from well-known entrepreneurs, looking for answers to my question. Invariably, they or their guests landed on the topics of persistence and passion, two essential traits of the successful entrepreneur. The possibility that quitting meant I didn’t have what it took to be an entrepreneur irked me.
Should I have stuck with the business a longer and taken a semester off to do it?
Was my lack of interest in jerky really an adequate reason to quit?
The podcast hosts shared stories of sticking it out through bankruptcy and personal crisis, of long days and late nights fueled by a burning desire to succeed. But what they didn’t address was the gradual burnout I’d experienced.
As I interviewed the nine entrepreneurs with my question still in mind, I noticed common themes in their narratives of closing a business, which I present below.
The plots involved loss of passion for the founder, loss of momentum in the business, and finally, the tendency to hold on post-closure.
Seven out of the nine entrepreneurs I spoke with mentioned loss of passion as a deciding factor in their choice to end the business.
Nick, a 25 year-old entrepreneur, reminisced on his experience as a college senior about to graduate, crashing at a friend’s apartment to make his company’s grant-funding go as far as possible.
The social photo-sharing app’s active user-base brought customers, and the founding team joined a prestigious accelerator program. But two years into the business, and funding was low. The founders’ opinions about how the product should look began to diverge. With job offers from top companies awaiting them post-grad, the team decided to close the business.
Thinking back, Nick explained:
“it wasn’t one of those things that we were really, really passionate about at the end of the day. We were just trying to find a way to make something happen, and be entrepreneurs, and jump to Silicon Valley– and we had this runway where people were supporting us, and we kind of rode the wave as far as we could.”
Nick is a former Division 1 athlete and a founding force behind his school’s entrepreneurship center. He could easily be a motivational speaker, and works incredibly hard. To hear him talk about losing passion for the business challenged my assumption that loss of passion was the product of being a weak loser.
A new thought began to form in my mind: maybe growing less passionate about something you were originally stoked on is part of figuring out what works and what is worth working for.
Reflecting back on their closure experience, many entrepreneurs identified a “lull” or “standstill,” saying things like, “it was a confusing time,” and “I just wasn’t into it” before the decision came: time to quit.
“It’s kind of like a bad relationship that should have ended a long time ago,”
explained Sunny, a 24 year-old product designer and entrepreneur who took the interview while walking up San Francisco hills to his friend’s apartment, slightly out of breath.
“You know, and everyone’s like, ‘we put so much time into this– we can’t just get out of it!’ even though we kinda knew…We just weren’t working on it the same way we were when we first started.”
For many of the young entrepreneurs, fading passion for their venture coincided with new, exciting opportunities that took their attention, and the business steadily lost momentum, whether or not they liked to acknowledge it.
As their business lost momentum, many of the entrepreneurs tried to justify continuing and described reluctance to make what was becoming an obvious decision to quit.
“There was so much denial! Oh my gosh…you don’t want to give up on it!”
Sunny admitted, describing how he’d asked his co-founder for permission to keep working on the venture after they parted for different cities, knowing neither one of them wished to continue.
“Maybe in three months it could have been big, but at the end of the day I had six other options… who knows”
was the comment of Brendon, a 23 year-old entrepreneur from the Midwest.
With the business officially closed, an entrepreneur has to justify the decision to quit to themselves and explain it to others. Feeling at peace with the decision can be difficult at first.
“We didn’t want other people to look at us and say, ‘you guys didn’t try hard enough,”
continued Sunny. He went on to explain that another person came up with a very similar idea to the one he’d been working on:
“maybe a month or two, or year from now, she’ll be walking around a successful CEO with our original concept, and we’ll say, ‘that could have been us.’”
More Good than Bad
Losing passion, losing momentum, and holding on were part of the closure experience for many of the young founders I interviewed. But beyond this, there was more in common: all of them moved forward to new opportunities and speak of their business closure in terms of how they learned and benefited from the experience.
McCalley, a 21 year-old from Texas, described her experience with GoFresh, a product to prolong the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables. Looking back on the time she spent in customer interviews and field trials before taking the unpromising results as a signal to rethink or quit, McCalley said:
“Even though GoFresh didn’t successfully make money… I won’t trade any of the experiences I had because I’ll use them again.”
Nick gained a smarter approach to start-ups after his first venture:
“Now, when I look at startups I have this good intuition… of the ones I think are going to make it and things that aren’t.”
“The failure of [the company] has given me a lot more insight and humbled me to really, really focus and hone in on something that, again, I’m passionate about and a problem that I think is a real problem.”
For Sunny, the venture built close friendships and mentor relationships. He shared about grabbing dinner recently with his co-founder and another team-member:
“We learned so much about each other, seeing people at their best, seeing people at their worst. Now that I think about it, [the business] really solidified our relationship. Yeah, they’re like my two best friends.”
He goes on:
“It was a fun ride… even though it ended up not really going anywhere. The connections I’ve made with the mentors…They’ve opened up the doors to other things. ”
As for being the entrepreneur he is today, Sunny credits his unsuccessful venture:
“There are other things that got me interested in being an entrepreneur, but Supervize really pushed me into the heart of it.”
If I were to do it again
Several of the entrepreneurs I interviewed did a few things to make their go/no-go decision more rational and less emotionally taxing. Breaking it down, they:
1. created a timeline
2. went all in
3. took a step back to assess
Brendon described how he and his team decided to dedicate a summer to build their product idea. If they had paying customers by the end, they would continue; if not, they would quit. The customers didn’t come. Short of their benchmark and out of time, they felt justified to say, “Ok, we gave it a shot” and move on.
McCalley followed a similar process. After a hundred customer interviews showed clearly that her product didn’t fit the market, she explained:
“I had to decide to let it go, and that’s where my relief came, realizing that after this, it wasn’t worth it.”
When I started the jerky business, my timeline was “let’s see how far this can go” and my benchmarks were non-existent. Next time, I’ll begin by asking myself different questions:
What would success look like?
How long do I need in order to see if the venture is something worth pursuing?
The story of losing passion, watching the business lose momentum, and holding on a little too long on the other side of closure is not uncommon among young entrepreneurs.
I find that encouraging.
Those nine conversations helped me look back on the experience of closing my jerky business and appreciate the growth and learning that came through it. Thanks to those conversations, I look forward to a better next time.
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