Why I abandoned my startup

In October of last year, I was running engineering for a promising mobile commerce startup that I co-founded in 2011. By many Silicon Valley measures, we were doing well – seed funded, making revenue, ~20 person team, multiple launched products, etc. It was comfortable.

But one day I decided to abandon my startup, all because of one e-mail. This is that story.

The e-mail of note came from my girlfriend, and it set off a chain reaction of events that led to an abrupt series of personal relevations. It was an e-mail about a friend presenting a revolutionary technology at Google’s Solve for X (a showcase of change makers and moonshots). The e-mail itself was innocuous, but her rhetorical question is what struck me: “You could be there, presenting your world changing innovation. Why not?” That question left me sick to my stomach.

We met up later that night and talked about this. My immediate defensive reaction was to explain my 5 year plan, as I had rehearsed: “I’ll be at Solve for X soon enough. I just have to sell this mobile shopping company for $200M and then I can actually pursue my dream of solving the world’s water problems.” (This is, by the way, what Randy Komisar calls “the deferred life plan” – more on that later).

But my girlfriend challenged this: “How does selling a consumer app company help you disrupt the potable water market?” She was right, and I knew it.

It’s true – being a successful, proven entrepreneur helps your credibility. It helps you raise money, helps you build a team. But notice the verb I used: “help.” This was her point: sure, it’s nice if you have already shown you can return shareholder money (for her, selling her first company helped when she was starting her current company), but that’s far from required.

She went on: “If you have conviction and the right solution, you can get in front of anyone [to raise money, strike a partnership, build a team, etc], so what are you waiting for? You’ve already shown you can build a team and a product, you have the technical background to solve this problem. How does a liquidity event really make a big difference? Why continue being miserable?”

I went to bed that night with my head spinning. What was I doing?

The next morning in the shower, I had what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity.” It all became clear – it was time to quit and go on my journey to solve the world’s water problems. I actually said out loud: “My name is Weston McBride, and I can do whatever I want to. I will approach this problem with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, and I feel sorry for anything that gets in my way.”

You see, for a while I had been living in what Tara Brach calls the “trance of fear.” Back in 2011, my first startup, an ed-tech startup, was doing OK, but we were running out of money, and I was afraid. I was afraid of failing – the cardinal sin of an entrepreneur.

So when I was approached by two successful (and famous) entrepreneurs to start this mobile commerce company together, I put aside my conviction for mission-driven startups and joined them. Why? The promise was a quick exit, the opportunity to make a name for myself, and to extend my runway with the liquidity event. I was afraid of failing, and this seemed like an easy and safe bet. I literally did the decision analysis to determine that this was the most likely path to a notable “TechCrunch” exit (just writing that makes me cringe) .

Any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you that if you want to make money, don’t start a company. You should start a company if you can’t sleep at night because there’s a problem you can’t stop thinking about. You should start a company if you’ve literally been brought to tears by talking to your customers. If you don’t have that level of empathy and commitment, why bother? How long do you expect to have energy to work on this problem?

Randy Komisar, who I mentioned earlier, writes extensively about this topic in The Monk and the Riddle.

“In Deferred Life Plan there will always be another prize to covet, another distraction, a new hunger to sate. You will forever come up short. Work hard, work passionately, but apply your most precious asset-time-to what is most meaningful to you. What are you willing to do for the rest of your life? That question would be absurd, given the inevitability of change. No, what the question really asks is, if your life were to end suddenly and unexpectedly tomorrow, would you be able to say you’ve been doing what you truly care about today? What would you be willing to do for the rest of you life? What would it take to do it right now? “

On top of that, it’s exponentially harder to start a company that you’re not truly passionate about. I imagine it’s like marrying someone you’re not in love with.

There’s a reason why many investment bankers hate their lives. They do their work for the money (I know from experience –  I spent six months as a banker and it is literally the main reason why most people are there). Doing work for money, especially when you have passions and interests in something bigger, is the most soul-sucking and demoralizing thing you can do. As Gary Vaynerchuck says in his phenomenal talk, “Do what you love, no excuses.”

Being stuck in this “trance of fear” meant that I couldn’t even identify the reason why I was so unhappy. I knew that I was powerfully unhappy, that something was wrong, but I was powerless to do anything about it.

It took a piercing question from my girlfriend to wake me from that trance. I knew I was working on a startup where I had no empathy for my users and had no passion for the space or the problems we were solving, and I knew that was wrong. But what I had to realize was that I didn’t need to do that.

That revelation liberated me. The next day, I talked with my co-founders and transitioned out of the company over the next 4 weeks.

Some people asked “What if the company gets bought? Don’t you feel like you’re giving up all that money?” The truth is, I wasn’t giving up anything – I was buying  my life back.

 

** Update: wow, pretty amazing response. This blog post received 19,000 new readers in just 36 hours and made it to the top 10 in Hacker News. More importantly, I have received dozens of personal messages from old and new friends thanking me for opening up about my experience and sharing their own. Looks like the message of being true to yourself and following your dreams has really struck a chord with some people.

Posted in Startups
31 comments on “Why I abandoned my startup
  1. Sanford says:

    Insanely wonderful post. And sincerely, congrats on finding that problem to solve.

  2. Your story is very meaningful to me. I started out buying my life back, and fell back into the trap of a deferred life plan. This puts a lot into perspective for me as I think very strongly about what my next few steps are in the coming months.

    So, are you on track for doing what you want to do most again?

  3. Bidisha says:

    Loved this story, and am so inspired by your journey, Weston! Looking forward to learning from you. Have you read Heart of Dryness? You are welcome to borrow my copy :-)

  4. We’re taking interns for the summer! :) Props to you for having the courage to seek out what you really want to do. (Saw this post on Facebook via a comment from Yasi Baiani, a former co-worker.) If you want to hear more about the water space from my/our perspective feel free to reach out and give a shout.

    • Father G. says:

      Well, I guess I’m going to have to give you a good “talkin’ to” if you come to the All-Classes Reunion in June. If not, then I’ll just have to wait until you ambush me in the hallways of Cistercian. In the interim, good luck solving critical problems! The monks are watching, reading, and praying for you!

  5. I feel this so much. Whether you go on to solve big problems and be a publicly known hero, or just make something you love more, spending your time the way you want is the only way to be truly wealthy.

  6. CL says:

    I think that we are all guilty of making deferred life plans. My dream used to be to do the potable water distribution thing too; it’s what I’d been involved in since I was 7. I was heading on that course until I talked to a former hydrologist. Now, it’s probable that I’ll just focus on fixing local issues (as in domestic) of which I can see the direct results.

  7. I’m glad you are following your dream and trying to solve x. When the Google guys were trying to solve their problem it didn’t seem much like a worlds water problem, hence why many didn’t want to buy it ( Yahoo!) .
    I think there is a need to solve the other kind of problems too.

  8. doanh says:

    I know of a team in Berkeley that is working on solving the water quality and water delivery problem in developing countries.

    Their website is flowbit.org.

    Perhaps you might want to connect with them to see what they are working on.

  9. Similan says:

    Solving for the great course usually requires a lot of financial support and personal reputation. Following such dream would only be okay if one already has, at least, solved his/her own ‘money problem’ first. I can tell you personally that having the noble dream doesn’t help much when you enter an empty kitchen.

    Aside from personal security, doing project for ‘big problem’ usually doesn’t generate much profit, at least in the early phase. I don’t know what it’s like in the west, but in the east, politicians and investors would just laugh in your face if you approach them for cooperation or support as a ‘nobody’, regardless of how noble your course is. Your phone call is likely to be returned if you are a ‘CEO from big e-commerce company’ than ‘an academia with a brilliant idea to solve the world problem’ aka ‘that crazy NGO’.

    So ideally for me, I would prefer to build a solid company with good reputation as my solid base first, then either cash out nicely to support my new noble startup (which will not generate any income for at least 3 years nor attracting any investor), or establish a new research/not-for-immediate-profit division in my company, kind of like what Google do with Google X.

    The hard part is, of course, trying to stay true to who you are and remember your true inspiration along that long ride. So I wish you a good luck in your decision.

  10. Kshitiz Rimal says:

    Wonderful post

  11. Drew Meyers says:

    Absolutely love seeing stories like this of entrepreneurs going after opportunities with social causes. I believe social good is the future of commerce. It’s not WHY you should do it, but a nice by product is that consumers want to do business with people and companies that are doing good for the world. That trend will only accelerate, IMO.

    If there’s ever anything I can do to help, send me an email.

  12. Paul says:

    Wonderful and emotional post. I personally benefit from this reminder.

    All the best to you!

  13. Amit says:

    Very inspiring story.

  14. George Scott says:

    Spend a few moments and learn about Bobby Sager. A good role-model for your endeavors
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4hbilhwuIA

  15. speg says:

    Marry that girl!

  16. Yuval S says:

    Great post, thanks!

  17. Axansh says:

    Very inspiring,Now it is more clear that we should follow our dreams!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  18. Steve says:

    Love the transparency. Do what you love. If you can figure out how to do the thing you love while still making a living, then you’re set.

  19. Lisa Perri says:

    Thank you. This miraculously came across my laptop at a most important time.

  20. Ray Huang says:

    Hi Weston,

    So what is it exactly you wish to solve in water?

    Would be interested to hear more, drop me a email.

    Cheers,
    Ray Huang

  21. akb48 dvd says:

    Simply a smiling visitant here to share the love (:, btw great style. “Make the most of your regrets… . To regret deeply is to live afresh.” by Henry David Thoreau.

  22. Weston, Great post. I’m searching high and low for your email address. Can you ping me at heather@thefailcon.com so I can ask you something? Thanks, Heather

  23. This is what happened to me with my first little company. I didn’t sell it, I just stopped it cold turkey because I lost every ounce of passion I had for it. Now, in my third company, I have that passion back, solving a problem I had with my first few companies. Great post, Weston.

  24. Mark Arrowsmith says:

    Brilliant post. I think you have to follow what you think is right.
    I am at the beginning of a journey and it was what I wanted to do – to set a company up…. on my own and run it. But now you have got me thinking – is it really a company or a service – or even myself.

  25. Pedro says:

    Inspiring post. We need more people in the world with that line of thinking

  26. Assassin says:

    Thank you for putting this out to the world. It is really understated, especially by top flyers in both corporate and entrepreneurial worlds, how many face the same predicament and how few have the courage to take, a very scary, decisive step out of the “deferred life” state.

    Success, as defined by the society, market and the media, even more potent drug than money and the higher you up the ladder the more addicted you are. And like all junkies we seek ever greater pre-fabricated high, which becomes ever more illusive with time.

    I think you post gives us permission to recognise that we are scarred, addicted and ultimately want out. It also posts a challenge (another great addition of ours) to find that thing that we really need to do for us, now, – what is your/my calling?!

  27. Bea wray says:

    Thanks for showing that you are man enough to be open to a girl friend’s suggestion. Bright things for your future together.

  28. Hi Weston,
    In the end starting and running a business is about commitment. If you no longer have that commitment or if you are just continuing because you want to finish what you’ve started, you’re probably doing things for the wrong reason. Thanks to Emory Rowland for sharing this post with the BizSugar community and thank you for sharing these important thoughts with your readers.

  29. Alejandro says:

    Hey Wes, I finally got around to reading this post. It’s not too different from what I’ve done lately, though I didn’t abandon a start-up, I simply abandoned a sales career. I highly recommend you listen or watch some of the recordings/videos of Alan Watts, philosopher. The one I’m thinking of in particular is called “What if money were no object?”: http://youtu.be/IZhIjGIdLQ4
    Enjoy my friend.

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