Two setbacks, four steps forward: lessons from getting rejected from YC and losing my cofounderFeatured
After working at Google for seven years, I decided to quit in order to start my own company, Blissen, addressing a topic I deeply care about: to help people in midlife and beyond realize their entrepreneurial aspirations. I thought two key things would help me grow a successful venture: 1. Find a co-founder in the 50+ demographic2. Get funded by Y CombinatorI’m a big planner, and I believe that having a plan is better than having no plan. But I also know that even the most thorough plans are meant to change along the way. The key is to learn how to embrace those changes. Things were going well and my plan was to check those two boxes by the end of 2020.On November 30th, 2020 at 10.30am, my co-founder (aged 56) and I had a Zoom interview with a few Y Combinator partners. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to YC CEO Michael Seibel, even though I knew we did a poor job during the interview. Later that same day we received an email explaining why they decided not to fund Blissen. They had one major concern: most companies with similar ideas often end up as consulting or services companies - not software companies. My co-founder and I were disappointed and frustrated by our poor performance, although we fully understood their concern. We debriefed a little bit then called it a night.The following morning, my co-founder told me on Slack that he woke up with some thoughts and wanted to meet. After sharing a few ideas he had, he announced that he had to step back from Blissen. He needed to fully focus on his leadership coaching business that had been suffering. While he had greatly enjoyed working with me and believed in the mission of the company, he needed to earn more money to send his three kids to college. He had previously expressed similar concerns but I didn’t see it coming that morning. I felt like I was back to square one. But I also saw those two setbacks as an opportunity to take a step back from the big plan and reassess my direction and next steps. Here are the important lessons I’ve learned from that experience and I hope they can be helpful to you too.1. Turn setbacks into opportunities to learn and growSetbacks are definitely hard on your ego. Setbacks make you doubt yourself and wonder why you’re doing all of this if it’s to fail so miserably. This is a great time to confirm whether or not you’re still on the right path. Are you still passionate about starting that company or accomplishing that goal? What did you like and dislike about the experience? What did you learn about yourself?I learned about the challenges of starting a company with a part-time co-founder who needs to make a significant income. Growing a successful and meaningful venture takes time. I learned that I don’t want to spend the next 3-5 years with a poor work-life balance. I might be more a Indie Hacker at heart than a Silicon Valley startup founder. And I shouldn't feel bad about it. I learned that my true love is building products, not running a consulting or services company. I validated that I’m truly passionate about helping people live fulfilling lives as they age and will probably continue to contribute in that space for as long as I can breathe.2. Clear your mindOne of the very first things you want to do is give yourself time to process what happened and clear your mind. Spend time with your loved ones (phone calls are better than nothing). Reconnect with old friends. Indulge yourself in a few movies on Netflix and some tasting gourmet food. Take time to read a few books, listen to podcasts, take a long walk, go for a ride, meditate, swim, or spend time in nature. Do nothing. Don’t blame yourself for doing nothing. Explore daydreaming. Take care of your mind and body. Get a massage or a pedicure. Do some physical exercise. Start a new side project. All those activities can help recharge your curiosity and spark your creativity. Building your dream business is a marathon, not a sprint.3. Be kind to yourself We tend to focus on the negative, and too easily dismiss everything we achieved. Take some time to pat yourself in the back for everything you accomplished so far. Reflect on all the skills and experience you developed. Within a couple of months, I incorporated a company, recruited and managed a team of seven people, acquired our first customers, built the course material from scratch, learned a ton about branding, Wordpress websites and online marketing, and grew a very valuable network of partners and experts in their fields. Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s alright if your business didn’t grow from $0 to 10K MRR in three months. Everyone’s journey is different. Focus on how you keep learning. Be proud of your failures. As Robert F. Kennedy puts it: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Even though I wished Michael Seibel saw the next Airbnb in my company, I still really enjoyed listening to his podcast Nugget and picked up two of his new habits: a 5-minute workout routine in the morning, and a 5-minute journaling routine in the evening, I find those a great way to start and end a day in harmony with yourself.4. Embrace the journeyOne of the key things I realized through this experience is that I needed to be more intentional about enjoying the journey, about finding enjoyment in the process. While I deeply care about the purpose of my company, I learned that I needed to pay more attention to creating a lifestyle that I love and be clear on my priorities. Enjoying the journey is now on top of my priority list! That includes nurturing my relationships, expressing appreciation to my supporters, and spending quality time with those I care about. That involves feeding my creative brain and body thorough daily podcast listening walks - I particularly enjoy listening to Indie Hackers, How I Built This, and Tim Ferriss. That means being a portfolio entrepreneur. I’m also now working on Snippyly, a collaborative screenshot tool, with another ex-Googler and good friend of mine. It also means creating my ideal environment. Guess what? I’m fully in charge of it. That’s why I decided to experience the digital nomad lifestyle and spend the next few months in Dominican Republic to work and kitesurf from there.I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” There are no straight lines. Setbacks happen. Embrace them, then move forward.