The startup community glorifies hardship, telling stories about eating two minute noodles, living and working out of their parents’ garage for several years claiming to work 18+ hour days, getting little sleep and then one day all the hard work pays off and they sell their app to one of the big tech players and become filthy rich.
These startup stars recount their stories of hard work and tell budding founders failure is a positive experience, full of opportunity and lessons.
In Australia many say the tech startup community doesn’t wear failure as a badge of honour like they do in the US. In Silicon Valley startup failure is usually embraced and celebrated.
In the US many founders are more comfortable with failure, whereas in Australia failure can be felt to be embarrassing and is something to be hidden.
“Ask any founder how they’re doing, and you’ll hear something positive. Whether that’s the truth or not, that’s what we’re trained to say,” Australian startup founder Nikki Durkin said.
“‘Fail fast, fail early, fail often!’ they all chant, trying to put a positive spin on the most excruciating pain any founder could experience.”
In an honest and candid account of her three year experience launching and then folding online fast-fashion trading startup 99dresses, Durkin has detailed the heartache of startup failure.
“I learned so much, and yet I failed,” Durkin said. “I take complete responsibility for this failure.”
But it wasn’t a heart-warming experience.
“Failing is lonely and isolating,” she said.
Durkin recounts being “stabbed in the back by co-founders”, navigating failing investment rounds, massive product issues, staffing woes, and of course money problems all to get her self described “baby” 99dresses off the ground.
But despite the horrible sinking feeling in my stomach, and the fact that I had no money left, and the fact that I had no stable team, and massive product problems, and was feeling burnt out, and had no idea how to overcome any of the aforementioned obstacles, and felt completely alone in it all, I persevered.
I didn’t fail then. I couldn’t fail. This was my baby, and if it was going to fail it would be over my dead body.
And to Durkin’s credit, 99dresses did have traction for a while.
I became numb to the pain, and despite waking up for weeks on end with no glimmer of hope and no desire to get out of bed, I still made myself sit at my desk and work.
Eventually, things took a turn for the better.
Plugging the tech problems, 99dresses pivoted to fit the US market and relaunched the site.
“Our plan worked better and faster than I’d budgeted. Within 3 months we were doing over 1,000 trades a week, and bringing in revenue on every trade. We continued to grow,” she said.
“Our retention rates were really exciting. If my investors had wanted crack for women, then that is what we had created.”
But then the site’s growth started to slow, the value of transactions were slipping and holes in the 99dresses business model began to appear.
Investor problems returned and competition was flooding the market.
“I didn’t tell many people about what was happening. You’re not supposed to talk about this sh*t. If someone asks how your startup is doing, you fire off some kind of positive phrase like a reflex,” Durkin said.
After working around the clock since 2011, Durkin said she was both emotionally and physically drained, sound sleep was a distant memory and she hadn’t taken a real holiday since leaving school in 2009. Riddled with disappointment she set about shutting down her beloved 99dresses.
“I had no bandwidth for anything else,” she said.
“I’d recently started having mini panic attacks whilst I was doing ordinary things, like taking a shower or doing my hair. I felt like a sh*tty friend. I couldn’t even contemplate having a relationship (I tried that before, but yet again this startup won out over him). I wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this.
“I wasn’t depressed so much as disappointed. I tried so f**king hard, and I still couldn’t make it work.”
Looking back Durkin is determined not to get caught in the “‘shoulda woulda coulda’ trap”, she admits there are plenty of things she would do differently but it doesn’t make the disappointment go away.
It’s easier to accept defeat if you try and try and try but don’t get anywhere. You call it a failed experiment. The failure is easy to justify.
It’s incredibly frustrating to try and try and try, and when you finally start to get some good traction you fall off a cliff. Our business still had problems, sure, but so does every other startup.
And so Durkin is moving on, to what? We’ll have to wait and see. But the intelligent and driven Australian gave it a good shot and admits she’s got a few new ideas she would like to try after a well deserved break.
“It’s been a wild ride, but its time to move on,” she said.
“I’m excited to start a new chapter. As much as I love startups, it’s somewhat liberating to have no responsibilities to anyone but myself — no team, no investors, no customers to look after. Maybe now I can be a normal 22 year old for a while: indulge my wanderlust, make some bad decisions, try something new.
“I’ll probably get bored within a week and start working on a new idea. I already have a few.”
To read Durkin’s full startup failure account click here.