Imagine how honored I felt when asked to speak on the main stage at Geekwire’s Startup Day? The request made me giddy. I’ve long admired the Geekwire crew and the articles they produce. They needed someone with expertise in failure. Uh, thanks for thinking of me guys.
Yet how could I turn down the opportunity? Everyone loves the story of a fallen hero, and I’ve certainly fulfilled the “fallen” part of that criteria plenty of times. More compelling, I would be speaking to a crowd of about 700 entrepreneurial souls, many who have had their own experiences with failure and some who have their best and biggest failures still to come. If we fear failure, we will fail to endeavor, which would be the biggest loss of all.
In the interest of transparency, community and shared experience, I climbed up onto the tall stool on the stage at the Meydenbauer Center and spoke as open and honestly as I could about the failure of my beloved startup, Writer.ly.
Writer.ly was an online marketplace of publishing services. We connected authors and publishers with the freelancers they need to publish and market their books. We earned our money by taking a small commission on the jobs awarded through the site. We bootstrapped, graduated from the Founder Institute incubator and earned angel funding. Our run was about three years.
There’s an arc, of course. Every story about a failed startup is really a story about a whole collection of wild successes and tragic loses. In the scheme of things, we did well. We survived Founders Institute. We had 1200 users and our first revenue in the first month we launched. We beat out hundreds of other startups to pitch on a stage in San Francisco, where we got out first angel investor. Then we got another, and another. We kept winning pitch contests, or coming very close to first.
I scored a lunch with Guy Kawasaki – an idol of mine since Art of the Start. He didn’t just validate our idea, but he signed up as an advisor on the spot, bringing along two more publishing experts. He gave us his booth at Book Expo in New York, where he highlighted us in his keynote speech.
Suddenly we had over 4,000 users, and another angel, and another! And OMG, f* you gender bias and outrageous odds, we’re really going to make this thing go!!!!
Our revenue stalled. Authors needed more guidance than our DIY marketplace provided. The tech firm we gave most of our money to delivered a site that was a fraction of what we’d contracted. They also managed to break our intrepid MVP site of shame, so that for a week all money transactions happened in a virtual sandbox, but not in the real world. We had no more angel money. We needed to pivot, but to do so meant betraying our community of indie writers and focusing on the few with big bucks and the means to do well no matter what.
At this point, I was almost three years in, and very very tired. I was drawn to startups because I hate having to be at a particular place at a particular time. Now I had to be everywhere all of the time. My family had existed on minimum income for many years. They were sick of me always having something crucially important to do that would take all my attention and energy.
Personally, the breaking point for me came when I realized that if I started from scratch with all the learning and experience I’d gained, in one year, I could be further than this company would be in three. It was time to make my exit.
So what happened next?
No, I did not bounce back from failure lickety-split. Recovering from the death of a dream held tight-fast for many years was no simple or quick process for me. On the Geekwire stage, I shared how I got my mojo back. Click play on the video below and take a listen.
Miss the first post about how the heck I got a boat? Read it here.
Note: What follows was written 11/12/15.
Another weekend with Foam. This time, I brought along Kiddo and Kiddo Number Two (K2). We arrived after dark Saturday night. The kids oohed and ahhed at our pretty pirate ship.
“What’s that smell?” said K2.
Damn. “Watch your step. The otters were here.”
We filled the cabin with our bags and supplies, Kiddo and K2 both claiming and vying for top bunk in the salon. Kiddo won out, despite K2 rolling his sleeping bag out first. She simply laid on top of him, giggling, making no adjustment for skinny bones poking into flesh, until he had to acquiesce and slide down a level. The sweet tolerance born by this stepbrother knows no limits when it comes to her. I can’t imagine his response would be so kind had they grown up together from birth as full brother and sister.
The discovery that we can’t open the port holes even during light rain without getting water in the cabin puzzled me. Why would they tilt the windows so that water flows inside? The boards removed from the front of the companionway would have to do for ventilation for the night. The air hung heavy with mildew and chemicals. I added fan to my mental list of what to bring along next time. Hopefully the stale air wouldn’t do too much damage to our lungs in one night.
Still afraid to work the electrical panel until I understand exactly how the critical, keeping-boat-above-water, bilge pump connects to power, I simply strung patio light cords around the cabin. The kids used camping headlamps to illuminate the pages of their books, but mostly to shine in each other’s eyes at brightest setting. After pinching my fingertips in the adjustable table and spinning in curse-suppressing circles for a full minute, I made my bed on the converted settee. In the warm glow of the string lights, the boat interior took on a cabin in the woods feeling. We made one group trip up the long gangplank to use the marina restrooms before retiring, delighting in the sea creatures brought to the surface by our lights. An army of shrimp wiggled glowing eyes at us when we leaned over to peer into the black water.
“Yum,” said Kiddo. “Ebi!”
The kids could not calm down enough to sleep until just past midnight. I slept, but woke each time the bilge pump kicked on. Even though I spent a week away in Seattle without worrying about systems, now that I was on the boat I wanted to witness and supervise each pump and dump. Like checking on a newborn, I woke every hour through the night, just to make sure the boat was still afloat.
At eight, Kiddo popped up in her bunk. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”
“It’s morning. Let’s get up and start work.”
“No. I’m still sleeping.”
“Mom. Mom. Mom.”
“No you’re not. I see your eyeballs.”
Sigh. Once again, I began the day by washing otter excrement off the deck.
Below are snaps of the actual offending otters spotted on later trip. They huffed at me aggressively. I used to think otters were so cuuuuute. Now guess what I think of them.
This fall, I adopted a wooden boat named Foam. I know nothing about boats. A dream to own a sailboat stubbornly lodged in my brain from the time I lived on one when I was 14. This experience created enough naive optimism and panting desire to take on the ambitious project. My beautiful new boat was built in 1963. A 41′ ketch designed by William Garden, a famed Pacific Northwest boat builder.
Foam is in rough shape.
Most people refer to boats as she. Taking on this particular boat was an entirely emotional decision. Foam is likely to take my time, urge me to spend my money and cause jealousy in close personal relationships. Foam is clearly a guy. I refer to him in the masculine pronoun.
Want to hear how it goes?
Note: What follows was written 11/5/15.
I launched my press on the historic Virginia V steamship two nights ago. A great success, as far as parties go. 152 happy, talking, drinking, snacking, catalog-browsing people. Now the day has passed and my mind turns to Foam. I won’t be able to get back to my boat until Sunday, Saturday if I don’t mind arriving in the dark.
The morning after the party, I allowed myself a slow start. I lazed in bed and read my boat maintenance book. So much to learn.
I need electrical tools, and a multimeter to test voltage. I need a scraper and a hot air gun to remove the chipped varnish from my beautiful teak banister. I need a long-handled, soft-bristled scrub brush to clean my decks without removing any of the “soft material” in the wood. I need a dehumidifier to pull moisture out of my cabin during the long, sedentary winter months.
Many of these things I did not know even existed prior to acquiring my boat, or more accurately, my boat maintenance book. My knowledge on how to effectively and appropriately use these things is markedly infantile. At least the book I selected to guide me has numerous illustrations, tools strewn across the page with small type labels just like characters in a Richard Scarry Busy Town page.
The people that name boat things seem to go out of their way to make sure these nautical artifacts come with a vocabulary completely different from what landlubbers might use, or even guess. They aren’t ropes, they are lines. That’s not a canopy, it’s a dodger or a bimini depending on coverage. I am amused to find that this “hot air gun” I’ve heard reverently referenced in varnishing tutorials appears in my book as a heavy-duty hair dryer, of course sporting more masculine colors than the one shoved in the back of my bathroom shelf.
In the single day of cleaning my sister and I were able to put in last Sunday, we did not make as much progress as I had expected. We rid the decks of otter poop first, unable to work in air hanging heavy with a scent not unlike month-old seafood gumbo. Otters shed worse than German Shepherds, apparently, and hosing the short, prickly hairs off the bow and top deck took some time. My sister labored bravely in the galley, reaching into dark spaces to inspect and judge the mysterious items recovered. She filled three garbage bags, much of it rusted pans and cracked plastic plates, plus about 15 bottles of liquor, wine and beer all at varying levels of supply.
Inch-by-inch we baptized the cabin with Simple Green, until our arms ached and the smell of cleaner drove us topside.
We discovered water seeping in through the forward mast and devised a complex covering using elegant white tarp, Gorilla brand duct tape and about 13 bungee cords. Once finished, we stood back to proudly survey our fix and found that the tarp ended about half a foot above the place we actually need to cover. With a sigh, I wrapped cheap garbage bags around the area, belting it duct tape.
My sister’s collie stuck her long beak in my face as I worked, curious to find me laboring at her level.
“This, dear Molly,” I said, “is called restoring a wooden boat.”
That was it. The front stateroom remains a mystery to me. I still haven’t tried the electrical system. I have no idea where the water the auto bilge pump dumps into the galley sink actually disappears to. Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that when I arrive next Sunday, I will find that the otters have chosen my boat as their favorite in the marina.
Read what happens next, or take a gander…
Part 2 to be posted 8/15/15: How to hit the reset button after creative burnout and disappointment
The effort of maintaining a public persona births special kind of exhaustion. This weariness finally caught up with me, overwhelmed me. I slowed and quieted. My blog posts became fewer and father between until they stopped entirely. My social accounts focused on trivial games or industry updates. I ceased Facebook entirely. I made no new videos, scheduled no social events, published very little.
At the start of the year, I rigorously challenged my assumptions of myself and my place in the world. When I could have succumbed to the down flow, instead I gathered smart, supportive people around me. I read thought-provoking books, tested out new theories and models of living.
Once fully vetted, I latched on the passion I know that will not only sustain my family, but also meet my needs of challenge, art-making and intellectual engagement.
So now is the time to come out of hiding, to show and speak and share again the project I have been privately pouring my heart and mind into. Yet, I tremble and pause.
Always, there is a risk when you step into the arena.
What if I fail? What if what I create isn’t as good as I hope it will be?
My twitter profile describes me as “hopelessly happy”. How true and easy this was when the stakes were low, when there weren’t other people depending on me for their paychecks, then my failures weren’t so painfully public, when all I needed was to show up on the job and be slightly better than the schmo’ on my right.
I come from a cowgirl family. We get back on the horse after a fall. We feed the animals before we feed ourselves. If the gelding kicks you in the chest and breaks your ribs, as it did to my mother, you shut your mouth, finish your chores and go take a handful of ibuprofen.
You do not feel sorry for yourself. You do not cause any additional burden for anyone else. You take care of things and do what you have to do. If you fail, or if you drink, or if you feel pain, or if you drink, you hide it away and we all pretend not to know about it – out of respect for you.
I’m proud of my cowgirl family, of our tremendous strength and resolve. I am so thankful that I can take a hit and stubbornly stand to try, try again.
Yet also, I need help. And if I hide my losses, I may not fully commit myself to the next big win. So here we are, at the edge of yet another arena.
I close my eyes, take deep breaths and visualize bravery. Pause. A small voice whispers: It’s safer to stay on the sidelines, to do regular work that brings the regular paycheck, to apologize, acquiesce, condense, quiet.
No. That is not the life I’m built for.
It’s good to be back in the saddle again.
And so, with that thought….
This story was intended to be told live, on-stage at a Moth event in Seattle. Despite my recent foray into mental stimulus drugs, I still managed to miss the date and lose my chance to tell my story. However, since I’ve been practicing these lines over and over as I drive around town, I figure they have to come out somewhere. So here, for my blog readers’ pleasure, is my story of survival in the Colorado Rockies. Trigger warning: References sexual violence and failed justice systems.
When the freezing chill seeped its way through my truck cab, into my sleeping bag, and through my four layers of clothing to wake me from my sleep for the 15th time that night, I realized I might not make it to sunrise. At just past midnight, I sat up as though slapped, blinking in the dark. With a move now well-practiced, I clambered into the drivers seat and turned the key in the ignition. It took about 5 minutes for my truck to warm up. Another 5 for the heaters warm the cab to something survivable. I left the truck running an extra minute as indulgence, eyeing the gas tank now less than a quarter full, before shutting it off and falling instantly back to sleep. 15 minutes later, the cold conquered once more and I repeated the process.
I had pulled my truck off an unnamed forest service road deep in the snowy cleavage of a couple Rocky Mountain peaks a couple hours outside Denver to make camp. It was early March and temperatures plummeted after sundown. I was alone.
I’m a tough camper girl. My mother took me camping every other weekend in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. Later, I backpacked through the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco and spent solo days in the Yellowstone backcountry. I’m not afraid of a little discomfort, wet and chill. However, the frigid Colorado winter rendered all my previous camping experience obsolete. I had no idea what I was getting into. I hadn’t bothered to bring a tent, thinking it would be warmer in the truck. My sleeping bag boasted a -5 degree rating, which had kept me toasty in mild Washington. With three layers of fleece I should be fine, right? Had I done any research before leaving, I would have learned that the National Park Service was forecasting -40 degrees for my area that night.
But I haven’t done any research. I barely knew where I was. I had simply put my finger down on a map and driven there. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going and didn’t ask for any advice. That was the whole point. I wanted to get as far away from people as possible.
A few weeks earlier, I turned 21. I celebrated with friends by drinking a single shot of something buttery and sweet. I still see myself there in that Denver dive bar, tilting my head back and laughing with my friends – one of those shimmering memories when life neared perfection. A week later, I was raped by a gentleman poet.
You may be confused as to how a gentleman poet may also be a rapist. I assure you, this threw me for a loop as well. So disbelieving was I that I shut down during the act, became something small and quiet. He drove me home after, told me to lose my friendship would be the worst thing ever. I wandered, dazed, into my building and went to bed. I stayed there for three days and three nights.
On the fourth day, a friend who had wisdom in such things, sat gently on the edge of my bed and asked if I wanted to report it. He asked without asking me what happened. He simply knew.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m a good girl. Not only that, I view myself as infinitely powerful and mighty. If I say yes, it happens. If I say no, it doesn’t. As well, I had recently made a deal with God that should have exempted me from this kind of trauma. While I had accepted that religion and I don’t go so well together, I still had strong faith and an authentic joy in my belief of a God of Love. So, I would quit youth groups, prayer workbooks and shocking sermons and instead gave myself in a life of service. I had left college and volunteered at AmeriCorps. At the time of my rape, I was earning about 15 cents an hour working at a detention center tutoring emotionally and behaviorally disturbed teenage girls during the week. I spent weekends on environmental cleanup outings.
Self-satisfied holiness practically oozed out of my pores. I had also conveniently avoided all questions of how I would support myself in my grown-up years while claiming the life of a pseudo-saint.
So you can see, this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
On that fourth day after the rape, that gentle friend of mine led me out of my room and to the local hospital. I was taken to a room filled with strangers, where I was stripped, laid back on a table, and asked to point to all the placed the poet’s penis had come in contact with my body. Everywhere I pointed, they scraped off a layer of skin and plucked exactly three hairs. To survive this humiliation, I simply left my body. I hovered up near the fluorescent lights with some imagined angels and watched the scene like it was on TV. Prime entertainment.
When the crowd filtered out, I entered my body again to pull clothes over shaky limbs and take a ride to the police station.
They made my friend stay in the lobby, took me alone to a little grey room with a steel table. There were two cops. They asked me to tell them exactly what happened. I told my story from start to finish, sentence cohesion causing me difficulty as now I’d been awake for days. They brought me papers to press charges.
“Wait, I said,” remembering what happened at the hospital. “What happens exactly if I press charges?”
The cops looked at each other. One left the room. The remaining cop acted out another scene I was certain I’d seen on TV before. He paced, he yelled, he puffed out his chest, he banged his fist on the table. He told me if I didn’t press charges, the man would certainly rape ten more girls at least and it would all be my fault. I stopped making sentences. I cried. On cue, the second cop appeared, told his partner to take it easy. Cooed at me. Told me he knew I was tired. He knew it wasn’t my fault. Just sign right here sweetie and we’ll take care of this. I signed.
After another week of interrogations, a request from the hospital to repeat the exam since they lost my rape kit, and well-meaning advocates that asked me to tell them everything again, and again, and I could I please start at the beginning again, I finally got word that the prosecutor declined to take my case. My word against his. Too hard. The good cop told me I could still feel like I was raped if it made me feel better. The advocates disappeared, no longer returning my calls.
I returned to my room, thought of dying. Instead pulled out my map, closed my eyes and put my finger down. Kelsey Creek. No shit, really? I squinted at the map, confirming my name peeking out from under my fingertip. Amazing. Kelsey Creek it would be. As long as it was remote enough to not encounter a single, horrible, human, I would be happy.
In my freezing cab that night, I could have surrendered. I could have closed my eyes and let the cold be my excuse.
Instead, I popped up like a jack-in-the-box every fifteen minutes and flipped on the heater. At dawn, I had just enough gas left to make it back down the mountain, so I decided it was time to get up and get moving. Desperate for fresh air, I opened the truck door and poured my many-layered, chilled-to-the-bone self onto the ground outside, landing on my hands and knees.
There, not eight feet away from my face, stood a stunned Bobcat.
My heart stopped. The bobcat blinked.
In all my travels, I had never seen a wild cat. No other animal strikes me as more magical, terrifying, elusive. My body trembled and cracked, but I willed myself to stay as still as possible so as not to startle the beast.
He stared me down. White rimmed his wide eyes. Black tuffs of hair topped his ears. His spotted legs stood braced, ready to sprint.
I blinked. He spooked.
I sprung to my feet and gave chase. Adrenaline surged through my veins. It could not have been instinct that spurred me after the beast, as surely such an instinct would have killed off my ancestors long ago. Rather, a deep desire to keep eyes on this animal as long as possible, spurred me to sprint across the ice-covered snow. Had I any breath, I would have yelled, “Don’t go.”
The bobcat pulled ahead, turned beneath a large boulder outcropping. Somewhere deep in my fuddled brain, rational thoughts surfaced one by one, popped like bubbles on the surface of my consciousness.
Don’t wild cats attack from above?
This bobcat looks smaller than I expected.
What if his mother is above me on those boulders?
My feet came together. I stood watching the wild cat bound away. I climbed the boulders, thinking perhaps I could see where he went. The cat disappeared into the white, but when I climbed the outcrop, my breath caught in my throat. The morning sun crept over the eastern slopes, turning the sky a wild red. Thin clouds picked up the color, placing lines of hot pink kisses over head. The grey snow lightened, reflected the color. I felt as though I had tumbled into the glittery end of a child’s kaleidoscope.
From my perch on the rocks, my little brown truck looked so small and lonely in the vast white forest. I jumped down and ran to the cab, started up the truck and rocked my way out of the snow trench that had formed overnight. As fast as I dared, I drove down those winding roads, heater blasting, desperate to find someone, anyone, whom I could tell about what I’d seen on the mountain.
The start of the new year provides an excellent excuse for life planning and goal prioritization. As Queen of the Epic Spreadsheet Collection, the past couple of weeks I have indulged is a great many flights of fancy, carefully tracked to specific metrics. From my time in the corporate world, I picked such pearls of business wisdom-ish such as what gets measured gets done and if everything is important, nothing is, and 20% of your effort provides 80% of your results, plus many more. The supposed infallibility of data seduces me.
In writing fiction or memoir, I dwell in grey areas, expound on emotion. Aside from word counts and deadlines, there are few definite qualifiers in the artistic world. How glorious to know when you are on track, when you’re doing good. Numbers comfort me. Proof. Evidence of achievement in my creative endeavors, even if qualifiers of quality and value still elude me.
So let’s set our creative goals for 2015 using all our best business practices, shall we?
Metric of success for 2015:
No. This is no good. I can hear old boss #23 pushing me to define a “meaningful sample.” Does this mean ten people? One hundred? Ten thousand? How will I create a baseline for empathy and track the change? Try again.
Metrics of success for 2015 – take two:
Clear. Concise. Easily measurable.
The gurus tell me to visualize my success. Closing my eyes, I see that backlog of blog posts published on time. I see the little number on my Google analytics dashboard proving my internet popularity. I see all the pings and dings on social media alerting me to new followers.
I see myself pushing back my cramped shoulders and groaning from hours spent in front of the computer. I see my eyes glazing over and my ADD kicking into high gear, the garbage truck out my window suddenly riveting. I see myself jump up at 2:10pm, grateful for the task of picking up kids from school to save me from my drudgery.
When asked, what did you do with your life, I might be able to prattle off a list a metrics such as I increased my unique web visitors by 300% in a two month period, or I published 100 blog posts in the year of 2015, but so what?
Perhaps it’s not what, it’s why. Why did you do with your life.
Aside from grammatical awkwardness, that is harder to answer. Hm. Back to the spreadsheets.