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Why I Quit My Job, Killed a Company in Six Weeks, And Still Feel Great (drtomallen.com)
95 points by Schwolop on Aug 9, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

I find it pretty refreshing to have someone candidly discuss their failed ambitions. The selection bias of insanely successful startups on HN can lead to a skewed perception of actual success rates. These are the kind of posts I need from time to time to keep myself grounded in reality so I can make better decisions.

I totally agree that there's a selection bias for stories about successful outliers. On the other hand, it's not as if anyone is out there saying "Try it! You'll probably succeed!" Quite the opposite; almost everyone knows and admits that 9/10 fail.

Eric Ries has a great line in his talks about this. I'm paraphrasing it, but it's something like: "9/10 startups fail. I know yours is awesome so it won't, but the guy on your left; his will. The girl to your right; hers will. Same goes for their neighbours too."

Despite the failure, it was worth doing. I learnt a lot. About startups, about customers, and also about me. And besides, failing is faster than success!

Thanks for the kind words.

Perhaps the real problem is your counter-reaction: "almost everyone knows and admits that 9/10 fail."

A lot of people think that, but it's not 9 out of 10 startups that fail.

It's FAAR worse odds than that.

Oh? How far worse.

I seem to have the number 1% as the success rate in my head.

Doing some Googling gives a number like 10% success, but it's not clear whether these figures are only for companies that received VC-funding.

So actually, I'm not sure. Point taken.

It's probably easier to make lifestyle businesses pay off. And how is success / failure defined? I can imagine failure might mean that the VCs didn't make money? Then it could still have been worthwhile for the founders.

One thing I really appreciated at a recent interview with a startup was when they said, "the most likely outcome for startups in our position is Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We believe in our product and of course don't think that will happen, but that's what usually happens."

Perspective, perspective.

1) They say: 95% of businesses fail.

2) I say: 100% of the remaining 5% are successful.

Heh. The lesson I take: Well, then I'd better try this a bunch of times. Which means I need to make the tries cheap and quick enough.

or so it would seem. Don't rule out chasing an idea for years before you find it's successful. AirBnB, Pinterest, Craigslist etc etc

“Most successful men have not achieved their distinction by having some new talent or opportunity presented to them. They have developed the opportunity that was at hand.”

— Bruce Barton

Don't forget to add the even more ambitious Elon Musk into your list... SpaceX and Tesla.

If its still all about perspective, might we say those 5% are still yet to fail.

Given a long enough timeline even currently successful companies can become future failures.

Edit:By this I mean even successful companies can eventually lose out to competition when they lose their edge. Only the Paranoid Survive - Andy Grove.

"I didn't care enough about money to run a startup."

There's the rub. A startup cannot be about the money - it's about changing the world and the way people live. If you are already doing that and feel fulfilled in your job (which most entrepreneurs simply can't), then more power to you.

You don't start a company for the sake of starting a company, you start a company because a startup is the only possible means by which you can bring to pass the change you want to see in the world and live the lifestyle you want to live. Michael Arrington compared it to becoming a pirate. "The potential for riches was just an argument for the venture. But the real payoff was the pirate life itself."

That having been said, I love the refreshing honesty about the reality of startup failure. A small part of me wishes more people wrote the stories of their failure; TechCrunch would be 90% people running through savings and eating ramen and 10% successful exits. Thank you for giving a real perspective into what entrepreneurship can be like.

  There's the rub. A startup cannot be about the money - it's
  about changing the world and the way people live.
My reading of the post wasn't that the guy only cared about money - just that a start up operates in the intersection of exciting world changing technology and commercially viable technology.

And the guy's exciting world-changing ideas weren't his commercially viable ideas.

More the opposite - I care about money only to the extent that it allows me to stay out of trouble. I don't want to be a millionaire, I'd just like $5M sitting in a bank account at 5% so I don't ever have to think about money again.

The technologies/products I was exploring - while awesome, some verifiably so according to the customers we spoke with - weren't likely to lead to profitable businesses. I had to learn the difference between a good idea and a good business model. This is a valuable lesson for any entrepreneur.

As something to play around with as a hobby or technology demo they're still great ideas, but as businesses they're not viable (and in one case, perhaps just not yet.)

Ah, I definitely read that wrong. That's a whole different dilemma if the issue is, "I love this technology but it's more than the market will bear." So will you go back to your old job? I know you have a runway for a while should you choose to use it...

It's really hard to get funding for companies/ideas/products that change the world and the way people live. Especially if the product involves tangible goods. You either have to have super rich friends or be a member of the old boys club. Alternately, you can just stick to making software that contributes to the current feedback loop.

Am I the only one who wants to know the answer to this question: what now? You quit a great job, tried building a startup and failed - you have a family and mortgage to factor in to the equation, where to from here? I am guessing that the author has some savings to live off, but I want to know how it all ends. What does your wife think of all of this? So many unanswered questions that have my head buzzing with nervousness and curisotity here.

His wife is most probably furious. Women are in general much more averse to risk-taking than men (especially after having kids). At least that is the case with my wife. Every crazy idea I have, I run it first through my wife. She shreds 99% of them ;). "Think of the children", "How will we pay mortgage", "In fall we have to renovate older child's bedroom". Etc.

This comment comes across as pretty sexist, by the way. Taking experiences with a small set of people and generalizing them to all people based on their gender is basically the definition of sexism.

I am sorry you feel that way.

I don't agree with you, by the way. And there's loads of research suggesting that males are much more prone to risk-taking than females. And not only in humans.

She's a lot more risk adverse than me, but I ran the numbers, we had about two year's runway, and as I said when I started out "at least if I fail it'll be quick!" :-)

Ah awesome, glad to hear man. I guess it's silly of me to assume that you wouldn't have thought well-ahead, but wanted to be sure. I've got ambitions of launching my own startup ideas but I'm doing it whilst employed full-time, so hard to balance free time between family, freelance work and my partner.

I get the impression that he is using the occasion of his failure to announce his availability for employment.

And jolly good luck to him.

HNers: do people think that someone who has got the startup thing out of their system themselves will make a better employee?

Truly? I don't know yet.

I have the luxury of a reasonably large nest egg from my previous job, so I'm not desperate for work. I'm considering whether any of these ideas are licensable (I've never done licensing before, but it doesn't seem too unfathomable.) I'm also networking/advertising myself, partly through posts like this, and seeing what opportunities turn up as a result. If you'd seen my inbox since posting this you'd become a believer in this strategy...

I mean, look at the guy. Even if all the things he was trying for failed, he could still get a great job as his last choice.

"I don't care enough about money to run a startup business."

It sound like you don't have to worry about connecting a job/business with your desire to create.

Build a great workshop at your home and work on projects that you are passionate about. If you start to build something that you think has market viability you have the experience needed to vet the idea in the market. Something that can be done on a lunch hour or over weekends, depending on the demographic.

I'll have to worry about money eventually, but I'm one of those risk-adverse engineers so by the time I quit my job in the first place I'd saved up almost two years of runway.

I'm definitely still creating. Watch this space.

I'm just wondering if you're not working on any of the three ideas at all, why not mention them atleast? Someone else may benefit out of it. On the other hand, if you plan to re-visit them in the future...

Well they're still described on the company website, but I didn't want to drive traffic to them when I'm not actually going to pursue them (commercially at least).

Good luck, I'm excited for you!

What impressed me most about your experience is how disciplined the process was, and how you approached building a startup in a way that takes most entrepreneurs magnitudes longer to learn.

While it may look like a failure, if anything you've achieved an incredible success and compacted a long, arduous process into an incredibly short timeframe.


Money begins as the driving force to launching a company, but I've learned that once you get going, you quickly forget about money as the reason for building a company, and begin to appreciate the process of BUILDING.

As much as you think you're done, I see the underpinnings of an entrepreneur, if you can stomache it.

I can't stress enough that it wasn't just me doing this - I had a great pair of co-founders, even though they weren't as committed and ultimately walked away from the business. They helped a lot with the cold-calling and face to face meetings. A large part of what I learnt was that I really dislike cold calling!

But you're right I'm probably not done. I still like this world; making stuff, fixing people's problems, innovating, etc. What I've learnt is that I certainly don't want to be the CEO/hustler. I like technology more than money. I should sit on the CTO/product side of the fence if I do it again.

First, I want to say thanks for putting yourself out there.

However, I think there's one thing that needs to be reiterated, for everybody who's reading hacker news and thinking about starting a company:

The world probably does not need yet another incarnation of project management/collaboration software.

If I had a dollar for every first-time entrepreneur who told me they were starting a new project management tool for team collaboration app, I'm probably have enough to A-round my own company.

That's not to say it's not possible to succeed here – Trello is a case in point – but one has to realize that Joel has been in the project management space for probably close to a decade. It's even probable that he would've failed except for the fact he has such a large online following that just happens to be his target audience.

To use the example below, if 9/10 startups fail then probably 49/50 of project management/collaboration startups fail.

By all means, do a startup, but at least give yourself a fighting chance.

Where did you get the idea I was doing project management/collaboration software? We were building a hardware device to allow collaboration through existing physical whiteboards. Not another online whiteboard application.

This was a great post. I have a lot of respect for you for being so honest and open. Do you want your next gig to be related to robotics?

Side note: I remember when my first phase of 'burnout' hit me and I literally got sick at a meeting with a bunch of investors. There's a whole post to be done on taking care of yourself in a startup there.

Thank you. I lied a lot as a teenager, became really good at it, then realised my life would actually be easier if I just told the truth all the time.

I hope my next gig will be somewhere amongst the union of robotics, consumer tech, useful, helps humanity, and scalable. It wouldn't have to be robotics (but robotics can be arbitrarily vague anyway), as long as there's room for me to learn and I can actually see people using what I've created.

Yeah I had a history of bending the truth until I realized it just got me in more trouble than it was worth. Interesting article in Esquire on 'Radical Honesty' you might enjoy here: http://www.esquire.com/features/honesty0707 -- You have to take it with a grain of salt, but a good read at the very least.

Another thought about the complicated nature of honesty (radical or otherwise)....

Sometimes, one has a secret, that one is willing to share, but that sharing that secret is likely to be treated by one's audience as being emotionally weighty. So if one (and by "one" I mean "me") shares, the audience is all "why are you sharing this, why are you imposing on me with this knowledge". My honesty is very often a burden on other people.

My mother in law, for example, was at one point annoyed by me repeatedly using the phrase "my father's husband" (around her more-conservative father, my grandfather-in-law). I'm aware that that phrase "reveals" something that could potentially be a secret, that I don't want to be a secret. On the one hand, that's the right label for this person! On the other hand, it makes the social situation more frustrating for someone other than myself. She accused me of using the phrase just to be provocative (and maybe at some level she was right?).

Another example: Dan Savage argues that if you've cheated on your spouse (and they suspect nothing), confessing simply transfers the burden from you to them; it's selfish.

There's a tendency to portray the tradeoff of honesty as being like this: if I'm honest, I pay a cost, but other people benefit. But of course, the cost is often paid by other people.

So, if honesty is a means to an end, and the end is being a responsible person who bears their responsibilities well, maybe honesty isn't always the best means. Maybe I need to learn to be less honest, in order to be a better person.

That was great. I'll have to share it with my loved ones.

I like to think of myself as being radically honest, and I generally trend to saying "Yes" to "Does this dress make my butt look fat", and it often goes badly. But I'm a damn long way from Blanton as portrayed in that piece.

Also, I don't drink, partly because I want to remain in control of myself, which relates to honesty. I guess I don't trust people to like me when I'm drunk. Maybe where other people might give up drink (e.g. for Lent), maybe I should try giving up sobriety. Might not be optimal for job performance, though.

That was a fun read. A bit further than I take my honesty however...

100% agreed.

I'm not even sure this should be regarded as a 'failure'. You took a risk, approached it the smart way through customer validation, and realized early enough that it wasn't going to work out that you didn't damage relationships with anyone. This is actually showing a smart, intelligent process at work.

This is a honest post and very valuable.

"why did I quit a job that met all these criteria? The easy answer is that I knew I didn't want to be an academic. But since the job was a stepping stone to a similar, higher paying job in industry, there's a more complex answer hiding away in here somewhere."

That answer could be: Freedom.

Could his "magic torch" product be repurposed to stabilize a laser pointer? I just sat through a presentation and the guy's laser pointer was shaking like crazy the whole time.


I want to hear about how you are paying for rent and food now with no job and a failed company.

Savings. I had almost two years runway to start out. I've only burnt two months worth.

Judging by the title I would say you are bipolar in manic phase. =P

But it's a pretty inspiring post. =)

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