An audible "oh no" came out of my lips when I clicked this link and realized I was reading about someone I had shared a few dinners with.
It's important for little pieces of history such as this one to be recorded. For the founders, to whom it gives a sense of closure, and for the community. So that we don't forget our comrades who didn't make it to the other side, but still have insightful lessons to share.
The press likes to glorify the AirBnBs, the Googles, the Facebooks - but as founders, I think it's important for us to be realize that this is only a tiny visible part of the iceberg, and that at the end of the day, there are so many factors at play that it would be foolish for us to focus solely on the "how many millions did they make". Human stories are never boring, and experience is one of the most precious thing others can share.
Thanks for taking the time and effort to write this, Nikki. We're with you.
"Investing money, creating new products, and all the other things we do are wonderful games and can be a lot of fun, but it's important to remember that it's all just a game. What's most important is that we are good too each other, and ourselves."(http://paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/2012/03/eight-years-today.h...)
I remember sitting opposite Nikki in co-working spaces (Fishburners) and incubators (Pollenizer) back in Sydney throughout 2010 and 2011. Her gumption, determination and focus back then was (and is) a force to be reckoned with. If there is anyone who's failure I would never question - it would be hers.
It's heartbreaking to hear these stories, even more so when it's someone you know. But Nikki - thanks for sharing. We're all made a little stronger for it. For the rest of us it should serve as a reminder that no matter how hard we strive there will be always be forces outside our control that shape our destiny.
Try running a successful and rapidly growing business for 8 years while everyone around you tells you you're a crazy fucking idiot and that you should give up and get a job. No investor interest as we make money, which investors hate. That's failure.
I am a crazy idiot. I keep coming back for more. I will lose my mind before this is over. I am a failure.
A startup folded and left several people with nothing to show for years of effort. It seems pretty callous to me to assert that she didn't fail, when several measures say she did, and she feels like she did.
I'm glad she shared her story. Do you think your comment encourages others to do the same?
My comment wasn't intended to be callous - rather to reflect the fact that success and failure aren't as absolute as "the business failed". She is a success, insofar as she has a great support network, a laudable track record, and a press that wants her to speak her piece. The business going to pot means that it failed in its principal objective - but doesn't mean that it failed as a vehicle for those involved. I suppose what I'm saying is the business failed, she didn't.
I am a failure, in the same light, yet my business functions and grows like a weed. It is not a vehicle for me, however. The business is a success, but every day feels like a failure, as I had not intended to still be doing this eight years down the line.
Your parent commenter is bitter about the fact that a total lack of viability - making money - gets support, while he has to bootstrap in the face of derision.
madaxe_again: I recommend you get off of HN if you are interested in building a real business. This is a community for building things that investors here would be interested in. If it's not a problem that a rich man with nothing to do all day but look at Internet metrics can see as something to solve, then building a business is not going to get any support from this specific community.
You should forget about investors. When has an investor ever backed anything that they couldn't have related to within 15 seconds of hearing a pitch for it? But investors don't represent the people of the world.
If you want investment, play with investors. They'll give you $200,000 to stop making money and make a messaging app. If you launch one before you talk with them they'll raise that to $600,000.
It is what it is. (Don't read my comment bitterly. I love this ecosystem.)
We don't want investors, actually - we don't need 'em. We do, however, want to sell this thing one day, as you can only stare at the sun for so long before going blind. Until then, however, it's fail all the way.
And yes, I'm bitter. Amazingly so. Largely with my own naïvety. But the mask is strong.
[EDIT:] I wrote this comment first, but following the journalist's response also asking for your email am adding these edits.
1. I would consider giving the journalist your email as well (or email him) as having a story written about you can't hurt -- maybe someone will read about your metrics there and want to invest. You explicitly complain about this in "Support from family and friends, investor backing, media coverage". Now, here's your chance. The journalist has a profile reading "Columnist @ Slate. Contributor @ Priceonomics. Co-host of the Stratechery Podcast (stratechery.fm) with Ben Thompson (currently on hold; please stay tuned)."
2. On the other hand you may be wanting to keep a clear separation from this online identity, which I would respect but the journalist would have to prove through showing you other stories they have written that don't divulge the source.
You can give me a pseudonymous email, it's fine.
When I say I am "inclined to be sympathetic," I mean it. I have a very simple agenda here: I think the media, overall, give too much attention to certain tropes of "success" and "failure" stories w/r/t startups. In this person's story, I am intrigued to see that he's built an economically successful business at which he feels trapped. You don't see that kind of story every day, but I suspect it's not entirely uncommon. At the very least, it's worth exploring. Maybe a story comes out of that chat, and maybe it doesn't. My goal would be to have a friendly chat, and to see where that takes us.
If he'd need to talk to me under condition of anonymity, that's totally fine. If he's willing to go on the record, also fine. And if he decides he doesn't want to talk to me at all, hey, totally cool. I would respect any of those choices out of ethical integrity, professional code of conduct, and sympathy for his predicament.
As for me: I use my real name on this account. That means both that my journalistic output is easily searchable, and that I'm holding myself openly accountable to anyone I engage with on HN.
No pressure intended, either way.
My contact info is in my profile. Hit me up if you're ever interested in having a conversation with a writer who is inclined to be sympathetic to your dilemma. Not sure if you're media-averse at this point or not, but I'd love to explore your story for my column.
Why do you need to remain involved day to day?
I think the most important lesson here is that the team makes all the difference and getting a awesome team is the most important especially for a non technical founder.
She spent a large amount of time and money just getting to the point where she had a reliable team.
Keep one eye on your team and the other on the product and be brutally honest with your team all the time if they can't handle it or can't decide to stay or leave this will make them leave sooner giving you more time to find someone else.
Don't shield the team from bad news this is a group effort and they need to feel a part of it.
These things are easy to say for a very rich guy.
FWIW, I'm hardly very rich and I've believed that since I got out of college. Mostly because those who believe success in business is just a game and don't get emotionally attached to the rewards tend to do a lot better in business than those who must get rich quick.
I'd rather this than "Yep - it's all just about the money" anyway...
She said they decided to tell me they were leaving the company without even a hint of warning - my guess is there was no agreement in the first place or a lot of unnoticed warnings. To conclude she's just too trustful is almost certainly a flawed conclusion.
I'm sure she learned a lot from this experience, but she seems to write off the deserters as flaky. I'd be asking myself what I did or what lies I was telling myself that made me think I had co-founders when I really did not. That sort of character judgment is as important as product judgment.
I was trying to imagine a logical scenario, for example they had an even better opportunity. Or perhaps it was better to split before the stakes became to high. Maybe the salaries were not going to be what was expected, there were disagreements on responsibilities, etc. I can imagine a lot of scenarios.
Not to diminish your article, which I found extremely interesting. It was just a point that definitely seems like there was a greater story to be told.
Step 1: Learn about their interview process
Step 2: Interview well and make it in
Step 3: Quit after a fair amount of time due to some plausible reason
Step 4: Carry around the signaling benefits of having attended the learning institution, without any of the pressure of finishing the course
This method has been successfully practised by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and quite possibly, the 99dresses cofounders.
It always takes two to tango and you're right to not bitch about them but then saying you were stabbed in the back is silly. Being a founder is tough, having co-founder problems is tougher, clearly understanding what your part in the dynamic is or was is even more difficult.
Sometimes, too, to get this level of internal depth takes distance from the people and the experience. It took about six to eight months for me to figure out what was rightfully my fault and what was rightfully my co-founder's fault - beyond "seeing the warning signs early".
Also, I don't know what your captable looked like but if you were the controlling interest you cannot and should not expect anyone to care about what position you're left in - you must be prepared to shoulder the burden on your own for a bit if they decide it isn't worth their time anymore. The more you own it the more you own it.
Hope you're okay and sorry if this comes off as admonishment, it actually comes from a heartfelt place. You're welcome to contact me personally if you want more support.
Re-reading my comment, I might be coming off too much as an armchair psychologist, I'll leave the comment up for posterity and maybe you'll find something useful in it or not. Either way I think you've handled yourself well and hope that you yourself are doing well.
1. Even though I'd already spent 2 years on the startup, the first co-founder I bought on had the same equity as me. He wanted it, and I wanted someone fully committed.
2. I was off fundraising for 2 months, and my mistake was not communicating that really well with them. I wasn't a great leader at that time. However, I did notice something was off but I just thought it was post-yc depression (which is actually a thing, apparently). I asked them outright if everything was ok, and they said sure, that it would all be fine when we got back to Australia and moved on. I trusted them, and they lied to my face.
3. I think they were very naive, not malicious, in how they left. They thought everything would be fine if they just left, but thats not how startups work.
4. One of them refused to talk to me or give me an explanation after he left. I had to practically force him to meet me for some closure. Its like getting a divorce with no explanation.
I made mistakes too so its not all on them, but at the end of the day a co-founder is supposed to be your partner through thick and thin, and they bailed without talking through the issues at all which equates to stabbing me in the back. And they made sure to tell me this after I'd reimbursed them for thousands of dollars in expenses for their YC adventure.
The purpose of this is NOT to discredit them. I'm not a huge fan of them, but they dont deserve to be villified. I'm just trying to be a bit more transparent about what happened so that its helpful to some readers. I'm sure they've learned from the experience and will treat their next cofounders differently if they do start something else.
In progress on a startup now, and I have realized the most important thing is trust between the cofounders. There is a lot of people who want to be 'cofounders' but don't understand what it means, the real consequences and also what real company control means.
I also think YC might not be helping here - since being a YC founder is such a cachet resume item, the value of growing a company is discounted. This results in real problems as you have illustrated.
In the end, if you don't trust and know your cofounder as well as your SO, it's going to make the hard things that much harder.
I'm encouraging psychological healing. I've very much been through a very similar experience.
It actually sounds like it turned out well since she did end up with a solid co-founder relationship anyway. I'm leaving this up for posterity but now think my thoughts on this are unwarranted.
Being able to attach the YC brand to your resume is probably very helpful when seeking investment for a new venture or applying for a job at a BigCo.
Although I have no knowledge of the situation beyond this (very well written) post, I don't think it's farfetched that a couple developers would join an existing company just to experience YC and improve their Valley credentials.
Why do you say so? Surely that's just one signal among many, and not an absolute indicator of anything?
As for indicators, I think that people who have worked together for a shorter amount of time are more likely to break up. This is because fights and disagreements between co-founders are inevitable, and in startups they are more intense compared to regular business working relationships. When you have history with your cofounder, then you've likely survived those fights and are more likely to get through the ones coming.
Of course, this is simply one of many factors.
Of course, male or female, you did a helluva lot for someone your age and I really think you should feel fine about the entire thing.
created: 1000 days ago
I think she is 100% in the clear for glossing over it and I personally would have left out bits like "backstabbing" &c... They may or may not have but describing her personal emotional experience while leaving out the hairy and sticky co-founder dynamics is a great way to share an experience of the "dark underbelly" [that is startups].
In my experience, most people are happy to keep their options open, and most people discount volatility pretty hard when forced to make their life choices path-dependent. Not just to start a company, but when it comes time to commit resources to something, you find that even those who you believed would carry through, whether thanks to their track record or particularly convincing talk, will drop out.
I think of it as them having a high discount rate. The NPV of choosing a riskier path with later reward is thus lower than the stable, short term higher returns of stability, and the cost of "flaking" (the likelihood of you choosing not to do business with them ever again if you get to a position of such success that you can afford it) very low, especially if you are not currently in a position of success. Plus, you'll "understand", right?
I've gotten better over time at spotting those who'd drop out, but still have a 30-40% failure rate. I chalk it up to flakers being good at convincing other people - too good for me to spot them - and factor that in as a cost of doing business with good people which pays off in the long term. If you have a reliable way to spot flakers early, I'd love to read about it.
(FWIW on the original subject - Noam Wasserman's data show the highest rate of failure for "family/friends who become co-founders", followed by "fresh hired co-founders" with "people who worked together before as co-founders" being a significant predictor for co-founding success.)
One thing I have learnt, though, is the people are harder than science; if you don't have your working relationships aligned all hell can be created.
Also a pretty good lesson that having a good job and comfortable life maybe isn't so bad after all (a very un-silicon valley lesson).
The good news is that now is a great time to be selling equity in a tech startup. The bad news is that even if you're successful in trading your company's equity for capital, there's no guarantee you'll get enough capital, or that you'll be able to get more of it when you run out.
Personally taking time off startup helped and made mentally more stronger. I can't even imagine what she went through with so many big ups and downs.
1) You only really get to know yourself when you find yourself eating rice for the hundredth time in a row, and live on the floor of an abandoned building.
2) "never again" is one hell of a motivator
3) you gain the knowledge that all these things, all this crap we fill our lives with, is totally unnecessary
4) empathy. Live below the bottom rung for a while and you'll understand far more keenly what poverty is like. The idea of being in that situation and not having the skills, knowledge or gumption to not bootstrap out, or not having the vision to realise you already have, is terrifying.
The point is a bit more subtle. There is the russian roulette aspect of probability, and then there is failure from lack of character. Unfortunately, outsiders can't see or relate to the important distinctions. This makes dealling with use a bit more cognitive overhead--and that's what sucks. Explaining things to folks on the outside who don't have the inclination or understanding to care. That's a different kind of hardship vs. waking up everyday and doing difficult (but tractable) things like problem solving be it in math or marketing. But my guess is those are problems many will never have the privledge of having, for good or bad, one way or the other.
Isn't that why we have a name for it?
I love the aggressiveness and the spunk she clearly has. Looking back on my own life (I'm one of the "older crowd" in HN terms), I wish I'd been that ambitious at that age. Or, maybe ambitious isn't the word, maybe "focused" would be better. In either case, I wound up waiting until my late 30's to found a startup and now I'll be 41 in about a month, and we're still looking for the mystical, mythical "traction". :-)
The downside is, being this old, I feel a certain sense of "this is my last shot". If I fail with Fogbeam Labs, I doubt I'll have the energy, passion, drive, and mojo to try again. So if there's a lesson in my experience, that I'd try to share with the younger crowd, it would be "Be more like Nikki, and less like Phil". :-)
Now maybe I'm wrong, so who knows...
The advantages of age( if you are still open minded & not set in your ways) is huge but seems discounted in the YC and VC world.
from long back
I mean, total kudos for being 19 and following her passion. I know at 19 there would be no way I could have been the dominate force I am at 34.
And I wonder what I'll be like at 54.
Probably look back and think, "Man I didn't know anything when I was 34"
You can do great things as a retail cashier, or a waitress, its just easier to do great things when your job has at least something to do with it.
Right in the first sentence I see "99dresses". I have to admit, it took me a minute to process what's going on. She has been receiving significant coverage in mainstream Australian media. As someone, who is running startup from Sydney (there aren't so many of us), this felt like someone in your family has passed away even though I've never even met Nikki.
I'm not even sure what I'm writing here... I just feel sad.
Sydney is pretty insular and almost everyone knows everyone else if not by reputation then personally.
I will admit to being slightly jealous because she did get a lot of attention due to what I thought was solely being a tall attractive female that dresses well. However having read this seeing and seeing how this played into her impostor syndrome has made me re-evaluate my thinking. The attention might be useful, but I can totally understand questioning if its because its who you are or what you are doing. Since everything in the start up world is about what you are doing I can see this attention leaving you with self doubt.
She certainly has done more then I have, and at a far younger age.
Sorry for the bad thoughts Nikki. I had been following 99dresses loosely over the years and I had hoped you would succeed as there are so few start-up stories that come out of Sydney. Wishing you the best of luck with whatever you chose to do in the future.
Seeing through "developer bullshitting" is a dark art that is hard to master without spending a bit of time as a developer.
It was easier (and more beneficial) for me to learn how to program. I'm not the most technical one on the team, but at least I can pitch in and work instead of wonder.
The worse case scenario is much, much worse for non-technical cofounders.
They often don't have a deep, specialized skill that is easily used by other companies.
The harsh truth is that lot of non-technical founders set themselves up for failure precisely because they're limited to the pool of developers who will consider a co-founder relationship. If you're a solid developer with a proven track record of shipping, there's very little incentive to join a venture run by somebody you don't know very well for less than market pay, and in some cases little to no pay.
You typically get what you pay for, which is why more entrepreneurs should skip the technical co-founder nonsense and hire an experienced contractor or shop with a solid portfolio and references. If you don't have the money to do this, it's worth rethinking whether you're in a position to start a business in the first place.
Or figure out how to get a technical co-founder you trust.
Developer Bullshit is a people problem, and if you have that problem, no amount of dark-art mastery will help your company survive.
For anyone that doesn't understand - being poor means you have nothing, being broke means you are still accumulate wealth, it just means you don't have cash, but more intelligence. I suspect Nikki has banked loads of intellectual wealth from her journey.
This is not exclusive to non-technical founders.
> Seeing through "developer bullshitting" is a dark art that is hard to master without spending a bit of time as a developer.
Within a group of people striving for the same success, the idea of "bullshit" is often coined by those not wanting to take the time to understand the perspective of others. There is a communication and priority disconnect in most companies between the technical and non-technical; with both sides to blame.
I'd love to see the interview!
I would usually just leave it at an email, but I imagine her inbox is flooded after this incredible post. Also, I'm hoping her friends will see this and help me connect with her.
Now, I realize this doesn't apply if the end game is a high dollar exit, but if you can make a decent living with your application/web site ("startup" and "founder" are overused terms in my opinion) who cares?
If you can't make a profit long term, then maybe you your idea doesn't deserve to live. Simply passing the bomb on to the next set of suckers be they the public at IPO's, or acquires, or VC investors hardly seems like the right thing to do (although no doubt it is done all the time... sometimes with incredible profits).
There is life outside the VC world. If it's a good idea and profitable and you love it....stick with it. If you are looking for a billion dollar exit... that's another thing entirely and it's time to move on to the next idea.
Kind of like all the ebay replacements that never seem to get anywhere in spite of how awful ebay is.
Here on HN it is overly glorified to read "company gets 1.2 million investment." It puts things in perspective to think "company takes out 1.2 million dollar loan and now has 10 months to figure out how to stay in business." But that's the reality of going the venture capital route before your company has any income.
At 21 I was on a plane headed home from another country. I cried in the office. I cried on the plane home. We'd Burned almost half a million dollars, a couple of years of work, let go a team - and had nothing to show for it. With no degree, no more money and no job I moved back in with parents.
So I suppose this article resonates, and in the most literal sense - I've been there.
I think the hardest thing for me at that moment in time was I didn't really have a handle on just how young I was and how much more I had coming. It was all I'd really done with my life up to that point.
It's taken me quite a few years to gain that perspective, and it's a difficult thing to communicate. The world is inconceivably vast and expansive and you have the next half century to build within it. Yourself, your ideas, your creations.
At that age and on that scale it's only a failure in the moment. Then, as time passes it becomes just another step along the way. It imparted knowledge upon you, and opened doors you don't even know about yet. All of the parts that hurt fade away and you're just left with the experience gained.
The fast-paced echo-chamber of the technology startup world is a particularly hard environment to step back and get a real sense of perspective in, which makes it a particularly hard environment to fail in, especially as you'll always be reading about someone else magically killing it.
I've failed since then, and I've succeeded since then. But as the years roll by, I've come to realise that the winning and losing don't even matter, because the journey just keeps on going regardless. If I saw myself now, when I was on that plane at 21, I'd have thought I was looking at someone who had mythically 'made it'. But you know what? I haven't. It's exactly the same: I've got another 40-odd-years of succeeding and failing ahead of me, in both my personal life and my professional life.
Personally I find that quite cathartic.
Yes, hardship is relative. Yes, hardship in a first world country is relatively easy (compared to your example)
Some of these startups are targetting the developing world - if it takes a few fashion startups to get there, so be it. You don't know what Nikki's second, third, fourth or fifth venture will be.
I would love to hear more about the following (not holding my breath):
"After hiring a few people and finding an office in NYC we were ready to launch. We solved the chicken-and-egg problem using techniques that we promised never to speak of again because they squarely sat on the grey/black spectrum of naughtiness. If there was a line, we definitely crossed it. We had to. These hacks were harmless to others, so I figured it was only a problem if we got caught."
But maybe the article isn't about the startup - it's about the emotional ride. Maybe that's why a lot of startups fail - they get so involved with other things, it's not about the startup anymore.
Even after all this time and things beginning to look positive, I still worry constantly that we will backslide or somebody will come along and take our marketshare or any number of other things. I wish that 99dresses had a different outcome, but still it is an encouraging story. No doubt with this kind of attitude and experience Miss Durkin is going to find success. I think it is extremely important to know that not every venture has to take off within six months to be successful. It's a long haul for most of us.
Although the business didn't work out, to have gained so much life experience at such a young age is incredible.
And yeah, not having money is really really awful, especially when it goes on for years with no certainty that it will ever change. But as entrepreneurs, that's how we do.
Also here are some Mixergy.com interviews that I've enjoyed from failed entrepreneurs:
This is with Chad who's posted I started with:
And, finally, if I were leaving New York, I'd listen to this:
Hope you're feeling better and looking forward to seeing you sometime 'round Fishburners :)
Hiten Shah used to run a web hosting company.
I understand what you're going for here (and it's nice), but it's fair to let your team share responsibility for the defeat. Otherwise it never really feels like they were part of the successes.
Again IMO Nikki's was right to gloss it over and doing so kept focus on the main theme.
I feel like I've read this sentence, or a version of it, so many times that it self-refutes. You hear plenty about people who failed. Not as often as the next big thing (since no one puts in the effort to send out press releases about how their failure happened - although that actually might be an interesting strategy for figuring out a next step if the post-mortem is honest enough), but it feels like once a week or so a post like this hits the front of HN.
However, you won't hear about those guys in Forbes Magazine, on the evening news, or in your business school classes.
The one thing that made no sense to me was why they didn't stay in Australia and go after local market. Does the concept not work there?
Also, Australia Post doesn't have any APIs to automate shipping. Girls had to physically go to the post office to ship items, and there wasn't tracking either. This meant a lot of customer service headaches.
Consider one more roll of the dice, this time in the UK. We speak English and we have a postal delivery network.
Rather than chase the $$$ consider taking your idea to Oxfam - a British charity known for selling donated clothes. Your app will enable them to introduce a younger audience to the work they do. They also have people to pick up the phone, a marketing budget and that network of stores.
From a customer standpoint they really might be pleased to pay a premium to Oxfam if their clothes are going to a good home. It is a different 'doing good' proposition. Things that don't sell might as well go to the Oxfam shop as a donation - the app takes people half way there.
If not Oxfam then there are plenty of other charities that might be interested. You might not make money for the VCs of the valley but you will be able to make the thing work, perhaps to feed a few of those in The Global South as a spin-off benefit.
As far as acquiring new users, the idea of an 'Oxfam app' definitely has intrigue, people would do marketing for you by word of mouth. Plus they would 'excuse' themselves to get their next fashion fix.
Just to clarify, I think people should still get some money back, but with 10-25% or so going to Oxfam. Sure there would be postage to pay that might mean people are making pennies on outfits that cost pounds, but this would be psychologically okay if money is going to Oxfam.
You could also pimp the app to show the user/customer how many mouths they have fed through their trades.
This charitable outcome might also work well for those that have put money in your venture. To them they might not have earned $$$ but they will have done something for the greater good.
The UK market is small compared to the US but the geography is a lot tighter. Crack the UK with a partner such as Oxfam and then the other markets will follow, maybe with different partners. I should also say that charities do pay a living wage :-)
Regardless of what you do next, well done for giving it a go and I look forward to hearing about what you do next.
I happen to know someone who worked at the direction of Oxfam in Spain couple of years ago, so let me know if you are interested - it would be a super long shot though.
OTOH, the E3 US Visa is quite simple - it's generally considered to be the easiest US skilled worker visa to get.
Wine is big business in Australia, but where wineries in California seem to have < $10 shipping nation-wide, an Australian winery will cop $30+ to post a dozen to an interstate capital.
(I'm an Australian with one physical product which would be easier to sell if the shipping weren't so expensive.)
On mobile but will elaborate on this as I think the idea was amazing but could have also benefitted from something specific...
My wife as a great style sense - and also reasonable with her money. She would find amazing fashions at Crossroads in San Francisco where she could find desirable brands like D&G, BCBG and other smaller labels where women sold their designer clothes at a discount.
She picked up MANY amazing dresses from this place, as well as shoes. She hardly recycled dresses for events or dates and did it economically.
If 99Dresses had coupled with places like this where they had rental inventory as well, I am sure this would have been an amazing offering.
You could have had a daily rental price, as well as an option so that if the owner chose; a sell price.
A place like crossroads was actually pretty good at being discerning, yet well priced in their garments.
It would also had been an opportunity to provide brick-and-mortar fitting rooms... as well as local inventory. Connect this with a garment style ID and a "different sizes available via online at locations X Y and Z.
DISCLAIMER: Did 99Dresses have all this already?
I am amazed it did fail - I LOVED the BM and Idea.
"It ain't about hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. Now if you know what you're worth, now go out and get what you're worth".
Reading this, it confirmed an important lesson that I learned in a completely different setting (grad school). It's much, much better to do an impossible project with an excellent mentor and fantastic coworkers, than an easy project full of low hanging fruits with colleagues you can't stand.
People who were in the former condition all flourished, even if it meant pivoting to a completely different project after having invested 2 years in a dead end idea. People in the latter camp burnt out completely and almost uniformly dropped out of grad school. The few that stayed were basically running on spite the entire time.
This really is a vital lesson, but can be difficult to learn. After the first startup I was in folded I helped found another with some of the same people, because I believed we were a good team that could go somewhere. Quite soon after we pivoted from an interesting problem to 'low-hanging fruit', and the team dynamics began to change rapidly, in a way that prevented progress (suddenly there was a lot of ego). It quickly became clear that things were untenable, so I left. Since leaving everything has pointed to it being the only correct choice. I still made the mistake of trusting them to tie up financials properly. Things can degrade faster than your loyalties account for, but you can pick yourself up and learn from it.
That would be regarded as sexist if it were arranged with such a blanket statement the other way around.
I've seen countless stories on HN where guy founders talk about the emotional side of failing and their startup going under. I'm not sure where she gets this notion. In fact, I see the emotional side written about more often than anything else. It seems like there's a few new stories every week on HN by some guy that failed, and he's discussing dealing with the substantial emotional fallout (how it affected his life, his savings, his family, his sleep, and how agonizing in general it all is).
Actually, we had a team of 5 working on this. Running operations is really intense and time consuming. There is lots of customer service, community management and making sure items arrive at their destination. Then I was there to work on product and I had 2 developers as well.
I looked at the figures, and although it might be possible to cut out all the tech/product side and just leave operations, then we would really be in a zombie state. I thought it was better to cut our losses and move on.
Lasting 4 years on 700k with 5 people and no income (or even 2 years) with some other minor expenses is relatively low burn, though. We budget 100k+~ / person / year. If your app involved shipping dresses to your office, unfortunately you need to run the ops for it and handle physical objects :(
"99dresses was squarely focused on trading cheaper fast fashion (fast fashion is really hard to re-sell for cash)" I wonder how much demand exists for cheap secondhand clothes which go out of style quickly. Isn't it the point of this type of clothing that people can buy it new for not much money, and not worry that that it often doesn't hold up well? The clothes themselves are probably mass produced in third world countries for next to nothing. This seems like a very vertical online thrift store.
Does the world need another online thrift store?
My YC startup failed two years ago and it still has an impact on me. I learned a lot and wish I knew what I know now back then. My cofounders parted ways within one year of YC and I became a self made single founder. One of the biggest mistakes was not taking breaks. I thought I had to work twice as hard to compensate. It just went into this vicious cycle: depressed & tired -> not productive -> worked every waking moments -> depressed & tired.
Very well-written. Makes your readers stronger in novel ways for reading it. Thanks for sharing.
It's all about knowing how to light up parts of the graph in life though. Now you know. Second time will go further.
Was the product ever successful in Australia?
Fully 20% of Australia's entire population is concentrated in Sydney alone - what was the expected total market (for a product heavily invested in shipping physical items) that didn't work here that there was a need to, apparently, move so quickly and wholly into the US?
Probably too late for that kind of advice though.
But I believe a start up dies if you give it up. But you don't have to let it if you don't want to. Sometimes that's the most reasonable thing to do, but you don't always have to.
I'm in the same case as you. I had to let go of all my employees, Couldn't pay them anymore. And I'm now the only one on board doing all the code, design, marketing and everything. I'm just too stubborn to give up and I still believe in what we do 100%. (Damn I still say 'we' I mean 'I'. Just a reflex)
I do feel your pain. But my best advice is to try to learn how to code and sketch things yourself. With all the skills that you accumulated you'll be able to create prototype rapidly, be less dependable and bounce back rapidly and next time you'll be fearless. Food for thoughts ;-)
I wish you the all the best for your next adventures.
It sounds like you hit 2 of the biggest issues startups can face. Co-founder disputes and Product issues.
Re Co-founder disputes - once money gets involved and the cap table is in your favor in the early days, the st will hit the fan. Raising money dilutes everyone and that too has a negative effect of the minority holders and can create some bad energy.
As you found out working with the right people is super super important. What I have found that has worked super well for me is working with people I have worked with before. One, you know they are good (the ones you choose to start a business with them) and the honeymoon period doesn't exist so its all about execution. I don't believe in cofounder dating events.
As you found out having a mobile product is a big deal. People are mobile creates. Even more now then ever. So being able to reach them via the computer in their pocket is an opportunity not to be missed.
Regarding the Visas, E2 Visa would have gotten you into USA. Or you could have setup an entity remotely in USA and through the company setup E3/H1B for yourself and your cofounder. There are some obstacles to jump but possible with the right legal/immigration team.
Finally, I didn't see in your story mention of an advisory board? I have found that getting the right people around you can open doors to investors, industry people, advise on technology, product etc... highly recommended if you can use them wisely.
Overall I believe the experience you have gained at such a young age will only set you up for big success in the future. Don't give up and keep on going! Good luck!
Is it just an impression, or did she get this sentence the wrong way?
The whole point of this saying is to make you realize that failure should actually not be such a big deal. Failure isn't an dead end, it's a step forward on the difficult path of entrepreneurship. Therefore, saying things like "I couldn’t fail. This was my baby, and if it was going to fail it would be over my dead body." can only lead you, indeed, to excruciating pain in case of failure.
Resilience is an excellent quality, and I think the only way to give your best and surpass yourself is by facing real challenges, but please remember that you cannot in any way resume 4 years of ultra rich/challenging experience with the two words "I failed". Jeez, just having survived 4 years in her very first startup experience is already a success.
I sympathize with her pain; I just find it sad that she doesn't seem to realize the incredible experience and skills she gained from this adventure. Those years were absolutely not wasted; the chances of success for her next startup are incomparably higher than for her previous one, and I wish her all the best for the future.
Edit: A startup is first a human adventure. After it "failed", ask yourself the right questions:
- Did I learn something? Do I know better?
- Am I a different person? A better person?
- Did I help some people in any way?
- Did my social skills improve? Did my network grow?
- What about my legal/technical/managerial/whatever-ial knowledge?
If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, than this adventure wasn't a failure at all. :)
Keep at it Nikki. Well done for your first round. Level up now and go at it again.
I've experienced them when immigrating to the U.S., at the DMV, when getting inspections for contractor work. The little $*(#@ get off on making you feel helpless.
Who picks on you seems to have to do with what vibe you give off. I did notice that both my partner and I attract a certain class of them, but thankfully we don't overlap. So by now, we know who gets to deal with which idiot.
If it was a man, and the sentence included "a man" I could also imagine a snide comment from some male commentator accusing her of misandry.
Basically the cards are stacked against these businesses from the day they are funded.
Male tech folks make a lot of false assumptions about female focused businesses. For investors it can mean leaving a complicated business model under-funded. For developers it means blindly taking a “cofounder” title in exchange for an equity-heavy compensation deal without thinking through what it means to work on a business you aren’t passionate about, for years, at reduced pay.
In both cases, if there isn't an early slam-dunk hockey stick marker of success, guys don’t have the stamina to tolerate a female-focused business for very long. They bail. The company never gets its next round of funding. The engineering talent runs for the hills. Its not cool to work on a company for girls, especially a struggling company for girls. So male talent will just split as soon as the going gets rough.
Each time the company has a setback, the guys all start to bail. So the company needs to find new talent and appease many people at every little bump in the road. This is hugely costly and results in a lot of unnecessary crisis moments, doubts, and subsequent pivots.
The sad part is that a lot of female founders leave startups for good after one failure. I have a linkedin network filled with former female founder superstars who work in humdrum non-tech management roles. Women take the loss on a much more personal level than men do. So every time a female founder is stunted, and then abandoned by her male support network, she may be gone for good.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure, but I think it has a lot to do with adding more female investors and developers to the world. That and encouraging more former female founders to come back, mentor and try again
I had a startup crash and burn almost a year ago now. We wrote a blog post about it too: http://blog.piratedashboard.com/post/69595110761/out-of-the-... Basically, we made a ton of mistakes that ultimately led to a founder disagreement that prevented us from closing an investment deal which may have saved us. So we cut our losses and moved on. My new startup has evolved a lot from what is mentioned in that blog post and is doing well so far (but not yet at the stage where I feel secure).
Losing your startup is almost like losing a loved one. After putting so much into it, when its gone it sucks. Really bad.
But in the end, you just gotta move on and not let one failure stop you.
It sounds like the service basically stopped growing once they had to abandon the black hat techniques they were using (possibly because they grew large enough to attract scrutiny from the platform operators). If that's the case, there was never a business.
You kids doing startups in your early 20s have so much going for you! I wish I'd not waited until my 30s to get on this train, there's a lot more to lose (and less time to sort something out...)
Nice story, I have a similar one myself. I remember that I followed 99dresses quite closely two years ago, I was the technical co-founder of a Fashion & Tech startup, and we were trying to do something really similar for a while. (I'm also foreign, got a lot of local press coverage, traveled to Silicon Valley to work etc.)
I've been the leaving co-founder of a startup, mostly because I thought (and told) that my co-founder was incompetent and bringing zero value to the table. He took it pretty bad, but at least I was honest about that (and right).
You're very young, I'm 28... my biggest advice would be for you to get a stronger technical background. You can still do it, you are young, and it would greatly empower you.
If you wanna have a chat shoot me an email or add me on skype 'n_goles'.
I have been an entrepreneur 5 years now, and I can totally relate with the part of showing a positive face when you have none - its an occupational hazard. Good luck for the next set of adventures.
BTW, I am sure the Valley community will be open to welcoming you back. You are an entrepreneur through and through - so if its not the Valley, Bangalore's doors are always open :-). Best of Luck.
Hindsight and all that. But still, don't just take on anybody as co-founder, easy come, easy go.
Super tough to read all this, I'm really sorry your hard work did not work out but you've done all that could be required of you and then some.
I very much recognize your trust issues, but over time even that will fade.
The truth is that creating anything new in this world is a bag of hammers. Glory comes from the stupid, respect from the learned.
I hadn't heard of your startup before this post. But from reading the comments here, you and your startup are very well regarded.
I doubt it feels that way right now, but I think you have a bright future ahead of you. Take some time to process and relax. Good luck!
Nevertheless I learned a tremendous amount. You learn things by going through it in the trenches that cannot be taught in school.
Currently working toward attempt two, which is probably much more likely to be successful.
I wish Nikki all the best in the future!
Great post. However, when guys paint the other gender with a similar broad stroke as here, we go after them. I hope posts like this make it okay to state our general observations about the other gender.
That's just something you have to go through on your road to success.
If there were three things you would do differently, what would they be?
These are the kinds problems we are gunning for. These are the kinds of things investors are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into. This is the scope of problem our industry is solving right now. This is why I'm often embarrassed to work in tech.
Second, if that kind of thing isn't what you want to work on, fine, don't. No one is trying to push you into that. Knock off the hating.
Like everything else in life, nobody is forcing you to buy the product or join/invest in the company.
But to sneer at its right to exist is both short-sighted and mean.
> "I have so many clothes but I still don't like any of them, ugh"
You honestly think this is addressing real frustrations and economic problems faced by women? You honestly think this has value because it adds to the "diversity" of our industry? You honestly think this is a problem worth big investment dollars, and multiple people spending years of their lives on?
I see startups pouring millions of dollars and many brilliant minds into solving first world problems so frequently, and I honestly try to cut them as much slack as I can. Maybe uber is a huge first world problem, but at least they are creating jobs for people that need them. Maybe airbnb is a first world problem, but at least they are connecting people and communities in a meaningful way, and spend a lot of time encouraging and highlighting stories about this.
I don't just go around being an asshole to any startup that isn't aiming to eliminate world hunger. But this particular description of the problem is so entitled and self-indulgent that it just makes me furious. Even you saying this is valid because it "addresses frustrations and economic problems faced by women" is absurd. I'm pretty sure 99% of women in the world would be overjoyed if they suddenly faced the problem of "having too many clothes and not knowing what to wear".
I think saying that I sneer at its right to exist would be an understatement. It actually makes me furious that people are dedicating their careers and pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into solving "problems" like this. If that makes me mean, so be it, at least my view of the world extends at least a tiny bit outside the absolutely ridiculous first world bubble that this could only be accepted inside of.
It does help. Keep writing. Welcome to the club :)
EDIT: Nevermind. Found the answers. Turns out to be a pretty cool story actually: http://wpcurve.com/y-combinator/
Maybe her real problem was picking a big "problem" to solve that wasn't.
You also get to work for something you care about.
And yes, there's the possibility of high financial rewards, but that's unlikely.
"I felt like I was drowning in a black ocean, and I couldn’t see any light at the surface. I didn’t know which way to swim."
"I was fucking tired — physically and emotionally. I wasn’t sleeping properly."
"I had no bandwidth for anything else."
"I felt physically sick all day"
"I felt shame, guilt, embarrassment ..."
"I was scared I’d meet someone new and they’d ask me what I do"
"I was also embarrassed because I couldn’t afford to pay for anything..."
"I wasn’t depressed so much as disappointed."
..and on and on.
In a world where most tech-related articles mythologize founders, it's sobering to read one that doesn't.
She crushed it starting this business, got traction, built up a community, and was getting close to scaling what was a real business, with a real business model, and real money.
It's phenomenal how much her team accomplished on that money - which is not very much for a team of 5. Until you've run a business yourself, it's hard to understand just how much overhead truly does walk on two feet.
If this company had gotten to scale, it could have provided food for hundreds of thousands of men and women, selling extra stuff laying around their closets. And that's off a glance at their site and app. If your comment was your first response to an amazing post like this, you should look in the mirror.
I'm a firm believer that with gender issues you can either whine about it, or you can find the positives in it. If your whole startup depended on you getting a visa approved, you'd use anything at your disposal to get the job done. If that meant fake crying, then so be it. It worked.
And comparing her to the Collison brothers? 2 incredibly smart guys that were well-accomplished and millionaires before entering YC?
Nikki, I really enjoyed the write-up. Looking forward to see where your next adventure takes you.
I think of myself at 22 (I'm nearly double that) and I know damn well I was immature. I doubt I would have made it as far as she did without blowing something up at that age. I understand some of the reasons behind investing in such young founders, and not to be ageist, but nothing like maturity set in for me until my mid-late 20's. Before that I was basically a big kid who was smart enough to get into trouble and old enough to buy beer. I was arrogant, undisciplined, self righteous, and judgmental while lacking sound judgement myself. Your experience may have been different, but I sort of doubt it.
"for some reason a 5'11 woman in 7 inch heels commands more talking time and attention from investors…”
"As a woman going out in NYC my nights were normally cheap because cute guys would buy me drinks, but I am not the kind of woman who expects that.”
Why did YC ever bet on such a dud? Like honestly good on you for trying and all but you sound very immature. I don't mean that in a negative way I mean that in having read your post that's how you come across. Your cofounders decided to leave you and you are calling them out - I wouldn't blame them at all - they made a choice and their equity would not have vested. Cofounder’s have walked away from much larger startups than yours and its for the reason that they did not believe in your vision. Seems kind of immature to call them out. No one wants to be led by someone who responds to their problems by sobbing.
Its a shame YC bet so big on a non-technical founder because you give non-technical founders a bad name. They got you in Forbes, Business Insider, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. The Stripe brothers had a billion dollar company before even getting half the notoriety you got. For a two-sided marketplace that's like getting to start a mile race with a kilometer lead. Any startup that gets such a ridiculous head start (global publications covering you before you get to 100,000 members) comes down to a failure to execute.
Y-C = Millionaire factory? Who knew!