Confessions of a Failed Entrepreneur

I’m laid flat on my back on the fake wood floor in the middle of our office staring up at the disgusting ceiling fan that hasn’t been cleaned in over a year, watching a large clump of dust spin around and around, gathering momentum, teetering further to the edge by the second. I have a deep sense that when it falls, it will fall directly on my face, because that’s just my luck these days, and I wont be able to do a thing about it: I literally cannot move.
Moments before, I had stooped down to pick up one of the 20 liter water bottles to replace the empty one that had been sitting there untouched for hours. My gregarious, absent minded team of 20-somethings apparently hadn’t noticed there was no drinking water on a sweltering June day in New Delhi, in an office that lacked a reasonable air conditioning system.
Little known fact: I am a trained boxer, a marathoner, and I’ve had two major surgeries from soccer injuries. So when I stooped to replace the water bottle, I naturally assumed that I had the wherewithal to carry it through. What happened next was perhaps the most embarrassing moment for an able, barely 30 year old, entrepreneurial, feminist, and egotistical person. I threw my back out.
At the time my office was filled with a scrappy team of young people that cut necessary corners and took big risks because that’s what startups did to survive and get ahead of the competition in those days. We each had the kind of passion for making our “end users” happy that most companies could only dream of. We truly wanted to make kids happy, and we believed each of us, in one way or another, actually were.
Most of us had unfulfilled childhoods ourselves. We had nutty, loving parents who sent us to pointless classes with boring teachers who could not care less about the subject matter. We hated school and exams and college and the whole conveyor belt that dictated so much of our lives. We wanted more and better for ourselves and for other kids out there, and we thought we saw a path to giving it to them.
We were still just kids at heart. We played pranks and threw parties and showed up late for meetings, but we also loved to work hard and like a team. On the rare occasion when we disagreed on something, the whole office went tense and cold. Most days, though, you could hear bubbling music and roaring laughter emanating from our windows, pouring into the windy streets of Shahpur Jat, enveloping innocent bystanders with the optimism and excitement of a startup with audacious dreams.
Those were the good days. In the beginning, the bad days were few and far between, and they were easier to write off. An investor just didn’t understand what moms really needed. A mom was just being too picky for us to really help her and her kid out. A partner was just asking too much from us, it wasn’t worth our effort anymore. When we took a step back and added all the bad days up, we could tell something was wrong, but it wasn’t obvious exactly what it was.
Was it our team? Was it our product? Was it our market? Was it our investors? Was it me? Was it our geography? Was it the photo on our homepage? Was it our number of retweets per day? All of a sudden, the barometers that once told us how we stacked up to our peers were no longer available to us, and we missed them. We yearned for that SAT test that would tell us our score and give us a sense of what our future looked like. But none existed.
All we had to go on was what the pundits told us: You’re not making enough money fast enough. It was the same line I had heard all my life from my father. “You should be doing something more with your education, you should be growing faster in your career. Why do you care so much about the kids in the villages in a country you barely know?”
It was a good question. When I tried to answer it, I came up short. Sometimes, I thought it had to do with my mother’s response to wasted food, “Do you know how many children are starving in India, while you waste your daal like it’s no big deal?” It was the guilt I felt for being lucky and privileged. Sometimes, I thought it had to do with my father’s childhood, “You know when we were kids we would gather around our small stove in Kenya while my mom would serve each of us hot roti before she fed herself.” It was the fascination with a challenging life spanning 4 continents in under 20 years in the search of prosperity, whereas mine had been spent in 1 house in the same suburb in the same state my entire life, in the search of good SAT scores and college acceptance letters. Sometimes, I thought it had to do with my brother’s childhood, “You know how easy you have it? It was different for me. They always wanted me to be something I’m not.” It was the pain I felt for my hero, in not being able to save him. It was all the heroes out there that could still be saved.
The one thing I’ve discovered after building companies for 8 years in India, is that I am not truly an entrepreneur, not in the stereotypical sense at least. A true entrepreneur builds a business with the goal to make enough money to survive and thrive. The money never mattered much to me, it was never the end goal, nor even in the top 5. It was always just a conduit to reaching more kids. To saving more heroes and their dreams. This might sound like some Mother Teresa crap, but I promise you, it’s not. It’s senseless not to care about money.
I often found myself saying what needed to be said, and doing what needed to be done to get access to the money that would help us reach more kids. I was trying to cheat the system to accomplish my own selfish goals. I didn’t actually care how much profit the business made, or how much of it went in my own pocket. What I wanted was different. But in the end, I cheated only myself.
I pursued a path that seemed like an easy win: I loved to work hard and grow people and build products. It made sense to be a CEO, but I hated being the CEO the entire time I was. I would drive myself crazy reading thousands of articles about how to be a great CEO and how to build an incredible culture and how to grow a viral product. I would second guess every single decision I made and doubt myself around every corner of the way.
To build a successful business you have to be confident you are doing the right thing for the right reasons. It’s a fine balance and not one that I found successfully or for any extended periods of time. I would change the story I told myself, depending upon what day it was and who I had spoken to recently.
It was exhausting. I had lost my true north because I was pointing at so many other stars pretending we were going in every other direction except our own. By the time I realized it, I was staring up teary eyed at a dirty ceiling fan and the world had forced me to stop moving at all.
The hardest part about being an entrepreneur was overcoming my own fear. Fear of judgement, fear of being wrong, fear of failure. The hardest part about failing as an entrepreneur was admitting I failed, and figuring out what I’d do differently next time.
I have failed.
I’m still not sure what I’d do differently next time, or if there will even be a similar next time. But for now, I am happy just to have tried and for the opportunity to have failed.
Thank you for giving me that opportunity. Here’s to the next one, whatever it may be.
Let’s do this, 2017.

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Aape Pohjavirta says:

    Super-S. With people like you our world has hope. You are hope. <3

    1. Thank you Aape! I hope I am still one of Aape’s Angels 😉

  2. Gauri says:

    Shab, this is passionate, brave, honest. The essence of who you truly are. And you have the courage to show it to the world. I wish I could be more like you. I love you.

    1. Thanks for your sweet words, Gauri. I wish I could be more like you! I love you, too.

  3. Veronica Poloneitchik says:

    Darling, excellent write-up! Keep on doing what you’re doing, keep on failing till you can’t fail no more, get up and keep on rocking it, because you’re that fearless type the world needs more of.

    1. Lots of <3 Veronica. I feel very fearful at the moment, but hopefully this too shall pass, and I can get on to the next one!

  4. A great read and a similar train of thought as a co-founder.

  5. appointy says:

    Hi Shabnam,
    Excellent writeup. You have not failed yet. I got bankrupt thrice, never focused on money either and now we are one of the most profitable and bootstrapped startup in India and that too from small city.
    You are still in the middle of the journey. Just think that a movie will be made on you and these are small masalas in the journey which will make it a super hit.
    Best of luck and keep up the good work.

    1. A movie! Wow- that’s quite a leap, but I appreciate the sentiment! Sounds like you’re doing some great work, good luck to you too!

  6. Anuj says:

    Who said you have failed? After reading your experience I think It’s just something didn’t worked well and next time you have to figure out early on what would work and what wouldn’t. It’s just a start of new journey.
    The only time you will fail is when you give up and say, “I cannot do it” and then you will never do it.
    Thomas Edison did 3000 experiments without knowing if he will be able to make that light bulb. If i read this story I will say It was 1st or 2nd experiment that didn’t worked and there still 2998 and more to be done.

    1. Very true. There are still many more attempts left to be made!

  7. Paresh says:

    Hi, Shabnam.
    I felt more or less same in my life when everything went wrong. although still I face the same type of issue.
    You are very brave to acknowledge what did not work.
    That makes you unique among the mass.
    Stay true to your heart. You never failed and you will never fail.

    1. Thanks Paresh, glad you found the piece valuable!

  8. K.ganesh says:

    Very well written.
    You have not failed . This venture did not take off as you thought or as per usual commercial metrics. But you are much more than one project or venture . The learnings will be invaluable .
    In any such venture, there are so many variables and you need lot of luck , timing and environment to make it work . All the best for next one – Ganesh

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom K.Ganesh. I have no doubt you have seen far more in the world of entrepreneurship than I have! Here’s to the next one.

  9. Madhan says:

    Gone Through it. Been With it. But to put that out take a lot of courage Shabnam. Best Wishes and Wishing You All the Best with your Next One 🙂

  10. Being an entrepreneur is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Keep pushing forward and you will be great!

  11. Udit says:

    An entrepreneur NEVER FAILS!

  12. I am sure it will be much better now on. You are not the only one. It gets hard for people to keep the priorities as priorities and define business in a manner the expectations are set right even for the people who tell you to make more money.
    Perhaps, next time you will be more careful accepting money from people and see it they equally care about what your concern is. Perhaps the next time it will be successful but am sure there has to be a next time, and soon! 🙂

  13. Those who never fall, never learn how to get up, and worse those who don’t know they have fallen, are even worse off – keep falling, because that’s the way we get smarter and get up stronger and refreshed 🙂 all the very best

  14. Ben V says:

    There are lessons in failure, and it looks like you have learned quite a few. Thanks for sharing.

  15. startupplay says:

    hmm..Shabnam, entrpreneurs are like John Wick.For the viewer, he gets shot but we also know what’s going to happen as the movie proceeds.Keep your calm, your head high, do the best yo can.

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