“Finishing The Work”

These days, it’s easy to start a company — and it’s hard to build one. And, we know 90% of new ventures don’t ultimately work out. We all focus on the growth and momentum, the outliers and the high-fliers, and for good reason — those outcomes end up “covering” the rest of the table. When things don’t work out, investors know it’s coming, but no one can say anything. It’s not our story to tell. And despite what we read in Medium post-mortems, there is not a uniformity of action and integrity when the founders of a failed newco wind things down. A dream passes away and across one’s mind while one signs paperwork and answers the same questions over and over again.

I wanted to highlight that, in these moments, not everyone acts out the finale of the play. Sometimes, folks can’t bear to go through the motions. In some cases, one can understand. But, there are some who wind down their dreams with class and grace. They did this specific work not because they have to or are obligated — they actually wanted to finish the work.

“Finishing the work” is part of the journey. Recently, I have had a front-row seat to founders I worked closely with who all have impeccable credentials, resumes, drive, professional backgrounds. They didn’t raise too much money. They didn’t seek unreasonable PR coverage. They didn’t go to parties or show up at random meetups. Their products and services reached their intended target customers, just not with the velocity and scale required to warrant more serious funding. That is not to suggest value wasn’t created — it was, and a few of them were able to obtain acquisition offers from well-known companies.

Watching these founders — in this case, folks I considered friends — finish their work was painful to just observe. It took a lot of time. They weighed the considerations of all stakeholders and felt personally responsible for families of their colleagues. It is hard to concentrate on other matters, and finding a “home” within a larger company is no cakewalk. It can be pretty brutal, actually, and often it’s just not that urgent for the larger company. Some of you who’ve gone through it know — but we will see many, many more go through this as the bloated funding rounds of 2014-15 reach their final dollars and runway.

I only know my portfolio. Many have “finished the work” quite valiantly. Some have disappeared, and I do understand why. Most recently, I wanted to single out friends Victor Echevarria, Tad Milbourn, and Alanna Gregory as founders and CEOs who unapologetically came up short of their vision but finished the work they started with grace. Each of them, for months, initiated new meetings, lobbied for employees, communicated with investors, never once complaining. They will be different people after this part of the journey, no doubt about that, and they will have built new muscle to arm themselves for the next journey.

I’ll end by repeating a line from above, with emphasis: “They did this specific work not because they have to or are obligated — they actually wanted to finish the work.” Thank you.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus