I’m a co‑founder of a tech start‑up. Doesn’t that sound great? But what does it mean, really? Many people think a co‑founder is going to get rich soon. The common perception is co‑founders are dreamers who work hard, are in their 20s and live in their parents’ basement as they’re scrambling to pitch their “great” idea or product to anybody who will listen. Eventually, they obtain funding from a Silicon Valley investor, and then after a few years of market penetration that scales up (i.e., consumers are buying into the idea or product and many more will in the future), co‑founders sell their business or merge with a bigger fish. They’ve made it! These dreamers are now rich heroes of the venture capital and private equity world. (Venture capitalists are the “money people” who take big chances and believe in other people’s ideas.) The co‑founders are now living the dream—they’ve got their handsome million--dollar house, new Tesla(s) in the garage, a wine cellar with lots of expensive wines, a sailboat or yacht and lots of cool material things that for some mask a hidden sadness.
That scenario is what lots of people assume when they hear the word “co‑founder.” Those who’ve tried to be co‑founders themselves and failed, however, know the reality of the situation: it starts with the dream and then involves having many coffees with people who have lots of money and consequently hearing rejections that are cordial but constant. If you are one of the lucky ones who gets an initial (“seed”) round of funding, there’s a daily excruciating grind of work to induce consumers to buy the product or idea (“market adoption”). If consumers adopt your product, great! But when those consumers aren’t buying, you first ask yourself, “What’s wrong?”
One side of your brain tells you that all you need to do is tweak or reconfigure something to get people to spend their money and then everything will be fine, and the other side of your brain says, “Oh, God, is this not going to work at all!” Then, after you’ve spent months of not wanting to give in to the fear that you’re in the midst of a disaster, the day finally comes when you tell yourself and then your business partner(s) what everyone dreads hearing most: “It’s not happening.”
My business partner and co‑founder J and I are in the middle of these two scenarios—we haven’t “made it,” and we haven’t “failed.” Yet. And we are not 20‑somethings, we are 50‑somethings. That’s right: FIFTY‑somethings. Neither of us live with our parents, and we both come out of the corporate world. We’re successful—we’ve made money and saved money—and we’ve both vowed to never go back to corporate America.
Two years ago, we had an idea, received funding, built a technology product and launched it into the market. Very few people bought it, and now we’re “stuck” because we don’t agree with Alex, our financial co‑founder (aka “the money guy”), on how to adjust our marketing plans. This is a big deal. So, we’re not spending any money and we’re not acquiring enough consumers. . . It’s the classic chicken‑or‑the‑egg scenario of which came first. I say, spend nothing, get nothing!
Don’t get me wrong—Alex is a nice guy. In no way is he like some venture capital guys who yell or tell you what to do in a condescending manner. Although he does call us “the girls” sometimes, I’m sure he doesn’t mean to imply that we don’t know what we’re doing. Still, J and I do get a laugh when we hear him refer to us as “the girls.” Don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t gender bias in the venture capital industry, because there is and it’s everywhere. But we’re not complaining—we came from the corporate world, and it’s pervasive there, too. We’ve dealt with gender bias throughout our careers and will never use it as an excuse.
Alex is a success story. As a young kid, he founded his own tech company without any outside investors, worked hard and made it big. Now in his 40s, he continues to work and invest in people and companies he takes an interest in. He has accrued everything that comes with success: the cars, the gorgeous house in Silicon Valley, the boat, the private plane. . . he’s earned it all. We were lucky to have him at the start. But as with most start‑ups, when things don’t go according to plan, partners disagree on what to do next, and because Alex controls the purse strings, he’s calling the shots.
At this point, most partners would have had “the talk” and would have said something along the lines of, “Well, we tried, and it didn’t work. Time to shut it all down.” Others might have said, “Stay the course! It’s just a bump in the road.” You can find thousands of books, articles, podcasts, etc. by founders and corporate executives describing how tough it is to get a business going and that if you need to “pivot” (this is a fancy word for “change course because the original idea isn’t working”), just pivot. Yes, it’s hard to pivot, but “Just do it!” is the advice you hear. This is easily said if you’ve ultimately overcome obstacles and become successful in the past. It’s even more easily said if you’ve got money to reinvest in a new plan.
Knowing that Alex wants to move on, J and I are starting to work with other investors. This means lots more coffees, meetings and revising our pitch deck (that’s our “asking for money” document). In the process, we’re finding some potential financial co‑founders who believe in what we’re doing and who want to assume Alex’s role, which is to say buy him out and invest in our revised plan. Exciting, yes? Well, not quite yet. . .
. . . Because timing is everything in business and in life, and the potential investors are not quite ready. Why? They’re involved in another venture deal. In this environment, there are always deals upon deals. This deal in particular needs to be negotiated for an IPO (“Initial Public Offering”), and let’s just say it’s slow going. It may not even happen. An IPO is a super huge event for any company—it means that you’ve really made it and that the initial investors will net lots of money.
If they are able to secure their IPO, that would be an extraordinary second chance for us. If it happens. J and I really like these guys—they have experience, they like our product and our new business plan, and they’re strategic, meaning they’re uniquely a good fit for our tech product. And the bottom line is we keep our baby alive.
As co‑founders of a tech start‑up, when you develop an idea and the initial plan doesn’t work, you are typically afforded one shot only. Here, with our interested investors, we potentially have a lifeline to change up the marketing plan and try again. It’s rare to earn that second chance. If J and I honestly felt like we’d put forth a good effort but with a bad product, we’d let our baby go, releasing it into the pile of start‑up failures. We would not be alone in doing so. But we still believe in our idea, we’re still willing to “live and breathe the company,” meaning do nothing else, and we have others on our radar who also see the interesting prospects our tech product offers and who are willing to back up our idea with money. Now we just have to be patient.
When we ask the investors how long it will take for them to complete their other deal, they say, “Six months.” Six months?! What will we do for six months? It’d be one thing if the venture was a sure thing, but it’s not—it’s a maybe. And we know that as is the case with all good intentions, a “Maybe” usually becomes “Sorry it didn’t work out.”
What will J and I do? We’re stuck in what I think of as “start‑up quicksand.” It’s a frustrating place to be, because there’s a lot of uncertainty. Do we have faith and wait for these guys to get their other deal done? Or do we fold our business today and move on and start considering—I don’t want to even think about the next words—getting regular jobs? Oh, please, no. No. . .
We schedule a board meeting via a conference call to vote on whether to keep the company alive (albeit in a dormant stage) for the next six months while we wait to see if the interested investors will be able to fund their investment in our company. This would mean six more months of J and I pulling money from our respective savings accounts, something that would definitely add stress to our lives. We both want to start earning income again, and soon.
Did I fail to mention earlier that co‑founders at this level rarely get paid a salary? That lack of salary means that we are draining our retirement funds each and every month and have been for the past two years. I mean, how much do we really believe in this idea? Enough to continue to risk our retirement? These are the kinds of questions that we frequently ask each other. It’s not easy to bet on yourself. But when you believe, you take risks. This is the price we pay to dream. Call us crazy (some already do), but we don’t think we’re crazy—we’ve been afforded the opportunity to bet on ourselves, and we’re going for it. I guess that’s why J and I get along so well as friends and also business partners.
Alex is willing to wait for six months—after all, he’s not worried about living without a salary seeing as he’s running another company. (Remember what I said about venture deals on top of venture deals?) He votes yes to continue keeping our business alive for another six months, although in the meantime, we can only spend what’s necessary on the business.
I’ve worked in and out of the corporate world for the past thirty years. (Sometimes I’ve been in the office; sometimes I’ve been out of it traveling the world.) Although I was successful in the corporate environment, I was only successful when I dedicated an unrelenting amount of time to my job. I was a workaholic while employed, zeroing in solely on the work at hand. Eventually, that became an unsustainable situation for me, so I would quit my job and sought out adventures, traveling to other countries for months on end. This is how I was able to reinvigorate myself in mind, body and spirit.
I’ve never been drawn to titles or money—instead, I’ve always wanted to explore and have adventures and create memorable traveling experiences. I couldn’t care less about what kind of car I drive or how big my house is or overly luxurious things like that. I recognized the pitfalls of striving to own material things long ago and I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life focusing on having those trinkets. Travel has offered me a lifetime of experiences that I could never have attained if I had spent years working sixty‑ to eighty‑hour weeks without any substantial breaks of weeks or months.
I also have a close‑knit circle of family and friends who love me, cheer for me and support me in many ways, and when you have that, life presents you with a sense of security and a safety net—you know that everything will somehow be okay. So I, too, vote yes to wait for six months in the hopes that the investors come through for us. In the end, it isn’t a hard decision for me.
J also votes yes, making it unanimous. On this matter, at least, the three of us are all aligned.
I’ve known J (short for Jennifer) for ten years, and I know there’s no way she would turn her back on this possibility, either. She’s worked her entire life in the corporate world and has dealt with all of the political gamesmanship that comes with executive‑level positions. She definitely is averse to going back to that lifestyle. She’s a powerhouse with strong opinions and limitless resilience. Some coworkers have considered her to be difficult, but that’s not what she is, not really—she just won’t mindlessly follow like an obedient sheep. Some would call her an alpha female, strong and fearless, but those are just labels. She has more depth than that, a depth that also showcases vulnerability.
Like most business partners and co‑founders, we’re very different when it comes to our personalities, our interests and how we address issues. I make quick decisions. I have a B.S. detector with a mile’s reach, and I will sometimes call people out on their B.S. I have very little patience for idiots, fools and superficiality. I can multitask with fierceness and balance ten to twenty things at once. . . though admittedly with my share of mistakes along the way. “Making mistakes is all part of the process,” I say to myself. I don’t mind stumbling as I go. As long as I keep moving forward (whether figuratively or literally), that’s the key. Overthinking any issue just slows me down. For me, it’s more important to keep moving than to stop, deliberate and address every item to make sure it’s perfect.
J, on the other hand, will go very deep when she finds a subject that interests her, and she’s tenacious in her efforts to educate herself thoroughly. Given enough time (and if she had an inkling of an interest in doing so), I believe she could crack nuclear codes. The flip side is that she can overthink a problem, overanalyze inconsequential matters and create more complexities than necessary. This is why we’re compatible as business partners and make each other laugh as friends.
So now it’s official: our company is in a holding pattern for six months. What do we do now? J and I need a brainstorming session. Neither of us are one to sit around—whatever we do, we’ll be proactive. Maybe we’ll conduct more research or talk to more potential investors (even though that idea makes me sick to my stomach). We’ll do something, because you never know when or where the next opportunity may arise or who may know someone who knows someone who can help. These are the things you say to yourself so that you don’t feel lazy or unproductive.