The talk of shame

When the fear of my startup going under became dread, I turned to post mortem articles. There’s a vast collection of start-up autopsies littering the web, written by illuminated founders trying to make sense of their brainchild’s death. I drank up their stories like horoscopes, finding myself in their mistakes, in the details of their personal lives, in the way they coped – or why they didn’t.

I read as much as I could and yet when the time came for me to accept that there was something fundamentally wrong with my company, I found myself facing a secondary battle I had not considered. I thought walking the walk was the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur, but not for this. Once everything around you goes down, and after you’ve dropped off the radar to lick your wounds and gather enough strength to come back, it’s time to talk the talk.

Welcome to the talk of shame.

I pride myself on knowing how to talk. It’s something I discovered shortly after writing; I liked telling stories, combining words into something bigger; and eventually I started feeding off moments on stage, laughing in front of cameras or as the centerpiece of almost any conversation. “What do you do” and “How’s your company doing” were great starters to spur of the moment pitches and awed glances (because hell if I don’t accept the whole thing made my ego grow exponentially in these past few years). I could play the game for hours, exploring a full racconto with four years of ups and downs, small victories and even smaller defeats.

But for a while, all those innocent and well-meaning questions feel like a punch to the gut. And you’re faced with them repeatedly: from friends and family first, from colleagues and acquaintances later, and most terribly, from the people you had sold your idea to and gotten on your side all those years before, each one of them appearing slowly and circling you like they could smell the blood.

They don’t. You’re just overreacting.

Because having to repeatedly expose your failure – and not in a Fuckup Nights I’m-the-rockstar-of-failing kind of way, but in that raw I’m-still-processing-this, natural and unforgiving way – is draining. You relieve little pieces of the process, you fixate on problems you could have spotted before because they are now clear as day in the way you tell your story, just like those other founders’ post-mortems.

I was at possibly the last acceptable level of this drainage when I got into Rebel Bio. When I received my acceptance for program, I was utterly embarrassed. Of all the talks of shame I had survived up until that point, this one was my own little Everest. The one where I had to tell an actual investor that had just bet on me that something, somehow, wasn’t working.

The laboratory work was lagging. Money was running out. People were leaving. I honestly thought I did not have one good thing to tell about the state we were in, other than we had survived up to that point.

I guess I could have lied. I could have given the standard answer, since the breadth of acceptable responses to “how’s the company doing” only ranges from we’re pulling though to everything’s great. But I was so done with tiptoeing around the subject and hanging my head in shame that I went for the one thing I hadn’t tried so far.

Stop feeling shame about it.

So I had the call and I explained and detailed where we were at, and where we were not. I made it clear we were at a more than questionable point, that we were behind, that there was still way too long to go. I did this with my cursor hovering over the cancel button for the plane ticket to Ireland I had gotten a couple of days before in a spur of optimism.

The silence came and I expected the worst. There was no way the offer was still on the table.

“It’s part of it. You will figure it out.”

I kept the plane ticket and I let go of the shame, but I kept the fatalism. I expected Ireland to be my last try, my swan song of sorts with a nice green backdrop.

Seven weeks in, I have just closed my first sales and the future is looking brighter than ever.

It could all still go down the drain at a moment’s notice, because that is just how startups work. For now, I am glad I took this chance, and even more so that I have learned to somehow cope with failure and its sister shame. If anything, if all this ends up failing (for real this time), I want to be able to tell the full story with my head held up high, with the scars and tears and blood, and smile when it’s all over.

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