How I failed fast and shut down a two week old startup.

A few months ago when my best friend described to me his issues with coordinating temporary staffing, I became obsessed. Everywhere I looked, everyone had the exact same problem yet so many people were re-inventing the wheel to solve it for their own use case. For a while now, I’ve been itching to be excited about something, learn about a new industry and put me out of my misery of the corporate pace of red tape and risk adversity. And this was it. It was (and is still) a great idea.

I rounded up a tech team and the plan was to move down to the Valley for a few months to be in an incubator and get some mentorship and thus, left my job end of August. The pieces were falling into place fast. Though, I knew something wasn’t right.

After much reflection and digging past my own excuses – I realized: I’ve done this already. Three times, actually!! I’ve already moved to the Bay Area. I’ve already raised funding through Kickstarter. I’ve already gone through a tech incubator in Boston. Anybody that knows me knows my pattern of going from someone else’s company to my own every few years. Einstein said it best,

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I’ve experienced the excitement of new opportunities and then the suffering and bitter endings. Every time, I get to a point where I know that whatever I’m doing isn’t fulfilling my life’s purpose or serving my happiness, passions or well-being. And then shortly after that, I cut the leash stumbling onto another adventure.

I did a thought experiment. I imagined what life in the best case scenario would be like two years later if I went down this path I just chose. The excitement of building a team, getting that first customer, making an MVP, raising money, growth hacking more customers, getting hockey-stick adoption, raising more money, finding more ways to gain adoption…and the thought made me want to throw up. I could see working 12+ hour days, constantly stressing about every little detail, having investors to answer to and customers, constantly stressing about losing money. I’d definitely be in bad mental and physical health with no balance, no time for friends, for writing, for cooking, for relationships.

It’s funny how quickly we forget past suffering. Even though I had seen it first hand multiple times, I conveniently forgot about it this year. It’s true that it’s all in our head: every day we’re faced with obstacles, we can look at them as opportunities or roadblocks. I’m wired as an opportunist but what I realize more and more, is that my stamina of perseverance and grit is fueled by passion. If I don’t believe in it, or not motivated to learn – I face that brick wall then try to blow it up, harming myself and others.

It even took an old friend to fly to Toronto and show up at my place to point out to me something I only realized this year, that my heart has never been in engineering. “Your passion is cooking and story telling, why would you go full steam ahead and bet the farm on tech…again?” That was all I needed to pivot away from #NoCollar after 2 weeks.

So the hard part was done, disaster avoided. I’d have to deal with the confusion of breaking the news to everyone. They’d get over it, or not, living to satisfy popular opinion can get you very lost, trust me, I’ve been there.  But now what? One helpful way to navigate life’s challenges is to figure out what you fear and face it head on. What popped up in that same conversation about pursuing my passion was my deep seeded fear that writers and chefs can’t make a living. Just the thought of saying Thu is a Writer or Thu is a Chef, made me cringe with fear, the first thought is, “I don’t know how to win at this game”. How do you figure out what you fear? My method is to observe my reactions, when someone else told me what I’d been thinking deep down inside, I cried. I had been avoiding this creative path for so long and trying to substitute it with a predictable technical path because I was…scared.

When I finally accepted that I was irrationally scared. I could finally reflect rationally. Yes, a creative’s life doesn’t have guaranteed income and six figure salaries are impossible. Most restaurants fail, most self-published authors have an audience of their friends/family. Ah, MOST…but not ALL. You can’t walk more than a block in any direction in the city without seeing examples of people making a living through storytelling or food. So if they can, why can’t I?

I’ve been so good at solving other people’s problems, what if this time around I have my arsenal of problem solving skills, wit and experience to tackle my biggest fear of thriving as a writer/chef. The only difference this time is that I would also have the passion. Another part of my fear is that the path to creative success isn’t clear. It’s not like you write a fixed number of words to reach more people or start making a monthly income. Or if you opened a restaurant on the busiest corner and get guaranteed money. We all hate failing. It hurts that poor ego. You wonder what people will think. And you fear you’ll never recover.

But really, you can’t control the outcome or the world. You can only control yourself, your actions, reactions and thoughts. Believe me, as a Type-A control freak, it’s been years in the making to try on surrendering and letting go in a few instances. And I think it’ll continue to be a work in progress all my life. That Serenity prayer summarizes what I’d like to master:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

So choosing to spend more time writing, cooking and figuring out how to keep doing it…sounds like a no brainer compared to my other recent decisions. I’ve always bet the farm on working hard for other people’s problems and vision. Why not bet the farm on improving myself.

What have I done since September? (Everything but blog)

  • I started connecting with authors and learning about how the self-publishing and traditional small press, big press work.
  • I started this blog and enrolled in my first creative writing class.
  • I’m freelancing with a focus on brand building and story telling for other creatives: authors & musicians.
  • I started a catering company as a first step towards building my food brand and applying everything I’ve learned about branding and story telling for others.
  • I started working in other kitchens in the city to get a feel for commercial kitchens and processes.
  • I cook almost everyday and make sure I have time to spend with people important to me and my hobbies.

No I’m not retired at 33 and no I don’t have much free time in this new chapter of my life. But, I’m happy that I finally listened to myself. It’s unbelievable the serendipity that happens after you choose your own adventure. You meet very interesting people like minded people, you find ways to solve issues that arise and you feel alive…and lucky. And when you just admit you need help, it appears – in the form of new and past friendships. Luck is when experience meets opportunity and the stars might be lining up right now.

I have no idea what the future will hold, and whether or not a year from now I’ll be back to survival mode when my savings are gone. This is not a recommendation for anybody to follow what I did. It’s just my story of how I stumbled onto creating my own path. Life’s got a way to redirect and remind you when you lose your way and it’s never too late to wake up.

No matter what happens, I am learning so much and wake up early each day looking forward to what will unfold. The other day I found this quote which has made all the difference in how I define success and failure. Success for me has been finding my gift and now honing it so that I can give it away. Failure is not living life authentically. For the first time in my life, I’m grateful for all the seemingly random experiences and epic fails in my life.

Grace means that all your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame.