Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Failure and Faith in Business

Two irreconcilable truths:
1. All startup companies launch facing near-impossible odds.


2. Companies are deemed failures when their odds are assessed as near-impossible.
Think about it a minute. Obviously, the two positions could not feel more different, right?

The difference is faith. Startups have ample faith, while failures have lost faith. Faith is a framing - a matter of pure perspective. It's how you view it.

Now for the coup de grĂ¢ce:
A dismal failure is far better poised for success than a startup.
Wait, what???

As a business failure, you have at least some assets (material and immaterial). You have deep experience with the market, and someone somewhere has heard of you. You're way way way better positioned than some shmuck with a plan. A failure at least is something. It exists!

Put yourself in those shoes and see if you can shift your perspective that way. Or, better, don't, because it might drive you insane, and the Slog has lapsed its liability insurance.

Is this a case for never closing a business no matter what? Sheesh, Idunno. Tough question! But I'm pretty sure the above is correct. I, alas, have been there (more on that below, which is mostly just lumpy riffing, aside from the buried lede about giving Heaven a chance to oblige you).

Consider my position with Chowhound, circa 2004. I'm working eight full-time jobs unpaid, there are enormous expenses and paltry revenue, and any scheme to increase revenue would require loads of time and energy when I'm already delirious from exhaustion (for a more detailed account, see the epic series, "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", about selling my labor of love to a major corporation).

"Close it! Walk away!" screamed my mind, several times per hour.

Reasonable! But then what? Start fresh with some other endeavor facing impossible odds of attracting interest and creating impact? Chowhound had plenty of both! My excruciating position was, paradoxically, a triumph I'd never replicate. It made me physically nauseous to try to reconcile these irreconcilable truths.

I'd never again gather this audience, this press, this exposure, this momentum, this impact. If I couldn't make this work, there'd be no point in ever building - ever doing - anything ever again. Any subsequent project would just kill me all over again without yielding a fraction of the impact!

I failed to realize at the time that I'd defied odds in failing so little. I was merely impoverished, exhausted, and demoralized. A fantastic result! This is the paradox of success.

Success (unless you're spectacularly lucky and hit an easy jackpot) never really arrives. As scales fall from your eyes, you glimpse the parched earth upon which you've been flailing. In this featureless terrain, advancing a light year is akin to standing still. And there's no rainbow ahead. No bluebird of happiness. Just more parched earth.

Decent income would have helped, obviously. A real programmer and professional-grade software would have helped, too, and some staff designers and copywriters and some chunk of funding. But those assets would only seem livesaving to those who've never run anything.

Just for one thing, "delegation" is a myth. You have to recruit, train, manage, and clean up after those you delegate to. If you're very lucky, it's just barely worth it. When parents hire a babysitter, they know full well they'll return home to crying kids, a messy house, a ransacked refrigerator, and cigarette burns in the couch's upholstery. All this just so they can go see a frickin' movie.

Just as the fame, kudos, and media had quickly lost their thrill (I wrote, in that previous link, that "After the heady first couple of articles appeared, it became mere landscape to me, the way a restaurateur soon ceases to thrill at seeing his takeout menu on the desks of strangers"), income, support, staff, and funding would have larded on fresh challenges and stressors. Zero sum. Parched landscape, all the way down. It's never easy. It's never a kick. You never arrive.
I believed in the mission, even if it was killing me and even though it was barely visible through oceans of aggravation. That's what kept me going.
I'll repeat, for the third time in a week, my observation that humans pursue an "ever-vanishing prize no one's ever actually won or seen or can really even describe." Everyone has had fleeting glimpses of this, but those who've taken a mere 100 billion steps toward illusion lack my trillion step perspective. All striving strives for a phantasmagorical myth, a flighty cipher.

Many clearly recognize this but persist nonetheless. They state a need for visceral momentum - stakes! - and a conspicuous scoreboard. But I risk pariah status as an American by insisting that small pleasures and Easter eggs are plentiful and delightful. We've been peering into the wrong end of the telescope!
We bask in copious free sunlight and oxygen, and strangers poised to sacrifice to help us not die.

If I'd quit, the best I could have hoped for was to pack up and try something even more hopeless with the recharged vigor of naïveté. I.e. "faith".

I frame all of this negatively, even hellishly, because I'm post-traumatic. I didn't like it. It wasn't for me. I lost faith to the nth degree. I'd touched bottom and fully grokked the futility. Less idealistic types with more pragmatic dreams (the classics: fame, fortune, and/or power) might endure longer - though, I'd imagine, no more happily. Faith in a concrete outcome at least gives Heaven a chance to oblige you. My aim was blurry, so I received a gigantic cauldron of useless blur.
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find."
~ The Bible

"Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!"
~ Aesop
But to return to my point, my situation late in the game with Chowhound - a wretchedly futile stalemate - was, from any objective view, vastly more favorable than the situation of Chowhound's starting point. Which is not to deny that our predicament was hopeless.

I grew miserably bewildered trying to reconcile my completely appropriate feeling of doomed failure with the unquestionable evidence of stupendous victory. I didn't enjoy quite as lithe a perspective in those days. But I'm not sure greater pliancy would have helped. Under great duress, pliant reframing can spark kooky results. A lithe perspective (aka carefreeness, aka creativity, aka blitheness, aka equanimity) can, unless you're extraordinarily disciplined, even get you killed.

This sheds some light, though I despair over my inability to "bake it in" to my perspective.

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