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How can I get over the emotional baggage from my failed startup?
March 8, 2012 6:21 AM   Subscribe

I was bullied out of one startup and joined another one that is struggling. How can I regain my professional confidence and move on with my life?

I started a software company with a work colleague when I was in my early twenties. It was more popular than we had expected, and what had been a bit of fiery fooling around quickly turned into a serious, bootstrapped business.

Which was when the bullying started.

I have always had some self-esteem issues, which meant that I wasn't as assertive as I should have been. There was a whole litany of things that were obviously designed to subjugate me, which he argued into the structure of the company. But in person, he would tell contacts and even customers that I wasn't the "sort of person [he] would be friends with". He would complain that I had been invited to do an interview or a blog post and he hadn't. He would make fun of me when we were meeting partners. And, later, he would frequently complain that I didn't seem stressed enough about the company and accuse me of having a trust fund to fall back on. (I'm not from a wealthy background and definitely don't have a trust fund, but do have an accent from a particular geography which is often associated with such things.) There were a million little digs, and sometimes big blowouts, that served to undermine my role in the company, even while I was building the product almost single-handedly, doing most of the communications, talking to potential customers, speaking about it, doing promotion, and so on.

Eventually, I came to decide that this was an abusive relationship, albeit a business relationship. The company disappeared just over a year later, although the product still exists. Despite everything, I'm very proud of what we achieved.

I did some private consultancy, and finally wound up with another startup company. Despite putting my heart and soul into building a product for them, it may not succeed. I also know that because of the resources available, and the pressures involved in the company (the strategy, too often, is to build our way out of problems), I haven't done my best work. The product works well but it could be so much better, in part because of compromises I needed to make, in part because of very poor management decisions, and in part because of both.

I don't have creative control over the product I'm building, and am managed to the extent that I feel guilty if I step away from my computer. I don't think this is abusive in the same way: the people involved are so much nicer. Nonetheless, it's still a form of control.

Most importantly, I still have ideas that burn at me, and through these experiences over the last ten years I feel like I've learned enough to start another company: a real business that has every chance of succeeding. It's one of those ideas that I can't stop thinking about, and I'm excited to get started. But I'm scared that I'll fall into the same trap, and I'm scared that these two failures have affected my reputation.

How can I bolster my confidence and return to productivity?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It looks like you have a good handle on the environment you need in order to succeed. Needing certain conditions (not being bullied, not working with assholes, having creative control, not being micromanaged) is not at all uncommon - however, knowing what they are is less common. So, for your next project or your next career direction, you've got a list of things that you need.

Pursue 'em.
posted by entropone at 6:29 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


When you start your next company, make sure you're at the top, and the people you hire to support you are there to do just that. Find good mentors who have surrounded themselves with supportive people in their startup businesses and pick their brains for the best way to do things.

Your reputation is generally not as big a deal as you think it is, since most people aren't thinking about other people's business all that much unless you've burned them in some way.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think you could benefit from business-oriented coaching which, depending on what how you structured the relationship, could provide feedback, accountability and supportive reinforcement to help you reach your goals and avoid repeating past patterns. Coaching works well by phone/Skype, so you can fold it into your day pretty easily.
posted by carmicha at 7:00 AM on March 8, 2012


Despite putting my heart and soul into building a product for them, it may not succeed. I also know that because of the resources available, and the pressures involved in the company (the strategy, too often, is to build our way out of problems), I haven't done my best work. The product works well but it could be so much better.

This is pretty much the universal creators lament. At some point you have to say "it's done" and ship, otherwise why bother doing all that work in the first place? The perfect is the enemy of the good enough etc etc.

Be proud of what you've achieved. Move on to the next thing.
posted by pharm at 7:07 AM on March 8, 2012


Because your question is very specific (as in it refers to your background and experience), it is hard to give a tailored response to your query, OP. However, at one point I left a full-time job to pursue my own business, so I will try to apply the same things to your situation.

Not sure if you were an employee in these situations or had your own money/partnership invested in these. Assuming that you were an employee.

One thought that I have is that perhaps you should focus on a list of things that you want out of each job. Do you want to learn a set of skills (it sounds like you do since you mention wanting your own business). Do you want to have a great finished product? Pick a few things that you want - those are your requirements for a job. So if you want to learn skill X, focus on that--at the job you are investing in yourself so that in the future you can use skill X to build what you want. It doesn't matter if they want you to learn skill X and use it to paint the wall an ugly color - you now know that you know how to use it and in the future, you can use it for what you want to build.

The "control" aspect - just as a heads up, even if you start your own business, there will be still be control aspects (a client will pay you to finish product X with parameters 1,2,3 on this timeline or that budge...even for consumers, more may purchase it if it has certain qualities...so something else will drive parts of your project).Do try to view reality and that you will never be able to control all these things.You can have control on some of those things on the list, but not all of it unless you spend your money and it doesn't matter to you whether people but it or not.

Confidence for your next project or ..it sounds like confidence to start your own company.

Test the concepts in steps (and adjust per your industry).Approach a client and acquire a paying client. Do a project-is it successful? Then keep on going. But you can give yourself a certain amount of time (6 months, a year) and try. Even if it does not equal a business, you did try and you did learn something,which will increase the likelihood of success in the future. I really do think that it is better to do this in small increments and steps rather than throw all your money and time at it.

I also believe that you will learn the most (i.e. starting your own business) from doing exactly that. Not reading about it, having the adventure in your head. When you are ready, jump. Do keep on evaluating and adjusting your plan. But if it were your business, half these problems would disappear. You won't hire or continue to work with someone who behaves as your first example. You can hold on to certain parts of the vision that you can or want to control,etc.
posted by Wolfster at 8:01 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it makes you feel any better, most projects fail. Really. People who are successful tend not to take it personally and project out that it was a worthwhile failure. And they're so eager to move onto the next thing that they draw people's attention to the next thing and they're off and running.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:28 AM on March 8, 2012


You know, I'm going out on a limb here and saying that this isn't actually a business-related concern, even though that's the way you've framed it. I'm not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I do think that obsessive replaying of past failures and missteps is a thing that happens to people in their late-20's through their early-40's. I've been through it myself several times and it's really hard to talk yourself out of. I attribute it to the brain's need to understand how failure occurred last time in order to prevent it next time. If I'm hunting to survive, that kind of obsession will save my life. When I'm worrying over professional politics or complex career-building strategies, the context is exponentially more complicated. Hence the mind can't do its diagnostic due diligence easily and get on to more productive things like cooking, eating, hut building and fucking.

In your case, there were external factors that led to the failure of your ventures. You don't control those and so you worry over how you might prevent their reappearance in the future. But you can't. If you could, they wouldn't be external factors. You need to get yourself out of this idea loop so you can get back to doing the incremental good work that will culminate in future success. You don't get there by reasoning your way out. Try mindfulness meditation, life coaching, intensive therapy or a regimen of brutally hard exercise. Or all of the above. Eventually, you'll break the cycle.

It really isn't about you. It's about having a brain that evolved to respond to failure with obsessive self-criticism but which is now situated in an environment that defines failure in ways other than being eaten by wolves.
posted by R. Schlock at 9:25 AM on March 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can my insightful answer simply be offering you a hug while you figure out your next steps?
posted by infini at 10:02 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recommend The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work. I think you may be able to get out of this funk if you learn the skills to identify the signs of bullying behavior and respond to them in real time, when they first appear.

If you do this, you'll avoid many situations that escalate to blowouts, or, if they do get there, you'll learn to categorize the other person's annoying behavior more like the annoyance of a clock radio that goes off for some bizarre reason blaring static and beeping at full blast, and less like something that damages you personally. As you lose your ability to be triggered, you'll telegraph vulnerability less and less, and the sorts of people who get off on this shit won't try pulling it on you in the first place.

If you do it well, you can do it without the other person even noticing that you're doing it.

Just about every book I link to in my profile here has something to say that will be applicable to your situation in terms of setting boundaries, resolving conflict, and treating yourself with the compassion you deserve.

The key to me becoming more assertive was recognizing my habit of saying to myself, "Well, I guess it's not that big a deal, I won't say anything" and instead saying, "If it's really not a big deal, then it won't be a big deal for me to speak up about it, either, and it won't be a big deal for the other person to go with my view of things, and if it is a big deal, then this is definitely a conversation that needs to be had."

Once I realized that this sword actually had two edges and really thought about it, I started recognizing a lot of situations where I could bust out that second line of thinking, and every time I've used it, I've been happy I did, even if I didn't "win." I've learned a little more each time about conflict, compromise and the moves and counter-moves people use in these sorts of situations.
posted by alphanerd at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm realizing now that the version of assertiveness I described mainly addressed how to behave with asshats like your former business partner, but in a lot of cases, it actually provides clarity on things and improves relationships if you start with generous assumptions about people actually being unaware that their behavior is causing a problem for you, and that they want to work with you to make things go more smoothly for you both. That's the Crucial Confrontations approach, and it has worked for me.
posted by alphanerd at 2:52 PM on March 8, 2012


Most importantly, I still have ideas that burn at me, and through these experiences over the last ten years I feel like I've learned enough to start another company: a real business that has every chance of succeeding. It's one of those ideas that I can't stop thinking about, and I'm excited to get started. But I'm scared that I'll fall into the same trap, and I'm scared that these two failures have affected my reputation.

Don't think of them as failures but as stepping stones to where you want to be - you couldn't have gotten to where you are without having been through the experience of those two businesses.

You also wouldn't have the passion and drive that you have for your new business without having an understanding of what happened with the other two.

This is often why people set up businesses - because they have an idea, because they think they can do something better, because they're dissatisfied with how things are being done.
posted by mleigh at 8:05 PM on March 8, 2012


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