Imagine the worst-case scenario for a startup founder. It happened to me
Wednesday, June 26, 2019/
It happened to me. The nightmare. That worst-case scenario you lay in bed at night thinking about that could happen to you as the founder of a startup. It happened to me.
I’m going to tell you my story because sometimes that’s all I know how to do. It helps me make sense of it all, and I know reading other people’s stories has always helped me, so maybe this might help you.
You learn pretty quickly in founder life that things can change in a second. There is no such thing as just plan A. You have to have plans A, B, C and D on the go at the same time, as you never really know what’s around the corner. We’re all just making it up as we go.
This is what plagues my thinking late at night when I am trying to fall asleep. I’m often playing the tape of the worst-case scenario around in my head and then wondering what plan B, C or D looks like.
There was no particular reason or event that happened which was making me think plan A was about to come undone.
If anything, ParentTV has been kicking some serious goals this past month and we are really starting to find our groove. I just know in business a done deal isn’t a done deal until it’s done, no matter who it’s with.
And then it happened.
It was a Friday morning, I had spent the past hour jumping on the trampoline with my four-year-old son before my mother inlaw arrived to look after him so I could pack my bags and head to an event to speak on a marketing panel which was followed by a keynote from Todd Sampson.
I had to head straight to the airport to fly to Sydney after that event for a conference the next day so I had to get everything organised.
It was an hour before I had to leave the house, and I got the email.
I had played this scenario over and over in my head for months, so in a way I do feel like I was a little prepared. But, truth be told, I am not sure you are ever fully prepared.
Talk and more talk
I entered the startup world about two years ago with very little experience in this type of business. I had been running my own businesses successfully for the past eight years, so I understood the basics. But things like term sheets, capital raising, preference shares, cap tables, vesting, and dilution were all foreign to me.
I navigated my way through getting pre-seed investment, building a product, launching said product, getting customers, building a team, pitching at events and getting my head around what the roadmap for a startup generally looks like.
All things considered, we were doing pretty well and getting some good traction. The logical next step was to raise a seed round of about $1 million to give us a decent runway to really try and set this thing on fire.
It was about a year ago that I opened my round (whatever that means) to see who was interested in participating. I had no idea what I was doing, but I jumped in and gave it a shot. I had established a mentoring relationship with a successful tech entrepreneur who was helping to give me some direction and guidance at my capital-raising attempts.
I had lots of interest early on, with lots of people wanting to talk. I was fresh on the scene, we had a great product, pitching was my strength, and we had some good traction three months after launch.
What I learnt was exactly that. People want to talk, and talk, and talk, and wait and talk. I tried the close the round with a deadline, but that didn’t really work. Mostly I got just ‘not yet, we’re still watching’. I remember feeling quite devastated at the time, as I had put quite a bit of work in and people really made me think they were keen, but not yet.
I remember my mentor saying: “Don’t worry, this is really normal, just wait a bit, it will swing around again, and now you know what you’re doing a bit more.”
We still had some money in the bank and enough runway for at least six months, so I thought I would focus on the business, build our revenue and try and hit some key metrics investors said they were looking for.
I was always good at social media and telling the ParentTV story online, as that was my background. So, off I went to do all of the things and tell all of the story.
And that was that
A few months after my failed attempt at a capital raise, I received a text message from the person who had been mentoring me saying he wanted to invest a substantial amount into ParentTV.
You know how I said I would lie in bed thinking about my worst-case scenario happening? Well, on the flip side, I would also think about my best-case scenario, and this was it.
I couldn’t quite believe it. I had to keep pinching myself that this was real and checking and double checking, but it was.
This kind of backing and endorsement got the interest of a few of the other investors who had been sniffing around, and we had a deal on our hands. With my mentor leading the round, it was all lined up to go ahead.
But after a month or so of making plans, I got the email.
We were one or two weeks away from finalising everything. My husband had been volunteering in the business the last six months, and had two weeks of his long service leave pay left. The plan was that he would not go back to his old job, but join us.
I hadn’t taken a wage in two years, and things were about to get pretty tight pretty quickly. I had three staff wages to pay, and a month or two of runway in the bank. But, the hard work of the past year was about to pay off with an investment that would give us an easy two-year runway combined with our revenue.
I was finishing packing my bag for Sydney, and I sat down quickly at the computer. There it was.
The email told me that my mentor and lead investor had had some personal circumstances unfold, which meant he had to withdraw from all investments.
I was assured it was not personal or about the business on any level, and he wished me well. And that was that.
“I’m not ok”
I sat at my computer staring at the screen. In that moment I knew I had lost my mentor and $1.2 million, and I was walking into a world of imagined humiliation I had thought about over and over again.
I had checked that it was ok for me to share that the investment was happening, and I had been told yes. So it was no secret to pretty much anyone in my life and network. I was excited. Young and naïve, I guess.
I knew I had to hold it together before I left the house, as I didn’t want to frighten my son before I walked out the door and didn’t see him for a few days. So I said nothing and packed my bags, kissed my mother-in-law and son goodbye as I got in the car to drive to the event I had agreed to speak at.
As I started to drive I just burst out crying. It was that gut-wrenching cry that comes from deep down somewhere. One of the perks of being the founder of a startup that films videos dealing with big feelings and emotions is that I knew what I had to do.
I had to dive in. I had to allow myself to feel all of the feelings and go there. I tried to pull myself together once I got out of the car, but I was broken and struggling.
I walked into the event and straight to my table, where a member of my team was waiting for me. He waved as I was walking towards him and, in his friendly-as-always French accent said: “Hello, how are you?”
I could barely say a word. I somehow mumbled “I’m not ok”, and burst into tears.
He wrapped his arms around me as we stood in the middle of this event surrounded by hundreds of people, as he whispered into my ear: “It’s ok to cry I’m here with you”.
Let’s just say, Guillaume has been our key videopher and filmed 80% of our experts’ videos. He knew exactly what to do.
We just stood there hugging as I cried. Guillaume had been on this journey with me from the start. I showed him the email as I wasn’t able to speak, he knew exactly what this meant to me and he said: “It’s going to be ok, I’m with you”.
I managed to pull myself together. I got up on the stage, participated in the panel discussion, finished up at the event, got in my car, and cried on my way driving to the airport.
I got on a plane, flew to Sydney, and got to my hotel room at about 8:30pm, where I was finally alone for the first time. Then, I just kept crying.
Light in the darkness
I replied to the email that evening. I wasn’t angry, I was completely devastated.
One minute I had the deal of my dreams on the table that I had worked towards for a year of my life. It wasn’t just the investment money, it was the people as well. And in an instant it was gone.
It had been a really long time since I had experienced real grief, but I can tell you the next week of my life was full of grief, and extremely personally challenging.
Everything I had been working on over the past few months was intertwined with this investment. Everybody was across the future plans, and we were all excited.
Now, not only did I have to deal with my own personal disappointment, but as amazing and supportive as my team were, they were also disappointed, and the future was unclear for everyone.
I had had the rug pulled out from under me with no offer of support. I had lost $1.2 million and I had lost my mentor. I was a sole founder, so this was all on me. Money was going down, down, down in our personal bank account. My husband had two weeks’ long-service leave left, and everywhere I turned I had to explain what had happened and start trying to execute plans B, C, and D.
Nearly every document I had created for the business’ future had faces and names and plans which needed to be changed. It was pretty overwhelming and I couldn’t escape it.
I won’t go into some of the worst situations I found myself in, having to explain what happened, but I really would not wish this on anyone.
But, despite my worst nightmare becoming a reality, and being consumed by grief and a now uncertain future, there were moments of light in all this darkness.
Guillaume, who had been with me at the event, sent me this message once he got home:
“Hey Sam, you must be at the airport now Just wanted to let you know that we’ll make it work. I believe in Parent TV and most of all, I believe in YOU! And if this tough news means that I have to take the risk and work/help Parent TV for free for an undetermined time, then I’m in Smash it in Sydney!”
This was then followed by another message from one of the backbones of ParentTV, Britta, who is also known as my work wife:
“You are going to do great things today for your business; and all by yourself! You don’t need anyone; you’ve got this!
You are single handedly going to increase our ARR today and that is because you are incredible.
It feels lonely at the top, but that is because you are a true leader. It’s lonely, but IF you feel weary and if you slip and fall, there is a whole group of people who are just a few steps down ready to catch you and help push you back to the top. We’ve got you.
You are doing great things Sammy.
One step at a time; one day at a time.
As Maggie would say: love you to the moon and back ”
And another message from another of my team, Erik, who had been with me since the start:
“It makes me so sad to see and hear what you have gone through in the last couple of weeks. I know you are in the arena and so need to “fight” what is in front of you but when people offer to help and then renege on that offer, then that is not a fair fight.
Driving home from church and thinking about what you had told me makes me only more determined to help you in whatever way I can to make PTV the success that I know it will be.”
And a few of the messages some of my ParentTV experts sent me when they heard the news:
“Always remember Sam-I-Am that everything will be okay in the end. And if it isn’t ok, then it isn’t the end. Love you infinity!!! ”
“You have got this Sam – just a bend in the road!! ❤❤”
“The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”
And finally, my husband, who had to deal with one very unstable and emotional wife and mother over this week — trust me when I say it’s not easy being married to a person doing this founder startup thing.
After a week of craziness, one night as he walked past me, he stopped me, put his arms around me and whispered in my ear: “I’m with you”.
After taking a few days to gather my thoughts, I emailed my pre-seed investor who is also the chairman of our board to let him know what had happened.
He had met with my mentor and lead investor in person a month or so previously, and was across everything that was happening.
When he got my email, the first thing he did was pick up the phone and call me. And when I picked up, he just said: “Hi Sam, are you ok?”
I can’t tell you how much it meant for those to be the first words to come out of his mouth? We had a really good chat and he let me know he was with us, and he would help with the making of plans B, C and D.
Lessons in resilience
One of the most challenging days for me was about five days after I had received the news.
That day was a really, really tough day. It was full of meetings where I had to explain what had happened back-to-back, and when I walked in the door at home at 6pm, I had to pick up my four-year-old son and take him to a violin recital for his two big sisters. We didn’t get home until 9pm when I had to put all three kids to bed as my husband was out at a meeting that night.
Once I had put the kids to bed, I sat down for the first time that day on my own and quietly started to cry, just releasing the emotions of an intense day.
My eldest daughter, who is 11, heard me and came over. She looked at me and said: “Mum, are you ok?”
I had previously told her what happened. Now, I looked up at her, tears in my eyes, and said: “I’m ok darling, it’s been a really big day for mummy and I’m still having to deal with all the changes in the investment situation for ParentTV and I’m just getting out some of my big feelings.”
She walked over, hugged me for a bit, kissed me on the head and went back to bed.
One of the biggest gifts I know I can give my kids is to be a real-life example of trying to live your dreams, and failing, and getting back up again, and failing, and getting back up again.
A lack of resilience is one of the biggest issues facing this generation of kids, and if I can help mine understand resilience through being an example of what that looks like, then that’s a pretty amazing silver lining for me.
I’m not exactly sure what is going to happen next, but you should absolutely know plans B, C and D are underway. And if I didn’t know before that I was surrounded by the most amazing team, who have shown up and backed me and ParentTV in some pretty dark days, then I absolutely know now.
That nightmare. That worst-case scenario that happened to me. And I survived it.
And you know what the funny thing is? ParentTV has been kicking some serious goals this past month.
I have never felt more confident that we are exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we need to be doing. I am sure one day I will look back on all of this and be one of those people that say it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
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