Alexia Tsotsis published one of the most honest pieces of tech journalism in recent memory this morning. She describes Jody Sherman’s tragic suicide and commented on what it says about the state of tech hype. The facts surrounding Sherman’s death are uncertain. But what is known is that Ecomom (his company) is shutting down “due to mismanagement of funds” and that Jody took his own life. Whether these two events are connected or not, we do not and may never know. As an entrepreneur who has been through the stress of running a struggling company, it’s hard for me to believe that this stress didn’t contribute to Jody’s apparent suicide.
So, assuming it did, we have to ask ourselves what that says about us – the entrepreneurial community?
Every entrepreneur has had this experience:
You walk up to a fellow entrepreneurial acquaintance at a networking event…
Me: “How’s it going?”
Them: “We’re just crushing it!”
“Crushing it”, “Killing it”, “On fire”, are all part of the false front that entrepreneurs put on to show no weakness. In the four years since we started TaskUs, I have heard these words from dozens of companies that went on to run out of money and close up shop within months. While I can’t remember so blatantly bragging about our growth myself, I am certainly guilty of telling other people how “Swamped” or “Crazy busy” we are, which is an underhanded way of accomplishing the same thing.
Like most humans, entrepreneurs are insecure. We want others to admire us and we rely on our peers to determine who we should admire. In many cases, perception can become reality. Investors invest in companies that are “crushing it”, not companies that are “really struggling to find the right product/market fit.” Additionally, many entrepreneurs are optimists. We don’t just see the glass half full, we see the glass overflowing with potential, and this is the story we decide to tell the world.
So it makes sense that so many braggadocious claims of success turn out to be premature and misguided. While it’s annoying, and undoubtedly leads the general public to doubt the honesty of struggling entrepreneurs in general, I don’t think we are going to do anything to change this. Entrepreneurs will continue to paint a glossy picture for their acquaintances, media and investors.
However, entrepreneurs shouldn’t have to paint this same picture for everyone. We need an outlet to express the stress, frustrations and pains of building a company. Speaking candidly with employees isn’t an option, as we must stay strong for them. Neither is turning to family, since so often our parents, spouses and children think what we are doing is absolutely insane already. The only outlet, is our fellow entrepreneurs.
Over the past year I’ve had the privilege of taking part in an Entrepreneur’s Organization forum. This group of 10 entrepreneurs meet monthly for four or five hours, and everything discussed is 100% confidential. We talk openly about our professional and personal challenges and successes. In my darkest moments of the past year, I’ve been able to turn to this group for support. No matter what the issue – employee lawsuit, loss of a major client, or even a bad breakup – someone in the forum has had the experience before, and has lived to tell you it’s going to be okay.
To succeed, these groups must be:
Candid – by this, I mean completely honest. No fake lines about “We’re crushing it.” You bring your anxieties, anger and grief to the table. In many instances it’s the only safe place to do it.
Confidential – the only way to establish this level of vulnerability is with the promise that I will never tell anyone what you have told me, and vice versa.
Committed – trust is built over time. The only way to establish this is with a strong commitment that every group member makes and the entire group holds them accountable to.
We need more of these candid, confidential and committed groups of entrepreneurs. Often tech hubs like Silicon Beach and Silicon Valley reject this type of organizing because it seems too structured and rigid. So I’d like to see forum-like experiences focused on early stage tech that cater to the needs of this community.
While this won’t stop us from continuing to hide our insecurities with bold claims of success publicly, it helps mitigate the feeling of being alone. And perhaps it will prevent another tragic loss of a talented member of our community.