I loved the Theranos story as soon as I discovered it. I love the product, the mission, the possibility and the ambition of daring to change the way something is done in healthcare. Healthcare, y’all. This is big and this is bold, so naturally, I rooted for the company and for Elizabeth. Not hardcore fangirl rooting, but just quiet “I hope she succeeds” rooting.
So, when I saw the Forbes headline, “From $4.5 Billion To Nothing: Forbes Revises Estimated Net Worth Of Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes,” my jaw dropped and I immediately wanted to reach out to her personally because I’ve been there, sorta.
Since I don’t have her on speed dial (weird, right?), I decided to pen this article that details what I’d like to say to her—things about my personal struggle after startup failure that I’ve never expressed in hopes that it resonates with her or anyone who is going through an identity crisis.
Now, writing this is a bit weird because I don’t want to make this about me and my startup that folded shortly after an incubator program and detract from Elizabeth’s issue.
But, I do want to make it about empathy and in order to do that, it has to be about me, a little. And, yes, this is hard for me to write because this is a public admission of failure that will live on the internet forever (eek!), which is hilariously ironic if you watch this video right here where I talk about my fear of failure. (Oh, universe, bested me again, have you?)
So settle in for a tale of success, failure, Goodfellas quotes, name drops and southern-isms that all tie back to this Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes issue (maybe).
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged.”
-Henry Hill, Goodfellas
Just switch gangster to startup founder and you get the idea of what it was like to be at Capital Factory in 2010.
I created Smackages in my living room in Dallas and I knew it was a great idea (which means something, but not everything). I serendipitously met my spirit animal, Mark Cuban, and pitched it to him and he liked it, but in that no-time-wasting way he has, he said “You don’t know enough about what you’re doing to do it. Go do more, learn more, and get back to me. So, I was all “Challenge accepted!”
I was accepted into Austin’s Capital Factory incubator program and everyone loved the concept of Smackages—a beauty box subscription service who’s only competitor at the time was fellow newbie, Birchbox (I bet you can guess how this one ends.). For 10 weeks I learned from the best business minds, built a business model and perfected my pitch. It was amazing. Demo Day came and I nailed it. I won audience choice for my pitch, lots of investors wanted to chat afterwards and Dave McClure said I was awesome…on camera. A few months later, Inc. Magazine wanted to profile me. It was surreal.
Then, just a few days after Demo Day, there I was crying on the bathroom floor in Austin alone (solopreneur FTW!) in complete meltdown mode (not unlike Henry Hill’s epic “Why did you do that, Karen? Bathroom scene) saying things like “You are awful. You suck. What have you done, Rosilyn? Your life is ruined. How do you face people now? Why do you even exist? You have no value.” Except, at least Henry was actually talking to someone and not himself. Now, I did a lot of things wrong to get me to that place, so it didn’t just happen, but that’s another blog for another day.
I felt like I had nothing, like I was nothing. All of a sudden, having a real 9-5 was a sign of failure to me; *insert Family Guy cutaway mode* like the time Henry Hill said, “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls.”
And that’s nuts. I actually do respect work in any way shape or form and there’s nothing wrong with not being an entrepreneur. But, participating in that program for 10 weeks changed my perspective and made me dismiss stuff that I knew to be true.
And what the hell does this have to do with Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos or the price of tea in China? (It seems that my Southern proclivity for long stories has gotten the better of me.)
My point is, my fall from startup grace was definitely more like a slip and near fall because I don’t know if I had actually reached grace (as in “I’m pretty sure I definitely did not” reach grace), but that’s why the Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes headline floored me. I knew that if my brush with success and failure, however short-lived, knocked me down like that, I couldn’t imagine how Elizabeth felt.
I had ONE Inc. article. Inside. On page 57 or something. She had covers, And covers. And covers. Smackages was definitely small potatoes compared to Theranos. I felt for her because I remember that dark place and living there for years.
Years! Over small potatoes.
I remember the feeling that the worth of Smackages was inextricably tied to my worth as a person. And if I’m really being honest, it’s not such a distant memory.
I don’t know Elizabeth, so maybe she has a much better perspective on these things than I did, but if you’re a human and you work hard on something and you want to succeed and you experience some positive feedback by way of press, analysts, and peers telling you you’re clutch, it’s really easy for the valuation of your startup to become intertwined with your valuation of who you are as a person, and it’s bad.
Now, I also get the counter to this whole thing because I use it sometimes when someone who’s had some amount of privilege takes a tumble, “Don’t cry for them. They’ll bounce back. They’ll never have it too bad.” I totally see that, like “I was never given a worth of one even ONE billion in the first place, so the fact that now she’s normal like the rest of us isn’t cause for compassion. She’ll be fine.”
I get that. And, I agree, she will be fine, but I just hope she knows it.
Because when you’re working so closely on something, you give it so much of you that when things go sideways, you feel like your life has ended, or maybe even that it should end and that’s so far from the truth. You were a valuable person before you started the company and you’ve enhanced the lives of the folks who choose to be in your presence—family, friends, loved ones, mentors—even now as it’s all going sideways.
You have to remind yourself of those things, of those people, of the person you are without the company. Are you the one your family always looks to for comic relief? Are you the one your friends know has a guest room ready if they need it? Are you the one your mentors know that if they give you a problem to solve, you’ll give them 23 different solutions in return? Shift your focus to the value you brought before the valuation.
You created the company out of thin air, not the other way around.
Someone once told me that “If you do something sometimes, under the right circumstances, you can do it all the time.” And I think that’s true: You started a company once, so you can do it again!
Now, I’m still a work in progress. I still haven’t been back to Austin since 2010 even though I miss the mentors, I love the city and it’s pretty much right up the road from Dallas. I’m getting there, but I still worry about facing the mentors who invested in me, and thought I was awesome now that spoiler alert—I failed. What is that conversation? It makes me cringe, but I’m slowly crawling out of that and I hope Elizabeth does too.
And if you’re reading this Elizabeth, I hope you and I can grab a drink one day and have a “Cheers to the Fall.”
See you on the other side.