What, exactly, do we mean by success in a startup, anyway?
Once upon a time, I thought this question had a clear-cut answer. A startup is a business, I reasoned–therefore, if it’s a successful business, by definition it’s a successful startup. Business makes money, grows, gets sold, goes public, any of these things means it’s a good business and therefore a successful startup. Business can’t make money, shuts down, then that means it’s a bad business, and therefore a failed startup.
This was before I actually went to go work in startups. Once there, I began to see human stories play out that cast doubt on my definition, that made things gray and fuzzy. What about the founder who sold their company and became a millionaire, but lost one of their best friends in the process?What about the founder whose business shut down, but made sure his team was taken care of all the way to the end? What about that founder who was wildly successful, became a billionaire, but whose marriage and family had fallen apart? What about the founder who was endlessly pivoting, who seemed to always be working on the next idea but whose team somehow always seemed to still believe in them?
Which of these founders, I would ask myself, do I admire? Which of them do I aspire to be? And because I would find myself attracted to some of the founders who people said had “failed”, and felt no desire to be like some of the founders who people said had “succeeded”, I would think: What’s wrong with me?
Now, I think that too often we accept what others define to be success and failure as the right definitions for us, without considering what we would define them to be ourselves; I certainly think this is what I did. So here’s my thesis: Every founder, before embarking on a startup, should consider their personal definition of success.
Now hear me out, this isn’t just a philosophical exercise, it’s for your future sanity and well being. It’s no secret that founders can end up with extraordinarily deep emotional bonds to their startups–just think of all the founders who call their companies their “babies”–and in their eyes, the trajectories of their startup ends up having implications for their identities as human beings, and their worth as individuals, and all sorts of complicated and messy things. Odds are, whether your startup “succeeds” or “fails” will make you feel like a god, or, alternately, the most worthless person on earth. Given that, it seems incredulous, then, that as founders we put so little thought into asking, “What exactly does this word ‘success’ mean to me, this word that holds so much sway over my future happiness?” before we sit down and buckle ourselves into that emotional rollercoaster ride.
The turning point for me was one day when I considered a founder who sold their startup and became a millionaire, but whose team collectively refused to work with them ever again. Despite the objective success of the business venture, and despite my previous definition of success, I just couldn’t bring myself to aspire to that. I learned that in my personal definition, success means that my stakeholders, including my employees, investors, and family, would work with me again, more than it means that the business has to succeed, as strange as that may sound. And if my business were to fail but an investor says, “Sorry it didn’t work out–let’s talk about your next idea when you’re ready,” or a teammate says she hopes we’ll work together again someday… I would actually count that as a win.
Learning this about myself has helped me bring some clarity to what I want out of my career, but I know there’s a lot more evolving to be done. As we get ready to graduate and embark on our separate journeys, I hope I’ll keep asking myself: What do I mean by success?
Amelia Lin is working on Hollyberry, a community of women discovering, sharing, and supporting great new products.