Startups Fail All The Time, But Many Could Fail Better By Thinking Beyond the VCs and Founders

According to the laws of aerodynamics a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but no one told it, so it does. This oft-repeated fact is, well, absolutely incorrect, but serves as a nice metaphor for ambitious startups. Probabilities suggest they should fail, but, hey, why not succeed? And experiencing an outlier company – as a founder, as a team member, as an investor – is an absolutely incomparable professional thrill. People love to tell these stories and share lessons learned. But what happens when startups fall short of these milestones. What happen when they fail?

Well, they shut down and that’s a natural part of the ecosystem we have in tech. Hopefully it was a ‘smart failure’ [good idea, interesting product, ambitious team], which isn’t less painful in the moment but does allow its participants to accrue some knowledge and relationships to increase the probability next time around. For a venture capitalist failure is part of our job in ways both abstract and material. You know that a portfolio will include a number of wonderful people who didn’t get to work on their company for as long as they hoped. And you try to change the odds for the companies you back – we describe Homebrew sometimes as a force multiplier which tries to increase the probability and velocity of your success – even if the combined best efforts don’t guarantee outcomes. So we put some work into those as well, helping the teams move forward.

Part of that is mechanical, and a few years back we published “Winding Down Your Company” as part of Homebrew’s resource library. But lately I’ve heard stories from friends of wind downs which fell short of some other considerations, so wanted to make a case for a few constituencies beyond founders and creditors/investors who are typically prioritized in these discussions. This isn’t a purity test – I’ve been a party to processes which fell short of these goals.

When a startup fails you should also care about:

A. Team. Duh. But beyond whatever can be done with cash on hand to provide a severance, or other softer benefits, a healthy wind down will accomplish two other goals: it’ll keep the employee interested in working at startups going forward, and second, it’ll preserve the relationship between the founders and their team. The former matters to me because we rely upon the crazy true believers who repeatedly want to work on early stage startups, and I don’t want to burn them. The latter matter to me as one of the final things we can do for CEOs – and I’m 10x more likely to push for this when it’s a leader who has sacrificed for the team repeatedly, operated the whole time in good faith, and so on. I want their reputation to be strengthened by how they handled the wind down.

B. SMB Accounts Payable. Goodness do I cringe when I read that some startup closed and screwed a bunch of small business owners who won’t be able to recover money owed to them. Startup risks pushed to populations who aren’t aware or prepared to take on those risks is a blind spot of our ‘software eats the world’ phase. Because of venture funding models startups are often able to push risk on to suppliers faster than say, a cash flow constrained customer might. I’m thinking about the examples of a “deliver meals to the office” business that flames out and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to suppliers. What also sucks is that you’re making it harder on the next startup which pitches those same SMBs if they’ve been burned multiple times before. There’s not a magic wand here but my hope is that we approach these issues ethically in addition to legally.

C. Patients aka Customers. I’ve written before about the specific care which needs to be given to patients of mental health, addiction recovery, and other health care startups. When your startup disappears those folks get kicked to the curb if there isn’t an orderly handoff to another provider and/or enough notice before service disruption.

I’ve got so much respect and admiration for the founders and teams who build companies. It’s a privilege and a joy to spend my days working in support of them. Since we intend to do it for the rest of our lives, it means I’ll be around failure for decades more. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, but just as we can Build Better, we can also Fail Better, which means accounting for the impact beyond the largest shareholders.