TROUGH OF SORROW: The period in a founder’s journey where everything looks like failure and victory is nowhere in sight.
You’re an entrepreneur because, like thousands of others, you’ve been told stories of men and women who have changed the world against all odds. You dream of building a product and/or service that will add real value to our society, and are tired of inaction. You’ve been told that if you work tirelessly to accomplish your vision for a better future, that you truly can change the world like your idols before you. Inspired to action, you’ve built up a team that shares your vision and begun the work, only to get slapped in the face by the painful truth of reality. Welcome to the trough of sorrow.
“When you’re dying, you’re not thinking, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ You’re thinking, ‘How do I not die?’” – Brian Chesky
The journey I’ve described is one that almost every successful entrepreneur has faced. A true founder recognizes starting a business is an emotional journey with intense lows and the potential for extreme highs. As a student entrepreneur, I have put over two years and thousands of hours into my startup. I’ve experienced small successes and great failures. Our team has experienced the trough of sorrow on numerous occasions, and each time we almost died, only to pick ourselves back up.
When we first launched our app Hashtaggy to the University of Utah back in the fall of 2015, it seemed like there was no one in the world that cared about us. We spent the entire summer building what we hoped would be the cure to loneliness and depression on college campuses. There were students that tried to use it, sure, but the product was buggy, ugly and incomplete. We felt like failures, and in a sense, we were. It took a small group of our users telling us that this was a product that they truly needed in their life to convince us to keep going, and even then, we were doubtful.
Each time we’ve failed, I took it very personally. I was paralyzed with fear, overcome with doubt and devoid of a sense of purpose. What did I do wrong? Am I not good enough? What am I missing? In times where our team needed a leader, I couldn’t always do it. We all had to lean on each other and the people around us to get through it, but the important part is that we did get through it.
It would be easy to call us crazy and to say that we should have quit a long time ago. During a trough of sorrow, you look around and only see failure, and everyone you trust may be telling you to move on. But each time we have picked ourselves back up and continued the fight, trusting only in ourselves and our core values, we have accomplished great things. Each time we emerge through the pain with better ideas, breakthroughs and outcomes. No, we haven’t made millions of dollars, but we have changed the lives of not just ourselves, but our most loyal customers. That’s what keeps us going.
“If you set your goals ridiculously high, and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.” – James Cameron
Ryan Holiday once said, “never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” Had we let go completely, we never would have learned how to build a complex product from scratch, design a user-friendly experience, reach tens of thousands of potential customers, prepare annual financial statements, raise over $40,000 and more. We’d have been stuck in the past, rather than looking forward into the future.
Ninety percent of startups fail, which is a hard statistic to hear. The little-known secret, however, is that the number one underlying cause of startup death is that startup founders become demoralized (Paul Graham). Don’t give into the despair. Take some time to yourself and have some fun. Remain confident in your team, your vision and yourself. If you play your cards right, and patiently take on each battle as they come, you will emerge victorious.
No, we don’t have all the answers. We’re a bunch of poor college students trying to figure it out, just like everyone else. But if I’m sure about one thing, it’s that each time I have put my pride aside and kept pushing forwards, good things have come from it. Eventually there may come a time where we have no choice but to call it quits. That said, if your gut is nudging at you to keep going, that day is not today. If this is something you, your team and your loyal customers believe can truly help better the lives of others, keep fighting.
Starting a business is hard, especially as a student with lots of other responsibilities. But in the wise words of Dory the fish, “When life gets you down, do you know what you’ve gotta do? Just. Keep. Swimming.”