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Why I Quit My Startup — The Struggle between Internal and External Validation

The journal that changed my life

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” — Mark Twain

Why are you doing what you’re doing? Working on that project? Pursuing that venture? Why are you at that job? Is it for you, is it because you have fallen in love with the problem you are solving, because you have a burning desire to roll out a solution for it, because you’ve fallen in love with the process?…or is it to achieve some level of recognition and society driven success? Ask yourself these questions, and ask them often, because what we can sometimes realize is that we’re being driven by the applause from outside, and not the fire inside. It’s a sneaky trap, and I can tell you this because I fell for it for a while, and forgot in the process the most important of validations: my own.

It’s been a month now since I stepped away from my food waste prevention startup, and as hard as it was to do it, the process of letting go has been an incredible learning experience and one I’m convinced was the right decision. I know this because I realized I had decided to stay on it for so long out of fear rather than love, and that when I left it was a decision that came from love not fear. How do I know this? Because once decided, my heart felt at peace, not relieved, or anxious, but aligned once more.

How I Got Into This

The adventure had started at a university hackathon . My partner and I were working on other ideas at the time, and as two business students we decided we needed to understand how to collaborate with engineers. We got down to business and used our startup and design thinking experience to ideate and prototype the app — to our surprise we won two of the tracks — we had learned to hack a hackathon with a startup mindset. More than that everyone at the hackathon AKA our target users, absolutely loved the concept and kept asking if we were going to launch it for real. With such an overwhelming reaction, we really began to consider it.

Artwork by Heitor Magno

In 2016 I had gone through what I like to call a “quarter-life crisis”, as I realized 3 years into my college career, the path I had been pursuing in digital marketing was not one I was interested in, and so for the first time in my life I found myself with no sense of direction. Through writing and self-reflection I rediscovered my childhood passion for solving the problem of equitable access to quality learning, and came back fueled to pursue it — at the moment of the hackathon one of the ideas we had been working on was in the EdTech space.

When thinking whether to pursue the hackathon idea seriously or not, I knew I was more passionate about the other ideas we had been working on, but the user enthusiasm was so contagious I decided it was a good idea to go with it, and that I could always come back to education later. There were three mistaken assumptions I made here:

  1. Listening to the external voices of validation, rather than my own internal voice.
  2. Not Asking For Advice/Help
  3. Thinking I could do this without passion — that is the fuel that will keep you running through any venture

External Vs. Internal Voices

As time progressed, my internal voice kept getting louder and louder, but so did the external validation. We won more competitions, and got more press; my parents, peers and professors kept expressing how proud they were of me for pursuing this. The more validation that came from my environment, the more I silenced the voice inside me. SPOILER ALERT: This is highly unsustainable.

At Collision Tech Conference where we got interest from investors and accelerators

I began to grow more and more frustrated with our startup and our idea; I felt it trapped me, and found myself getting annoyed at my co-founder for no valid reason. What I didn’t realize is that I had built my own cage, and pushed myself into it. I had continuously imprisoned myself when I silenced my inner voice; I had created my own frustration, all for not listening to my heart and to my gut. I would always prefer working on other projects rather than this one and I would stop thinking about it the moment we were out of the “scheduled work time.” Nevertheless I ignored all the signs, convinced I could make it work.

Regardless of the growing frustration, I wouldn’t give it up. Now realize I was scared of losing all that validation. I was scared of tarnishing my friendship with my co-founder, I was scared of being considered a quitter. What I didn’t see is that all the time I spent ignoring my passion, I was also quitting it. I knew of many entrepreneurs that had quit a startup just because they were not passionate about it, Instacart’s CEO being a prime example, but how did they know it was the right thing to do? Wasn’t one of the traits of a good entrepreneur to persevere?

Help? Who Needs Help?

Another mistake I made, and one that many of us make, is that through all this I didn’t ask for help. I shamed myself into speaking to nobody about the thoughts that went through my head for fear of judgment, and most importantly for fear of disappointment. Once again, I was acting from fear, and not love.

How often though, do we not stick to things, keep things, and harm ourselves in order to not disappoint those we hold in highest regard? We fail to understand that those that truly care for us do not care for some societal standard of success — they’re usually much wiser than that — what they care for the most is our happiness. Moreover, it is likely that these more experienced people, have gone through similar situations, or can at least offer an objective perspective. In seeking to be perfect in their eyes, we hide our weaknesses, yet it is in our vulnerability, and ability to ask for help and advice in these moments where we will find our strength. I eventually did ask my mentors for advice, but I should have done it so much sooner.

A Car Can’t Go Far Without Fuel, You Won’t Go Far Without Passion

Hult Prize San Francisco Regionals with an outstanding team of students

It was not until I got to spend the weekend at the San Francisco Hult Prize Regionals, with a team of students I helped prepare, that I realized how much life that environment gave me. My complexion, my energy, my level of happiness, were on a completely different level during those days and it hit me — it really did…what was I doing spending my time doing anything else, when I could be harnessing the energy I exude in that space to create amazing things for this world. Passion, like I said, is a fuel that you need for any venture, and my passion was clear as water. A fancy title like “co-founder” can sound really good, but if you don’t really care about your product, it’s nothing but suffocating.

My co-founder saw all this too, she had seen my frustration escalate, and after a very honest and open conversation she let me know first, how silly I was to think our friendship would be tarnished, and second, that she understood, and thought too that I should pursue my passion. Once it was done I felt a feeling of peace, and this I tell you to pay attention to. It was not relief, for relief I feel when I feel like I don’t have to be scared anymore, so it comes from fear. Look for a feeling of peace, because peace means you are centered in a place of love. I was finally loving my inner voice again, and my body could feel it.

The Next Step

So what next? How exactly am I jumping into the education space? I don’t know exactly, but I’m working on a couple things:

  1. The construction company I’m working in to help scale has the social mission of educating foster children and the homeless to grow into a position in construction by developing both the critical thinking soft skills, as well as the construction hard skills.
  2. I want to study neuroscience to understand how the brain learns, so I’m designing a research project while I’m at this company to explore either how to teach new habits, and motivate for learning when the more urgent matters seem to always take precedence…very similar I believe to how in low income communities the daily needs of food and safety take precedence of the very learning that can provide that food and safety in the long run, or how to structure a company modeled after the brain structure.
  3. I have some ideas for self-sustainable educational programs that I’m exploring how to test.

And do not think I regret in the slightest the time spent on my startup, as so many beautiful experiences, learnings, and people came into my life because of it. I jumped in, I took action and tried something new, and for that I am incredibly proud. As the book Designing Your Life teaches, I prototyped and tested, and realized I wasn’t happy with the product, so time for a new prototype. I can be ok with that now, because at least I explored and gave it a try.

I’m happy to say the venture also won’t stop. It comforts me to know that my co-founder is continuing to pour her heart into it, and will do great things with it. In fact, you can check it out here!

I don’t know where any of these adventures will end up, but this time I feel myself really enjoying the road. So if there is one thing you learn out of this, please remember, always question why you are doing things, and if it is to meet some societal standard, know that in the long run it won’t give you the happiness you seek. Let the voice from within be your guide, all the answers you seek are there.

Always, always start with your Why