Recently I caught up with a colleague I have known in more than one of my work lives. Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson is an amazing entrepreneur, builder, creator and founder of The Shutdown among other things. We first met when I was a co-founder of IAmElemental, a line of female action figures I helped create (and am no longer part of) and she was a founder of RaceYa, an amazingly creative customizable toy car and STEM building company.
As we spoke, we talked about her work founding The Shutdown, and the uniquely scary, vulnerable and sad place it can be when you have to shut down or abandon something you created. I've had to do this twice in my career, and it still hurts when I think about each experience. I recently found an email I wrote at the end of 2017 shutting down the business entity that was my company VONK, and it brought up a number of thoughts about shutting down. . . . and starting back up again. In a large understatement which is the story of my life, "if I knew then what I know now," I would have saved myself a ton of heartache and self doubt and recrimination: Men, tequila, 90s fashion, having babies, starting companies - all of it. Okay, not all of it. Some of the men and 90s fashion deserve my side-eye.
The first time I shut down was due to a dramatic difference of vision, opinion and finances with my then co-founder. We had run a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, got lots of press, including TIME Magazine's Best Invention in 2014 and were able to successfully go from idea to reality. It remains one of my most satisfying professional accomplishments. When my journey with the company I helped create and give birth to ended, it was a hard stop to years of relentless and focused work, and also the end of a friendship. Partnerships are tricky and I learned a lot in that experience that has served me well in the future. Without it, I never would have gone on to do some other seriously cool things. Yet it is very, very hard to let go of something that at one point in your life is all-consuming - much like turning around one day and finding a teenager in your kitchen where once danced a five-year-old who scribbled endless "I love you Mom" pictures.
The second time I had to shut down was entirely different. We had a team of incredibly talented people. We had a kick-ass idea (a platform which was a way for kids to play in the real world using technology, in 2015-17 a lot of people thought it was nuts, hello 2020). We had raised money from friends, family and angel investors. We built tech. We pitched across the country (and yes, you can sweat through leather). We got some traction, we pivoted. We ran out of money. We kept going as long as we could. But people need to get paid eventually. At the end of 2017 we made the tough decision to close down the company. Below is an excerpt from the email I sent on the final day of dissolution to the investors:
It goes on. As Abigail will tell you if you need her services, there is a lot that goes into closing a business. What she will also tell you, and which she and I talked about recently, is how very hard and sad it is to lose people money. Very, very hard. We had raised money from seasoned angel investors, so I know they understood the risks, yet we also had friends and family investments. I lost real money from people I know, and who miraculously still speak to me. It breaks you apart from the inside out to fail at something so publicly. I felt like I had wasted the privilege of that time, money, talent and faith.
After the shut down though, comes the opening up. First you have to open back up to yourself, and that is probably the hardest part. Unpack the boxes of stuff you learned, sift through it all and decide what to keep and where you want to go next. In starting companies, you learn so very much, there needs to be a place for all of that to go. Starting something again feels both scarier and easier than it did the last two times. I have learned that the end isn't always the end: VONK was reborn this year thanks, in part, to the global pandemic (another kind of shut down altogether). Elizabeth encouraged us to take a look and unpack the cool stuff we made in creating VONK and we were able to use our time in quarantine to relaunch it as a free printable resource for parents and a way for kids to have creative play breaks and fun socially distanced video playdates.
Elizabeth and I also decided to use some of our special talents to help other dreamers, doers, side hustlers and small teams with big dreams. We launched TwoCents Riot this fall. There are two of us. Our two cents matters. We work with those who might not think of themselves as founders or entrepreneurs. We champion the underdog, the overlooked and the underestimated. Not everyone needs a billion dollar idea, but everyone should share the best they have to offer with others. The world definitely needs more good ideas.
If you have had a shut down of one type or another, I feel you. Believe me. It hurts like hell and will absolutely be part of your narrative going forward. Here's the thing though: You get to decide what part in your personal story the shut down will take. Is it a turning point towards a new path, a door to the opening up? Or is it a turning away from the starting, back to the safety of what you knew before? I vote for the something new. Take your shut down and mourn it. Acknowledge it and make it part of your going-forward story. Use all you learned in the experience to make the next thing you create, build and try be even better. You don't have to do it alone. The only way to start is to begin.
There is a great NPR article on Abigail's work with The Shutdown here.
*Grokit was the name of the LLC behind the VONK business. We kept the name VONK just in case, which turned out to be a good idea. During the global shutdown, we relaunched VONK and found a way to offer a lot of the great content for free. Find us online at playvonk.com