A Founder’s Low
It’s been an interesting few weeks. Since my previous post on our startup journey, the co-founder became overwhelmed by the fast-paced and various demands from both the incubator and interested parties.
My fearful, repetitive reminders that this work is not like the startups with spacious offices and free snacks, this work is that startup before the startup everyone knows were received but not understood.
Midway through the incubator program, I decided to test the waters with another potential co-founder candidate. I was unsure whether they were aware that the work was not a side-project but a real hustle.
This mission is vital to me as I tried to devise ways to tackle it over the years. With more experience and a new perspective, now is the time to continue learning and delivering. The challenge is identifying those who not only align with the mission but also the grind.
Unaligned, unfocused, and feeling unsupported, I dropped out of the incubator program to recenter and focus on product validation and development. I needed less time spent on co-founder auditions and distracting deliverables and more time speaking to people and translating that information into a digital experience.
I primarily sought detailed advice from underrepresented investors, entrepreneurs, and experts, especially for what I am building. The feedback I generally received from White investors or experts is that what’s out there already works or a post seeking a Black founder or another underrepresented group could be solved by a simple Tweet requesting one.
Unsurprised by the response but shocked by the delivery, I wanted to respond with, “well then, why do the numbers look the way they do?” When lifting the hood, the narrative around progress for underrepresented founders in the startup space is a facade.
I had the honor of speaking with the amazing Waverly Deutsch and learning even more about both the challenges that remain in this space and the lack of data collection, especially when it comes to intersectional experiences.
I had annoyingly danced around my question about data on disabled founders and carefully trodded when she remarked that investors know when a founder is hiding something. After responding to my questions, I was ashamed to admit that there wasn’t something I was hiding but someone; that someone is me.
I am thrice an investor’s idea of an undesirable. I am a Black woman with a challenging disease and overlapping illnesses classified as a disability. Currently, founders like me don’t nor shouldn’t exist. This space, like many others, is not designed for anyone other than the model abled-entrepreneur.
Throughout the new pathway of defaulting to contractors, I continued to transparently update the investors and advisors who opened their doors to meeting with me weekly. They continue to give me the type of incubation most helpful to me.
They’re honest with feedback, and they make recommendations or introductions to subject matter experts, learning, or community resources. I’ve learned more from a range of them in two weeks than I did in the several weeks enrolled in the incubator. I don’t regret my experience at the incubator as I’m learning more about myself and what I need to grow as a leader of this mission. Life is not well-lived if for not having failed forward into success.
At the moment, I’m meeting with people I never thought I’d ever meet, getting involved in ways I never thought I’d get involved, and being encouraged to work in ways that work best for me and my productivity.
I also have an opportunity to partner with another mission-aligned venture in the works and help build out that product. Still, the current experience I’ve been working to build takes priority, as, with the limited resources I have and the focus I require, the existing mission is all I can handle at the moment.
I’m determined to solve a problem I’m familiar with from various angles and am currently experiencing. So determined, I am willing to put up as much as I financially can to keep building. I am not wealthy; I live in gentrifying Brooklyn and spend most of my money on healthcare and physical upkeep to keep my illness as invisible as possible.
However, bootstrapping is tough, and I received feedback from another advisor that when an investor asks how much I am willing to put up to keep the startup going, I ought to revise my response from “as much as I’m financially able” to “everything.”
I was immediately brought back to entrepreneurs in my network who were unsuccessfully raising funds and the lack of support they received — even from myself. They always asked me when a hefty medical bill made its way to me; the timing was never right for me but always right for them.
Those in my network who didn’t identify as an underrepresented founder or were somehow privileged were making progress. Granted, I am peeking in from the outside. They do a hell of a good job taunting entrepreneurial success and hiding what’s really going on behind the scenes — whether it be the ease of leveraging their privilege to gain access or making sacrifices about which they don’t want others to know.
However, the entrepreneurs I knew and interviewed were trapped in a cycle of pivots and validation, hoping someone would be ready to write them a check or to mentor them closer to one. Would I end up trapped in this Asphodel Meadows — lost between a dream and a reality? If we aren’t invited to the party for populars and unicorns, how do we continue to push for success?
I decided to plan a party — okay, not an actual physical party, but something like a party. I continue to call it Cowrie, given the cultural significance for me and soon others.
The goal for planning this party is to focus on quality attendees and not quantity. I like the feedback I received for embracing not being the first but the last one standing, and who doesn’t like a good fete running well into the morning hours?
What are we celebrating? We’re celebrating the unseen, the undesirables, the overlooked, the underestimated, the unmolded, the unrefined, the non-traditional, and the irregulars. And because we know how exclusivity feels from the outside, everyone intentional about celebrating and uplifting us is invited.
Be on the lookout for an invitation.