5
min

Life after Death (of a Business)

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MelanieBell

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The day Squiggle failed, I went to a hotel. For five days, I laid in bed. I didn’t sleep or bathe. I didn’t eat, but I drank. On the sixth day, I dragged myself to the shower, trying to scald failure off my skin. I brushed and dried my hair and got dressed. I checked out of the hotel and drove home to my husband and kids.

Starting the day my business died, I ignored fellow entrepreneurs and work friends. I didn’t go to a single event – events are a big deal in this world. I caught up on family time. I burned maybe 100 meals. I felt guilty for enjoying the privilege of regrouping. My coach told me to focus on being rather than doing. I set myself a deadline to feel better, do more, figure things out. The deadline slipped a few times.

One day, I picked up Mathilda from school with the other two in tow. I remembered feeling proud that I was a female entrepreneur with three kids under ten even though I hadn’t done a great job at the whole balance thing. During the Squiggle years, I convinced myself I didn’t have time to pick Mathilda up from school or cook dinner during the week.

After we got home, I checked my email. Sitting in my inbox was a name I never wanted to see or hear: Quinn. Quinn became, essentially through self-appointment, the leader of our startup community despite having neither run a startup nor investing in any. I think she was part of something right after college with some roommates and sold the company a year later. Nobody knew if she had made any money from it. She took that experience and built a platform for herself. When she goes to events, she doesn’t wear a name tag. You’re supposed to know who she is. She’s young, ambitious, smart – and conniving and deceitful. She’s the one responsible for Squiggle failing.

Her email read:

“Hey Sam,
We’re organizing a panel about striking leadership/life balance as a woman in tech. Event is in 2 weeks. The other panelists suggested we add you to the lineup. Understand if you’re not up for it. Let me know if you’d like to attend though, and I’ll comp your ticket.
Quinn”

No mention of anything that had happened.

That night, I cremated a lasagna. While we ate grilled cheese, I told Ryan about Quinn’s email and said I wasn’t interested.

“Sammie, in the last six months, have you thought about all of the awesome things you did accomplish with Squiggle?”

“What does it matter? The business failed, and nothing will change that. She’s the reason we went under.”

“Sammie, you ran Squiggle for five years. Some of those years were strong. Some weren’t. Quinn threw you under the bus, but the company was already in trouble when it happened.”

“Ryan!”

“Look, what she did wasn’t right. But I imagine that you’ve been mulling it all over. People need to hear what you have to say. You need to do this.”

I sulked the rest of the night. Even though it was a lukewarm invitation, and from my nemesis, I considered Ryan’s point.

I waited until the next morning to reply, liking the idea of Quinn sweating it. But I couldn’t click the send button to accept her invitation, so I never replied.

On the day of the panel, with Mathilda at school and the other two at daycare, I found myself driving to the event without thinking. I parked in one of the two free spots. I wandered into the trendy but dingy building and down the long hallway decorated with prints of popular adages from social media — quirky and humorous, but so ubiquitous that they had lost their charm.

I slipped by the registration table manned by college interns. Rows of bright blue plastic chairs lined the room. I sat towards the back and kept my head down, pretending to be busy on my phone. A few minutes later, someone sat down and gently leaned against my arm. It was my friend, Wendy, CTO of another startup. Wendy always looked ravishing but exhausted.

I started to say hello, but instead, I put my head in my hands and my elbows on my knees and wept. She sat silently, patiently. After a few minutes, I managed to say hello. She laughed at how miserable I looked.

“Sam, it’s so good to see you,” she said, though Wendy doesn’t say things so much as croon them.

“Thanks. You too. Sorry I’ve been MIA.”

“I don’t know what I would have done if it were me.”

“It’s been rough.”

“When I heard you weren’t going to be on the panel, I assumed you wouldn’t be here.”

“How did you know? Oh, are you on the panel?”

“Yeah. With Zoe and Adele. You know, you never told me what happened with Squiggle. You don’t have to, but you’re always welcome to talk to me.”

She walked to the front of the room where I saw Quinn, who acted as if she didn’t see me. I returned to my phone, avoiding other attendees who were practicing badly learned social skills and pretending to offer friendship, mentorship, and connection.

It was a room of sweaty, tired people trying to prove that they were the most committed. Everyone wore one of three outfits and was having one of six conversations, not interesting enough to warrant description. They were the same outfits worn and conversations had at every event. Developers drank beer. Founders and investors drank cocktails. Drinks are always served at these things.

People began to sit down, and latecomers would later fill the seats left empty between groups. I started to feel sticky, so I pulled my hair into a ponytail.

Quinn introduced the panelists. She stood calmly; her voice never quivered. She spent five minutes talking about her experience and how she balanced her leadership and life demands. Mainly, Quinn strung together trite axioms about hard work and commitment. It felt like fifteen minutes.

Then, she asked the panelists easy questions: why did you start your company, what have been the biggest challenges you’ve overcome, how have you personally navigated the leadership/family balance dilemma. I screamed contrarian answers in my head. Eventually Quinn asked slightly more interesting questions, but nothing riveting despite what the three impressive women could have shared.

They moved to Q&A. She deftly joked with the audience as she moved from one question to another. The fifth person she called on was Peter, a life coach, who spoke to make sure he was seen and heard.

“First, I’m so impressed with each of you ladies. I’ve gotten to watch your progress over the years, and you all have a lot to teach the rest of us! I’d like to hear more about your fears and how they perhaps led you to some mistakes, perhaps some failures, and what you’ve learned. Thank you.” He sat down. Don’t be fooled by his fake humility.

Before anyone else could respond, Zoe said, “actually, Sam, who was the founder of Squiggle, was supposed to be on this panel. Since she’s here, I think we should ask her to speak on this... Not that any of us want to be called out for our failures, but Sam probably has some of the best insights.”

I knew Zoe well enough to understand that she wasn’t insulting me — she was pushing me to get over it. The crowd squirmed in their blue chairs.

“Sam does have lots of great experience to share. I also want to make sure we respect that people came to see you and Wendy and Adele, so let’s have Sam back another time,” Quinn said.

“Quinn, if the panelists think they could learn something from her, people who want to learn from us can learn from her as well.”

After a long pause, Quinn said, “All right. If she wants.”

Quinn looked straight at me. I wanted to stay still and silent as prey to a known predator, but my body floated up, walked to the front of the room, and stood at the mic. “Hi, I’m Sam. I ran a company called Squiggle, but it failed.”

I continued what was essentially my eulogy to Squiggle. When I finished, I walked out to my car and off to pick up my kids. I was attempting Moroccan chicken that night, and that was enough of a challenge for one day.

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