What to do if your startup fails

by Jeremy Caplan
Aug 28, 2019 in Media Sustainability
Women at a desk looking at laptops

Most startups fail and few founders are prepared for the aftermath. Here are some steps to follow if you find yourself in this situation.

Reflect on what worked and what didn’t

After trying every which way to save your venture, you may finally be ready to put it to rest. After the initial period of denial, it’ll be time to move on. The period immediately following what feels like a failure can be emotional. You may feel ashamed, frustrated or disappointed. You may be angry at those who didn’t meet your expectations. You may just be embarrassed. 

When the rawest initial emotions have passed, take time to digest your learnings. The journey you’ve taken is likely rich with lessons. You’ll only fully absorb those if you set aside time for contemplation. 

When you have enough distance to set aside your emotions, try to make a clear-eyed assessment of what you could have done differently. Do it before the fog of time obscures your memory. 

Your next projects — whether entrepreneurial or not — will benefit from your analysis. Consider whether you’d like to try again with a new product or service. A majority of entrepreneurs who succeed do so with their second or third venture, not with their first.  

Look back at the decisions you made, the actions you took, and the content you created. Document for yourself some of your key takeaways. Note the things you’re proud of and the things that worked well. Be candid about what didn’t turn out as you anticipated. 

Reach out to your supporters

Talk with anyone who has supported you to update them on your startup journey and to thank them for their help. Let them hear directly from you about what happened with your venture. If you’ve gotten material support from others in the form of money or equipment or content, return whatever you can as quickly as you can. People may be disappointed in the result of your  entrepreneurial experiment, but they’ll respect your professionalism.

As you review your startup journey, solicit independent input from people you trust. To ensure that feedback is honest, invite people who followed the progress of your venture to provide anonymous input (through a Google form, for example) about what worked well and what went wrong. If a pattern of responses point to similar weaknesses, that’s a useful indication you’ve got  something specific to work on. 

Communicate with your community and the public 

Sometimes when we view something we’ve done as a failure, we’re inclined to hide it out of shame. But there are valuable lessons we can share with others. That can be a gift to your community. 

When you share observations about the entrepreneurial journey you’ve undertaken, you help people understand what you did, why you did it, and why it may not have worked out as you expected. That can help gain respect for the work you’ve done, even if the result wasn’t what you had envisioned. Letting community members speculate on what went wrong can lead to rumors or misplaced assumptions. 

Here’s a model of transparency in action. When Circa News — an app widely appreciated within the journalism startup community — shut down in 2015, CEO and co-founder Matt Galligan wrote a public post for Medium explaining what happened. Chief Content Officer David Cohn also shared his learnings publicly. 

Take time off

Go away. Take time to recharge and rebalance. Whatever you do next will benefit from a mental reset. Resilience is vital. Spend time with people you love. Visit a place that comforts you to restore your energy before diving ahead with your next projects.

Plant the seeds for your next work

Add the new skills and experience you’ve gained to your resume and to any professional networks you rely on, like LinkedIn. Reach out to professional contacts you respect. Schedule conversations focused on learning more about what they’re working on. Embark on a listening tour. Rather than dwelling on the fate of your own recent venture, focus on catching up with others. That opens up the possibility that something they’re working on might be of interest to you. It may also spark new ideas about what you can focus on next.

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This article is part of our Media Entrepreneurship Toolkit, which was launched with support from Civil. Check it out for more articles on how to launch a successful media startup. 

Jeremy Caplan is Director of Teaching and Learning at CUNY's Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. Visit Journalism2030.com for a free collection of his entrepreneurial journalism resources. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremycaplan or at jeremycaplan.com.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Daria Nepriakina