Co-founder Confessions: I almost let my failed startup destroy me

A heartfelt guest post from entrepreneur Rui Delgado, who reflects on how his recently failed startup, Pathfinder, had a negative impact on his health and life in general. A cautionary tale worth reading.
Co-founder Confessions: I almost let my failed startup destroy me

(Editor's note: this guest post by entrepreneur Rui Delgado was first published on Medium and re-published in its entirety here with permission, edited ever so slightly for readability.)

After struggling for a few years, my startup Pathfinder is closing its doors. But this article is not about our startup failure and the mistakes we made.

This is about the physical and health impact it had on me. I let my startup almost destroy me because I thought it was going to be worth it one day.

It wasn’t.

If you know who Peter Thiel is, you probably also know what most people referred as Thiel’s law: “A startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.”

That’s what happened to us. I wish I knew what I know now. Perhaps I should write another article about how we failed, if it’s useful for people.

I was under the impression I was supposed to sacrifice everything to make it work. I didn’t pay enough attention to my health and I let myself go. For me, the only important thing was my startup and nothing else.

The number of people I have encountered that think like I did is alarming. This is a warning for other entrepreneurs that might be going through the same, or if they think there would be time later to take care of themselves.

It Was Bad From Day 1

Since my co-founder and I decided to create Pathfinder, we were psyched and pumped by the infinite possibilities of what we could do and what we can achieve. We felt we had all the energy in the world, even if we didn’t have the experience or any idea or what the f**k we were doing.

That adrenaline you get when you’re building a startup made me push my limits. We knew it was a rough journey, and so I made it worse by forgetting to take care of my body, among other things you will read below.

You get caught up in that bootstrapping state of mind. You’re so pumped you don’t think or do anything else than your startup. You live, breathe and dream about it.

No weekends, no time off, you just work 24/7.

Also when you’re bootstrapping, you cut your expenses as much as possible to save up money, dedicate every penny to your startup, or like in most cases, you’re giving up your regular sources of income.

You start going back to the cheap fast food diet you had during your first year of college. You think it’s okay, that your body can take it, and besides, it’s only for a few months.

I was eating a lot of crap for the sake of not spending time hopelessly trying to cook (I’m terrible at it). I found junk food convenient because it was an already-made hot meal I could get for cheap.

My eating habits were and still are terrible.

It Got Worse With Time

It’s hard to break the cycle of eating poorly when you’re in a startup. I tried several times. The emotional roller coaster you go through as a founder could make you relapse in your down moments.

When you’re in a startup, there are far more downs than ups.

I became abusive of bad food choices as if it was an addiction. In my many days of sorrow, I tried to make myself feel better with fast food. In my good days, I wanted to treat myself with something ‘delicious’. It ended up being a more expensive version of the same sh*t I was eating before.

I did nothing but work. My mantra was “eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize.” I was not exercising, not giving my mind some rest, not eating right, no sleep and never unplugging.

And I was always tired. Even when I took some time off I didn’t really rest. But I didn’t care. I just wanted my startup to take off, and then we can talk about everything else.

I had a few episodes of stomach pains so severely that there was a time I was hospitalized for a night. I was so stubborn and stupid, that wasn’t enough of a wake-up call to make changes.

Now I’m sure those habits made it harder to succeed. Not that my startup failed because of this, but I’m sure I could’ve been better at it if I was in a better shape.

Skipping Through Life

I let this toxic mind set control my life. It also deprived me of precious life moments and people I would never get back.

You tell yourself “don’t worry, keep going! Don’t lose focus on your dream! You’ll enjoy the rewards when you succeed.” You’re wrong. I learned this on the hardest way possible.

I am originally from a beautiful Caribbean island where the Dominican Republic is, but I live in Spain. Even though I love the old España, its people and it’s the place I consider home since 2006, it really makes it complicated for immigrants to build companies here.

The struggle of being a startup founder is worse when you add the incredibly painful process of being an immigrant. But what it feels like to be a startup immigrant, the overcomplicated migration system here and the pain in Spain of being an entrepreneur are whole new subjects we can discuss in other articles.

Not only it’s been extremely hard for me to go through the Spanish migration process constantly, it seems like it never ends. In December 2012, I was not on top of it. I said to myself “It’s okay, I won’t be able to go home for Christmas, but I'll fly there later, even for a more extensive period.”

Yes, I rationalized it in my head. Tickets were very expensive anyway, I could use that time to work on some things and I was permitted to renew my resident card later on anyway.

I could do it later on and it’ll be fine. “Eyes on the prize, Rui, eyes on the prize.”

I WhatsApp-ed my father telling him I was not going home, but not to worry, I’d be there in a few months to spend really quality time with the family. He then responded that he was very sad I wasn’t going to be there. By then, it had been more than a year since the last time we saw each other.

My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. In 2012 it seemed he finally won that long battle but then it came back a few months later. It never occurred to me that it could’ve been fatal this time.

In January 2013, things got a turn for the worse. I tried to rush my papers to be able to fly home ASAP. Since it was during the holidays there was not much to be done to fix it.

And then it was too late. One evening my mom called me to tell me dad passed away.

We thought he had a few months. I thought I had time.

I didn’t see him and I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

I cheated myself out of more time with him thinking I could always do it later. Even if my startup would’ve succeeded, sacrificing that would’ve never been worth it.

Your Environment Affects You

After my father died and the excruciating guilt of not being there, I took my habit of abusing of fast food to a whole new level and gained even more weight.

I carried on with my startup and didn’t want to think about what was going on. And then, I got to spend some time in Silicon Valley and a few months in New York and that helped me get out of that mental funk.

It started when I flew to San Francisco for the Evernote Conference. It was a long journey and I arrived there pretty late at night. I took an Uber to the InterContinental Hotel, checked in and went directly to bed.

At 5AM, my eyes were already wide-open. In Spain the local time was 2PM so I couldn’t sleep any longer. I turned the TV on and wandered around my hotel room. I stood on a weight scale while I was checking my Instagram feed on my phone.

It was the first time in years I saw my weight in pounds instead of kilograms. It was 231 lbs. My first reaction was “this can’t be right.” I checked the scale, threw my phone to the bed, took out my pajamas and tried again: 230 lbs.

I googled how much it was in kilos and it was, in fact, the right number. I’ve been seeing it for months but never converted it to pounds because I preferred to stick with a measurement unit I didn’t quite understand.

I immediately put on my training clothes and went to the hotel’s gym to work out until the morning.

I had finally received my wake-up call.

After that, I spent a few months in New York, and over there it was easier to make smarter choices. There are better food options and when you’re tempted to eat junk, you see the calories right there on the menu. It forces you to think twice about it.

I was in a great environment. I fell in love with the startup NY community. I pushed General Assembly to let me use their co-working space. They did even though they were closing the service and were not accepting anybody new.

During that time I ended up losing 30 pounds. It was a combination of feeling good and productive, surrounding myself with great minds and being in a better headspace. I was happy.

My Upcoming 2015

Now I’m back in Madrid and it was only recently that I decided to close Pathfinder. We lost momentum, my co-founder had to leave and we were still fixing the platform that never took off.

Unfortunately, refusing to throw ib the towel made me fall into bad eating habits. Of course, not at the same level than before, but I was playing a dangerous game.

When I admitted to myself it was time to quit, I felt as if someone took a massive weight off my back. Even though it was awful to let people down, it was hurting all of us not to take that step.

I can’t go back to be the same abusive self because it won’t help my work and it’ll kill me. So I started this new year with the following promises to myself:

- Eat healthy. I have decided to start cooking my own meals. I finally understood it’s not rocket science and I shouldn’t rely on take-out.

- Lose weight. Fortunately, I have maintained the same weight since New York. But, I’m still way off my target.

- Exercise. I have never been a fan of fitness. I went out of my way in school to do my best to skip gym class and so on. Every time I sign up at the gym, I go for a month or so, and then forget about it.

- Start meditating. It’s been proven that meditating helps you to be more sharp, creative and healthier. Any suggestions you may have on how to start are more than welcome.

- Never miss out on life again. Losing my father and not spending enough time with him is my biggest regret. You can’t exchange money or success for it later on in life. Right now, I’m caught up renewing yet again my resident card. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that quickly so I can move around again.

And so my journey continues.

I’m going to start working on a new project soon and I’ll be able to put in practice everything I learned so far, from the advice of others to my own mistakes. This time around I feel more confident and better prepared than before, and most importantly, I won’t let take over my life like I did in the past.

Thank You

Reading about other founders’ failures, I ran into Nikki Durkin’s article and I loved she finished her article thanking the people involved in her journey. I need to say thanks to those who helped me go through it all:

To my mother — Even though you don’t understand exactly what I do and even if you don’t agree, you have offered me your support within your limitations. I love you.

To my failed startup — You were the most toxic relationship I have ever had in my life. But if I ever do anything that is worth something, it’s because of what I’ve learned from you.

To my startup co-founder — Thank you for your invaluable friendship and dedication to the dream we had until you couldn’t do it anymore. I wish you nothing but the best in life.

To everybody who used our platform — Thank you for trying us out and giving us the opportunity to have you as users.

To everybody who worked with us to develop the platform — From the people and companies we hired to the people who were willing to sacrifice their steady lives to join us. Thank you and I am sorry to disappoint you all.

To everybody who backed us financially — Thank you for the trust, the love and the support. Thank you for sharing our dream with us.

To my family in New York — Without your help letting me stay and feeding me during my prolonged stay, I wouldn’t have been able to live the most positive experience during this startup journey.

To the Madrid Startup Community — Thank you, fellow entrepreneurs, for keep having me as one of your own. Thank you Iñaki Ortega and Madrid Emprende for all the opportunities and support you gave my startup.

To Area 31 / IE Business School Entrepreneurship Program — You’re a key part of making the Spanish startup ecosystem better. Thank you Liz Fleming, Juanjo Güemes, Alberto Benbunan, Conchita and many others for believing in me, keep doing so and being great supporters.

To the good people of GA in New York — Thank you for letting me use your coworking for almost nothing when you were rejecting everybody because you were closing that chapter in your company. I’ve met the best people there and took advantage of every second of it.

To my startup heroes I’ve met — I’m sure it’s the same for many of us so thank you for taking the time to help others. Thank you Jack Dorsey for the beers in Seville. Thank you Alexis Ohanian for some great conversations. Thank you Phil Libin for the guidance and the motivation. And Michael Seibel, thanks to you I know how I should do it next time.

To Robert Scoble, Brad Feld, Nicole Glaros, Dan Martell and Gary Vaynerchuk — It’s very likely you have no recollection of interacting with me. When I reached out for guidance, feedback or signing up to my platform, you didn’t hesitate to engage. You are true examples of the “giving back to the community” attitude in the startup world.

To Syrus Akbary, Daniel Kheyfets, Guillermo Sención, Diana Zuluaga, Kyle Fiore and Ricardo Vázquez — Your support and advice helped tremendously to run this dream and take the best out of it.

To my friends — You gave me the moral boost to go through some hard times. Thank you for being there, even if I didn’t meet up, text or respond to your messages for months.

And to you — thank you for reading this 11-minute-long article.

Featured image credit: WhoAreYou / Shutterstock

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