game over for Win the Planet

we have a saying in Romania that goes like “ori la bal ori la spital”, translated as “either to the ball or to the hospital”. i’ve always used it to describe to myself and to others the entrepreneurial path i’ve decided to walk. the reason i love it is because it describes perfectly the type of mentality one needs to have in order to take the amount of risk involved, to work and hope for brilliant success but stay prepared none the less for utter failure.

for a bit of perspective, my startup adventure with Win the Planet began three years ago out of a random conversation about having an online global lottery that invests all the profits in sustainability projects. it was a highly idealistic concept derived from the optimistic, and sometimes downright naive, mindset that followed my AIESEC experience in the Dominican Republic. i tried putting together a team to deliver on this idea, but it was soon evident that we all had different things occupying our time and consuming our energies. i persevered none the less, moonlighting on it along with my full time job; during this time i started to have this strong feeling that i could not really work in a team where decisions were taken based on consensus; if i were to be part of something, to really believe in it and dedicate myself fully to it, things had to, needed to, be done my way.

after about one year it became evident to us that lotteries in particular and gambling in general were a highly regulated and almost impossible market to get into as a bootstrapped startup, especially if you wanted to do things online. we tried to “soften” the concept and do raffles instead of lotteries, but those too proved to be a strongly protected market, especially in Europe. i had two lovely ladies who more or less continued to believe in the vision and worked with me throughout this period. at that point i realized that it’s very hard, if not downright impossible, for most people to believe in your idea as much as you do and to thus work on it as hard as you do.

then, i decided that Win the Planet will do a “pivot”, a BS word in the startup world that basically means you are changing the startup idea. this is how we moved into the social “gaming for good” market, a change that cost me the support of the two lovely ladies i mentioned earlier, who slowly started drifting away. needing an experienced technical person to help me on the programming side, i convinced Javier to become my co-founder; it was March 2011 and we were highly motivated. both of us still needed to keep jobs that paid the bills, so we were working part time on Win the Planet. out of a random conversation with a friend came up the first game idea, which Javier implemented a few weeks later: it was ugly, with a clumsy interface and a quite difficult (but slightly fun) gameplay. the summer came and went, and towards autumn i became very focused on getting some investment capital for Win the Planet. i applied to the top incubators and startup accelerators, but none of them selected us. at the same time, i decided to take the bull by the horns and quit my corporate job. 2011 taught me that working part time on a startup for too long can cripple the team.

the beginning of 2012 was a very interesting time for me, but not very productive for Win the Planet. Javier was mostly focusing on finishing his Masters studies, while i decided to get involved part time in helping out projects at The Hub Vienna. while working with the people there i realized that, even though i might like the concept of “consulting” in the sense of working for a predetermined amount of time and with set objectives, i am an absolute control freak who doesn’t really care that much about other people’s opinions. this experience also cemented my belief that taking decisions by committee is the surest way to failure; being an autocratic asshole that does everything his way might not be a comfortable manner of working for most people, but it sure beats the flaky, political gaming and passing around of responsibility that you get when using a “democratic” process to manage your team. and i also learned in a painful way that one needs to always ask for some downpayment when working project-based, before one puts in significant amounts of work; otherwise, if things go downhill (and they usually do) people suddenly forget their promises, along with the value of your work.

during spring i continued to apply to incubators, with the constant refusals which i came to expect by now, stemming partly from the fact that i always had to mention in applications that Javier will not be able to join the startup full time until the summer, when he would have finished his Masters studies; as you can imagine, not having the founders work full time on their startup is something that no incubator wants to hear. none the less we kept at it, applying even to Startup Chile, the very last option we had on the list. and guess what? we got in! it meant that we would get a guaranteed amount of seed money in return for which both myself and Javier needed to be in Chile for six months, from August 2012 to February 2013. in parallel, i was also trying to find an angel investor in Europe; thanks to the help of a few great girls and guys in The Hub, i managed to get a quite sizable offer from one of the top angel investors in Austria, valuing Win the Planet at several million dollars. but, as luck would have it, at the exact same time when discussing with this Austrian investor, i also took a trip to Silicon Valley. that experience made me see much clearly our potential as a startup, along with the jarring differences between the European and the American startup scenes and investor mentalities. with that in mind, and also due to restrictive share ownership requirements from our potential investor which we believed would have severely limited our ability to raise money later on in Silicon Valley, we decided to respectfully refuse the money. the potential investor was quite understanding of our decision, and we parted ways in the friendliest of manners, along with the mention that his offer was still valid should we change our minds later on.

at this point both me and Javier were highly motivated (they don’t call it the startup roller-coaster for nothing), with enough seed money guaranteed from Startup Chile to take us through the next months and a multimillion dollar valuation for our startup to help us raise money later on. we hired two of Javier’s friends as software developers, moved to Santiago and started working properly. and that’s when things really started to go downhill: everything was much more challenging that we initially thought, due to the guys needing to learn the new tools we were going to use, along with their difficulty of adapting to the productivity requirements of a startup. the game we spent two months developing turned out to be very hard for people to play (it seems that my notion of “casual gameplay” was not as casual as i thought) and the website we made was quite ugly (mainly because we decided to implement my crappy ideas instead of paying for an experienced designer). overall we kept missing the timelines we set for ourselves, and we weren’t really gelling as a team either. 

as 2012 came to an end, it began to dawn on both myself and Javier that it might not make any sense to continue. one needs to make a clear distinction between the inherent valleys in motivation, what Seth Godin calls “the dip”, and the chasms of real failure. i understood that perseverance is a good thing in certain doses, but taken too far it becomes a one way road to perdition. and to spend yet another year working on something that clearly does not work would be exactly that.

on the sentimental side though, i’ve put my blood, sweat and tears in Win the Planet. for the past three years it was a huge part of my life, it was the thing in the back of my mind from the time i woke up in the morning to the time i went to sleep at night, at the end of countless 16 hours working days. it constituted one of the very few reasons for pushing forward, and it offered me huge motivational highs and constant demoralizing lows. the most important is that i loved what i was doing: all the obstacles, the frustrations, the failures, they were all justified by the fact that it was my thing, done my way and according to my rules. so you might understand why it broke my heart to seriously consider doing something that i’ve rarely done in my life: quit. 

but the voice of reason had become too strong to ignore, and as such we decided to shut the whole thing down.

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how do i feel about it?

at first i was disappointed with myself. i kept trying to explain it all, to find the reason why i failed, why we failed. then i began to accept this outcome for what it is: just another step on a long and difficult journey. i know that i’m the main person to blame for this failure and i assume complete responsibility. but i also know that at least half of every success or failure is pure randomness, and that knowledge helped in mellowing a bit the pangs of remorse.

today, one month later, i feel relieved that this whole episode of my life has ended and i look very much towards the future. what’s done is done, i cannot change the past, and even if i could i most likely wouldn’t do it because i don’t have any regrets: everything i said and did, every decision i made and every risk i took was with full knowledge that we might all end up in the proverbial “hospital” i mentioned earlier. as the brits say, all one can do is keep calm and carry on.

but, before the final dot is placed and the story comes to an end, i want to take a few moments to acknowledge you my dear reader, along with those who stood by me during this period.

some of you were there all the way, from beginning to end, through the highs and lows. you know who you are and you know that i love you.

some of you were there at certain times, helping out to the best of your abilities. as i’ve said it then, i say it now: thank you for believing in me and for all the efforts you put in Win the Planet.

and most of you were only silent observers, supportive or not. to you i say that success and failure are but two sides of a coin called life. it matters a lot which side you’re faced with, but it’s much more important to simply throw it in the air and hope for the best. only in those moments, in those few seconds when winning and loosing are equally probable, will you feel truly alive.