How do you keep going? When your startup isn't growing as fast as you expected...

It’s absolutely the hardest thing I have done in my life. It might say more about my pretty sorrowless existence until now, but it’s certainly not easy either. Building our company from scratch.

Rogier and I founded Embrosa on May 12th of 2016. At that time, Rogier just left his job for a six month sabbatical. We figured that in six months time, we could build Embrosa from scratch and make money with it. Good money. Enough to support our two families. Truth be told, I could already see myself driving the vintage Maserati that I so deeply want as my ‘company car’.

When writing this blogpost, it’s Spring of 2019. Three years later. And just this month, our paycheck grew to 1000 euro a month. Not nearly enough to support our families. Not nearly as much as we were both bringing home from our previous jobs or businesses. And certainly not as much as we both would make if we were to work in somebody else’s company. So how do we do it? Why do we keep doing it? And how do we keep going?

Learn to spend less and enjoy more

Quitting our jobs and previous companies basically meant we lost our salaries. In both Rogier’s and my own situation, our families’ income was cut in half. Right at the beginning, we made each other a promise: as long as our families would not get into trouble, we would be alright. We knew that our dream would evaporate if one of us got evicted or went bankrupt. So how could we prevent this from happening?

We both had to adjust our standard of living. At first it hurts. I was used to being quite a big spender. The days of limitless shopping, multiple vacations a year and splendid wining and dining every week were really over. But actually, once I was over the first shock, spending less became fun. I used gift cards and coupons when going out to dinner, became an expert in finding good deals and made more conscious choices on what to buy and what not to buy. Better choices I would say. And actually, it made me happier. Maybe it’s appropriate to say that I valued the little things. Having less, made me feel more rich in a sense.

What also contributed big time, was our deliberate decision to lower financial risks in our personal lives. We both lowered our monthly costs. Rogier used an inheritance to partially pay-off his mortgage and thus lower monthly payments. Bart and I too spent every extra dime that was left at the end of the month on extra payments on our mortgage. This soon paid off. Having lower monthly costs gave us a new found freedom and it increased our believe to could keep going with Embrosa. We’d get there!

But not all that shines is gold… Bart and I talked so often about moving to a different part of the Netherlands. Wishing for a bigger city, a city with a better cultural offering and that would be closer to Bart’s job, but also closer to my friends from the Military Academy. However, moving was simply not an option, financially. Not being able to move was a direct consequence of my personal choice to start Embrosa. And at times I felt trapped. But feeling trapped also shut my eyes to seeing the beauty of my own town. It was getting in the way of me finding new friends, meeting new people and growing new roots. Accepting the status-quo liberated me in a sense.

And to be truthful: every time a friend bought a new house, in a way, I envied their possibilities. I felt like I was less than them, because they could, and I couldn’t. I felt less successful and at times I even felt cut out for failure. And sometimes I still feel this way…

Never underestimate the importance of a supportive partner

Our partners, Saskia and Bart, became solely responsible for supporting our households financially. Our families and our company relied on them. They had to be the backbone. If one of them lost their job, the adventure would soon be over.

When we decided to start Embrosa we didn’t really think about the trade-offs Saskia and Bart would have to make career wise. Because they needed to be our safety net, they couldn’t change jobs easily. Especially in the post-crisis years, leaving your current company, where you had a long term contract, just wasn’t an option anymore.

Not being able to move to another job for six months is not a problem. But what if the start-up isn’t catching on as quickly as you had hoped or anticipated, like we did for Embrosa. It took us 3 (!) years to finally earn a minor salary. Can you really ask of your spouse to put their life and career on hold for 3 years? Imagine the talks we had with Bart and Saskia … “No really babe, this is THE year. We feel it. It is really catching on. Give us until December this year (I remember saying this back in 2017, and again in 2018).”

You can’t expect your partner to stop their growth and trajectory. They can’t blame you for not succeeding any sooner. And together you must work through the stress and pressure this brings to your family. Together you must constantly monitor, and determine if this is still doable. Your adventure could easily strand because due to lack of support by your partner. I believe the love, care and support of my man increases my chances of success every day.

An uplifting co-founder is the best cure

When you expect to get Instagram-like-traction and earn enough money to support two families within six months time, it is a big bummer if this still hasn’t happened in 3 years. Of course, our expectations were more nuanced, and the reality is too. But not making your company work as fast as you thought it would, hurts.

This hurt opens Pandora’s Box, and the box is filled with self doubt and insecurities. You question whether you even got what it takes to make your company work. Shouldn’t you step aside and let someone else come in to fix it all. Or maybe ‘fold it up’ as we say in The Netherlands, end our company and start working as a barista, pouring hearts to the world in people’s cappuccino’s!

Loving friends sometimes unintentionally rub salt in these open wounds when they ask you why it’s taking so long, if you should not just quit and get a regular job, or if you want them to connect you to so-and-so-who-is-a-successful-entrepreneur-in-construction-but-certainly-he-knows-tech-too, or when they keep sending you all these different blog posts on successful start-ups that just made tens of millions with their exits. I hear the same underlying message every time: they are successful and you are not. Why don’t you quit?

They are not telling me I’m a idiot. It’s their well intended advise feeding my own insecurities. And these devilish thoughts are sometimes urging me to quit. These mind tricks at times eat me, they keep me awake at night and make me worry big time every now and then.

During these times, my co-founder Rogier tells me to keep my head up high. He points out our wins, both big and small. He listens to my emotional break downs whenever they take over, he tells me when my wailing is substantial and we should address the issue. And he also reflects with me when my self-pittiness is really bulshitting with my ratio.

I wouldn’t want to start a company alone. I cannot start a company alone. The best mates are ashore. Therefore, I need and want a business partner in crime who is in the same business boat with me. Rowing with me, until he can’t row no more.

Look up to others, but never look down on yourself

I deeply respect successful entrepreneurs who have sold their business babies and now have their richness to celebrate the fun and fearful years of long hours, sacrifices and being scared shitless at times. I want that too! And every day when I open my mailbox I see stories pouring in about successful start-ups. Higher growth curves, bigger revenues, more extreme exits and incredible IPO’s. These stories motivate me, give me energy, we will accomplish that too! But these stories also tend to overwhelm me at times and mess with my self confidence.

That’s why it is so valuable to talk to fellow entrepreneurs who share this hard knock life. Nothing as refreshing and energizing as fellow entrepreneurs talking about the trouble they experience with a bankrupt customer: we lost so much money, we really had to come up with a plan to survive. Nothing as comforting as hearing entrepreneurs tell me that, at times, they had to ball their eyes out, because they didn’t know how to get out of the many depth and loans. It’s so good to hear a seasoned entrepreneur tell you how much money he lost by making that one bad decision, how many days he was away from bankruptcy until the unexpected ‘miracle’ order came in. We’re all in this together!

One entrepreneur told me: ‘it feels like you are always dancing on this cord. It’s a fine balance, and the odds are often greater that it’s going sideways. You really feel you are alive at those moments, and it strengthens you when you survive the wobble.’ I feel that’s absolutely true for me too. However, sometimes it makes me feel alive, at other times, walking the wobbling cord makes me feel sick to my stomach.

Trust the Cosmos, believe, yet be brutally honest while doing so

The real point being: having a start-up is, at times, HARD. It messes with your feeling of self-worth. The once so arrogant and full-of-herself Melanie now sings - as we say in Dutch - a lower key. From one start-up founder to another: you just have to keep going. Because you believe in your start-up, you believe in your start-up’s purpose. This means you constantly have to re-energize yourself, find ways to get over your self-doubt, regain your trust and continue. And I agree; that is bloody hard.

It also means that you have to know ‘thyself’. For example, I have the tendency to work harder and not-stop when I am stressed and feeling anxious. I just try to work my doubts and fear away. But I learned that the best thing for me to do is stop, see and listen. When I work too hard, like a sneering, unfriendly addict, I’m probably trying to hide something that I should really solve. When Rogier and I do take the time to uncover issues and acknowledge their existence, the solution presents itself every time, like magic! We started calling it the Cosmos. (Ask the Cosmos and thou shall receive 😂)

Stopping and seeing the naked truth is super important, because at some point, maybe, despite all the hard work and unstoppable energy, it might really be time to throw in the towel and quit. Only brutal honesty can save you from crashing against the wall or endlessly wondering in Neverland. For me and Rogier luckily, despite the hurdles that we still have to overcome, this absolutely isn’t the case. We can still jump our hurdles!

I believe. I believe in Embrosa, our team, our product and our hard work. I believe it’s all worth it. It has brought so many valuable life lessons. I love how it’s made me appreciate the little things in life. How being an entrepreneur made me more humble. It’s an adventure, and I’m thankful to be on this journey with my business partner Rogier, all the while enjoying constant support from my partner at home. And while we’re at being brutally honest, I’m thankful yet I am wishing the Cosmos would hurry a little, for the sake of all that’s good and holy. And because I really do (need) want that vintage Maserati… 😂

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