Hi I'm Leonie, Collector of feathers, pebbles, words and adventures, with an overactive mind and a sunshine-filled heart.

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Why I exited our startup

I wrote this some time ago. It's been sitting as an unpublished draft in my blog for over a year now. I needed to process this physically, through my fingers clacking at the keyboard, through sifting through the order of events, through writing this down for posterity.

Sometimes it's really hard to just sit down and do the emotional processing work, but it suddenly became ready to escape, teach me a lesson, then dissolve into the ether. Something held me back from publishing it until now.

Eleven months ago, my good friend Patrik and I took the first tentative steps towards starting a company. Aneo was born out of frustration at our current work situation (we work side by side in a windowless cubicle farm), a drive to make something tangible, something creative, build something. To fix communication between tech devices. To remove devices altogether. To change the damn world. We had huge dreams: invent our own tablet computer, redesigned from the ground up. Manufacture overseas then eventually set up our own manufacturing operations in Australia.

Needless to say, it was tough to get a foothold.

Months were spent nutting out ideas, riding an emotional roller coaster all the while, where one day you have the world at your feet and the next day the idea coming out of your mouth is the most stupid thing you've ever heard. Amongst the low points, I got all passive-aggressive with Patrik, cried, overreacted, fought with my husband, lost sleep, lost motivation and lost focus. Amongst the high points I was massively inspired to make a difference, create a job that I loved, pursue personal growth and become a stronger person through pushing myself to network, sell, spruik, speak in public - all those things I'd always been afraid of. I felt I had come into my own, smashing through years of comfort and complacency, beating a path to self-sufficiency and success with my like-minded friend by my side. I imagined a buzzing team of staff, and bright offices with windows (windows!), but mostly I imagined what that success would bring: the financial ability to give back to animal and human welfare causes, something we were both passionate about, and financial freedom not to have more stuff, but to have less. I wished for peace and quiet; a self-sufficient life on a property in the middle of nowhere.

This was my driver, most times - 'If I can just get this next step up, that end goal is a tiny bit closer.' I convinced myself that I wanted to be involved in the tech startup scene; something I didn't really understand but wanted to be involved in anyway. I wanted to learn. I could bring a fresh perspective, the outsider's perspective. I could market (my profession). I could brand (also my profession). I could create (my profession and my life's work).

More than anything, I wanted to prove myself: to my husband, who is the world's biggest skeptic, and to myself. I knew I had it in me somewhere.

Bernadette Jiwa has a great tool for determining the validity of an idea and crystallizing what the hell you're actually doing. I filled out her 20 questions and found I wanted to do this because:

  • I wanted to support Patrik not just because I cared about him as a friend, but because he was so passionate about the idea and sure of his path. I wanted to bask in that surety and I hoped it would rub off on me. Making things is about the only thing I've been clear on in my life. I can't get any more granular than that; I still don't know what I want to 'be' when I grow up. I thought teaming up with someone so doggedly determined would act as ballast for my own wishy-washy ebb-and-flowy goals.
  • I wanted to start something. I love fresh starts. Continuation - not so much. Fresh starts are beautiful, clean, neat. Fresh starts fit perfectly into a box. Fresh starts have all their components neatly labelled and sorted into alphabetical order. Nothing is convoluted, confusing; nothing drags a legacy along like an anchor. I love fresh starts.
  • I wanted to make something I could be proud of. Looking at this now, I know what I actually meant: I wanted to make something that other people would think was worthy and therefore I could enjoy their reflected satisfaction and pride. My family. My friends. My co-founder. I do things now that I am very proud of, I just don't think other people see any worth in such things. When they tell me that they do, I don't believe them.
  • I wanted to use my skills for good. I work for a company in my day job where I market industrial supplies to the mining industry. This doesn't sit well with me; it never has. I love my team to bits, it's a great job in almost every respect, but after four years it's becoming harder to ignore that I don't necessarily agree with what I do for a living. With Aneo, I didn't understand technology but could see clearly how it could be used for good. To enable better communication. Better education. Better lives. 

By far, the toughest part was believing we could do this. Believing I could do this. Countless times I questioned my decision to be involved with Aneo. I loved the idea. I loved where we want to take it. But was I good enough to do it justice? Was I going to screw up Patrik's dream because I was stomping around clumsily playing the co-founder when I really wasn't good enough to just do the work?

I've always had the niggling feeling that I was going to be 'found out' one day. This looms large in my day job. Sooner or later, someone more extroverted than me, and probably someone in a position of authority, will stand up and point at me and say, "Look! She's not a real marketer. She's in a management position because she asked for it not because she earned it."

And worse: "She's a liar. And that makes her a bad person."

So these were the bad patches. And then, without warning, insane highs would strike again and I would tuck my never-ending questions and feelings of worthlessness back under the rug.

Throughout the many months we spent working on and in the business, Patrik and I regularly checked in with each other. We experienced many of the same feelings, though mine were perhaps more racked with self-doubt. And although we process differently, we are very much alike in personality. Often Patrik would give me an out, if I wanted it - he could see I was struggling at times and we were both extremely open with our thoughts.

When he asked if I was sure I wanted to continue doing this, I would tell him:

"I need to do this. I know I'm not going to end up with Aneo at the end of the journey. But it leads somewhere. I can't see the end of the path yet, but it's important that I go through this. I know it's going to teach me something. It will morph and change, and at the end I know I will have more clarity. I might have an answer to something I've been looking for. But I need to go through this."

And it would seem, now that I have gone through this, that I do have a sparkle of clarity.

In April, after a particularly emotionally-wrought month, I told Patrik through a few tears that I would like to step away from the company. We had nearly finalised all the developmental parts of phase one of our business plan: to develop an income stream through an online store, any profits from which would be reinvested into developing that new device we first dreamed of. I had been working 7 hour days, four days a week at my day job, working on Aneo from 7 till well past midnight each night, and still trying to fit in strength training 3 times a week and 5.30am runs to train for the half-marathon goal I had set for Spring this year (which I smashed :) ). Plus being a mum to a four and a six year old, and attempting to talk to my husband for more than five minutes a week.

I had burnt out. I had given my all and the cracks weren't just showing, they were crumbling to bits in huge chunks.

At work that Monday, it took me the better part of the day to summon the courage to tell Patrik what I wanted to do. I didn't want to let him down. He'd always given me an out, but I would still be leaving him in the lurch with certain things. Most of all, I didn't want to leave work that day having lost a friendship.

Turns out, he had anticipated long ago in his freaky semi-psychic kind of way that I'd exit in the early part of this year. He was cool with it. No biggie. We signed some papers; we crossed my name off the bank account. I put a bunch of files on a USB for him. And then it was kind of... over.

So I withdrew. I cocooned. I spent almost the whole of this past winter (apart from work) either sleeping, reading, taking baths or watching tv. Everything came to a halt - clearly my soul needed it. I didn't have the impetus to write much, or even draw or paint much. I didn't want to cook. I wanted to put my furry dressing gown on the moment I walk in the door each evening and fall asleep on the sofa. An enormous, bodily exhalation has been occurring and I think it has finally runs its course.

And as for the lesson learned?

I have Asperger's. And I have closure.

I have been seeing a psychologist of late for various things, and the inkling that I had nearly a year ago (whoa - could this be me?) proved correct. Formal diagnosis in Australia is expensive at upwards of $1000 for many hours of testing, but through a long series of questionnaires, self-directed tests, discussions and admissions, my psych is damn certain that I'm 'consistent with' a diagnosis of ASD. I've written a fair bit about this so far, but until now hadn't covered the watershed moment that drove me to look deeper within.

Far from being a negative, I am feeling relief. Clarity. Peace. Understanding.

Self-acceptance? Not quite yet.

I will write many more words on this, I'm sure. But for now I am sitting with Asperger's as a sense-making narrative. Change is disorienting; and this is a big freaking change. I'm blogging through this newfound neurodivergent identity as a way back in, a way to process all this which can no longer be processed solely in my head. I'm getting too old for that; there's too much crap in there taking up space. I'm blogging because I don't want to forget things; don't want to forget how it happened, how this life-altering moment occurred circa 2014. I get the feeling life experiences will be remembered with the attached labels of 'pre- or post-diagnosis' though. It's such a powerful lens to peer through.

Had I not co-founded a startup, I would not have been massively stressed for a sustained period of time. Had I not been stressed so continuously, I would not have so deeply questioned my own direction / goals / needs / wants / desires / personality. Had I not questioned my direction, I would not have gone searching for answers. And had I not searched, I would not have stumbled across the post that started it all.

I'm proud of my intuition - it prodded me gently to work through the Aneo project and push my own boundaries, knowing metamorphosis would come in the end.

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