I was sitting in my doctor’s office after a harrowing couple of weeks.
I can remember it like it was yesterday.
On the prior Sunday, I had passed out in the shower.
I thought I had the flu. I could barely crawl from the bathroom to my bed. It wasn’t the flu.
Wednesday, that same week, I stood up to go to lunch and I immediately felt faint.
I sat back down and closed my eyes. The world was spinning. What was wrong with me?
That night, I passed out again. It was terrifying.
This time I went to urgent care.
Urgent care ran a battery of tests, but found nothing wrong. I was healthy. They sent me home.
I scheduled a follow up with my doctor. She ran her own tests all of which came back normal.
Finally she asked, “Are you under a lot of stress? Have you ever had problems with anxiety?”
I didn’t know what to say. I asked her if she had all day.
My Life as a Startup CEO
It was April 2011 and I was the CEO of Affinity Circles, a struggling startup.
I had devoted the past five years of my life to this company, the last two as CEO, trying to save this company from the brink of death.
It was hard. And we weren’t getting there.
Three of my close friends from college were among my final six employees. Everyone on that team became a close friend by the end.
This team had given me everything. They had spent a year working on half salary. They did everything I asked. They were willing to stay until the bitter end.
But by April, I wasn’t sure it was worth it anymore.
I’m not afraid of hard things. Many hard things are worth doing. I ran four marathons simply because they were hard.
But this didn’t seem worth it anymore.
I wasn’t confident we were serving our customers. It felt like we were struggling to survive simply to survive.
It felt like we were wasting our lives on something that didn’t matter anymore.
I loved that so many of my teammates were close friends. But there was one major drawback.
When I started to personally struggle, I didn’t know who to talk to about it. I didn’t want to talk to my friends (even those who were not employees) because I didn’t want it to get back to my team.
I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to fail them.
It was miserable.
I waited far too long to ask for help. I kept way too much to myself. And it was destroying me.
Every day, I read headlines about other startups who were crushing it. And all I could think was, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I make this work?
My only answer: I wasn’t good enough.
When I finally mustered the courage to ask for help, I reached out to a board member and told him that I could benefit from connecting with another startup CEO, someone who could relate to what I was going through.
He told me he wanted to help but in about twenty different ways over a forty-five minute conversation told me that I wasn’t good enough to warrant an introduction to someone in his network.
He confirmed my worst fear. I wasn’t good enough.
Even four years later, writing this brings tears to my eyes. My chest tightens. I can feel my anxiety level rise.
It’s hard to spend 20 years in Silicon Valley and not get caught up in the startup narrative.
It’s hard to separate the headlines of billion dollar companies from reality.
It’s hard to remember that you don’t have to sell your company for hundreds of millions of dollars to have self-worth.
So yes, I was under a lot of stress. I was struggling with anxiety.
Fast-forward a few months and I finally mustered the courage to tell my board that I needed to be done.
I resigned as CEO in July, but stayed on as a board member.
By October we had sold the company.
It wasn’t a glamorous sale. Not the kind you read about it in Techcrunch.
We found a home for our customers, our investors got a little bit of their money back, and our team got to move on to bigger and better things.
Suddenly, I found myself unemployed, burnt out, and completely unmotivated to do anything about it.
I wasn’t ready to think about what was next.
I needed to do nothing. I needed to remember who I was. That I had worth. That I had something to contribute to this world.
The Birth of Product Talk
I was pretty sure I was done with startups.
But I didn’t know what else to do. That was all I had ever done.
I needed income so I started taking on consulting projects.
I helped a few companies hire their first product managers. I ran some usability studies. I did some product strategy work.
It was okay. It kept me afloat.
At the same time, I was about 4 months into my master’s program at Northwestern.
This turned out to be a lifesaver.
It gave me a community of people that I treasure and a venue where it was easy to excel.
I desperately needed both.
One of the first classes I took was Jeff Merrell’s Creating and Sharing Knowledge class.
Jeff’s class got me thinking about how we share knowledge. It was the first time I had considered the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge.
It made me think about the work that I was doing. Was I really helping companies by running usability studies for them? Was I leaving the organization in a better place?
Was I sharing knowledge or was I just doing work? How could I have a bigger impact?
I wish I could say that that was all I needed to move into coaching. But it would take another two years of a lot of trial and error (and another stint as an employee) before I committed to what I really wanted to do.
But Jeff’s class did convince me to start writing – to start sharing my knowledge.
I started Product Talk on November 4th, 2011 with this inaugural post.
I know I have a few readers who know Jeff Merrell and that first post screams of his influence.
My goal with Product Talk when I started was to help create and share knowledge about product management. I wanted to contribute even just a little bit to helping to mature this field.
Thank you, Jeff, for inspiring me and for supporting me each step of the way.
Beyond My Wildest Expectations
Product Talk has changed my life.
It’s helped me find my voice. It’s helped me remember that I do have something to contribute to this world.
It’s opened up speaking opportunities.
It’s helped me build great relationships.
It’s fueled my coaching practice and has allowed me to make a living doing what I love.
It’s helped me escape the insanity that is Silicon Valley startup life.
It continues to help me help other people and that makes me happy.
With a Heart Full of Gratitude
That day in the doctor’s office, after hearing my story, my doctor subscribed Xanax and suggested that I take a medical leave.
I couldn’t. I didn’t want to let my team down.
Instead, I read about anxiety. I learned that developing a gratitude practice helps. I started a gratitude journal.
Eventually that evolved into a practice of sharing my gratitude with others. To this day, it’s still a daily practice.
It saved my life.
I started telling my teammates what I appreciated about them. I started being more open about what I was going through.
I told friends that I had long neglected that I missed them and that I appreciated that they were part of my life.
I wrote a gut-wrenching note on Facebook sharing with everyone I knew that I was struggling with anxiety and that I was balancing it with gratitude and expressed how much I appreciated them.
Day by day, bit by bit, it became manageable again.
And it’s a practice that I hope never ends.
So today, I want to express my gratitude for the Product Talk community.
Thank you for reading my writing. Thank you for sharing your comments on the blog, in email, and on Twitter and Linkedin.
Thank you for sharing with me that my articles have helped you learn and grow. That means the world to me.
Thank you for participating in my crazy experiments.
Thank you for helping me see that I still have plenty to contribute to this world.
This is Only the Beginning
I am so excited about the future of Product Talk.
Two days ago, I kicked off my inaugural course. It’s my best experiment so far.
I’ve long had a vision of developing a product management curriculum that gives product managers the practice space they need to develop their skills.
I can now see how to make that happen.
There’s a lot of work to be done and I am loving every minute of it.
I would love to have you come along for the ride.
I am planning to continue to write weekly articles here.
I will also continue to publish my biweekly newsletter where I share books that I’m reading and other worthy reads from around the web.
I plan to experiment with some multimedia. This might mean a podcast or a video series. Time will tell.
And I’m planning to pursue my vision of an integrated product management curriculum. There will be more courses.
If you want to stay in the loop and not miss any of it, please join the Product Talk mailing list.
You’ll get an email from me every Wednesday and every other Sunday.
My goal is for each to be chock full of value.
And of course, I’d love to continue to hear your thoughts or feedback along the way. You can always leave a comment right here on the blog or reply to any of my emails.
I love hearing from you.
And once again, thank you so much for being a part of this community. It means the world to me.
A huge thank you goes to Kim Nicol, Keeley Sorokti, and Julnar Rizk for reading early drafts of this post. This wasn’t easy for me to write and your feedback encouraged me to keep going. Kim, in particular, gave me amazing feedback on the structure of this post and it is far better as a result. Thank you, ladies. I am so grateful each of you are in my life.