How Many Deaths Can a Startup Survive?

"I feel like my startup is dying — a lot. How many fatal blows can I withstand before I feel like this thing is gone for good? Is any of this normal or am I just really bad at this?"

February 22nd, 2023   |    By: Wil Schroter

Every good startup dies a thousand deaths before it ever lives.

We don't like to believe that because it sounds awful. Who would get excited about doing anything that sounded like it was going to die a bunch of times? Yet death — in the form of setbacks, restarts, and in some cases implosions — is kind of what we do for a living as Founders.

Pretending like we're going to get through this whole thing unscathed is like picking up a video game on the hardest setting and thinking we're going to beat the entire game without ever losing a life. It just doesn't work that way.

So just like our blinking Super Mario coming back to life for the 1,000th time, we've got to learn how to play through the whole game while pretty much expecting to lose a few lives along the way.

We Die Quite a Few Deaths

There are so many instances of death in a startup we almost have a hard time telling them apart after a while. The first few deaths we ignored altogether, like when we built a product, got it out there, and absolutely no one wanted it. We died a "product death" that day, but there was no funeral held.

Later we missed a funding round, and our once-full coffers that held checks with lots of zeros behind them were left with only the zeros. We pitched everyone that would listen, and yet no one heard us. We died a funding death that quarter, and those that mourned loudest were the original angel investors.

When the money ran out, so did our ability to keep our staff. As hard as it was to recruit everyone to our glorious vision, it was #%$&@! heartbreaking to have to push all of them out of the very doors we worked so hard to open. We died a "layoff death" that year, and the eulogy was given at the unemployment office.

Sometimes We Don't Even Know We're Dead!

There's a point, well, really a few points, where we're actually the Walking Dead. Not just because we're pale, malnourished, and quickly decaying — that's just life as a Founder. It's because our startup is actually dead — we just don't know it.

It's when we've run out of money, but we keep showing up every day thinking that just one customer will change the game for us. Or we're soooo close to closing that funding round, it just seems that one investor keeps forgetting to call us back (note: no investor who wants to invest "forgets" to invest.)

In those moments, we're actually dead. We're out of time, out of money, and out of the pixie dust that we once used to create something out of nothing. But there's just one problem - we're a bunch of hard-headed idiots that refuse to lie down and die! So we keep at it, ignoring every tangible sign of our non-existence, using sheer will to keep our startup hearts pumping.

Death is Constant in Giving a Startup Life

You see, for us to build something great, something that we breathe life into out of nothing, we have to embrace the million little deaths that happen along the way. Sure, we all try to avoid them, and yes, we'll all have to endure plenty of them, no matter how smart we think we are.

Ideally, none of this would be true, and we'd just get every bet right the first time, our charts would always point "up and to the right," and costs would be just something we fundraise for. But that's not how any of this works — ever.

Our journey is a constant battle of withstanding death long enough to give our startups life. Therefore instead of thinking of every death as "the end," we need to call it what it is — part of the journey itself.

In Case You Missed It

How Do I Design My Startup Around My Life? There’s very little preventing us from designing our startups around our life goals. It starts with us being very clear about what we want to achieve and then taking clear, small steps toward those outcomes.

How Much Should I Be Working? (podcast) While there's truth to the assumption that more hours equals more growth, we'll explore how it benefits to think quality and not quantity when it comes to your weekly punch card.

Many Startups Shut Down a Few Times Before Succeeding Most startups are not overnight successes. In fact, many of them have to shut down (sometimes more than once) to build back up to the success they eventually achieve.

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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