I started Boon + Gable from the frustration that I had while shopping. I would go to stores and sometimes ask for help, sometimes not, but would always come out of the store empty-handed or having bought the same thing I already had at home, and I felt really frustrated. So that’s where the idea came from, and it’s my second start-up. My first was in the clean energy space, and I actually went to school for Architecture and Anthropology, so it’s pretty different. But I did go to a tech-school at Carnegie Mellon.
I had just moved out to San Francisco from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I started my first company in the clean energy space. I had never had a start-up before, as I was fresh out of college. My co-founder, Kurt Brown, had founded two start-up’s before. He had a Computer Science PhD and had done a lot of different start-ups so he knew all about the start-up thing, but me being new to it, I wanted to learn from a lot of other people, especially those in Silicon Valley — that’s where we were. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the common mistakes as a newbie start-up founder. So I would talk to this person, and then get coffee with her, and then jump on a phone call with him. I was talking to all these people and I was like, “These stories are amazing, like oh my gosh! Their experiences are such a wealth of knowledge.” Then, I was like, Well, I’m not a blogger, but I want to get this information out there. What’s the best thing I could do? I could write a blog, but that’s just me alone in front of the computer. I thought, What if we just had a one-day event where people just felt like it was okay to talk about these failures, because a lot of startup founders have a lot of anxiety around that. What is going to get these stories out there?
The cool part about FailCon is that it was a very uplifting day, like “Damn, good for her! It’s amazing that they got through that,” and “Oh, they’re also struggling.” It was positive and reassuring. So we did it for a couple of years, and then I started it with another girl who was doing events, and she took the conference international; she went to Brazil and whole bunch of other places. Everyone was reaching out saying, “Woah, we need this in our city!” And we were like, “Oh, we’re not getting paid! We’re just doing this for the good of the community!”
“We felt like failure was taboo when we started [FailCon]. Now, we talk about failure and we can actually say the word out loud.”
Honestly, we’re totally getting more real. I think failure is still the worst thing that can happen to you [laughs]. It’s scary, you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to face it, but you can come out of it being like, “It’s not that bad.” But I do think we’re better at talking about it than we were before. Now I feel like people brag about their failures, which isn’t the right response either. Anyways, we felt like failure was taboo when we started [FailCon]. Now, we talk about failure and we can actually say the word out loud. The issues don’t have to last forever. And so, we haven’t produced a FailCon show in like eight years. But it’s an initiative that really resonated with people. NPR came and supported us and called it “a breath of fresh air.”
Travis Kalanick from Uber! Which is super interesting, because at the time, it was still called “Uber Car” and I didn’t even have the app. People weren’t even using it — it was so, so early. Like it was still a thing, but not everyone was using it at all. And in Travis’ history, he talked a little bit about Uber, but he also talked about how all the companies he had started beforehand didn’t really work out for him — Uber wasn’t the first time he was a founder.
We had Joe Gebbia, one of the co-founders of Airbnb come talk. Their talks were pretty classic — like there was a time when they were really, really down, and they were like, “Oh, this isn’t going to work.” So they kind of just talked about their struggles, just like showing the graph of how things dropped, and then how things eventually started to take off. I just remember their PR people being like, “But we’re not going to talk about anything else, okay?” The PR people were so afraid to talk about failure. But now, I’m sure they would be like, “Sure, sure, sure!” So some of these people are really hard to get, and others told us “no”. They were like, “Yes I’ve failed, but there is no way that I am going to talk about that publicly.”
I think the best thing is just to find your squad. I think it’s about finding people online, finding them in person, getting coffee with one, going to groups, and talking about things that are both working and not working — just knowing that you’re not alone. That’s the most useful. And knowing that there isn’t an easy pass and there’s no right answer. If there was a right answer, we’d all be shouting it! I talk a lot about how startups are similar to babies, and this was before I had a kiddo. I think in the parent community, everyone is very accepting of the idea that your second parenting experience is different from your first — like no two are the same. And that’s exactly true for startups, but I don’t think the startup community is there yet. I think the startup community is definitely still like, “There’s a pattern of recognition! If you didn’t do that, then you’re going down. And you shouldn’t take this path,” etc. I truly believe that there is no right way. So Kurt like, he got lucky. Yes, they all did great stuff, but they also got lucky. I think the same follows for parenthood. We have an amazing three year-old daughter, and she’s like really well-behaved. I think we just got lucky. For a while, I thought it was all about the parents, and now, I’m like, “Nope, we just got lucky!” [laughs].
Can you share a personal failure that you learned a lot from? What was that experience like?
I don’t know if I have one mentor or that “one experience that changed the whole world”. Being a second time startup founder has given me a lot of confidence and strength, in terms of like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that,” or “Oh, that’s the way it is. Don’t crazy on that. That’s actually normal even though it doesn’t feel normal.” Your second company is different from your first like I was just saying. So going through that before has helped a lot. I remember as a little kid, I was playing in a piano recital — the only piano recital I had ever been in — and I knew this song by heart. I think I still brought up my sheet music with me, but suddenly, during it, I just screwed up. I froze. I couldn’t get back into it. I started again and got through it, but during those few moments, I was just staring at the piano and feeling everyone staring at me, and I was like Whoa. And I remember my dad saying afterwards to me, “You did the best you could.” I don’t know, I was like six, or 10! But now, if I ever fail on the piano, I already know what that’s like — I’ve already done that! It’s kind of just like practice too, right? Like, I’ve already done that path, and something else could happen, but I’ve already done that.
I try to laugh it off, honestly. That’s how I respond to the Trump presidency like, “What did he just do? Okay, stop! Like, what is happening?” I kind of like to use jokes, even if it’s some nervous laughter. It’s a coping strategy!
How do you talk about “failure” with your little one? How would you approach a conversation about unforeseen obstacles with them either now or in the future?
Yeah, we just want her to never think that she can’t do something. We don’t want her to block herself. She says, “I can’t,” a little bit, and it worries me a little, but I think it might just be a phase. But I say to her, “Why do you say that? Of course you can!” Just to make sure she doesn’t talk herself out of it. We’re just like, “Actually, we think you can. Why don’t we talk that through?”
Growing up and going to school for architecture, I did a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity. Then, when I first moved out here and doing my first start-ups, I was volunteering at a underserved public school that was only a few blocks away. Now with kids, it’s definitely different for sure. We are trying to think of things we can do with her to involve her. As a company, we volunteer at the local food bank. During Hurricane Harvey, we just packed up a whole bunch of things for those impacted, including diapers for like a diaper bank. I’m not sure she’ll ever remember helping with that, but instead of just doing that alone, we did that altogether and got her involved. One day down the road maybe we’ll have a conversation about it, I don’t know, but just being able to have her own that I think is important.
Family dinner time. Trying to make that a norm is important to us.
Keep your phone at home sometimes. Take in the outdoors. Look at things you don’t normally look at. Doodle.
Know that others are struggling, especially working mamas like us. Know that you’re not alone!