The woman who outed Silicon Valley’s biggest problem is an unlikely whistleblower. Maren Kate Donovan’s startup Zirtual is among the most high-profile failures of 2015. After raising $5 million in a short span of time, Donovan laid off her 400 employees overnight one Sunday last August. What followed was a media onslaught that would no doubt devastate any entrepreneur. “It’s pretty much been hell, but I’m trying to get through it,” she told Fortune.
She detailed her company’s 11th hour death spiral in a post on Medium, an increasingly popular place for startup founders to write their post-mortems. But Donovan went a step further last week when she articulated Silicon Valley’s Achilles’ heel. In her post, “Silicon Valley has a vulnerability problem,” she wrote:
“In Silicon Valley, admitting mistakes and showing your vulnerable side is one of the biggest social faux pas that I’m tired of trying to follow. … The last decade of trying to ‘John Wayne it’ has worked in some short term ways, but it’s also hurt my health, my relationships, and interfered with my success. Plus, one of the things that drives me the most in life is the desire to inspire others — faking success when you aren’t experiencing it or acting cooler-than doesn’t inspire those around you — it isolates them.”
Her post embodies the sort of conversation that’s happening behind closed doors, but no one has captured this problem so poignantly and directly as she has. In the era of the cult of the entrepreneur, we have an obsession with the perfectly-crafted stories of the startup and entrepreneurial journey, which is only aggravated by tech media.
But recent high-profile entrepreneur suicides and discussion led by investors like Brad Feld have sparked more conversations about the psychological price of entrepreneurship. Moz founder Rand Fishkin, who counts Feld’s Foundry Group as an investor, has also been outspoken on the topic. He recently signed a publishing deal for a book he has tentatively titled The Transparent Entrepreneur, which is intended to upend the myth of the heroic entrepreneur once and for all.
While there is currently a movement toward transparency in startups, the line between pseudo-transparency and real transparency is razor thin. Fishkin makes an important distinction between the two in his book proposal:
“Transparency and truth are two different values. Curating the reality we present on our social networks is the truth, but it is not transparent. Sharing the milestones we reach in our professional and personal lives while glossing over the drudgery and frustration of the path to get there is the truth, but it is not transparent. When successful startup founders describe their journey, some truth may be present, but the whole truth stays hidden.”
For many startup founders, being vulnerable is perhaps the biggest risk of all.