Winding Down Can Wind You Up

I’ve received several friendly and sympathetic emails recently offering condolences on the untimely death of a company I co-founded called Judy’s Book. What’s a little hard to explain to the senders (and what I’m trying to sort out for myself) is that I’m not all that broken up about it. In fact, I’m probably feeling as excited and optimistic as I have in a couple of years.

I’ll save the full backstory for another time, but the short version of the Judy’s Book story is this: my business partner and I started the company in 2004 and raised two rounds of venture capital, one that fall and another a year later. Over the past three years we took two hard swings at a very difficult problem: displacing traditional offline local media properties (specifically, the yellow pages and local newspapers) with a more compelling online alternative. We made plenty of tactical mistakes along the way, but our biggest mistake was underestimating the challenge of driving a significant change in behavior among small and regional business owners (the folks that pay to advertise in local media). Last month, after 3+ years of effort, we and our investors agreed to wind down our operations and look for a strategic acquirer for the business.

Bad news, right? Three years of effort and several million dollars of our investors’ money down the tubes. A dozen people, some with families, now out of work. Our credibility and relationships with our investors severely damaged, or at least badly frayed around the edges. All in all a very public and embarrassing failure. I should be devastated.

Except I’m not. And neither is my business partner. Neither (to all appearances) are all the incredibly bright and hard-working people we had on our team. In fact, if you had to pick a word to describe the mood in the office right now it might be something like “confident” or “hopeful”, or even “energized”.

Maybe it’s because of the incredibly generous severance package our board offered to our team (thanks again, you guys – we know you didn’t have to, and we appreciate it). Maybe it’s because there’s such strong demand for experienced developers and other smart folks here in Seattle that everyone who wanted a new corporate home is receiving a warm welcome on the job market. Maybe it’s because a long list of companies (including more than a few well-known names in local media) have signed on to participate in our sale process, suggesting that what we built has real value to firms who know the business well.

But for me, and for more than a few other folks on our team, I think it’s all those things and something else besides. For the past several years we’ve been heads-down on a single idea: making Judy’s Book work for our customers, for our investors, and not least, for us. Meanwhile, new ideas and opportunities have taken shape outside our fortress walls, tempting to consider but always out of reach. Now, for the first time in a long time, thinking and talking about new business ideas isn’t a guilty pleasure or fantasy game, it’s for real. And while most of those ideas won’t go anywhere, and those that do may not amount to much, one or two of them might, just might. And for a certain kind of person that’s about as exciting as it gets.