Ready to Fail: What Start-ups Have Taught Me About Writing Books
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
“Fail early, fail often,” says Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code. It’s a common phrase in start-up speak and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I am trying to teach my young daughter and son what start-ups have known far longer than me: that failure is a prerequisite for success.
Last week, my company GirlBlazer launched a Kickstarter for an idea that first came to me when my daughter was 6 months old and I was desperately bored by board books. I was working full-time at a start-up, sleep-deprived, adrenaline-addled, exhausted. During this time, a friend posted on social media about Education for All Morocco, and my drained, first-world Mama self was suddenly inspired by the stories of these girls who travel up to 40 miles each way every week to keep going to school after they age out of their primary schools.
Why can’t children’s books tell stories like this? I thought. Soul-split Mamas and Papas would get a psychological shot in the arm and kids would see examples of kids becoming the heroes of their own lives, and wouldn’t it be possible for this empowerment to last a lifetime?
But like any start-up, the product changed as I tested the market. Bored, excuse me, board books were not the right form, I decided. They are targeted at kids 0-2, and kids in this range respond more to faces, animals, and the melody of rhyming language than the complex, abstract messages of the Education for All Morocco story. But perhaps most damning, as one reader said in our AB testing of an early draft of the book, “This story was obviously written by someone who knows nothing about this experience.”
It was true. I had written it, and my effort to write rhymes that kids 0-2 would love, I had trivialized the story, exposing my own embarrassing ignorance.
But what if I found a Moroccan illustrator? I spent months searching for one, resulting in, count them, zero leads.
But what if I commissioned illustrations that transformed the sketches of a budding young artist at Education for All Morocco, whom Sonia Omar, EfA’s fearless Communications Director, had introduced me to?
This proved a success, a series of illustrations by the wonderful Gina Song in South Korea, that both Sonia and I found compelling. But there was still the fundamental flaw with GirlBlazer: that I was trying to start a company that empowered girls, but here I was writing their stories myself.
I emailed several contemporary Moroccan female writers. None responded. I got my hopes up when Sonia told me about a girl who had been through the EfA boarding houses, who was now at University and interested in Creative Writing. But she never responded to our many attempts to get in touch with her.
GirlBlazer was not my company to start, I decided. These stories could only be told by the remarkable girls themselves, or grown-ups who had experienced something similar.
But a few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. What if I did creative writing workshops with the girls, empowering them to find their voices and tell their own stories? I emailed writing exercises to the house mothers at EfA boarding houses in Asni, Morocco, and though I got some compelling responses, it became clear to me that I needed to be in the room where it happens, so to speak, if I had any hope of truly empowering the girls to find their voices.
I started making plans to travel to Morocco to do just this, but then...I got pregnant with my second child, and this pregnancy was complicated. It would not be safe for me to fly to Morocco.
Another dead end. Someone else will do something like GirlBlazer, I told myself. I stopped burning the midnight oil, going to bed early instead of working until the early hours of the morning. After all, I was already working full-time, pregnant, and trying to parent a 2-year old. The last thing I needed was to moonlight on a company that was better in someone else’s hands anyway.
I gave birth to my second child in 47 minutes from the start of labor contractions to holding him in my arms and I entered a second wave of sleep-deprived delirium, only this time my baby was colicky and I had a very territorial 2-year old.
As many parents of narrowly-spaced children will testify, the panic of those first six months was beyond anything I had experienced before. Yet somehow, as parents do the world over, I survived. When my son was 3.5 months old and I was preparing to go back to work, I experienced medical complications. My doctor put me on short-term disability, assuring me that yes, my job was protected, but hear ye, hear ye, physicians and new parents of the state of California! It was not.
If you go so much as one day past your 4 months out of work—in my case, for combined maternity leave and medical disability—you fall into the gray area of workers’ rights in the state. I spoke to 4 pro bono law firms and they all told me the same thing. There was no legal precedent in the state of CA for a case like mine. It was not a slam dunk for them, in other words, so I would have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to fight them in court, and there was a nontrivial chance that I would lose.
I took the severance. I kept my nanny 2 mornings a week for 3 hours, which was what we could afford. My son started sleeping better and I started burning the midnight oil again, trying to find a way I could make GirlBlazer work, and finishing the novel I had been writing for 10 years, the award-winning novel six agents had read and passed on six years before, all saying basically the same thing. “Something is missing.”
Failure #6, or should I say, Failure #0, the one that made me give up writing in the first place, the closed door that opened the window to my new career in social entrepreneurship, but that makes it sound much less painful than it was. In truth, I tried for over a year to find the missing piece, writing and rewriting tangents of plot, until I decided that I had reached a dead-end and I must now dedicate my life, not to making novels, but to making other people’s lives better. I would work for a social start-up I believed in, and in the second year of that new career, I became obsessed with this idea of GirlBlazer.
It was after getting laid off, while living on my severance, that I read about this girl Khloe Thompson who had started a nonprofit at age 8 to bring care packages to homeless women in her neighborhood. She lived only five hours away in Los Angeles. I contacted her nonprofit, Khloe Kares, and yes, indeed, they were interested in my idea. I made plans to visit LA with my family. In person, Khloe was even more wonderful than she had seemed from afar. We did 1:1 creative writing workshops, and her writing was even more incandescent than I had hoped. I edited her beautiful writing into a 32-page picture book and had it illustrated by a team in India from photos of the real people and places in Khloe’s story. Finally, after three years of trying, failing, trying again, the product was as perfect as I could make it. Now it was time to throw it to the market.
But not before we would encounter Failure #8, #9, #10, and #11. Having to put on hold the equally incandescent story of Jothi Ramaswamy — who taught herself how to code at age 10 and started a nonprofit at 13 to get more girls interested in coding. Getting erroneously flagged as violating Kickstarter’s terms and conditions and losing my summer intern to the start of the fall semester before we could launch our crowdfunding campaign The day my wonderful new intern Oluwatobi Adeyinka and I launched our Kickstarter, the electricity at home, where I usually work, was expected to be out to prevent another Northern California fire, and the hotel my family and I stayed at had dial-up slow internet; “If I don’t have a nervous breakdown from this epically slow internet,” I slacked Oluwatobi, “this launch will be a success!” I slept so little the last week before launch, I put my cell phone in the refrigerator and turned to Slack my intern on a block of cheddar cheese. Gmail did not send my Kickstarter announcement to my friends and family on launch day because there were too many recipients, but after waiting 24 hours and pruning my email list down to fewer than 500 contacts, I sent the email successfully, and by the end of Day 2, which was really Day 1, we were 55% funded.
To this child of the 80s who somehow internalized those platitudes of “Girls can do anything!” into a perfectionism that actually, in some circumstances, prevented me from succeeding, I have already passed a personal Rubicon, no matter how much money we raise. Now, it is time for the market to tell me if this is a good idea.
And that novel? After becoming a mother, I could finally see the missing piece, or at least, one possible missing piece, and thanks to what I like to call my start-up severance fellowship in creative writing, that novel is now also as close to perfect as I can make it, which is to say, it is also ready to fail.
This iterative, lean start-up model of creative work, is one I hope to teach my kids early and often, one that is, far from the Atlasian perfectionism that I can see now defined my childhood and adolescence, far more healthy psychologically, as well as much more likely to yield the best possible results.
Please check out our Kickstarter and if you are as inspired as we are by the stories of Khloe, Jothi, and the girls of EfA, please support us and spread the word. And if not, do me the second-best kindness. Help me to fail early, and fail often.