Building in Public October 20, 2020

🔥 I burned 1 million USD in 18 months and I want to share all I learned.

Jessica Leo @jessicaleo

Hey everyone 🖖🏻

In early 2019, I was flattered to get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I was hired by someone (a major shareholder) to replace the CEO to turn a startup around. And with 1 million in funding and the talents, I ended up building a new startup.

It was a tough journey because first I had to talk to and fire a lot of customers and employees to set us on a new path, then we had a new idea and was searching for product/market fit, then after the first 6 months, we had to pivot and restart ... all while I was learning as a first-time founder.

18 months went by and two months ago, while we had some growing traction during this COVID period, I decided it was time to put a "period" to this story because of various reasons. 💢💢

Even though it was a failure, I learned A TON. From user interviews to validation, from initial marketing to getting #1 positions for keywords, from fundraising to shareholding mess, from making slow decisions to regretting...

I love sharing throughout my career and I really want to share all I learned with everyone here, especially the first-time founders. I learned the hard way.

So I'm thinking - would people be interested in this story? In this crazy story, what do you want to learn so I can see whether I had been through and write about it? 😶 I wonder if I can "write in public".

P.S. because I wanted to tell unfiltered stories and learnings, I decided to create fictional characters (e.g. Jessica = me) and company instead of using real names. I think this is the right thing to do because I enjoyed working with all the people in this story.

Also, without real names and context, I'm not sure whether the community will find the learnings relatable or practical.

Anyway, cheers and would love to hear from you! Continue to stay healthy.
-Jessica ☘

  1. 11

    This is bizzare. Such a bubbly, friendly and ✨wholesome✨ post.

    You were hired to take over a start up (as CEO) with no prior experience, you fired existing customers and a bunch of employees , then you burned $1M cash and failed to pivot?

    I can’t imagine the psychological damage this would cause to most people, but instead you’re creating a clickbaity thread? This can’t be real.

    1. 1

      The whole thing was truly bizarre. I guess because I had gone through it in phases and when it finally ended sometime this year, it was actually a huge relief to me.

      I knew that without giving real context it would be hard for some people to believe.

      1. 1

        Disbelief isn't only caused by the lack of context or using an anonymous name, albeit it does contribute to it.

        The premise of the story seems fictional.

        It's hard to believe that someone would be hired as a CEO with zero prior experience and be given all this responsibility out of the blue, then meeting no resistance from shareholders firing customers and employees alike, all while burning $1m in cash.

        That along with the nonchalant tone of this post makes it pretty questionable.

        1. 1

          Thanks for the feedback Farouq! It helps me think about how I want to approach sharing this story - whether I should stick to this current approach or write it from my own name and reduce the parts that I talk about things that are more confidential. Pretty tough decision.

  2. 6

    I have lot of questions :)

    1. What were your credentials that you were hired to replace the current CEO ? In other words, why were YOU hired to replace the CEO.

    2. Why was the CEO needing to be replaced ?

    3. "had to talk to and fire a lot of customers and employees to set us on a new path". Why did you decide to do this ? Especially firing current customers, why ?

    4. Kinda related to #3 above, but what the reason behind pivoting to a new idea ?

    1. 2

      Thanks for listing out these initial questions you had - I will make sure to cover them!

  3. 5

    It's a little jarring to read "I burned $1million in 18 months.. and fired a lot of employees.. but learned a bunch of stuff" in such a nonchalant tone, but would be interested in hearing your perspective on the mistakes you made that caused such a failure.

    1. 2

      I can agree that the whole thing sounded weird. When I let go of some people when I first took over, it was a tough thing to do but not as emotional.

      At the end of this journey when I was left with a small team, that was the part that I really didn't like because it was tough times in this world and I wasn't sure if they could cope without a job. What I had been doing after shutting down was to help them look for opportunities and interviews, I felt that's the least I could do.

    2. 1

      Yeah agree. If I didn't know the context, I would've thought this was from r/writingprompts.

  4. 4

    yes. totally.

    i've raised a little bit more than $4.1M for my project and i share, daily, via a vlog on youtube:

    we need more folks sharing!

    1. 3

      Hey John - thanks for sharing this with me. It helps me understand more about building in the open, which I plan to do!

  5. 4

    Yes, do tell us more!

  6. 3

    Without revealing real names and a real company, you have no accountability.

    I've been around the block a bit, so personally I'd be inclined to think you're just making the whole thing up to eventually sell some course.

    If the story is indeed genuine, there is surely a way to tell this story without the need for pseudonyms, that teaches other people valuable lessons, while respecting your colleagues professional boundaries, and not burning any bridges.

    1. 2

      Thanks Jon - you pretty much pointed out my biggest concern to do it this way.

      Let me debate with myself more about whether I should write with my real name, and yes, to not get into any trouble. This way it is truly my own reflection and I can own up to it.

      Actually everyone in this journey was very fair and respectful. The part that made me come up with this idea of using fake characters is because I didn't own the company so I am concerned about confidentiality.

      1. 2

        thank you for taking my comment graciously 👍🏻

  7. 3

    Sure, I might read it, but I wouldn't pay for it (in case you're leaning towards a paid offering!).

  8. 2

    Do it and I am happy to hook you up with a free subscription to (Story Creator)[] if you want to make video clips with subtitles.

    I am interested in what you learned with SEO. According to Ahrefs here are my stats

    DR: 30
    Visibility: 0
    Average Position: 25

    Basically SEO is ineffective for me at the moment. So despite all the content and templates I am creating, I need to educate myself more in this field. All ears with what worked for you.

    1. 1

      Thanks Michael - you're very generous! For your SEO, got to focus on building domain authority. For this startup I worked on, we got to DR:55 and traffic started coming in.

  9. 1

    Hi all, after a strong debate with myself on whether to do it in real names and filter the story or write it in pseudonym and pour out the hard lessons, I decided to write out the story in my original idea. The eBook is more a way for me to reflect my own learnings; so if a few people like it and find it useful, it will be a bonus for me.

    Just finished the website and chapter 1, hope to hear your feedback! Thank you.

    The eBook is called "How to Fail as a First-Time Founder" on

    @FarouqAldori @codegeek1001 @camlpm @maantin @8bit @rosiesherry @yongfook @jf_ @storycreator @bmg @wellcome @girishw

    1. 1

      Thanks. Will check it out.

    2. 1

      a very pretty landing page! congrats on getting this out!

      also, you should link to a social profile or some other thing to follow you, personally! i was looking for a link... or two.

      1. 2

        John, that's a good idea, although there isn't much going on right now since I'm focused on writing. I only created a Twitter account:

        Just added to the footer!

  10. 1

    Interesting. I added link to your site on my
    If you have any interesting things in the future, then feel free to add there.

    1. 2

      Thank you for doing that - it is my first time knowing your site! Surely will do :)

  11. 1

    100% interested, tell the story! :D

  12. 1

    Absolutely, please post

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