Before I nervously walked up to you after your “Why Startups Suck At Marketing” talk on Friday, you and I had never met in person. But you had already changed my life and startup in several critical ways over the last several months since reading your book, “Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.” Whether you get a chance to read this message or not, I felt the need to say thank you and share how I think your book and thought leadership will be part of the revolution of a more diverse startup ecosystem.
First, a little background. I knew of Moz long before I knew of you. My husband, life partner, and soul-mate, Jord Sonneveld, worked for Moz when we first got together. I had been to the Moz office a couple of times and he pretty much still wears a different Moz shirt every single day (they are super comfortable and who doesn’t want free shirts?). So when I learned of you at last year’s Startup Week, I thought, “Hey! That’s the Moz guy! Who knew he was in this startup-y world with me?!”
When your book came out, the title was all I needed in order to decide to buy it. Words like “Lost,” “Painfully,” and “Honest?” Who the heck talks about those things when relating to startups and business…? Almost no one. And seeing as how at that moment I was incredibly lost and miserable, when it arrived, I decided to take a “mental health” day off and hide away in the downstairs bedroom so that I could spend all day reading it.
When I got to the part about the flywheel, I felt relieved and hopeful as I learned that there could be a process for building a customer base rather than just some magic tricks that worked for others but not for me. When I got to the part about the debt, the doubt, and the deceit, I felt normal as I reflected on the fact that people can screw up and still move forward and succeed. And when I got to the part about the depression, I cried. Not in a bad way, but in a you-just-vindicated-the-shit-out-of-what-I-go-through-every-day kind of way and I no longer hide away my sad, stress, and setback sides because I now know that I’m not the only one who experiences these things.
All throughout the book, I felt floored. “You mean I can be raw and honest and vulnerable and struggling and real and still make it as a founder?!?” “You mean I can stop the soul-sucking, demoralizing, and time-consuming exercise of pitching investors who couldn’t give a crap about my grand vision of solving poverty and creating a space where all people can belong being just who they are?” Holy shit!!!
I stopped in the middle of your book, literally, and bought a website domain called “FromWelfareToMillionaire.org” and I started thinking about my voice and what I wanted to share with the world. I stopped straightening my hair and putting on makeup just to go to founders events (nothing against it – it’s just not who I am and I realized I was only doing it to “fit in.”). And I started being honest about the fact that yes, I’ve been homeless, a teen mom, on welfare, a woman, a mother to 5 sons, and yes, there’s space in this world for me to be a damn founder too.
Your book taught me that it’s not just enough to switch out the players, we have to change the game. We have to stop the toxic rhetoric and the false narratives around how founders should look, what their backgrounds should be, how they should fund their companies, etc. because it’s keeping the diversity out! People who don’t fit those molds and those narratives are feeling like they’re the failure for not fitting in and so there’s no room for their companies to thrive. But yes there is! Yes, Rand says there is! There is room for us and our startups too!!!
The story you told about the color-blind person on your team and the dyslexic person on your team made me realize – finally – what the value of diversity really was! And that’s pretty embarrassing because I studied sociology in college for years. I’m thirty-three years old and I finally learned the value of diversity, not from an astute professor or subject matter expert, but from you, Rand Fishkin. Diversity is not just lip-service or being more inclusive for the sake of being nice – there’s real genuine economic value to diversity. Why haven’t people talked about this more? This is monumental! And I feel ashamed to admit that it took me this long to see how diversity leads to everyone winning – it does not mean pushing non-diverse people out.
If you are ever bored or on a long plane ride or just have a spare few minutes, I hope you’ll browse the few blog posts I’ve written on my new welfare-to-millionaire site. It’s not a fancy site (tech is not my thing), but pretty much everything I wrote was inspired by you, your words, and your book.
Lastly, thank you for being your real authentic you. It gives the rest of us permission to be ourselves as well.
Melissa Anne Strawn