The Worst Lessons I Learned From Silicon Valley
The Bold Italic | September 2020
From 2014 to 2019, I was the designer and co-founder of a San Francisco-based startup called Moxxly. Our lead product, the Moxxly Flow, was a discreet and hands-free breast pump kit.
Usually, when I would tell people I designed breast pumps, I would get one of two reactions. Either they would say, “Oh cool, breast pumps!” because they recognized it as a sorely needed design opportunity with a real impact on people’s lives. Or they would say, “Oh. Cool. Breast pumps…” and immediately scan the room with a twinge of desperation in their eye, looking for someone else to talk to.
A few years ago, I was at a hardware startup networking event where I met a very young male entrepreneur disrupting something. When he finally asked me what my startup did, I waited for the second response but was so pleasantly surprised when he instead enthusiastically replied, “Oh cool, breast pumps!” Until he added, “So, you make them bigger!”
Needless to say, we both walked away very disappointed in that interaction.
As a first-time, female designer and co-founder designing products for women, I often felt like I was on the peripheral at networking events. At any given event for startups, I was always the only female founder or the only designer-founder or the only founder with a hardware company or the only founder with a product regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or the only founder designing products for women.
Without one group to neatly fit into, over five years I pieced together an incredibly supportive network within communities of founders, venture capitalists, angel investors, designers, engineers, and peers on which I came to rely. I learned a lot from advice shared over coffee, design feedback sessions, and quick check-ins and am proud to say that thanks to our scrappy and resourceful team and the support of our networks, Moxxly was one of the 10% of all startups with a successful exit.
I am forever grateful to everyone who helped me and Moxxly along the path to success.
But there are some lessons in Silicon Valley that we need to stop teaching and stop buying into. As a young entrepreneur, I had to unlearn certain lessons I had taken to heart in order to find my way to success.
Move fast and break things
The problem with breast pumps is that they come bundled with these large accessory kits that force women to stop what they’re doing, take off their shirt, take off their bra, and hold the collection containers to their chest the entire time they’re pumping. This can go on every two hours for a year. Our solution was an accessory designed to be slim enough to hide inside the bra, letting a woman pump hands-free and discreetly, wherever she was. Even as an accessory to the pump motor, we were regulated by the FDA because the kit was considered a medical device. “Move fast and break things” doesn’t quite work when you’re manufacturing medical devices regulated by the FDA.
But still, I tried.
Our first director of manufacturing left less than a month before our first freshly molded designs were shot off the injection-molding machines. So I stepped in and spent most of a year in Southern China overseeing the production process.
After months working our way through the different stages of manufacturing, troubleshooting product issue after product issue with the contract manufacturers and engineers, we finally had refined our product and our process as we neared our scheduled launch date.
But there was a problem.
As close as the product was to being ready, we were at risk of missing our shipments by months because the paperwork the contract manufacturer was producing was not at the quality and level of detail the FDA requires for a medical device. The paperwork.
Over lunch, someone on the team commented on how many new people were on the project. I then realized the root of the problem: factory turnover. We had six different project managers in one year, and a quick poll showed the current team assigned to us by the factory had no idea that what they were building was more than a consumer product but that it was also a medical device.
I had been pushing hard to move the team through all the manufacturing stages to meet our launch deadline, but now, just two months before launch, we paused everything for a kickoff meeting with the China team, a meeting that normally happens — and did happen, but with a different group of people — 12 to 18 months before launch.
After our realignment, we were able to make the launch with only one week’s delay instead of the monthslong one we had been heading toward.
I learned that rather than moving fast and breaking things, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Impactful products are made by teams with a deep understanding of user needs and who are aligned around a strong vision for exactly how to meet those needs and surpass expectations.
Fake it till you make it
The way I internalized this lesson was very personal for me.
Since the beginning, Moxxly had been an incredibly user-centered company. We were frequently speaking with women and going to their homes and offices for prototyping feedback sessions. As the lead designer and user researcher, part of my job was to help hundreds of women feel comfortable pumping in front of me in our one-on-one sessions.
I was horrified that someone might find out I’m bisexual and dating a woman. I was worried our users wouldn’t trust me, and I was worried that if my co-founders knew, they would question my professionalism or my ability to do my job.
But then, when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, it emboldened me to come out, if for no other reason than to show other queer founders and designers that they’re not alone.
Coming out is a personal choice. There are many reasons people choose not to come out, often as a matter of survival. I’m grateful that when I chose to come out professionally, my team was accepting and supportive. Ultimately, it brought the team closer and allowed me to redirect the energy I had been using to hide a truth about who I am back to my work.
“Fake it till you make it” presupposes there is one way to be, one way to show up, and that if you don’t fit — which most people won’t — then you have to pretend to be something other than your full self. It denies you and your team the richness and benefits that diversity brings. It reinforces the status quo instead of changing the model to challenge who success looks and acts like.
Your startup is your life
In 2014, when we were a brand new company, we were giddy to be accepted into a startup hardware accelerator. It was great for us. It provided a space to go every day, peers for comradery, and in-house experts available for quick feedback.
I still remember the orientation presentations with the “jokes” telling us that this program was to become our life for the next 16 weeks. As I got to know my peer group, I learned that there was a married couple in another startup who were terrified that anyone might find out they were married for fear that they would be seen as not taking their startup seriously.
I internalized this message, too. I didn’t take a single day off between a very intense grad school program and co-founding Moxxly. I worked every day, sometimes up to 20 hours a day.
The week before Demo Day, when all the startups pitched to a room of press and venture capitalists, I didn’t go home at all, staying at the accelerator offices for a week straight, preparing the prototypes and the website. Not planning on this, I was wearing orange from shoulder to ankle, so it was quite obvious that I hadn’t left the building. At the time, my takeaway was: Don’t wear all orange.
Not long after Demo Day, the real lesson emerged when my health started deteriorating. I was chronically exhausted, vomiting daily, and had a heart rate of 110 beats per minute while sitting at my desk. I was in and out of doctors’ offices and on six different medications.
Without a medical solution, in a last hope effort, I visited an ear, nose, and throat doctor who told me I would either need to pay out of pocket for an expensive colonoscopy for a diagnosis or I could start with a diet and lifestyle change.
I chose to take the diet and lifestyle changes seriously. I ran experiments on myself and tracked inputs like medication, amount of sleep, time in my cycle, what I ate, and how many drinks I consumed and outputs like weight, mood, and energy. Those monthslong experiments revealed how seemingly small changes had an incredible impact on my overall health and anxiety and gave me deep insights into what my body needs and had been trying to tell me through burnout.
Rethinking our relationship with work
The world looks to Silicon Valley for innovation. But it’s also a place with a homogeneous view of what success looks like (unicorn valuations with growth at any cost), a pattern recognition bias of what successful people look like (young, straight, cis-male, white, hoodie), and a singular pathway to get there (either you move fast and break things, fake it till you make it, and make your startup your life, or you will not be successful).
This is not the only pathway to success; this is a shortcut to burnout and an economy built on undermining startup founders’ physical and emotional health. We do not need to sell our health for our startup’s success.
With such abysmal success rates for startups — one out of 10 — maybe it’s time to start questioning our methods.
A study out of Stanford shows that working more than 50–55 hours a week does not lead to doing more or performing better. So all those extra hours we put in at work — that time we take away from family, friends, our passions, time off, or even just sleeping — has no benefit to our performance. It’s detrimental not only to the work but to ourselves.
If you want to improve your work performance, the best things you can do for your work are also the best things you can do for yourself. Exercise. Drink water. Take the meds — or get off them. Sleep. Avoid refined sugar. Don’t drink alcohol. Do drink caffeine. Or don’t. Meditate. Spend time away from your phone. Walk the dog. Daydream. Have sex with yourself or others. Play. Laugh. Do nothing. Do whatever it is that not doing is causing you anxiety, palpitations, or physical and mental distress. Listen to the voice inside you that is crying out through chronic exhaustion. It is infinitely wise.
Now, when I meet with first-time entrepreneurs over coffee, this is what I say: There are many definitions of success and even more pathways to them. You can choose what success looks like for you, and you can build your company and products around those values without having to buy into the false ideas about what success looks like, who can achieve it, and what it takes to get there.
And I tell them: You have a choice. You can choose to stop glorifying work that is bad for your mental and physical health. You can choose to stop valorizing work that doesn’t respect your relationships with your friends, your families, or your communities. And you can choose to stop doing work that takes you away from yourself and the voice inside you that is infinitely wise.