My Own Great Depression
It was almost a year into our startup when we hit a point that I almost quit. Morale was at an all-time low, we all felt defeated, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s what I’ve dubbed as our “Great Depression.”
It was back during the middle of our R&D phase; it was a time when we didn’t yet know how to build an automated tailoring machine. We were still working out of my brother’s garage. We were still figuring things out, learning as we went along, and constantly working through problems that we look back on now and think “wow, the solution was so obvious, why did it take us so long to figure it out?” It was a time of trials and tribulations.
We faced problems all the time during this period, but one problem felt so immense it almost broke us.
Just like almost every robot, we utilized electric motors to complete certain movements. I can’t go into too much detail without giving away any trade secrets, but the point is we needed to run electric motors. Seems simple enough, right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong. Unfortunately, this was unchartered territory. Bennet, our CTO, is a computer engineer by trade, Chris, our COO, is a mechanic, and I, the CEO, spent most of my education focused on finance. We’re a group of, what I would like to think, smart guys, who knew what we were doing, but we didn’t know everything, and that was very clear.
We wired up the motors, attached them to the appropriate mechanisms (thanks Chris), gave it a brain (thanks, Bennet), and then everything was ready to test. The second Bennet pressed “Go” we heard the most painful sound an R&D team could hear.
Grrrgarrgarararr. Everything was seized. Everything stopped.
Everyone dove towards the shutoff switch to avoid causing any damage to the mechanisms.
“What could possibly be the problem?” we all asked each other. When you’re building something new, the answer to that question could be anything. It’s a daunting question, but one that we had faced before, and one that we will face many times again. It was something we were used to, so we weren’t discouraged, yet.
“Maybe it just needs some lubricant?” one of us suggested. So, we tried it, pressed “Go”, and heard the same painful sound. Grrrgarrgarararr. Nope, still broken.
“What about some resistors? Maybe the motor is getting the wrong voltage.” Grrrgarrgarararr. Nope, not that either.
We tried everything, we put in capacitors to prevent voltages spikes, we put in diodes to prevent current going in the wrong direction, thousands of lines of code changes… Nothing seemed to work. We kept getting the same painful sound. Grrrgarrgarararr.
This trial and error went on for 6 MONTHS.
Yes, that’s correct, 6 MONTHS of trial and error with no solution. We’d implement something that made it a little better in one way, and worse in another. We had primitive diagnostic equipment, limited funding, and very little sleep. It seemed like every step forward we’d take 3 steps back, walking backwards around and around in a circle until we all sat down and thought “that’s it. We’ve tried everything. What else can we do? Who do we ask for help? No one has done this before!”
It got to a point where we would show up to the garage, sit down, and sit in silence. Hours and hours of silent reflection. We were exhausted, working 14+ hours a day, every day, while in college and working at the same time. It was taking a toll on us.
We were about to give up.
Suddenly, out of the dead silence, one of us shouted “what about motor drivers?!”
“What do you mean, motor drivers?” We responded. “How could that help anything? Those are just a compact version of what we have. Why would we waste our money on that?”
The concerns were valid, at least they seemed valid at the time, but nonetheless we were desperate. We were tired. We had to try something, so we did.
After 6 months of trying everything we could think of,dozens of late-night trips to Fry’s Electronics Store, wiring, soldering, coding, and sobbing, we put in a $0.20 piece of hardware that solved what we couldn’t over the 6 months prior.
When we pressed “Go” for the thousandth time, we heard the most pleasant sound in almost half a year. It was a low, peaceful, hummmmm of properly functioning stepper motors. We rejoiced, we hugged, we cried, we collapsed.
We did it. We finally did it.
The emotional turmoil that tore us apart for 6 months finally came to an end. It was a defining point in our startup.
We made it. We made it past where most startups fail. We faced a fatal blow and survived.
Thinking back on those 6 months, I can’t help but feel proud. Through all the pain, depression, confusion, and hopelessness, we made it. We survived. We never gave up.
I’ve learned that it’s when the darkness is at its deepest, dawn breaks. For anyone trying something new or unknown, whether it be a startup, going to college, moving from your hometown, switching careers, or anything else that’s full of obstacles and unknowns, you will face your own version of the “Great Depression.” Just remember, that’s when 99% of people quit. That’s when 99% of people pack up their bags and head back to what’s comfortable and familiar. But when you get to that point, just remember, you will make it.