I feel like every day I walk across the grass to my little office, and I sit down and my desk, and I fire up the laptop, and open my apps, and I wrestle with this question:
“Can I save Good Empire, or should I just let it die?”
And my chest tightens, and my throat closes up, and the cortisol churns through my body, tingling my fingers, wetting my eyes, and I stare at the screen, stunned and numb.
And then I breathe, and I go to my plan, my overwhelmingly out of reach plan, and I try to find another layer of simplification, try to crack through another blocker.
And I open my emails, and there’s one from someone we owe money to, someone who has been so patient and supportive for months and months, through so many promises I couldn’t keep. And my chest tightens again.
And I read another email, and it’s from someone who leads impact at Disney, or The Hunger Project, and they love the the app, and they want to connect and see what we can do together, and my lungs fill again with air.
So why am I writing this? That’s a good question. I actually wrote it a few days ago, and I’ve been just sitting on it.
At the time, I just felt absolutely compelled to get it down, the truth, in words. It was sort of cathartic, sort of depressing, sort of freeing.
Truth is a core value of mine, and more than truth — brutal transparency. Which doesn’t always work out well, but I just feel more in alignment when I’m working with, and sharing, the absolute truth. No show, no filter.
Five years ago, when I first started what would become Good Empire, I’d left my role as CEO at Vinomofo, where I’d rock up to a pretty cool office with a hundred people to lead and bounce off and fight with and work with.
And so I found myself sitting alone in a co-working space in Collingwood, with nothing and no one but my own vision and hope and fears and self-doubt, and I decided to document that. Just share what I was doing, building, thinking, feeling, unfiltered, every week, and that way I wouldn’t be alone.
And I’d have some accountability.
And it was amazing. It worked. For me. And for the business. I got support, I got work, it accidentally helped me build the beginnings of a startup.
And so I guess I’m thinking, now — maybe it’s time again.
I’m not alone, I know that — Good Empire has a community of people and organisations who have been so supportive with all we’ve built so far. But I’m communicating enough with them, with anyone, and so I feel alone again — with my vision, and hope, and fears and self-doubt, and I think it’s my own doing.
I mean not entirely, as I’ll explain, but I’ve definitely retreated to my cave, to try to rebuild, and I wonder if it’s not actually what I need. What Good Empire needs.
I could just start to communicate better about all the good things, that would be smart, probably. But it would feel filtered.
And something in me just wants to break something. I have to change the way I’m doing this. I have to…
So here goes…
Around this time last year, a fucking bomb exploded in Good Empire.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it imploded, but either way, it was all torn out from under us.
I was three months into a seed round campaign with VCs to raise capital, flying to Sydney to have lunch and good, long, robust sessions with super smart partners in tier one VCs.
Just about everyone loved what we were building. They loved the vision. The brand. We had some strong “logos” in our corporate pilot, but we were still a little way off being able to launch the revenue product. It wasn’t quite ready.
But it was close, so we were gearing up. We’d hired strong sales and marketing leads to drive things, hired good devs in-house to get the product across the line. It was all happening. Fast growth mode.
We were burning through our capital pretty fast, and I was nervous about that, but I was so certain we’d have the seed round closed soon, we just needed to get it all ready, and if that didn’t work, we’d do another crowdfund round — we’d raised two rounds in 2021, with 1600 investors, who had all proved to be incredibly supportive and helpful. A third crowdfund round was a good fall-back plan.
And if that didn’t work, then the Vinomofo share sale that was happening would cover us, and I’d be happy to invest that to get Good Empire to revenue.
Which was the only hesitation from the VCs.
“Well, you’re so close, we’d love to see how it goes over the next few months… See how the pilot with ANZ bank goes…”
Plan A, then B & C, collapse
And then the market crashed, and VCs sort of froze for a bit, and so Plan A collapsed.
And then our crowdfunding platform partners didn’t want to do a third crowdfund when we were still pre-revenue, with so little capital left, which we were burning through, so Plan B collapsed.
And then the share sale fell through, and that window, too, closed.
And there we were. It all happened so fast. We were flying. And then, just like that, we ran out of money.
And I had to let the whole team go. We were 12 people at that stage. Three of whom we’d hired just weeks before.
12 people, with new babies, or pregnant partners, or going through IVF, or new mortgages, or just-bought-a-bar loans, or just turned down another job offer because our vision inspired and excited them.
12 good people and no money to keep them.
And a handful of partners and suppliers we owed money to. And some tax.
So you’d assume that was the time I asked myself the question:
“Can I save Good Empire, or should I just let it die?”
But I didn’t. Not really.
I just went into crisis management. Fucking action stations.
I had companies in our pilot to service. Features in the middle of being built. Creditors to communicate with, make payment plans with.
It’s the strength and the curse of a founder, I think. At least I think it is for me. Optimism outweighs caution. When we trip we roll forwards.
And plenty of other clichés that sound cool and inspiring in a fireside chat, but get pretty hairy in the real world.
They’re not wrong, I believe, they’re just not quite so black and white.
Just ask 12 good people.
I did also focus on trying to raise even a small amount of capital. We had a few good investors lined up, but they wanted to see a cornerstone VC on board. And you can smell desperation, can’t you?
And I didn’t have a lot of rejection resilience left in the tank, so eventually I just had to stop that, and put what energy I could muster into trying to save the company.
I made a new strategy I called Operation Bootstrap (granted, my creativity had also taken a bit of a hit) and I focused on revenue strategies.
#1 OKR — Bring in money. Save the Empire.
But I also had to learn to be our CTO, our sales and marketing team, our customer service team, I had to learn every aspect of admin… and I was drowning.
I reached out to our community of investors, asking for help — not financial, but just for help. And I had dozens of amazingly talented people offer to volunteer, which I accepted, gratefully.
But it takes effort to train and co-ordinate a new group of people, and even moreso when they’re volunteering, and I just wasn’t being at all effective.
I changed the model of our proposition from something bespoke that required a lot of setup and service for each organisation who joined, to a much simpler out-of-the-box proposition, low cost barrier to entry… and I focused on marketing. Reaching out to companies.
Focus. Focus, Focus. Bring in money. Save the Empire.
And that worked. A little bit.
But to be honest, few of the companies that joined actually did anything with it. So the impact we had for people and planet was negligible. They were into it, yes. Excited to be part of it, the Zero Ocean Plastics Challenge.
But they just didn’t engage their teams or their customers, which was the idea.
And so then I had a new brutally honest question to ask myself:
Do we have a shit product, or do we just have a product that isn’t working yet because it isn’t developed enough?
Is our idea bad, or is the execution of it just not there yet?
I’d learned and taught enough about MVPs to know that even the simplest version of this should work for someone, if it’s a good idea for a product. And it had worked, for some.
When it worked, it really worked. But when it didn’t, it really didn’t.
And all the while, the pressure was building, from creditors.
And all the while, too, I hadn’t had an income, personally — something I chose to ignore for a while, even though I couldn’t afford to, and so my life was quickly unravelling too, financially, and with it, my family’s.
And that walk across the lawn each morning was with a heavier and heavier step.
And I found myself in servitude of this deep, dark black hole.
Not creating, or solving.
Just showing up.
I was letting everyone down. Everyone.
And this startup, Good Empire, that had filled me with such inspiration and hope, and pride — it was draining my heart, robbing me of breath.
It was a boot, crushing down on my chest.
I was numb.
I have been surrounded in my life with people very close to me who suffer greatly from anxiety, or depression, or both. This is the first time I, too, felt the weight of each of those crippling conditions.
I look back now and I can honestly say that I was suffering from depression for around six months last year, through all of this. Proper, numb, tired, hopeless depression.
God, I feel for anyone, for everyone, who feels this. I had no idea, until then, and my experience was probably still mild, compared to some.
I’m so sorry, if this is resonating with you.
Anyway, when I finally did properly ask myself that question, not in lip service to diligence, but in a way where I genuinely didn’t know the answer:
“Can I save Good Empire, or should I just let it die?”
It was kind of too late.
Not too late for Good Empire. Not yet, anyway.
Too late for me. I had already chosen to try to turn things around. I was in it.
The vision was too promising! It still lit people up. Didn’t it?
Or could it be that I just couldn’t bare to fail?
No, I was past that. I could live with this having been a glorious and noble try. I really could, in that respect.
What I couldn’t live with, or chose not to, was to let down the people we owed money to. Or the 1600 people who had invested in Good Empire.
And, damn it, this was also a fucking good idea! Sure, I could see why the product, in where it was at, wasn’t yet sticky. But that could be fixed!
Companies wanted this. People wanted this.
Or at least, they wanted what it promised to be.
Making peace before battle
I don’t subscribe to Sun Tzu’s idea that business is war. I think the opposite. I think good business is harmony.
But I’ve read that the Samurai would die before battle. They would fully accept and process the reality that they could, and would likely, die, and they made peace with that before battle, and in that, they became fearless, and found tremendous strength.
And so I did that.
I spent some time in the reality that, no matter what I did, I may lose Good Empire, and I faced the reality of all that would come from such an unraveling.
And as much as I didn’t like that whole scenario, it would still be just… well, what it is.
Life would go on. I would survive. And rebuild. And thrive. And love. And all those things.
And in that acceptance, I, too, found peace. And if not quite fearlessness, then at least some strength.
And it also reignited what I can only describe as a sort of frustrated, determined love and belief in Good Empire.
Fuck it, this is a good fucking idea, and could be an amazing business that has a lot of impact and millions of users and billions in revenue.
It could be. The idea is there. The market is there. We just haven’t quite nailed that fit yet.
I just need to build on the product, to get that right. Or right enough, and in a way that doesn’t require a couple of million in capital.
I have some ideas.
And that’s about where I’m at, right now, as I write this.
I still don’t even know if I’m going to publish it, to be honest, but I felt a pretty fucking visceral need to write it.
Yes I do, I just realised, as I reread this.
But it scares me.
I feel what I can best describe as a thrill from brutal transparency. I feel lifted by vulnerability. It all feels right to me, to be in the world with nothing to hide. To just operate on the basis of truth.
But there are a lot of cool impact organisations I’m close to bringing on board one of our hail mary projects, and their reputations are their strongest assets, and if I’m honest about where Good Empire is at, as I’ve written here, it may well spook them.
But then again, my experience has also been that when you’re honest, and vulnerable, people want to help. And it gives other people permission to be afraid, to be open. To be human.
Maybe brutal transparency will help to rally behind Good Empire the support of a community of people and organisations we so need.
I don’t know. If you’re reading this, I took a chance.
What I do know is that I have more clarity than ever with the product I want to build this into.
There are some genuinely exciting and promising projects in the works, that have the potential to bring in good revenue and have real impact, and at least start to turn things around, buy us some time on product.
My hope and belief burns like a fire inside my chest, and I’ll fucking take that. I like the feeling.
But there’s a lot stacked up against us.
Maybe, if I’m naive or idealistic enough to share this, and keep sharing, and anybody even gives a shit, amidst their own secret battles…
Maybe we’ll make it.
You want to follow along?
- Andre Eikmeier founded Good Empire in 2018. You can follow his stories on building the business at medium.com/good-empire
Daily startup news and insights, delivered to your inbox.