I’m out meeting with the press right now to promote SmartNow.com and I’m getting quite a reaction. Not to the business, but to me. You see, it’s been awhile since I met with them, at least eight years. Many of the people in the press are same ones I met all those years ago. Many I don’t know. No matter if they knew me before or not, they all ask the same question: “What mistakes have you made and what have you learned from them?” And this isn’t a normal “check-the-box” reporter question. This is a loaded question with heavy reference to my past, some would say my infamous past.
First some background, I was the CEO of Pets.com. In case you haven’t heard of it, Pets.com and its mascot, the Sock Puppet, became the symbol for the dotcom bubble and its subsequent bust. Some have even charged me personally with bringing down the U.S. economy. Pets’ short period of success was fueled by positive press about the company and myself. Pets received even more press when it failed.
As the public CEO, I failed, and it was a very public failure. In fact, I was labeled one of the biggest failures ever. How bad was it? I had people laugh in my face when I introduced myself for years after the company closed. It happened as recently as a year ago. A couple of people asked me what it felt like to be one of the best-known failures in the U.S. Most just walked away from me. One woman told me to my face that I was a loser. I could go on and on, but you get the point: I became a symbol for something greater than myself, and we aren’t talking puppet envy here.
What most people don’t know is that the very same week that Pets.com failed, my marriage of seven years failed as well. Actually, it had been failing for a long time. It became officially over that week. My husband decided to call it quits the day before I announced to the employees and the public markets that I was shutting down Pets. It was a really bad week.
Now, I would like to tell you that I was down but not out. That I just brushed myself off and got on with life. I didn’t. At first, I kept myself hyper-busy. That lasted for about three months. Then, I sank into a depression. I’m sure I was in shock for a long time. It was a very dark, confused time in my life. I kept pushing myself to get back to normal. That didn’t happen.
I never got back to myself. I became better than I was. Note that it is almost seven years since Pets.com failed. Mystics might say I am entering a new seven-year cycle. I kind of think that’s true because I believe there are universal laws and truths. I do know I have been on a journey. I have taken stock of the five big mistakes I have made in my life and fought my way through. I’m sure I’ll make some more big mistakes in the future, but hopefully I won’t make the same ones again.
If you have made your own mistakes and are not sure how to get on with your life, perhaps my reflections will help you. And if you make mistakes in the future, I hope my lessons help you in some way and that you will learn from your humanness and not slip slide into a dark place for long.
Mistake 1: I allowed others to define me. I completely defined myself as a failure, as the press did. I read every negative thing said about the company in the press and on message boards. Many were personally directed at me. Needless to say, the new people and jobs I attracted during this time of my life reinforced my negative self-image. None of these people are in my life today.
How I moved on: I got tired of and bored with living in the past. I took stock of myself and decided that I know myself better than others. I am the only one who has taken my journey. I came to recognize that most reactions to me were not personal. I knew at some intrinsic level that my active participation in letting others define my failed past would be carried into my future. I didn’t want to live my own version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” I really wanted to heal. How could I have let others’ opinions of me define and engulf me in the first place? Well, that leads me to the second mistake.
Mistake 2: I built my image of myself on two main supporting pillars. When those collapsed, I did too. What I mean is that I had defined myself as someone who was smart and could figure things out and also someone who was entering middle age as a married woman. The “smart” definition was fostered from my childhood. I was the oldest of four children with a mother who was ill and a father who worked long hours to make ends meet. Whenever I asked my parents a question, they would say: “You are smart, what do you think?” Believing I was smart helped me survive a hard family situation and still make top honors in school. I never bought into being a “pretty” girl; I was the smart one. I was not smart enough for Pets.com. I failed publicly. After more than 20 years of good to great business successes, I had crashed and burned. The second way I defined myself was as a married woman. I liked being married, belonging to a little tribe of two. That pillar crumbled. Or perhaps I pulled both pillars down subconsciously to grow. In any case, both were gone.
How I moved on: Where did this leave me? Lost. What did I do? I started looking for what would feed my soul. I tried to get back to my essence, my best self. I love drawing and painting, so I started doing this again and working with art organizations. I love being around people who solve problems creatively, create art, think differently and express themselves uniquely. I rented funny movies—no kidding. I sought out laughter. I developed relationships with very loving people who laughed. I got involved in my community. I developed a few routines with those around me. This included spending time with a 70-something-year-old woman who vibrated with life and owned the local coffee shop. And, slowly, I began to see myself as more than two key bullet points. I stopped labeling myself and saw those labels as false security. Oddly enough, I began to feel more secure.
Mistake 3: I stopped believing in myself. You can see how the first and second mistakes might lead to the third. For a long time, especially as it came to my own career, I operated out of fear. Fear of failure. And I lived in that space for too long.
How I moved on: At some point last year, I decided that if I believed in myself then I had to invest in myself. I realized that if I didn’t invest in myself I couldn’t expect others to do it, either. I respond to visual goals, so I did a vision board: I took white poster board and I pasted pictures and phrases that represented my goals. The most prominent goal was investing in myself on all levels. I showed myself climbing the proverbial ladder and once again reaching for the stars. And when I had a good business plan in hand, I invested money in my own company. This is the first time I have started a company for myself.
Mistake 4: I stopped taking care of myself. I had gained weight over the years and stopped exercising. When Pets was collapsing, I started exercising again and the pounds had started to come off, so my physical health had started to improve. What I didn’t realize is that my emotional health was deteriorating. I did not recognize my own depression. For at least two years after Pets shut down, I didn’t care if I lived or died. I never actively tried to kill myself; that would go against my Midwestern upbringing. I just didn’t care if I lived. I was also just starting to experience the first symptoms of peri-menopause, so I had to come terms with my own childlessness. I had curiously decided that if I was meant to have a child, then I would have gotten pregnant during my marriage. Not having children reinforced my indifference to life during this period. I didn’t have children to take care of, so what was the point? I was also angry. The anger came in waves.
How I moved on: I wish I would have been more proactive in my own mental health. I did not recognize my state of mind as depression. I mean, I wasn’t crying every day nor did I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge and contemplate jumping. I can honestly say the thought never entered my mind. But I was clearly depressed, and only years later did I realize how much I needed help. I should have seen a therapist and perhaps even gone on medication. I pulled out of this state because I started to see beauty again (see mistake two, which also shows the healing power of art in my life). Once I started seeing beauty, I wanted to see more of it. Once I learned to let go of the anger and fear, I wanted to thrive.
Mistake 5: Allowing my head to rule my heart. If I would have started with this item, it might have seemed too trite. But it isn’t. The head is the ego. Mine was shattered. I had to exercise my heart in order to heal.
How I moved on: To be honest, I’m not sure I have moved past this, but I am doing better. As I moved through the other mistakes and began to heal, I also began to see the world differently. I began to realize that I could be comfortable letting my heart make some decisions. And when those started showing a payoff, I allowed my heart to make even more decisions. Life is richer in the heart zone, but I’m too analytical to give up the head part. I’m just trying to find a better balance every day.
That’s all for now.
Julie Wainwright started her career at The Clorox Company in brand management. She leaped into the world of personal computer software in her 20s after seeing Visacalc do P&L calculations in seconds versus her hand-cranked “what if” scenarios that took hours each day. By the age of 30, she was a group product manager for a $125M+ business. She was promoted to CEO status after she successfully turned around Berkeley Systems with the introduction of the popular game “You Don’t Know Jack” (over 1M units sold in its first 12 months). After the sale of Berkeley Systems, Julie joined Reel.com as CEO. That company was sold for nearly $100M after its wildly successful “Titantic” promotion that she orchestrated. She then became CEO of Pets.com — the first site for pets ever funded. Eight others (that she knows about) were funded after it. Pets.com pulled its Sock out of the pack, created an enduring brand and achieved over revenue of $46M in just nine months in 2000. She founded SmartNow.com last year to help women help themselves. The site launched May 30, 2008.
She has been interviewed on CNN several times and Pets.com was covered on all major networks ABC, NBC, CBS, and the BBC. She has been featured in many magazines from those with a business slant to lifestyle magazines such as InShape and Town and Country. She was honored to speak at the 2000 California Governor’s Conference on Women and Family. She has spoken at Harvard and Purdue universities and has sat on many business boards including: Wizards of the Coast and Baker and Taylor; and not-for-profit boards including the San Francisco Art Institute, Magic Theatre and Headlands Center for the Arts