Dead Unicorns Road: What Every Startup CEO Should Learn in Time

Alexandra Gladyshevskaya

CEO and co-founder of SPOKK Insurance

Alexandra Gladyshevskaya, the CEO and co-founder of SPOKK Insurance, an insurance startup on a mission to protect digital natives from the risks they have in their lives, and a former Deputy to the General Manager of the Ukrainian office of American International Group, one of the world’s biggest insurance companies.

Battling Inner Demons: The Reality of Entrepreneurial Women's Mornings

My alarm goes off at 6:40 am, but I haven’t been sleeping for a long time. Now I usually wake up no later than 5:30 am, not because I’m awakened by the birds singing or the morning sun, but rather due to its conscience-lacking nature. If you were so careless as to forget to close the curtains, it will wake you up at 4 am.

No, it’s not all those Disney clichés about the perfect morning that wake me up. It’s something heavy, suffocating, and black. It seeps through my dreams, pulls itself out, and settles on my chest, slowly but irreversibly suffocating me. This “something” is made up of many pieces, like the worst puzzle in the world. It’s a kaleidoscope of scraps, including thoughts like “I hate myself," "You’re a failure," "You let everyone down," "You can’t run a business," "You’ve ruined everything you could," "What kind of mother are you," and the immortal classic, "maybe it would have been better if you weren’t born at all?"

That was a brief glimpse into the morning of an entrepreneurial woman. And I know I’m not alone. I know that every morning, thousands of people around the world, with the respectable title of “CEO” under their photo on a pitch deck, endure this battle for half an hour. And I’m one of them.

The Demise of Dreams: When Unicorns Fall and Magical Forests Wither

But usually, we don’t talk about it, or we whisper among a small circle of friends. Or we sit alone on the patio of an apartment in Lisbon, covering our faces with our hands, screaming until the neighbors gather on the balconies and offer their help. And we don’t talk about it because it’s shameful. Or we’ve decided it’s shameful. Or we’ve been convinced that it’s shameful. In our imagination, especially in the imagination of those not involved in entrepreneurship, building a business is like a story about a magical forest and unicorns that belch butterflies and pee rainbows.

In this fairy tale, all CEOs are young and wealthy, developers drive expensive cars, and investors line up with their millions, literally crying and begging founders to take their money. No! Forget about it! All the unicorns have been killed. And the magical forest has withered.

You don’t immediately see the unicorn corpses on your path. You don’t want to look down; you only look ahead. Only ahead! That’s what most books on motivation, personal growth, and building a successful startup tell us. Forget it. Here’s my advice — look down. There are mountains of corpses — young, beautiful, wealthy individuals in gray T-shirts and black turtlenecks.

Learn from Dead Unicorns

It took me four years to finally pay attention to them. All this time, I walked with my head held high, as Stephen Covey advised, repeatedly stumbling over those young but lifeless beauties, yet still walking, thinking that none of it applied to me, that those were just their mistakes, and that’s why they lie there with rolled-up eyes.

But the truth is, by stumbling over each dead unicorn, I should have bent down to them, laid down beside them, hugged them, warmed them with the heat of my body, and said, “Tell me your story.” Because the greatest value for a CEO is the stories of failures told by other CEOs. They, and only they, are worth your attention. Only these stories will help you grow and understand something about how this world works. And oh, how I wish I could hear the stories of my own failures lying on the ground from one of those cold but kind corpses of former CEOs.

And as I wake up every morning with the feeling that I’m dying, I understand that I’m turning into one of those young but dead unicorns. While I’m still slightly warm, I would like to share with you my stories of failures, screw-ups, and blatant foolishness. Here, you will find tales of choosing the wrong people as co-founders at the very beginning of the way, how two months turned into two years, how I avoided taking investments from “bad guys,” how I fell in love with my product, how I ignored metrics and where it led me. And most importantly — how to mess up everything and what Seneca has to do with it.

Dear ones, if you are already waking up at 5:30 am, then make the most of this time. Don’t be like me.

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