A letter from the founder + CEO of Fruitful Fertility
Full transparency: I have been putting off writing this blog post for two months…casually moving it from one week’s to do list to the next (along with “Schedule dentist appointment”). Each time I move it, this sinking feeling of fear and shame tags along behind it. But now it’s time to share. As the infallible Brené Brown says, “Shame cannot survive being spoken and being met with empathy.” So here goes.
A couple months ago, Brad and I made the challenging, heart-wrenching (yet completely necessary) decision to close Fruitful, effective April 1, 2021.
It is never an easy decision to close a business, especially when its mission is so personal and purposeful. However, we faced a challenging year and costs associated with operating and maintaining the platform continued to outpace our revenue projections. This was a hard decision, but it was the right one for us, our investors, our partners and the company itself.
A Bit of Backstory
When we launched Fruitful back in April 2017, we had no idea what to expect. A one-on-one mentorship service designed completely for the fertility community. What would that even look like? Could we build it? Did people want it?
We didn’t know if 5 people would sign up or 105. But as the months rolled on and the feedback rolled in, we could see that the program was working. It was helping real people get emotional support and feel more connected on their journey through infertility, IVF, miscarriage, and child loss.
It was a powerful feeling for Brad and me. Cathartic. We were taking our own trauma and transforming it into purpose and community. We had built this tool from scratch — even if we couldn’t grow a baby, we could grow a support system for others. A community. Something to help others feeling isolated and disappointed, month after month.
In August 2019 with a couple thousand users, I made the decision to leave my full-time job and commit to Fruitful. I’d been trying to balance working as a Creative Director at a digital marketing company, growing Fruitful and (finally!) being a new mom and it was just…not working. I felt like a failure in all three pillars of my responsibilities. It was time to give Fruitful a real shot.
In February 2020 (just a few weeks before the Coronavirus knocked the world off its axis), we closed on a friends and family round of fundraising. We launched our new app. We started charging for the service. And these changes allowed us to hire a couple brilliant contractors to help us brainstorm and implement our ideas for growing the company.
We had big dreams and big goals. But we had little money and little time.
Why We Closed
The pressure to perform was real. When you’re running a full-time business (with the goal of transforming it into an enterprise) rather than a passion project or side hustle, it needs to make real money. There are vendors and contractors to pay. Servers to scale. Content to fund.
You can run lean and mean when you’re bootstrapping for a while, but we were struggling to transition from a self-funded (literal) mom-and-pop business to a self-sustaining startup with hockey stick revenue that could attract big investors down the road.
It’s hard to make a startup work even during the best of times. We’ve all heard the statistic that 50% of businesses fail within five years (U.S. Bureau of Labor). Add in a pandemic, an upside-down medical industry with uncertain budgets, our own family in disarray, and we were backed into a corner.
I want to be clear: the program that Fruitful created (the 1:1 mentorship service for the fertility community) worked. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped a lot of people. The emails we received from our members saying how grateful they were for the support and community kept me going. I loved feeling like the work we were doing was meaningful and that it mattered. But the company was not profitable and we were unable to continue to use investor funds in good conscience.
At the height of the company, Fruitful had 4 employees, over 5,200 users and notable partnerships with trusted healthcare companies and fertility brands. We helped thousands of people get emotional support during a traumatic time in their lives.
By taking action early, we’ve been able to close the company with the highest levels of integrity and compassion possible, maintaining our relationships with investors, team members, advisors, customers and the community.
In the end, we were able to sell some of our IP, which not only helped us recoup some dollars, but also felt good. One of the hardest parts of letting go of Fruitful was saying goodbye to all of the educational, inspirational content and marketing work we created from scratch. Knowing that other companies with similar missions will now benefit from our work is a silver lining.
What I Learned
I could easily fill a Moleskine notebook with the things I learned, but I’m just gonna share a few high-level takeaways I learned as a first-time founder and CEO, and save the rest for my LiveJournal.
- No one is born knowing how to do this stuff (bookkeeping, payroll, FB ads, P+Ls). Time to put on your Figure-It-Out jorts.
- If you *really* don’t know how to do something (after extensive Googling) or you don’t know where to start, ask your friends who they know. Ask those folks what they know. Pay them for their expertise if you can. If they won’t accept money (or you can’t swing it), pay them in caffeine.
- Listen to your users. Listen to your community. This is not about ego or vanity or “your idea.” It’s about creating something people want to use. Something helpful.
- The big decisions are hard to make, but you have to make them. Not making a decision is also a decision.
- Revenue isn’t the only KPI that counts. Looking at our engagement numbers, our press mentions, our podcast downloads and testimonials made me see that just because it couldn’t financially scale, doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. People were engaged in the community. They cared. It *did* matter.
- Find other co-founder/CEOs whom you admire and cling on desperately. I would never have been able to make it as far as I did without the emotional support and spreadsheet/email template help from Melissa Kjolsing, Melissa Danielson, Aneela Idnani Kumar, Danielle Steer, Amanda Heyman, Margi Scott. Period. Find your people. Trust them. Brainstorm with them. Listen to them.
- Getting clear on the problem you’re trying to solve (and getting your whole team aligned) is 80% of the battle. Be specific about what you want to solve and who you are solving it for. Focus and commit. Otherwise you’ll feel overwhelmed and confused every day.
- Know that you don’t really know very much. Keep asking questions and striving to learn. Read. Listen to podcasts. Read some more.
- Don’t let other companies or pitchfests or accelerator competitions or vanity press distract or discourage you. Keep your eyes on your own swim-lane.
Would it be unprofessional to put a shrug emoji here?
First thing’s first: I’m taking a bit of a breather to regroup. This gal’s brain (and spirit) needs a break. So I’m taking a few months to unwind, read, meditate, garden, hang out with my family and reconnect with my friends (I’ve been a bit…distracted…these days).
After that, there is still some ambiguity on what I’d like my next role to look like. But I’d enjoy working at a growing, customer-focused company (ideally in a senior-level position where I’d have the opportunity to lead a growth, marketing or creative team).
I’m hoping to work with a smaller company or startup where I can apply my knowledge and strengths in marketing, branding, messaging, as well as operations. So if you know anyone hiring for…uh…something in that zone…let me know!
Thank you so much for everyone’s kindness and the incredible support you’ve shown. Brad and I are grateful beyond words for your friendship, ongoing encouragement and support. This journey would not have been possible without you. It’s been an exciting ride and one with significant learning and growth.