The Startup Success Delusion That Put Me In Hospital

Kyle Gawley
Kyle Gawley
Gravity Founder
The Startup Success Delusion That Put Me In Hospital

It's Wednesday 17th February 2016, four years into my first startup and my stress levels are through the roof.

I'm standing in my kitchen, warming a pot of soup on the stove for lunch when the room suddenly begins to spin as if I'm riding a waltzer after two bottles of Buckfast.

I scramble into the next room in a haze and lay down on the sofa, my heart pounding so hard I can hear the blood pumping in my ears.

Suddenly, everything turns black.

After a few moments, I manage to get back on my feet and look in the mirror; I'm whiter than a corpse. Disorientated and confused, I wonder if I have died and turn around expecting to see my dead body on the sofa.

I convince myself that low blood sugar is the cause, grab a can of 7UP and take a nap.

Upon waking, I feel fine and brush the experience off before hopping into the shower.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a stream of thick black tar erupts from my mouth.

Alarm bells ring, and like any self-respecting nerd, I Google my symptoms and begin my immediate freakout: 'seek urgent medical attention' says Dr Google.

I make a bee-line to see the doctor, who anxiously explains to me that the black tar is clotted blood; I'm bleeding internally and have been for days.

I rush to A&E, where I'm immediately admitted to a bed and surrounded by nurses. The doctor begins questioning me about my symptoms, and as I listen to him, reality suddenly starts to fade into a hazy white mist before disappearing completely.

I regain consciousness to find numerous wires and tubes attached all over my body. I feel sicker than I've ever felt in my life, completely drenched in sweat and disorientated.

"The ambulance is on its way, Mr Gawley" the doctor assures me.

"But, I'm already in the hospital."

"You're being transferred to a special unit at the Royal."

I'm wheeled out to the ambulance and transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where I'm poked, prodded and plumbed up to a drip.

It's midnight at this point, so I have to wait until 7 am to see the specialist and undergo a gastroscopy.

I lay in the hospital throughout the night, unable to sleep; the many thoughts I worry about on a day-to-day basis begin to melt away and are replaced with crippling paranoia about my health and future.

Am I doing to die?

Do I have cancer?

Will my life ever be the same again?

What if I never get to do all the things I wanted? What if I never get to travel and see the world?

Wake Up Call

To cut a long story short: I escaped hospital a few cups of blood lighter and with some damage to my stomach, but nothing that couldn't be repaired.

My experience was caused by a nasty bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) that had been living in my stomach. I'd had symptoms for years: excruciating daily pain and suffering but several doctors had failed to diagnose me - much to the surgeon's horror.

Stress, caused mostly by #startuplife, had been compounding my symptoms and making me physically sick 4-5 times per day and eventually led to having four of my front teeth replaced after they disintegrated from vomiting so much.

My stomach couldn't take any more stress, the lining ripped, and blood started pouring in.

The surgeon warned me about the seriousness of the situation, and that h.pylori was the leading cause of stomach cancer. He couldn't understand why doctors had failed to diagnose this.

The good news was, landing in the hospital was the luckiest day of my life. With two weeks of treatment, I was cured of h.pylori, suffering no more and avoided venturing down a very, very dark path.

This experience turned my entire life upside down, and I spent many months questioning everything.

Am I taking the best care of my body that I possibly can?

Is my diet healthy and optimal?

Am I happy?

The Startup Success Delusion

There is an extraordinary delusion about startup life, usually peddled by people who have never built a startup.

If you listen to the tech media, you'll be lead to believe that it's all very sexy and exciting to build a company, but the truth is – a lot of the time, it's actually really shit.

Startups are glorified every day, and we entrepreneurs are encouraged to build big companies, endure the heartache and aim for unicorn status in the hopes that one day we'll exit and make a personal fortune and retire happily on the golf course.

However, cold-calling thousands of people, raising investment, pitching to investors, building spreadsheets, dealing with rejection daily, managing people problems and the constant stress and sleepless nights is anything but sexy.

It's soul (and health) destroying.

You're aiming so high that no matter what you achieve, you never quite get there. You reach a milestone, and then minutes later, it's obsolete. It can drive you insane.

Don't get me wrong, the first time I did these things – it was exciting, and I learned so much, but unless you love chasing investment and tweaking spreadsheets, you will quickly get tired of it especially if you're a creative person who likes making things.

I'm not saying that venture capital and investors are bad, far from it. I'm fortunate to have incredibly supportive investors, and I wouldn't be where I am now without their support.

What is bad - and a massive problem in the industry - is the idea that every founder must walk this path. There's too much emphasis on business metrics and no focus on human metrics like happiness, health and fulfilment.

I'm so passionate about this topic I wrote a book about it.

After my experience in the hospital, fate brought me to a spontaneous meeting with Kipboard CEO Draven McConville in London. That conversation changed my path completely.

Draven bluntly told me that I'd been brainwashed, and I should go and do whatever makes me happy instead of prescribing to a popular idea of startup culture that was no longer serving me. Thanks Draven!

Sawatdee, Thailand!

My greatest fear when I was lying in the hospital was that I hadn't achieved any of the things I dreamed of, and I may have missed my opportunity.

I hadn't seen much of the world, so I booked a one-month working holiday to Thailand.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

On Wednesday 17th August, exactly six months from being admitted to hospital, fate confronted me again.

This time, I was working from a beautiful co-working space in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand when a friendly lad sat down beside me.

'Alright mate?' says he.

That was a strange greeting to hear in Chiang Mai.

It turns out we went to the same high school in Northern Ireland a few years apart. He'd be working for a startup in Belfast, then packed it in to become a digital nomad, travelling the world while building his business.

Pints in Chiang Mai with Matthew Lok

Travelling the world AND building a business? At the same time?

Sounded much better than vomiting in my office toilet, stressed out to the max every day.

2020 Update

I first wrote about this story in 2016 when it happened, I was still confused, full of questions and searching for answers. Now four years later, I can finally add some clarity.

Landing in the hospital changed my life in many ways. I learned to respect my body and mind and take care of both. I learned to cook (with lots of help from my Thai friends) and adopted a plant-based diet, joined a gym and invested in my health.

Learning to make fresh chilli paste at Auntie Orn's cooking school in Chiang Mai 

Four years on and I've stuck to it and am still optimising my mind and body every day.

After my one month expedition to Thailand, I returned to Belfast for Christmas then booked a one-way ticket back to Thailand to begin my travels.

In 2017, I travelled around SE Asia for nine months living in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Bali and the Gili Islands.

Afternoon tea in Tokyo, Japan
Smoothie bowls for breakfast on Gili Air, Indonesia
Rice-farming in Bali, Indonesia

Bizarrely, while I was living in Bali, I bumped into Draven McConville on his holiday. (that's not Draven in the photo above).

Isn't the universe full of weird surprises?

It was an incredible mixture of business, travel, adventure and working on my startup, but this time focused on organic growth and a balanced lifestyle rather than chasing the unicorn dream. I was much happier, less stressed and most importantly – healthy.

Defying Gravity

In 2018, something still wasn't quite right. I was still searching for something. I wanted to experiment and be more creative - I didn't want to be confined to building one business.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."
- Stephen Hawking

I wasn't sure what my next business idea would be, so I started building a software boilerplate with the typical features I'd need - like authentication and payments. My thinking was that when inspiration struck, I'd be able to use my boilerplate to launch a product rapidly.

Fate walked through the door once again, this time in a different co-working space in Chiang Mai, where I met Mark Hoad.

Arriving at the office in Chiang Mai bright & breezy. No corporate premises here!

Mark took an interest in the boilerplate I was building and suggested that I pursue it as a business.

"What? No-one would buy this!"

"You have several competitors using different programming languages and charging $1,000+ you should look into it."

He was right; there were several very successful businesses executing the same idea, only with Ruby on Rails. I reached out to one of the founders, and he kindly informed me that it was a great business model and he'd since sold the company.

My new friend Mark introduced me to Indie Hackers. Upon signing up, I immediately felt at home - thousands of people building passion-focused businesses on their own terms? Some of them digital nomads travelling the world. I'd found my tribe!

I packaged up my boilerplate and floated it on Indie Hackers to see if anyone would buy it for $99.

I was using an atomic design system and building reusable components called molecules and atoms, so I named my creation – Gravity - because gravity holds everything together.

Starting my Gravity journey at .Fresh coffee in Chiang Mai

I launched on 18th Sep 2018 and within two weeks had my first sale – thanks Chris at OnboardList.

More sales kept rolling in, and Mark bought me pints of overpriced, imported Brewdog from BeerLab in Chiang Mai because I'd beat him in a wager to launching a product.

Gravity was still rough around the edges - VERY rough. I was using jQuery, and Javascript promises - shame on me.

I then met programming genius – Chris Hartwig when he became a Gravity customer and quickly pointed out the many flaws in the original product and helped me fix them. It turned out Chris was also a digital nomad, and we shared a few pints in Chiang Mai.

The universe was once again, steering me onto the right path.

In 2020, my first startup - Get Invited - is now on pause and will likely fail because the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the events industry. I'm currently focusing all my effort on Gravity, which has been hitting $10k per month and growing over 100% annually.

I have no employees, no investors, no funding, no fixed location.

Just me and my laptop, building what I love while travelling the world, having incredible experiences with amazing people.

Looking back, it's surreal how far removed I am from the startup culture I was once heavily involved in and I've finally found happiness in my work after years of searching.

Prestige Is Not Success Is Not Happiness

My late friend, Lyra McKee, once told me - 'there's a big difference between prestige and success Kyle.'

The startup scene revolves around prestige: big funding rounds, big teams, big offices, big growth.

It's easy to get lured into this and equate it with success, but how successful are you to have these things when you spend most of your life stressed out, in pain and being sick?

What Is Success?

I believed I was a successful entrepreneur because I'd raised investment, hired a team and achieved millions of dollars in sales. Yet, I was chronically ill, stressed and depressed.

The problem with success is that we let sources outside of ourselves define it. In the startup world, I was successful; in my world, I was failing.

I can't tell you what success is because only YOU can define what it means for you. I can only tell you that success is not what anyone else tells you it is.

It took me 33 years and almost losing my life to figure this out. I hope my story can help you on your journey.

To health and happiness 🍺

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