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Starting over with a startup: When is it time to stop?

A poster for the fifth annual FailCon in San Francisco.

FailCon attendees Haydee Moreno and Vinit Modi, two first time entrepreneurs hoping to find some good advice about how to avoid failure.  

A session at FailCon.

Lauren Barghout is trying to embrace failure.  She's a scientist and entrepreneur from the San Francisco Bay area.  Recently, she went to a tech industry conference where, in speech after speech, she heard messages about how “innovation is built on failure,” and that “failure is the easiest way to learn.”

Barghout has two failed companies to her own name. And she says these messages made her feel “less like an idiot.” 

Now, Barghout's no slouch. She's got a doctorate from UC Berkeley in Vision Science -- a combination of computer science, neurobiology and physics.

 At her house in Oakland, she's commemorated each of her life achievements with a fish tank. “When I passed my oral exams, I got a fish tank. When I got my masters, I got a fish tank,” she explains, pointing to one that fills half her bedroom. “This was my PhD.”

And yet, after a decade trying to launch a successful company in Silicon Valley, she still has no fish tank for that. Barghout has spent her career developing technology that makes it easier to manipulate and search for photos online. 

“Whenever I pitch it to a VC or a customer, I usually get a ‘Wow!’ and then they bring in the engineers and it gets pretty exciting,” she says. 

She's come close to success, once, twice, but so far hasn’t made it. “But I still believe a version of this technology will change the world,” she says. “And so I'm going to keep doing this over and over again.”

In fact, she's already working on her next company.  But that requires the kind of practical calculations that don’t often get mentioned in the pro-failure books and conferences so popular in Silicon Valley right now. “If I'm able to refinance the house, I have enough housemates that I should be able to cover the mortgage,” Barghout says. 

Barghout's tolerance for risk, her singlemindedness- it’s what you need to be an entrepreneur. But being a single mom in your mid-40s with a bunch of debt and roommates and a series of failed companies can also be “emotionally and financially devastating,” Barghout says. “Having financial problems-- that's already taboo. And having it be your fault, because you chose a very high risk endeavor, and it didn't work out-- it's embarrassing.”

Bargout comforts herself with the stories that have become legend in Silicon Valley--- like how once upon a time, as the story goes, one of the co-founders of PayPal was living on such a shoe-string budget, one day as he was getting in to his car, his foot went through the rusted-out floor. “That’s how desperate it got before they got funding,” Barghout says.

Bust desperation has its limits. Recently, as Barghout’s most recent company was winding down, she says her teenage daughter told her, “Mom, you should get a normal job.”

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

FailCon attendees Haydee Moreno and Vinit Modi, two first time entrepreneurs hoping to find some good advice about how to avoid failure.  

A session at FailCon.

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