By Robin D. Schatz
One of the worst parts of shutting down a business is breaking the news to others. It's excruciating to announce to your employees that your dream is dead, and downright agonizing to inform investors that you can't deliver. But perhaps most challenging of all is finding the right words to tell your children.
It took Brad Fisher, an otherwise gutsy serial entrepreneur, about a week to get up the nerve to tell his two young sons he was pulling the plug on Stamford (Conn.)-based dot-com Tailwind Inc. "I've tried to teach them not to be quitters. To me, admitting defeat was really like quitting," he says. It also hurt to lose his superhero status so soon. "I remember with my dad I was pretty old before I realized he wasn't perfect," he adds.
I first met Brad in the fall of 1999, when dot-coms were still sizzling, and Tailwind, a proposed online resource center for entrepreneurs, was raising capital. Last May, Brad and his partners finally secured a modest $2 million in venture funding--enough to lease an office, hire 21 full-time employees, and launch their Web site. But Tailwind's business plan called for another $25 million, and that became impossible after Nasdaq's collapse. By last fall, the company was running dangerously low on cash. After three rounds of layoffs, the team had dwindled to just five, including Brad. In Feburary, he says, they chose to return the remaining funds to investors, and last month, they sold Tailwind's name and existing content to a Web development outfit.
While Brad hesitated to tell his sons about Tailwind's demise, he kept his wife, Kim, in the loop. He always has. During their 17 years of marriage, Brad has done five startups. His biggest hit: Aim 21, which developed a database for advertisers to store multi-media clips. Brad sold it to Reuters Group PLC in 1996 for $6 million. The Fishers later sank their $300,000 nest egg--most of their profits from the sale--into Tailwind.
But Tailwind wasn't just a business. To Tucker, 10, and Brooks, 7, it was more like a family member. The boys visited the office often, socialized with Tailwind families, explored the Web site, and collected Tailwind hats and bags.
Brad finally found his courage driving home from a father-son outing. "I started by saying that I'm going to be starting a new business now. The first thing they said was, `What about Tailwind?"' Brad explained they couldn't afford to keep Tailwind going. Their employees would find new jobs, and he was starting a consulting business. "Their reaction was a lot stronger than I'd expected," says Brad. Both boys got teary. Tucker, 10, exclaimed, "But I love Tailwind!" Brooks, 7, asked quizzically, "You're going to start an insulting business?"
Reaching for a comforting sports metaphor, Brad explained that in business, as in soccer, you can lose the game. But then you get right back out there the next time and score the winning goal. A week or so later, Tucker told Brad, "I think I know how you feel, Dad. It must feel like you took last place in a soccer tournament."
Recently, Brad and the boys said good-bye to Tailwind for good. Together, they shredded papers and heaved trash into the dumpster. And now, all the Fishers are moving on. Tucker admired the new business cards for 10x Partners Inc., Brad's new sales and marketing consultancy, and just the other day he declared the new company would be "even better than Tailwind." Brad also realizes he's no quitter in his sons' eyes. "In the scheme of things, a business failure is not a big deal," says Brad. "Losing a business is part of life, and I hope Brooks and Tucker can understand that." If Tailwind managed only to teach Brad's children that it's all right to flop and try again, perhaps it was a success after all.
Schatz, an editor at Small Biz, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org