Entrepreneur 2 Entrepreneur With Amber Gunn Thomas: What I Learned Shutting Down My Startup



Starting a business is tough, but winding one down after years of effort can be equally challenging.

How do you handle the tough conversation with your customers? Your stakeholders? Yourself?

Amber Gunn Thomas created an online business around the DIY economy.  The Patchery was a marketplace that enabled everyday people to be part of the creative process without having to be an amazing artist, or designer. After being full time on the Patchery for three years, since April 2014, Amber made the decision to cease operations in the spring of 2017.

In this Entrepreneur 2 Entrepreneur series curated by Sean Higgins and underwritten by Router Ventures, she talks for the first time about lessons learned and what the process was like for her:

You were creating a new category – how challenging was that? What did you learn about your customer?

What I thought: Based on the popularity of Etsy and Pinterest and DIY projects, I believed there was a strong do-it-yourself desire. The assumption was that people would put effort in and find joy in this creative part of a DIY the process and appreciate being able to hand it off to an expert craftsperson.

What I learned: people are really busy. Especially in an online shopping environment, it’s quick and it’s fast, so it’s hard to get people to slow down and enjoy the experience. Some of the feedback we got was, “Oh I love the idea, and I’ve been meaning to do that for weeks and I just never got around to it.” There was a disconnect between their cognitive desire and their behavior.

Spend more time than money validating your concept. Spend as little money as possible even if it slows you down a little bit. People need to validate your idea with their dollars.

There are two different kinds of eCommerce businesses that we see a lot, one being the quick transnational type that are meant to increase efficiency and then there’s those that are more centered around the experience. What do you think about the target market for ecommerce experience?

I think the market for those desiring an online experience is much smaller than I thought. After I took the website down I was getting Facebook messages from customers saying, I still think about The Patchery and how much I want to go out and design something. And if I had about a million of those people I could’ve had a shot! I think the niche is smaller than I thought, the last time I looked even at Etsy it was struggling to grow it’s base of handmade shoppers.

In hindsight, what are things you would do differently? What questions would you have asked earlier? What are different routes you wish you would’ve taken?

It’s hard because I’m generally a person that regrets very little. I think every experience is important in it’s own way. Everytime I took a step it was based on solid rationale. But, with those hindsight goggles on I wish I would’ve slowed down in the beginning. I pushed hard because I wanted to launch quickly. But, I think, had I spent 6mo or a year validating the concept I would’ve had a better shot. I think I could’ve tweaked what and how we brought The Patchery to market or I could’ve not brought it to market all. I loved what we were doing, it was personal and I found joy in it.

Walk us through winding things down. Were there other founders/team members you had to break the news to?

It was just me for a long time. First thing I would say, looking back, I would never ever ever do it alone again. It’s too hard and you need someone in it with you to push ideas around. It was hard to have every single decision fall on me. The final decision to shut it down came after gBETA. It was an incredible experience to be around seasoned entrepreneurs. That was the process in which I realized it was still going to be a long road of trial and error to figure product market fit. At the time we didn’t take any outside money, my husband and I were still financing the business. I started thinking about outside money and about bringing on a cofounder but it’s hard to do both of those things when you’re two and a half years into it and have very little traction. I think it could’ve been beneficial for me to take money earlier so that I could’ve failed faster and pivoted.

At what point did you decide to not continue trying to save the business, when did that hit you for the first time?

About three months after the gBETA program I sort of pulled back for a few months. I kind of put the business in a slower mode while I experimented with ideas. I realized the business just didn’t have any momentum on its own, so the writing was on the wall.

How did you break the news to customers?

I sent out some personal messages from me to a group of core customers within a closed Facebook group explaining what was happening. They were super understanding. I will admit, for me, that was much easier than I thought it was going to be. Making the decision was hard, but once I made the decision everything else was easier.

The only person that I really felt like I let down was my husband because we had been financing for the business out of our savings. But, he saw everything that I had tried to make it work first hand so we got through that very quickly.

More surprising was that, outside of the startup community, people saw the failure differently. I would get condolences…almost as if a friend died. I would have to pep-talk them and tell them that it was ok and that I was ok. That failure is just a part of the process of trying new things.

What are your final thoughts in retrospect?

One of the most amazing things that has come out of this is what I’ve been able to teach my kids. I have an eight year old daughter and a nearly six year old son and we talk about failure all the time. Both my husband and I work with startups and failure is a part of every day. We always talk about it in the context of learning. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning as much as you could be.