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Dec. 22, 2022 9:00 AM PST

Fridge No More was about to be no more.

It was almost midnight on a cold late-winter night in Brooklyn, and there was little movement inside the failing startup’s once-bustling grocery-delivery hub. But Pavel Danilov, Fridge No More’s CEO, couldn’t resist the urge to tidy up.

It might have been the muscle memory he had developed after working for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, over the past two years. Or maybe it was the faint hope that a buyer would swoop in at the last second and rescue the 15-minute–delivery company he and his fellow Russian co-founder, Anton Gladkoborodov, had thought would be their ticket to success in the U.S.

For the next hour, Danilov ignored the fact that every banana, loaf of bread and bag of chips surrounding him would never reach a customer’s door. Though his 450 delivery workers had already made their final runs, he kept moving groceries to their correct shelves and making sure refrigerators were properly closed. “It didn’t really make sense,” Danilov said, looking back at that rock-bottom moment last March. “I didn’t want to see my store look like trash.”

As the tech industry’s downturn worsens, a growing number of startup founders who flourished during the boom times of 2020 through 2022 are confronting a new sense of panic and insecurity. “In the next 20 months, 50% to 60% of all the early-stage companies will go under,” General Catalyst managing director Niko Bonatsos told The Information’s Kate Clark recently. “It’s going to be a very sad state of affairs.”

Many of these companies’ founders may soon find themselves navigating a dimension of entrepreneurship that receives less attention than the triumphant success stories or the explosive scandals: the desperate final months searching for a lifeline; the waves of anxiety and disappointment that hit as the slim hopes for survival fade; and, possibly, the awkwardness of settling into a new job where they are not the boss anymore.

The story of Fridge No More’s final days, told here for the first time, provides a glimpse of this unfortunate reality for founders who believed they had struck upon the next big thing, only to discover their business was more vulnerable to threats than they’d thought. Danilov and Gladkoborodov had built a product that customers enjoyed, and watched revenue surge upward for months.

But little prepared them for what was coming next, with investors pulling back on funding and the era of easy money shrinking in the rearview. This is a story that’s been repeated many times in the boom-and-bust cycles of tech: the tale of the founders who arrived at the party too late.

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