A now widely circulated and famous article by Inc. magazine titled The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship unveils the truth behind the typically idealized, romanticized picture of the heroic startup founder. VC’s. Unicorns. IPO’s. Admiration of the masses and glossy magazine covers. It could be me.
Or… Losing your life savings. Losing your friends. Even family. Personal debt and bankruptcy. Sacrificing your health. Burnout. Mental illness. Yes, even suicide. The forgotten founders you don’t read about. Those who fell on the startup sword.
Here’s to all you failed founders, who reached for the stars, but didn’t quite make it.
It’s true. No doubt about it. Creating something from nothing often entails more than a fair share of risk, stress and sleepless nights. Obstacles. Failure. Rejection. Rinse & Repeat. There may be entrepreneurs out there who had calm winds and smooth sailing from Day 1, but that’s not the experience you should prepare for. Somebody also won the lottery, but that shouldn’t be your plan for life.
Most people’s first startup experience will be like sailing across a stormy ocean alone, with no experience in yachting, no life vest, and water leaking in.
But that gloomy reality is only your’s, and maybe your spouse’s. You can’t talk about it. If you do, you’re manifesting failure. Who in their right mind would complain to their employees, customers, board, advisors, or investors that it’s actually really REALLY hard? You’re trying to convince everybody that it’s going to be amazing. That things are going better than expected, and massive success is just around the corner. Get on board before we’re famous! Yet, one false step and the whole house of cards collapses.
Fake it till you make it is a core belief in any person trying to hack together a business from sheer will to succeed.
While there is certainly great value in examining both ends of the spectrum, I want to focus on a golden middle that is actionable on a daily basis. Glory or gloom may be around the corner, but what you do today, tomorrow, and each day counts more. If you can live with yourself through the ups and downs, you can survive to fight another day.
Depending on your experience and chosen industry, your success factors around product/market fit, financing, and scalability will vary, so I won’t go there. That’s what accelerators are for. Instead, I’ll talk about ways in which you can battle the day-to-day struggles that all founders face: rejection, stress, and loneliness.
These methods aren’t mine, but I’ve been using them the past two years, so far pretty effectively, in juggling two startups in Bambu and Missionready.
#1: Be in it for the right reasons
Statistics would point that startups are the worst get-rich-quick scheme ever invented. The media bias towards success stories makes it seem the opposite, unfortunately. If you’re in it for the dough, the rough patches will eat you up. Every obstacle will make you doubt whether it will ever generate that sweet cash you so desire. Then again, if you have a real passion for what you’re doing and/or what you’re trying to achieve, it will give you a sense of purpose. Trust me, that’ll come in real handy.
#2: Blasting through daily rejection
Something you can read through the lines of startup blogs and founder interviews is the acceptance of rejection and failure. There is a selection of inspirational posters available to remind you of the gift that is daily rejection. Nothing beats some rejection with a good cup of coffee to kickstart your mornings!
It’s mostly a facade though. Humans hate rejection by design. Evolution has given us these massive brains to play the social game, and win. Rejection in evolutionary terms means dying alone in a dark cave, talking to your stick friends. It isn’t healthy.
So be grateful.
Not for the rejection, but for everything else. Things that make you happy in your life. Things that are going well. The rocks that keep you rooted in place, big or small. Some days it’ll be the little things, like a memorable conversation or something that made you smile. A random compliment you received. Some days it can be the appreciation of good relationships in your life, the beauty of your favorite season outside, or the good health of your children.
Putting your mind in a place of gratitude when you open your eyes, and when you go to bed has been scientifically proven to change your epigenetics. Meaning the structure of your brains and DNA change if you think good thoughts. Think about it. If sleep is a reboot and regeneration mechanism of the brain, do you want to enter that mode for hours each day with a brain filled with thoughts of revenge, despair, and bitterness? Similarly, as you wake up, is it a good idea to base your day’s thought processes around potential ways to fail today, that nasty email you got last night, or perhaps take a moment to appreciate things that will give you the mental capacity to blast through the insignificant bumps that come along each day?
Another great way to get similar perspective is through social support. People who value you for you, not for your achievements or status. It can be friends or family, but not acquaintances or random people at networking events. Importantly though, do not use these people as garbage dumps for your troubles. You should look to them for comfort and perspective, to get away from your tiny bubble of trifling troubles. Don’t tell your kids about your latest series of rejections from investors, ask them about school and the latest happenings at the neighborhood sandbox. Detach from your reality just for a little while, and immerse in theirs.
#3: Putting a cork on stress
Stress and startups go together like two peas in a pod. Can’t have one without the other. No wait, of course, you could just have less stress if you didn’t have the startup at all. That works. Other way? Not so much. Just a matter of how much, how often, and how you cope with it.
Like Drake, stress can go from 0 to 100 real quick. Once it’s up there, you have to double your efforts just to maintain your levels and not go ballistic. Smaller and smaller things start getting under your skin. Even the good things in your life can start taking a different, negative hue.
Here are a few ways I’ve found I can limit the downside of stress before it becomes a rampant and self-feeding spiral of destruction. Pills and potions not needed.
Daily routines: One seemingly arbitrary place to start, is to simply control the amount of change in your life. Your startup will provide ample amounts of excitement and change, so stabilize everything else. Eat at the same place. Take the same bus. Maintain the same hobbies. Watch the same shows. Keep the same circle of friends. Don’t go looking for extracurricular adventures as sources of extra anxiety. Save all that emotional capacity for the office, and embrace your inner Ned Flanders when you leave.
Breathing: For the last year, I’ve maintained a daily practice of breathing. I started from the nice built-in Breathe app on the Apple Watch, which reminds you to take a few deep breaths every hour of the day. I noticed how dramatic the resetting effect could be, right in the middle of that frantic noon email rampage, or in the last minute taxi ride to make it to your next high stakes meeting. A similar experience for your phone is the Oak app.
I’ve since moved on to more powerful methods like Wim Hof, which opens a whole world of exploration within something as simple as taking a breath. The science really backs this one up, as breathing is the only function in your body that is controlled in parallel by both your voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. By controlling your breathing, you can gain some control over other autonomous functions like your heart, immune system, and even digestion. No, this doesn’t qualify you to wear a long leather jacket like Neo from The Matrix.
Mindfulness: This is currently way more on-trend than breathing, but at the same time it’s trickier to make it effective as it requires more focus and persistence. For high-pace guys in the startup biz, it can be difficult to sit down and chillax to some mellow ambient tunes without sketching out new battle plans to beat your competition to a pulp inside your head. Luckily there’s a slew of apps out there, like Oak, Calm, and Headspace to work your way up to zen-mode. Personally, I find a good 10min breathing session to give me the same effect, but with more action involved to keep my rushing brain in check.
Workouts: In many ways, working out can combine a lot of the benefits of the two categories above. Additionally, it can be used as the ultimate physical purge of all negative and destructive energy built up over another week of bruising startup life. Whether you hit the trails, track, treadmill, or actually punch a bag, it helps to go hard once or twice a week. You’ll be amazed at the sense of emotional rebirth 30mins of physical exertion and pain can bring. You could try Missionready for this.
#4: Co-founders are your co-mmiserators
Having a cofounder that you trust enough to share vulnerabilities with, is one of the best-kept secrets of startups. This is another person, perhaps the only person in the whole world, who not only cares as much as you about making it work, but actually lives that same reality as you do. The same ups that friends shrug off casually, before moving the conversation back to their favorite Netflix shows. The same downs that you keep from the family, so they wouldn’t worry needlessly.
Founders are humans too. Except Elon, I’m not sure about that guy.
As a personal story my cofounder at Bambu, Ned Phillips, has become a huge asset in my life. We laugh at our wins together, and often marvel at the random paths of our successes. We try to laugh at the failures too, while searching for meaning and silver linings. Most importantly, we try to enjoy the minute experiences that make up the journey. We have mutual interests outside of work to keep the relationship grounded, despite our 15 year age difference.
People say it gets lonely on the top. Well, it’s also pretty lonely on the bottom. The worries of the world can seem to pile up with no end in sight, and having someone there to share the burden can make all the difference. Co-founders can often bootstrap each other emotionally to remain afloat through the waves of a typical startup journey.
Hope that helps someone out there, and if it does, I would love to hear about it.
Are you a current or aspiring founder? What works for you?