The most important part of your startup is your brain. If your brain is not okay, then you are not okay and your startup will also not be okay.
As a founder, your brain’s most common state will be stressed out. Anxiety, worry and sleeplessness are expected. This is because you are trying to do something big with limited resources and time. You and your investors (if you’re fortunate enough to have them) both have extreme expectations for you: that you will create a world-changing company worth billions of dollars.
As a startup founder, you may feel like you don’t have the resources required to meet the expectation of building a revolutionary company (resources can be interpreted broadly as time, energy, talent, luck and money).
There will always be another milestone that is further out and harder to reach. Living in a chronic place of stress, however, is not sustainable and you will burn out. How do you cope with this?
Understand That Startups Are Hard Even If You Succeed
If you were planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro you’d train and prepare, sometimes for years, and you’d bring along a robust support team, because you would know that it was going to be incredibly hard.
Most of the time, however, I don’t think this insight is commonly shared. We kind of skip right past personally understanding — like deeply getting on a visceral level — that startups can be impossibly hard. As a consequence, we don’t really have the right expectations. We imagine it will be easier and it ends up being much harder.
What’s more, Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator once said “Startups are an entirely new level of hard because they contain so many different varieties of hard.” VCs have funded math wizards, rocket scientists, triathletes, Rhodes Scholars, etc. All of these people are used to succeeding. But guess what? They fail at startups. Why? Because succeeding at a startup is fundamentally different from succeeding in work or graduate school.
In addition to requiring a certain degree of “sticktoitness” and dedication, startups are also hard in other, unexpected ways. This includes tolerance for ambiguity, co-founder stress, managing all sorts of people, lack of sleep, pressure from many different directions and loneliness.
So how do you reconcile all of this? Here’s a tip: Imagine you’re chatting with a friend who is trying to get published. Imagine if she said, “Almost no one is successful. Ninety percent of the people never get published. It can be a lot of hard work with no real promise. I’m worried I’m going to fail.”
What would you think of her odds of success? How would you help her get oriented to the reality of what she’s up against? Tell yourself these same things. Be your own friend and comforter.
The Success Of Your Startup Is Beyond Your Control
Many startups do not fail due to lack of effort, lack of intelligence or even lack of money. Rather, again and again, we see companies with tens of millions in funding, run by the brightest, most driven young minds in the world, and they still manage to fail, usually due to elements outside of their control. Plain old bad luck.
Vinod Khosla said:
“In my decades of encouraging entrepreneurs and innovation, I have learned that an entrepreneur probably only controls approximately 30 to 40-percent of the factors that affect their success. Competitors and environmental circumstances often make up the rest.”
You only control 30-40 percent of the variables that impact success. Stew on that for a minute.
Stephen Covey created this diagram to illustrate what we worry about versus what we can actually control. Our worries are our “Circle of Concern.” Our influence over those concerns are our “Circle of Influence” (Irvine, 2009).
In terms of your startup, it can be helpful to break things down into those that you can fully control, things you can have some control over, and things that you don’t have any control over (Irvine, 2009):
Things you can 100% control: burn rate and how much you choose to work.
Things you have some control over: people you hire; growth rate; retention; and revenue.
Things you have no control over: competitors; technology shifts; personal crises that impact your employees.
Spend less time worrying about things you can’t control and more time being proactive about the things you can. It can be a great relief to have permission to look at reality and say “We will try our best, but there will always be variables beyond our control.”
Make Process Goals, Not Product Goals
With a better understanding of what is and what is not in our control, it’s important to shift focus from product goals to process goals. For example, saying “I’m going to work very hard each day, I’m going to run experiments, track and analyze data, and consult with experts to increase my growth rate.” These are all steps or processes that I can take.
However, saying “we have to grow 40 percent month over month” is a product goal. I’d like to say that, but I don’t have control over all the variables to make that happen. Of course, we will all continue to make product goals, but we need to learn to step back and recognize that actual progress is tied more to deliberate steps than it is to fretting about whether or not we are going to hit a particular product goal that we do not have full control over reaching.
Ultimately, a startup is a leap of faith. You can build a great team, get traction, work with great investors, listen to users and solve problems, but, even still, it might not get you the outcome you want. On some level, that has to be okay, because that is the empirical reality. This is why it is so important to work on something that you really care about — work that is personally meaningful to you — because, then, even if you fail to become a unicorn, you still succeed in other ways.
And remember that your startup, which you are so engrossed in today is just one chapter of your life, one part of your narrative. Yes, you are a founder, but you are also a partner, son or daughter, friend and student. And you always have the power to decide what your startup’s success or failure will mean in the greater story of your life.