The last year has brought to light an alarming number of suicides in the entrepreneurial community. While we may never know exactly what it was that drove these people to take their own lives, it’s not too hard for me to guess. The truth of that matter is, startups are really hard, but not just because finding a rockstar developer for under $120K is impossible, or because Facebook is just going to do what you do, but better. Startups are really really hard for 3 reasons:
- They take forever
- They are lonely
- You can never switch off
I am however a firm believer in that fact that everything in life is relative, and your attitude towards something can be controlled based on the expectations you set. Yes, an entrepreneur must have undying enthusiasm for his/her insane vision, but at the same time, if more founders went to war knowing what to expect, I feel like there would be fewer people who aren’t prepared to handle the collateral damage that comes with it. This is what I tell first time founders who come to me for advice, about the reality of what they are about to get themselves into:
They take forever: Every entrepreneur goes into his first VC pitch, promising to go from $0 in revenue this year, to $10M (while claiming to being ultra conservative) next year, if only he can get this investment in. Profitability is right around the corner you say. Three years later, you’re in your Series A pitch, and you’ve done $500K in revenue that year. Two years later you’re in your Series B meeting, and you are maybe going to break that $10M mark if the stars align. You think back to five years ago and chuckle at the thought that you could have ever believed that you would grow that quickly. As an entrepreneur, you are are almost never as far along as you thought you would be on any given day. This is frustrating and makes you question your idea, your market, your employees, your own work ethic, and your future. Did you make the wrong decision? Should you have joined Uber as an early employee instead? Why are you doing this when you’ve given away 5 years plus 50% of your company, and still don’t see an exit or that hockey stick growth in sight? Those are questions that forever consume your thoughts. To make matters worse, every asshole at every big company is stringing you along with regards to that big partnership. Of course they are: 1. Very few employees are big companies are ever motivated / empowered to make decisions like this. So why bother? 2. The longer this takes, the more likely you are to have either gotten more traction, or be closer to running out of money, both of which helps the big company negotiate that deal with you. Biz dev / partnership deals are the bane of every founder’s existence.
They are lonely: It’s very lonely at the top. Not just in startups, but generally anywhere in life. When you are the CEO, there’s a lot you can’t share with anyone. As much as you cry for transparency within the organization, there’s still a ton you just can’t say out loud. Like how you think your entire management team probably should be swapped out for a new set, or how you constantly question whether you are even right to be leading this company as CEO. Nobody taught you how to do this job, you just happened to land in the seat. But you can’t tell anyone that you aren’t sure of every decision you make – you have to go at every day like it was written in the stars. This problem can sometimes be ameliorated by having 1 or 2 co-founders who can share the burden with you, but for single founders, or co-founders who have the others leave while 1 continues to run the store, the loneliness can be what gets you in the end. The best that you can actually hope for is to have a few other entrepreneurs that are really good friends that you can be “real” with, or a board that you can truly confide in, and not have to BS during those monthly board meetings in the hope that they don’t fire your ass.
You can never switch off: Probably the worst thing about running a startup is that it truly does consume you. There is literally no time when you aren’t agonizing over something. It isn’t healthy for anything to weigh on your mind like that, all the time. Even when you think you are sleeping, you’re probably dreaming about something or someone at work. The worst part is that the startup culture has made this the status quo – founders are actually expected to never go on vacation, and to be available for a phone call at any time of the night. Other founders look at you funny when you say you’re going to Europe for a week for “pleasure”. “Wow, either this guy is crushing it, or he just doesn’t give a fuck about his company anymore” is the general consensus. Never mind the fact that during the entire trip, you will be planning every meal and outing around free wifi hotspots so that you can answer every email and even finish that pitch deck. Your investors wonder why they put money in your company when you post a picture from the beach. And you feel like you are letting your team down because you decided to take a week to get some sun since your mother told you that you’ve been looking pretty pale.
The worst thing a founder can do to his company, is get burnt out and not be able to go full steam ahead. When the founder loses enthusiasm, everyone else is soon to follow. So here are some tips that I recommend to keep sane:
- Have an outlet: For me it’s basketball. At least 4 – 5 days a week, I set aside 2-3 hours to hoop. This is literally the only time during the week when I am able to completely shut the company out of my mind and focus on something else, that I actually love more than my company. Alcohol is not an outlet for those of you who were going to put “happy hour” down in this category.
- Get massages: Massages are a great way to spend an hour de-stressing while hopefully allowing your mind to shut off and just enjoy the pressure on your back, instead of on your brain. When we make it big time, I plan to have a full time masseuse on staff and force everyone in the company to get a massage at least once a week.
- Work remotely: Sometimes, just being able to work from a location other than the city your office is in can be a huge stress reliever. You feel somewhat removed from the insanity for a few days, while still continuing to put in the hours, but perhaps it’s while sitting poolside somewhere. A change of scenery can do wonders for you.
- Set the right expectations at home: Make sure your boyfriend / girlfriend / wife / husband / partner understands that they can’t be #1, and that they are at peace with it. When you are at dinner and an investor calls, if you are going to take that call, they need to be completely okay with it, not muttering under their breath or making a sarcastic remark when you get back to the table.
- Have close entrepreneur friends: Your significant other doesn’t understand everything that’s going on at work, but a close friend who is dealing with the same shit most certainly will. They will welcome the ability to have someone else to bitch to, while also being able to see that they aren’t alone in dealing with the investor who just won’t say no, but can’t say yes either.
- Go on frequent vacations: Even if you are going to be working throughout the vacation because it’s impossible for you to unplug that damn iPhone, taking frequent short vacations is a great way to break the routine and feel like you’re not getting burnt out. Taking a quick break each quarter to go somewhere for 4-5 days is nothing to be ashamed of, and should not reflect poorly on your work ethic. After all, nobody is counting the number of days that you’ve worked till 3am.
Startups suck, while also being the most exhilarating thing you will ever do in your life. Set your expectations appropriately, and ensure you make time for a few other things, otherwise you’ll burn out and everything will be for naught.