Startup Founders: Embrace the Hardship!

“I can’t hire a good sales rep, and it’s ruining my life.” Most sane people would label this as complete exaggeration, but when a fellow founder told me that last week, I knew it was true. Not so much that he couldn’t hire someone for his sales team, but the fact that something seemingly trivial was making him miserable.

In Ben Horowitz’s words:

”The biggest myth is that it’s fun. The reality is that creating and running a business is an incredibly tough grind, and it’s emotionally debilitating. It can be euphoric, but more often than not, it’s terrifying.”

If you’re thinking about starting a company, this post might help you get a better sense of what it really means, so you can see whether it’s what you want or not. If you’re already a startup founder, maybe this post will give you some comfort, knowing that you’re not alone in the struggle.

The things that are hard

OK, so everybody told you it’s hard. No one told you exactly what is hard though, so I’ll try to clear that up first. Running a startup is hard because you face situations of high uncertainty and high pressure, situations like these (some happened to me with Front, I guess others are just around the corner):

  • You make an entire family move to a new country. You raised funds and want the team to relocate to the same office, and it’s a great opportunity for everybody. But if 12 months down the line you have to close, you know it’s going to impact an entire family, including the “innocent bystanders.”
  • One of your best employees leaves. Great fit with the team, impressive skills, good work ethics, but he made a decision: he’s leaving in two weeks. What did you do wrong? Will others follow? What will be the impact on the product? It’s so hard to find and hire good people to work with you: you didn’t realize that retaining the ones you have is the most important part (retention > growth, as usual).
  • Investors say “I don’t want to invest now” and what it really means is “I don’t believe in your company”. When you launch a startup hearing “no” is part of your daily routine. Everybody says no to you, but the hardest “no” comes from investors. The job of an investor is to see the potential in a company, and bet on it before this potential is obvious to the rest of the market. So whenever an investor says no, it’s not merely that he has his doubts on the product, the market or the vision. It’s that he doesn’t believe that your company will be able to make it work, ever — otherwise he’d be investing. Not a great morale booster.
  • You fire someone who quit her previous job to join. Everything was going to be so perfect for her and for the company, except it just didn’t work out. That person left a great job, maybe lost a lot of unvested options to join your company, but you have no choice: she must go. But where? It shouldn’t be your problem, but it’s partly your fault that it didn’t work out, so it’s hard not to feel guilty.
  • Your service is down. Thousands of companies rely on you to function optimally. They even pay you good money, and you just let them down. You have no idea how long the outage is going to last, or if it’s going to happen again soon. You know some customers will leave, and you will lose the trust of many others, but you can’t really blame them: you can only blame yourself…
  • When it rains, it pours: bad things tend to happen all at once. When it hits, you have to deal with a demotivated team, unhappy customers, worried investors, and no one to talk to about it.
  • You think about your work all the time, even when you spend time with the people you love, you’re not entirely with them. You can’t switch off.

These stories are not horror stories from failing startups. They are everyday moments of companies doing well, all around the world and across many industries. Even with good growth, a great team and helpful investors, there is always something going wrong somewhere. Your mind is constantly preoccupied and the feeling is unpleasant. Add to the mix high customer churn, slow growth, and less than 6 months of cash left, and you can understand why some founders just quit and never look back. If you wanted a job that would make you feel happy, this is not the one.

Embrace the Hardship

But some things help. For starters, realizing that it’s hard for everyone makes it a bit less lonely. You see all those headlines of companies just crushing it, but you know what the founders are really going through. Facebook had serious cofounder issues early on, Slack’s first product never made it of beta, and you can bet that Uber’s execs aren’t too comfortable dealing with all those trials everywhere they go, yet those are the companies every startup is trying to emulate. They got their fair share of hardship, and so should you if you want to get where they are.

The other good thing is that this hardship is where value comes from. As cliché as it sounds, nothing of value was ever created by just taking a walk in the park. Don’t jump to the wrong conclusion — it doesn’t mean that because you’re suffering, you must therefore be building something of value. The correct deduction is that if you’re not getting through hard times, then maybe you’re not trying hard enough to beat the average.

Fortunately, most people are not trying hard enough to beat the average, and that’s how it becomes the average. Whatever market you’re in, for every minute you hold your ground and endure the pain, you’re getting closer to passing the “great filter” that stopped so many before you. “I can’t take it anymore”, they said, and that’s how rareness is created. Those who held long enough to pass the filter are the ones who built something of value, for the exact reason that so many stopped when it hurt. They are the ones who achieved greatness.

Unveiling this connection between hardship and value doesn’t ease the pain, but in a way it makes me embrace it (in a non-masochistic way, of course). It means that hardship is the sign that I’m doing something non-trivial, and that helps.

Share the Hardship

If this is not enough for you to feel better about the hard times you’re going through, it might mean that you’re keeping all the pressure to yourself. This is a big mistake. Sharing your problems with others can help you in many ways:

Share the problems with your team. As a manager, you might think that it’s your role to deal with the problems, and you should not burden others with them. The truth is nobody takes bad news harder than you do. By hiding problems you’re not making your team’s days better, you’re just eroding the level of trust between you and them.

Take the opposite direction: a brain, no matter how big, cannot solve a problem it does not know about. If you’ve assembled a team of brilliant people, you want them to use their brilliant minds to solve the problems. This transparency builds trust. As Ben Horowitz put it, “the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust”. A CEO’s ability to build trust over time is often what separates well-executing companies from chaotic organizations.

Share the problem with your peers. Build a trusted circle of like-minded founders, who are going through the same things as you are, and with whom you can be open about your thoughts, doubts and struggles. Accelerators are the best for that. Even though we “graduated” from Y Combinator almost a year ago, we benefit from this side-effect more and more so every day.

Share the problems with your friends and family. They might not be able to help, or even understand what you’re going through, but they always offer a refreshing perspective on things. “At least you look healthy.” “In ten years this won’t matter.” “We love you no matter what.” They help you take one or two steps back and reconsider your situation in the grand scheme of things, so that you don’t forget this obvious truth: your company is not your life.