Knowing your Edge
It’s great until it’s not.
Startup life has its allure. The promise of being your own boss and not having to take orders from anyone else sounds wonderful to some, for others it’s the promise of a massive sum of money if they execute effectively and get an exit, and for others yet, it’s the ability to passionately build one’s own vision. I definitely understand the allure, having lived this startup life and especially being excited about the latter two of those three.
However, there’s another side to startup life that people don’t see when weighing their decision to join that crazy world. It’s not featured in the news. You only hear about the unicorns there…the lucky >1% that made it big. The only mainstream media that has been remotely accurate in its portrayal of this world is the sitcom Silicon Valley on HBO.
I have lived this life, and I’m now leaving it for a while. I found my edge, I hit that edge, and now I’m going to pass on some knowledge that I have accrued through my time, and hopefully some advice to help you find your edge too…something to help you push through the rough times, and know when it might be time to throw in the towel for a bit.
Everything you’ve heard is wrong. And it’s right.
There’s a lot of advice out there for startup founders. Books, podcasts, Medium articles, blogs, coaches, paid advisors, mentors — there is no shortage of information for prospective and active founders alike.
You will be inundated with advice that will be of varying degrees relevance to your experience. All of it is wrong, and all of it is right.
What do I mean by this? Well, any advice that you receive is based on that person’s experience. There isn’t a single startup founder who has an identical startup experience to another one. There is no perfect formula for founding and running a successful startup company. There are certain rules that will ensure that you don’t fail based on administrative failures. But even for those rules, there are plenty of people who have had “unorthodox” tactics and broke those rules, and those power plays allowed their company to rocket past the well-oiled machines that simply followed the rules.
Use advice as a means to find your epiphanies. Advice is good in that it makes you think about where you currently are, where you’re headed, and if it’s the right direction. You should never blindly assume that you or anyone else is always right. At every step, take all of the advice that you’ve heard, dissect it, and trust your hunches and your experience to make the right decisions. Critically re-evaluate your positions, your decisions, and your advice at every cross-roads. It’s critical to surviving, and prevents strategic blindsides.
And, on that note, immediately dismiss anyone who claims that they have the “whole, magical formula” for a successful startup. This has roughly the same effectiveness as snake oil for running a successful startup. A good advisor will explain what their experience is, and will act as a sounding board for you, not try to force you into their mould.
You will always be told to keep going…especially if you’re good at it
If you are doing good work, creating jobs, leading a team, and showing promise, nobody will ever tell you to stop. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — they will tell you to keep going. If you’re going through a rough patch but are showing promise, they will always advise you that you shouldn’t consider another job opportunity, but rather stick with your vision and see it through.
“You’ve made it this far. Why would you stop now?” is a phrase that you will hear fairly frequently when you’re doubting yourself. And it’s valid if you still inherently have passion for what you are working on and truly, deeply believe that you have the energy and ability to execute on what needs to be done.
However, that phrase can become a slippery slope. You know yourself better than anyone else does. If you don’t believe you can continue to put your best foot forward, or if you’re heading towards burnout, it might be important to step back and make a decision for yourself. It’s much better to know when to stop before you hurt your health and safety, which is very easy to do when you are too entrenched in the startup world.
Know that eventually your company will not be your company
This is a difficult reality to choke down, especially since you go into the startup world to avoid having a boss and to see your vision through. At the end of the day, companies need money to survive, and more often than not, that money cannot come from revenue alone. It comes from investors.
Regardless of if you have investors or not, your company will only be completely true to your vision in the very beginning stages. Once you start getting customers, they become your boss. You will have to build something that people will buy, and that means that you have to tailor your product and marketing to your customers. As they make demands, you will have to meet them to minimize churn. You get to choose which demands to respect and which to backlog, but the customers are still the ones who define the direction that the company goes.
If you end up getting investors, they also start to affect the vision and direction of your company. On top of meeting customer demands, you will have to start meeting the growth demands of your investors. While this is less so at the angel stage, and often your angel/pre-seed investors believe in you and allow you to guide the company as you see fit, as you get to later stage VCs, they will demand board seats and accountability. They become your boss and if you go against their will, you will get fired if your decision wasn’t the best one.
So, be prepared that while you might not have a titled “manager” above you, there are still people who end up controlling your company, and often times they are much more ruthless than the average manager.
Do what’s right for you
If you are in the startup world, know when you are burning out. If you hit the wall, it’s not in the best interest of your company to continue running it. You know if you have enough left to keep going.
It can be a nice ego stroke to know that you’re good at running the company, or building a product, or marketing a service. But it’s also important to note that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that you should make it your full time job. You have to get fulfillment from what you’re doing, especially to keep the will to survive through the ruthlessness of startup life. When this fulfillment runs out, there is no dishonour in acknowledging that startup life may no longer be for you and choosing a new path in life with more stability. That is your decision to make.
If you haven’t entered the startup world yet, consider all of what it is. Don’t just buy the hype…know the stress that is involved, the emotional highs and lows, the liability and financial stress you will be undertaking, the amount of hours that you will be putting in to see it through, and the strain it will place on your exercise and eating habits, and on your social and family life. There is also no dishonour in accepting that it may not be for you. There are many other amazing options other than being a startup founder that can give you the same kind of fulfillment with less risk — from working at another startup to finding a larger organization whose vision matches yours.
In the end
Startup life is challenging and exciting. At times it’s exhilarating, at other times it’s exhausting. It is the exact opposite of stability — often times it’s chaotic. You will be taking on great risk with a high likelihood of failure.
At the end of the day, you have to know what’s right for you at the right time. Every decision you make will have its pros and cons, and you will likely have regrets no matter which decision you make. But your true strength will show through when you can not only make the right decision for your company, but also for yourself.
I finally found my limit, and realized that I needed a change from startup life to ensure that my personal health did not take any further hits. Letting go can be tough, but sometimes it’s necessary, and it’s anything but dishonourable.
My only wish is that you too can make the decision that is right for you.