A friend took the plunge this year and started her own business, producing beautiful organic bedsheets. She messaged me the day before their Kickstarter went live, and I asked her if she was excited.
“I am. But more than that, I am EXHAUSTED”, she replied.
I smiled at my phone screen, nodding knowingly at that oh-so-familar word staring back at me in caps. I had had the kind of day that leaves your brain feeling numb.
“Sleepless nights and too much laptop screen”, she continued.
“Saba, does the stress ever stop?”
I paused, read her question again and bit my lip. I wished with all my heart I could reassure her that yes, ultimately the stress would stop. That the longer she ran her startup, the easier things would get.
But that would be a lie.
The truth is — the stress doesn’t stop.
Now that’s the bad news. But there is also good news. Here are a few things that do happen, as you weather the psychological storm kicked up by a startup:
- The reasons for the stress change, and your ‘stress map’ shows you the progress you’ve made! As Popinjay grew, I went from stressing about raising my seed round to raising my Series A. From worrying about launching, to worrying about growth. From struggling with hiring my first team member to hiring my sixth. When you look back, you see progress. Conversations with myself sometimes go like this: “Remember that time when I needed to be mentored through the horror of firing my first employee? Or that time I was stressed about telling my board members we hadn’t hit our milestones? Boy, can I navigate that now.”
- Your ability to manage the stress changes drastically. You develop a skin so thick very few things faze you. You get very good at putting out fires, all the while instilling confidence in your team, your investors, your customers, and yourself! What may have taken a week to bounce back from now takes a day, at times a few hours.
- You learn the art of disciplined thinking. You create walls in your brain between operational issues and strategic issues. I still relate to Elon Musk’s quote about how being an entrepreneur is like chewing on glass and standing at the abyss of death. But I have learned to walk into board meetings with unmasked confidence, and focus on strategic issues with my investors and board members, not operational ones.
- There is more acceptance. I accept that I will sometimes have a wistful longing for the days of my corporate life, when I was “just an employee” and could leave work behind at 6PM. The time when I did normal things on a Saturday night, like going out with friends, without the guilt and stress. I accept that I will sometimes lie awake at night thinking about the deadlines I won’t be meeting, that customer that is unhappy, that “very important” email I haven’t responded to, that team member who seems to be losing motivation, those sales numbers that haven’t skyrocketed just yet. I accept that at times I will wonder if I’m a good partner, times when I will be traveling for work on my husband’s birthday, or our anniversary. Sometimes, I sit across from a friend at dinner as my mind draws up scenarios of fundraising and cash flows for the next quarter. It happens. I accept it. The phrase ‘work-life balance’ usually makes me snicker. This the lifestyle I’ve chosen and I will not let it kill me.
- The faith grows. I would be lying if I said I’ve never had periods of self-doubt — when I questioned the wisdom of ‘not giving up’, and wondered if I was being resilient or simply stubborn? This was particularly true in my first two years running Popinjay. But getting past those times not only meant survival, it meant a renewed belief in myself and my work, and the understanding that overnight success is a myth. Without this belief and understanding, the sustained hard work needed to succeed will be impossible. As Biz Stone said: “Timing, perseverance and 10 years of really hard work will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”
I always tell aspiring entrepreneurs, and every person I’ve ever hired, to make sure they can see through the shroud of glamor and sexiness that surrounds entrepreneurship. That they are aware of the gritty and tough reality of running a startup, where the stress never really stops.
Startup founders — and teams — are obsessed. Call us masochistic. Call us unreasonable. We are focused on the singular goal of making our startup a success to the exclusion of most things in life. There’s magic in the high we get from seeing our product hit the market, from creating something from nothing. From getting one person, then five people, then ten people, then twenty really, really excited about our idea. We see a problem, a gap where our idea fits and we will not stop until it becomes a reality.
We want to do something that truly matters. Something without which the world would be worse off.
And the idea of doing anything else becomes unthinkable.
So we keep going. Even though the stress — well, you know, it never stops :)