At the start of a business, the only certainty is uncertainty. The Lean Startup movement has emerged with a range of ways to de-risk this journey. But how do the founders deal with the uncertainty and pressure of leading a new organisation?
I’m a founder. I’ve been through the process in a couple of businesses and I’m currently doing it at Nudjed. I suspect, much like other founders, it’s never been an easy, nor a comfortable journey for me. One of the hardest things, has been dealing with the emotional battering of taking an idea I really, really care about, to market.
Why is being a founder tough?
The change is constant. At the start, more things are wrong, than are right. Each new client win, product launch or employee hire brings with it another set of pressures. Something is always broken, breaking, or on fire in the corner.
As the founder, you fight those fires. Building processes, delegating responsibilities, raising funds. Trying to fingernail back to your strategic road map. Whilst keeping half an eye on the burn rate and runway. Working late, working early, working through lunch so many times you start to lose weight. Never being great at a job, because you’re doing three of them. Then by the time you automate or improve enough to feel a little satisfaction, you’re onto the next phase.
Part of why I think it’s tough is that there’s nobody else to blame.
“It’s your creation, you idiot!”
…my brain screams at each complaint.
In the early days, almost every major decision leads back to you. It’s a requirement that you take responsibility. In fact, most of your investors will be keen to tell you:
“I invested in the people, I invested in you”.
Hello pressure, you big financial b***tard!
Business is good…
…but you’re struggling; And some urgent problem is knocking on your door. You need help. 5 minutes later you walk into a room of other business owners. Here’s the conversation I have had on more than one occasion:
Person 1: “How’s business?”
Me: “Good thanks! You?”
Person 1: “Good thanks!”
*A drip of sweat descends from your hairline to your shirt collar*
The irony is, that the other person could be feeling a similar way. In fact, if you’re in a room full of founders the likelihood is, you’re all feeling almost exactly the same. But still, we don’t say it. Why?
“Leaders don’t show weakness”
Leaders are certain. They are strong. They solve problems. They don’t feel hopeless in the face of a cash flow, or worry about a sales call that didn’t convert.
You are the hero in your own head. You are Superwoman. You are Wolverine. You deflect bullets, heal instantly and look great on the front of magazines.
You are powered by an unflinching belief that what you’re doing is right.
Belief : the feeling of being certain that something exists, or is true.
But… that sale you were certain to land last week just delayed the meeting another month. And… the product features you were certain would go live have too many bugs.
And Google/Apple/IBM just launched a free product that sounds very close to your value prop…
It’s only 20 minutes till you’re due to pitch for the next round of investment, and money runs out in 3, no 2 actually, 2 months…
Are you still certain? Do you still believe?
I’m getting my ego out of the way.
In my experience, almost all my issues have come from ego. When under pressure, I’m consumed by the idea that only I, THE FOUNDER, can possibly take action. When, nothing further could be from the truth.
Things my ego tells me:
- Don’t tell the team, they will panic
- Don’t tell family and friends, they will say “fingers crossed!” and it’ll feel 10x more lonely
- Don’t tell investors, they will shoot down the next fund raise
- Don’t tell other company owners, they will never do a deal with you again
All driven by my big fat certainty that I’m smart, because I’m pretending to be infallible.
Startups are a male dominated arena and I believe we suffer for it. We’re too busy measuring the size of our A-Round, to notice that the other guy is crying.
Agile, Lean, Canvases… There are plenty of tools out there to solve our logical problems. But for me there’s a huge missing element. The people. The thing we claim to care about the most. Then subjected them to 90 hour weeks, ramen diets and unyielding deadlines. I feel it’s time for us to drop the gung-ho ego and say it how it is.
Here’s what happened when I gave it a go…
- My team thanked me for sharing the bad news early, then helped me to come to terms with the tough choices I had to make
- My friends and family said “Fingers crossed”, then asked more questions till they had a proper grasp of what I was going through
- My investors laughed. They told me “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. Then doubled down on their time with me to get a plan sorted
- My peers, thanked me for saying it first. Then we planned things that were unrelated to work, so we could get some perspective
Founding a business can be a sh** for your mental health
I’ve been through this. I’m hoping some other people have too. In fact I’m betting, if you made it this far, you have (and I love you for it). I’m interested in how we can get better at expressing emotions in our companies. If you have any ideas, please share them in the comments. Or tweet me.
I’m confident, clueless and proud. As a logical person, I sometimes struggle to connect and understand my feelings. Asking for help when I don’t quite understand them is tough. But I’m learning to.
In my explorations I’ve found a few things that I’ve found valuable, that I felt may help other people. More as a record for myself (hello Warren in 2050!) than for anyone else:
- You are not your ideas. The more you can stop seeking external validation, the better. Be happy, even if your start up fails. It’s not you.
- Find a style that’s authentic to you. Playing a role is something you may find yourself doing. Be sensitive to this. It shouldn’t last forever.
- Show vulnerability. Leaders who show vulnerability are actually more successful. It allows you to ask for help. Because nobody is infallible.
- Be aware of how you feel. Sensitivity is the first step to understanding and thus avoiding pitfalls. Allow time to reflect on how you feel.
Starting a business is not going to get easier. For the most part, founders are always going to be the thin end of the wedge. If you take the step then please, look after yourself!