Fast-Tracking Resilience For Entrepreneurs
This article is part of a series by Ananda Impact Ventures Co-Founder Johannes Weber called “Make it matter”
Confessions of a founder
Finally, I’m back in my bed in Munich. From here, when the night falls, I can hear lions roaring in the zoo nearby. We all need these wind-down times, the feeling of being safe, of belonging to something bigger. This is where we recharge after a stressful day.
Today was surprisingly challenging. This afternoon’s board meeting was different from the ones I’ve become used to attending as an impact VC.
At Ananda, we like to run our board meetings with passion and vigour. We want them to be beneficial to our founders, not just a reporting event. We like to drill down to the core of the business, work on its DNA, and find ways to make it better.
Sometimes this is inspiring. Sometimes it can hurt. But today, there was an unexpected twist.
The founder seemed different to me. I sensed he was overplaying something, but I couldn’t quite grasp what it was. It’s one of those moments when intuition tells you to break with standard procedure. So right in the middle of a sales pipeline discussion, I felt the urge to ask a simple but powerful question: “How are you? Really?”
The founder looked puzzled. In his eyes, I could see him wondering about where I was going with this question. I smiled and slowly repeated my question. He paused — then he let go. He said, “I’m going through a difficult time. I love my children, but I can’t handle my marriage anymore. I’ve moved out.”
I asked, “Where are you living?” He said, “In a camper van not far from the office.” I tried not to look too surprised and continued. “For how long?” “For two weeks now. I haven’t seen my children since then. My wife will not let me near them”.*
Building a start-up requires creativity, and research shows that stress kills creativity. A marriage crisis is among the top three stress factors. So, given what’s on this founder’s mind most of the day, does it make sense to talk about margins right now? How productive is this meeting really going to be?
Learning to dance on the edge
We all face difficult periods in our lives. And unpleasant events never come at a convenient time. They just happen. The only thing we can do is learn to cope with them.
My personal experience as a founder, VC and passionate father of three has led me to deep dive into the idea of “resilience”. Your level of resilience determines how well you’re prepared for a negative event — both how deep you fall and how quickly you bounce back.
It’s not about avoiding stress: it’s about dealing with it.
I love this idea, because if we try to avoid stress, we might miss out on some of life’s most amazing opportunities. How can you raise children without stress? How can you build a company without stress? You can’t. It’s not about being perfectly balanced in every single moment of our lives. It’s about learning how to dance on the edge when we need to.
Think about the balancing board. If we move one foot to the edge, it becomes unstable. This happens either through intended change or a life challenge, and we need to balance it out.
If you are balancing on a narrow, unstable platform, it can easily tip up and you fall. Just imagine balancing on the pin of a needle. Almost impossible, isn’t it? The platform is your “tolerance window”. This is the zone in which a person is able to function most effectively.
The goal of resilience is to make the platform (the tolerance window) you balance on as wide and stable as possible. This way, we can enjoy the view from the edge without being in danger of falling off.
Resilience — a battery or a muscle?
To me, resilience is both a capacity and a skill.
On the one hand, it’s like the charging capacity of a battery. If our power is low, our resilience goes down, and we can get stressed out by even the smallest thing, like an annoying colleague or a screaming child. But if our battery is fully charged, we feel as though we could carry the whole world on our shoulders. Some of us are lucky to naturally have more capacity than others.
But like a muscle, resilience can also be developed and trained. By consciously learning from life’s challenging events, the more we become skilled in dealing with stress. So, the good news is that people tend to become more resilient over time.
The problem is most start-up entrepreneurs, and first-time parents are in their late twenties and thirties. They need resilience, and they need it right now.
How can we improve our resilience?
McKinsey identified four categories that strengthen resilience. As you can see, these are no secret life hacks. It’s the simple things. But if applied properly, they can make magic happen.
But there are some obvious ones most parents and founders don’t get right.
Trying to build a successful, and ideally meaningful, business is like becoming a professional athlete. Just as the latter knows they must pay attention to their body and mind, founders need to do the same to achieve peak performance.
I see founders still leading the lifestyle of university students when they’re responsible for a couple of hundred employees and starting a family at the same time. But if they continue like that, in the long run, they have some very painful life lessons ahead of them.
So, what can you do to fast-track your resilience?
Pause and give your situation some real thought. Which resilience category would you like to embrace and improve first? I would suggest that you don’t go to extremes, but just pick the most obvious one. How can it be improved, and what can you do right now?
In my experience, it’s helpful to work on one aspect at a time. Become a researcher of your own life. Observe. Ideally, take notes. Make your best guess at how to improve this particular aspect and try it out. But if your intervention doesn’t help, just drop it. Try something different. Be iterative like you are in building your business.
Is your relationship giving you energy, or is it drawing energy? Can you change something about it? When was the last time you engaged with the natural world? Can you set a goal to hike/swim/cycle in nature once a week? Are you getting enough sleep? Can you make it a challenge to go to bed before 10 pm for a week? Again, observe and take notes. Are you prioritizing what gives you energy over what sucks it from you?
Another thing to check: are you fully acknowledging a challenging life situation? Like not being able to make ends meet at the end of the month or a poor credit score preventing you from making progress. Do you embrace the emotions that come with this? Do you have a partner, friend or coach that helps you deal with it? Be honest, and ideally, try to apply the same level of passion, commitment and rigour into building your resilience as you put into building your business. It’s not just another thing you additionally have to deal with. It’s something that will give you an immediate return on investment in the form of more energy.
If you’ve got a boat that you’re intending to row across the Atlantic in, the smart thing to do is to fix any holes! Resilience is about finding them and dealing with them.
The burden of saving the world
Yesterday I was arrogant. So, I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise. So, I want to change myself. — Rumi, Poet.
Another big stress factor we’ve seen at Ananda, especially with impact entrepreneurs, is the high level of self-identification they have with their business and the social/ecological problem they’re trying to address. Consciously or not, many founders act as though they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, regarding themselves as the Lara Croft or Indiana Jones of Impact.
Spoiler alert: saving the world is complex.
What it actually takes is teamwork, and inevitably, a good dose of luck. Founders have to drop the heavy load of “I will save the world by myself” and become more pragmatic about what they can achieve.
My recommendation would be to go back to what you can control. That’s your input. Don’t get too hooked on the output. Allow for some magic to unfold. It often does.
Our commitment to founders
At Ananda, we’re constantly investigating ways to improve our founders’ health and resilience. We deeply acknowledge that an entrepreneur’s journey can come with many deprivations and that as a VC we cannot just take an elitist view of resilience management.
Just recently, we ran an Ananda workshop with some of our portfolio entrepreneurs. We hiked up one of our favourite mountains in the Bavarian Alps. Once we reached the top, Palma Michel, our coach and mentor, did a resilience session. It was a truly inspiring further step in Ananda’s ongoing commitment to our founders’ health and resilience.
We are constantly looking for ways to improve our own resilience and that of our portfolio companies. If you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear from you!
*The founder story was altered to make sure we respect the privacy of our founders.
Johannes Weber is Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Ananda Impact Ventures