How to Take Full Advantage of Your On Deck Fellowship

Part 2

Van Nguyen
Oct 22 · 11 min read
A man in outdoor clothes walking into a wooded forest.
A man in outdoor clothes walking into a wooded forest.
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

If you missed Part 1, you can read it here:

This is Part 2 in an ongoing survival guide series on taking maximum advantage of the On Deck Fellowship (or any similar cohort-based, startup-accelerator program) from a fellow’s point of view. This article covers the psychology of survival: how to manage stress and how to cope with uncertainty.

Psychology of Survival

“Some people with little or no survival training have managed to survive life-threatening circumstances. Some people with survival training have not used their skills and died. A key ingredient in any survival situation is the mental attitude of the individual involved.”

— U.S. Army Survival Field Manual FM 3–05.70, May 2002

A bison with snow on his face.
A bison with snow on his face.
Figure 2.1 — Raúl, the angry male bison. His snow-covered face does a poor job of camouflaging him against the stark white snow behind him. © 2020 Van Nguyen.

Entrepreneurship is a lonely, mentally taxing, financially draining, and extremely unforgiving road to take. You’ll face immense stress, extreme uncertainty, and treacherous setbacks at every turn — and yet life will go on around you completely oblivious to the life-and-death threats you encounter. And this is on top of a global pandemic dramatically affecting your work and home life. There absolutely is a psychology to survival.

The key is to understand the threats, prepare for them in a safe environment, and then adapt in the moment. It helps to learn more about the mental and psychological threats you face and how best to manage them before dealing with physical, legal, and corporate threats.

Stress

What’s stress?

Believe it or not, stress isn’t an inherently bad or negative thing.

Stress is defined as the body’s method of reacting to a condition, whether that’s a physical or emotional threat, psychological roadblock, or even an imaginary event.

Stress gives your body an opportunity to learn how to react to stimuli. You may learn that a mental roadblock isn’t worth stressing over if you take a step back, take a breath, and focus on the problem.

Meanwhile, in an emergency situation, like say when a wild 2,000-pound (907 kg) angry male bison named Raúl is charging at you, your body will react by adjusting your bodily systems in record time:

  • Immediately converts stored sugar and fats to energy
  • Shuts down digestive systems (not urgently needed)
  • Reduces immune system function (not urgently needed)
  • Generates adrenaline (boosts senses, awareness, speed, and strength)
  • Boosts oxygen by accelerating your breathing
  • Enables flashbulb memories— emotional memories to help you avoid future stress

This enables you to react more quickly — and hopefully get to cover and survive. This process uses enormous amounts of energy and can be incredibly draining.

The real problem, though, is chronic stress.

In the above bison-threat example, your body will usually resume normal function within about 45 minutes once you get to safety. However, if you’re exposed to those bodily reactions for prolonged periods (days to weeks), your body will react dramatically differently:

Radically reduce immune system function (Graham J., 2006)

  • You’re more likely to heal wounds slowly
  • You’re more likely to get sick
  • You’re more likely to stay sick longer, recover slower

Achingly alter hormone system

  • You’re more likely to have elevated blood pressure (Hans Selye, 1936)
  • You’re more likely to gain weight
  • You’re more likely to lash out in anger or frustration

Devastatingly decrease brain capacity (McKlveen, J.M., 2017)

  • You’re less likely to store and recall memories
  • You’re less likely to concentrate, learn, and adapt (MedlinePlus, 2019)
  • You’re more likely to experience fatigue and depression
A pencil-style illustration of Raúl, the angry male bison, set against a stylized version of Yellowstone National park
A pencil-style illustration of Raúl, the angry male bison, set against a stylized version of Yellowstone National park
Figure 2.2 — A pencil-style illustration of Raúl, the angry male bison, set against a stylized version of Yellowstone National park. Illustrated by Enrique De Vera for Vidbase, Inc. © 2020 Vidbase.

Building a startup is like trying to build a boat on top of a bigger boat in the middle of a hurricane, and you have to work next to Raúl … aka Next Level Chronic Stress.

But it’s possible to limit stress reactions to a few hours or less if you understand what’s happening and make a decision of acting to prevent chronic-stress side effects.

The first step is to mentally prepare for what could happen while you’re still in a relatively safe environment.

Startup Stress Examples

As a founder, whether you’re new to startup-life or you’ve weathered a few storms, you’ll experience a variety of sources of stress, including but not limited to:

  • Your savings/income are dwindling
  • You, your cofounder, or your team is no longer performing at a high level
  • A strong competitor has released a similar product (perhaps even before you’ve launched)
  • There are some dramatic conflicts within your personal life
  • Investor after investor has turned you away
  • You are being sued by a customer, prior colleague, or investor

Even worse, often these events will occur together, simultaneously — further amplifying the strain it puts on your body, your mind, and your will.

Just expect it.

Prepare for it.

Beat it.

Stress Management 101

Get some rest

If you can, get between 6-8 hours of solid, consistent sleep per night.

There’s a tremendous amount of research connecting the dots between sleep deprivation and poor decision making (WSU 2018; Nat Science Sleep, 2020). Sleep deprivation (pulling all-nighters), sleep restriction (sleeping less), or irregular sleep patterns will lead to riskier decisions, wasteful efforts, and a desperate impulsivity in your work.

Startups are a marathon, not a sprint.

If you think being a hardcore night owl is worth it, do a thorough audit of your work done during those times and what effects you experience days after (sleep disturbances like insomnia and irritability), and compare that data with the insane productivity of a well-rested TJ Holowaychuk, one of the most prolific authors in the Node.js/JavaScript/Golang communities ever. He’s known for creating over 550 nontrivial open-source modules in various programming languages, most of which are the most popular ones in their fields by usage (e.g., Express, with 14 million weekly downloads in 2020).

Pump up the endurance

Exercise generates endorphins that elevate mood, reduce pain, and can relieve (some) depressive symptoms.

Similarly, there’s a clear connection between long-term exercise and mitochondrial growth (T.E.Morgan, 1971; Menshikova, 2006). Regardless of how young or old you are (or how old you feel), regular and consistent exercise increases the mitochondria counts in your skeletal muscle, leading to more stores of energy and faster conversion of glucose (and others) to energy. This not only increases your body’s ability to generate more energy as needed (agility, speed, and strength), but it does so for longer (endurance).

It also is responsible for reducing cortisol in your blood (the hormone responsible for stress responses in your body), boosting your mood and mental health and reducing the odds of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (Taylor M.D., 1985; Deslandes, 2009).

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a strong correlation between fitness and strengthening applied to RSI related to software engineers (Cheung, 2013;He, 2019). Specifically, if you’ve been programming for a long time, you’re likely to experience neck and back pain. But those who regularly stretch and exercise are significantly less likely to experience those problems in their lifetime.

Fuel up

Consume high-quality foods for high-quality output.

A recent study, shared between the University of Toronto and Columbia University showed a middle-aged man — Robert, who was diagnosed with ADHD, irritability, and depression — could alleviate irritability and depression by improving the quality of his food intake (LaChance 2015). By switching from nutrient-poor foods like chips and crackers to nutrient-rich foods like nuts, fruits, and vegetables, he experienced:

  • A huge reduction in irritability (determined to be due to hypoglycemia aka low blood sugar)
  • An unexpected, marked decrease in hunger throughout the day
  • A positive change in mood (was linked to an increase in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and vitamins)

The ongoing theory is that some foods (salty snacks, soft drinks, refined grains, red meat, diet soda, margarine, etc.) increase the body's inflammatory response, causing all sorts of issues. A varied diet with fish/chicken, leafy vegetables, olive/vegetable oils, nuts, and more has the opposite effect of preventing inflammation.

So increase your food quality, reduce the intake of detrimental foods, and enjoy the benefits to your performance and a lowered amount of stress.

Conclusion

To sum up, by improving your sleep, exercise regimen, and diet, you can gain a significant advantage in dealing with the intense workload and stress involved in starting a company.

Plus, the advantages you collect will accumulate and compound over time. Give it a shot. Why not take every advantage you can get?

Uncertainty

In startups and life, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

  • People can go back against their word
  • Deals fall through
  • Promises get broken

The only thing that’s guaranteed is that there are no guarantees.

If you’re coming from a more corporate lifestyle, this may not have been the case. But with startups, you’re often operating with limited information and an unfair distribution of resources in a highly competitive (cutthroat) environment where you have a little to no control on … well … anything. It can be unsettling or downright discouraging to work in this state, but there are several things you can do to make it more palatable.

Control your environment

To prepare for uncertainty, it helps to eliminate uncertainty elsewhere in your life so when something unplanned or unforeseeable occurs (and it will), you can focus all of your attention on that rather than everything else.

This means:

  • Ensure a store of supplies (food, water, toilet paper, exercise equipment)
  • Ensure you have enough savings (so your bills will always be paid)
  • Ensure you have access to help, a community, and a marketplace (don’t become isolated)
  • Ensure you have a safe, secure place to work (no interruptions, no noise, etc.)
  • Ensure you have a safe, secure place to panic/freak out/cry (get the catharsis out of the way)

Your environment and your needs may be different, so please adjust accordingly.

But the key thing is if you’ve eliminated uncertainty in these areas, you have much fewer things to worry about and deal with in the short- and midterm.

Here are some practical things within my control that I wish I’d done early on when I knew I was planning to start a company:

  • If you own a home and want to get a HELOC (equity-backed loan), it’s significantly easier to do so while you still have a job rather than after you quit
  • If you have stock options you need to sell, it’s better to sell early into the next year rather than close to the end to defer taxes. You still have to pay those taxes, but a little padding can ease your stress and feelings of uncertainty.
  • Take more walks. After taking care of sleep, exercise, and food, I’ve found that walks in nature can resolve any remaining anxiety or issues with mood. YMMV.

Control your assumptions

One of the biggest sources of uncertainty in entrepreneurship, in my experience, is due to invalid assumptions (as well as implicit ones you aren’t consciously aware of). These range from the most obvious to the most subtle, but they all can be extremely deadly if you aren’t careful.

Here’s a list of common startup-related assumptions:

  • Your customers will find you as soon as you just launch a website
  • Your customer base is willing to pay
  • Your customer base will actually read your landing-page copy
  • Your customer base is large enough that if they do pay, you can profit after costs
  • Your customer acquisition costs and churn will be low
  • Your prospective investors will invest in you with nothing but an idea
  • You only need to reach out to a handful of investors/customers/recruits/etc.
  • You can do everything by yourself

As a founder, every decision you make is likely based on one or more untested assumptions.

You may rush to get out a landing page to obtain customer signups, but no matter how good your product is, nobody finds or sees the landing page (because you need what’s referred to as distribution).

Some investors you reach out to may sound perfect on paper, but they may actually only invest under certain unspoken conditions based on launch metrics, equity percentages, or founder backgrounds — you won’t know until you test your assumptions.

You may believe strongly you don’t need any help and can do everything on your own. But even if you had all of the prerequisite skills, the practice, and the experience, you’ll eventually find yourself attacked on multiple fronts and can only respond to one at a time due to biology/physiology.

It’s important to be aware of these assumptions, to limit them (and therefore your exposure to their downsides if you’re wrong), and to account for them.

Story time

Back around 2011, two amazing founder friends of mine had built an amazing, profitable startup over the course of about four years.

They had done everything according to plan, one they was assumed to be correct. They raised a friends-and-family round, preseed, seed, series A, etc. They had paying customers, a successful distribution strategy, and decent profit margins (enough to pay themselves more than minimum wage and live a little). By all accounts, they were doing well.

So when a strong and exciting acquisition offer came along (something around $4-5 million), they jumped at the chance. Again, by all accounts, an amazing success. After investors, vendors, costs, etc., each founder owned about 3% equity. Each walked away with about $60,000 over those four years plus roughly minimum wage salaries over the years. They’d have gotten a ton more just working at Google for the same time period (>8.3x more, in fact, pretax).

They had assumed that raising money was the right thing to do for them. They started with nothing — no savings, no runway — so they had to raise early as well. Each additional fundraising round was assumed to be the correct move (it brought press, network connections, and more customers). But each and every assumption had a cost — one they wouldn’t see or realize until much later.

It burned them out and deterred them from wanting to go through the process again. But I can assure you if they do make another go, they won’t make the same mistakes.

Additionally, there are also some implicit, noncompany-oriented assumptions made by founders:

  • You need to raise money from a top-tier VC firm. (There are thousands of investment firms, groups, and funds. This isn’t even counting angels, syndicates, etc.)
  • You’ll raise money from the first investor you talk to. (You might get 99 nos before getting a single yes that changes your life.)
  • You’re the best person to build this company. (Perhaps not, but you can put together the best team.)
  • You can’t do this. (Everyone successful has started in your shoes — an outsider; a newbie; a naive, unconnected, and perhaps overly idealistic founder. If they can succeed, you can too.)

Control Your Reactions

Unfortunately, most people have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. The stakes are high, and without enough information to make correct decisions with any certainty at all, you’re effectively gambling at random. It’s easy to give in, lose hope, and spiral into depression.

Also, unfortunately, to prevent this, you have to work at doing the opposite:

  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Focus on what’s at stake
  • Train yourself to cope

If you can keep a positive attitude, you’re less likely to give up prematurely or accept defeat at the slightest speed bump.

If you remind yourself what’s at stake and why you’re building what you’re building, you’re less likely to make careless mistakes or to spend too much time and effort on the wrong thing. By exposing yourself to these situations (which you’ll encounter anyway as a founder), you’ll be training yourself to cope and improve your reaction over time. All of this comes from your own personal willpower.

This preparation will be critical in dealing with the more serious problems that’ll arise when your company does succeed, take off, and become huge.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Zvi Band, Nnenna John, Melissa Kargiannakis, JJ Nguyen, Ike Orizu, Aashni Shah, Zack Shapiro, and Sidni Standard for reviewing this document, submitting stories, and providing early feedback.

And a big thank you to the ODF team, especially Shiraz Dole, Regina Gerbeaux, Trish Kennelly, Jeremy Sto Thomas, Brandon Taleisnik, and Julian Weisser, who provided a ton of support for this effort.

Part 3

In the next chapter, “Part 3: Shelter in Place: Set Yourself Up for Success,” we’ll cover setting up tools in advance to avoid hiccups, preparing your profiles to maximize serendipity, and practical tips on time management and organization specific to ODF.

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