The Startup
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The Startup

Why Startups Are Harder than MIT: Stress and the Entrepreneur, Part 1 of 2

A little while ago, I was having lunch with an entrepreneur friend, who was back in Silicon Valley from Russia ( we were discussing the Russian edition of my book, Zen Entrepreneurship, titled, Biznes v poze lotosa), and he asked me what techniques — Meditation, Yoga or otherwise I might recommend for him, because he found himself “waking up in the middle of the night” worrying about his business.

My first reaction was of recognition. This has happened to me often, and it occurred to me that this must be very common for most business owners — whether you’re a one-man (or woman) show, running a small business iwht a few employees, or running a VC backed startup that has raised millions of dollars.

It is very hard to “disconnect” from the business, particularly during stressful times. In fact, it might be more surprising if you are running a startup and have never had episodes of worrying about the startup in the middle of the night!

Part 1 of this article is about some of the causes of stress, from both Western and Eastern perspectives, and Part 2 some techniques that I have found useful in dealing with stress during the startup journey.

MIT can be a stressful place; startups are harder in many ways

Many people will tell you that startups are hard. But until you’ve been through a difficult startup, you probably misunderstand what that means.

Before my first startup, I was a student at MIT, and I worked pretty hard. I figured if I could handle MIT, putting in long hours and getting decent grades, well, then I could certainly handle a startup!

While it’s true that I probably worked harder at certain points at MIT than in my startups, I don’t think I was ever as stressed out at MIT as I was in my first (and second, and third ,and fourth) startup!

In school, with some exceptions (accounting for natural aptitude and prior knowledge), there’s usually a simple linear function between how much you put in and your output — your grade. Put in more time, and you’ll probably get a better grade.

In a startup, rarely is the result a simple matter of how hard you work (or surprisingly, even how much money you spend). Putting in more hours doesn’t always result in a better outcome.

I’ve seen plenty of startups where the founders worked exceedingly long hours that failed; and I’ve seen startups which have succeeded because of a lucky break (or market conditions, or knowledge of the market) that had very little to do with the number of hours they have put in.

The thing that makes startups hard, and that causes stress, is the unpredictability of the startup. There are usually factors beyond your control that may often result in success or failure of your startup.

Jumping into a startup has become the fashion for over-achievers in our society. As the latest wave of money has poured into startups, i’m seeing people leaving wall street and academia to try their hand at startups.

Entrepreneurs as a group like to imagine that we are in control of our destiny. If something goes wrong, we can fix it. Sometimes we can (and do) and sometimes we can’t.

Startups can cause us to react like this!

Stress for the entrepreneur usually is acute in two scenarios:

  • When the startup is not doing well (running out of money, not meeting projections), for obvious reasons.
  • When the startup is doing well and it’s hard to keep up with the growth — this is not so obvious but expansion can lead to cash flow problems, organization problems, technical problems — you name it.

It’s during trying times like these that stress that’s been building up little by little can suddenly start to feel like an un-liftable weight on your shoulders. If you are the founder/CEO this usually means you’re waking up in the middle of the night worried about some thing or another that either has gone wrong, or could go wrong.

What could go wrong in your startup that causes stress? Plenty. Here are some of what I call “big stress” items that I’ve seen personally affect the health o the entrepreneur:

  • Your first major customer cancels an order.
  • The round of funding you were counting on doesn’t come through, even though you had a verbal commitment from the VC.
  • Apple (or Facebook or Google) kicks you out of the app store, which was responsible for 100% of your sales. Now you have zero sales and your burn rate has spiked!
  • A co-founder has already vested their stock and suddenly quits.
  • A recently hired, much anticipated, star hire isn’t what you expected and you have to decide whether to fire them now or give them time
  • A super-valuable employee decides to leave for a competitor.
  • You miss your projections, which were heavily weighted toward Q4. not by a little bit, but by more than a million dollars!
  • The 800 pound gorilla in your space (Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter) buys your competitor, and makes it their “official” way to do things.
  • You discover your trusted lieutenant, the one who does everything for you and makes your life easier, is being accused of sexual harassment
  • a recently-fired employee sneaks into your office and steals your laptop, a fact you only know because the police came in and got the surveillance footage from your landlord, and you have to decide whether to press charges.
  • The investor(s) decides to fire the CEO, i.e. you.

Yes all of those things have happened. And that’s just in startups that I have personally been involved with as an investor or founder. I’m sure there’s a whole world of startups out there with problems that I’ve never encountered.

Moreover, a major cause of stress for entrepreneurs is that markets don’t always react the way you thought they would. This could be true of a market in general (like the VR market, which was the “next big thing” a few years ago, but interest has slowed considerably due to lack of headsets), or of your product in general. It’s this fundamental unpredictability that is part of the reason why startups are so hard.

Whew! No wonder it’s hard not to be stressed out as an entrepreneur. And these are just the big stresses. It’s actually the little stresses along the way that can accumulate and before you know it, you are burned out. This is why it’s important to remember that a startup can be a 3–7 year journey — it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

When I started to think about techniques that could help my Russian friend, I realized that we all have very different ways of getting and dealing with stress. Exercise, everyone will tell you, almost always helps with stress. I agree, but by itself it may not be enough.

There’s a good explanation of the western chemical viewpoint of momentary, flight or fight stress vs. the kind of chronic stress that entrepreneurs live with, in another article I read recently by entrepreneur Hana Abaza (https://medium.com/@HanaAbaza/stress-startups-and-survival-94c48ec921f2).

Since the human body is designed to deal with a stressful situation like a saber-tooth tiger, the chemicals that the body secretes during stressful times are meant to last as long as the “flight or fight” response lasts. Either you get away and survive or you stay and fight the tiger.

Abaza stresses that being in charge of a startup is more like “chronic” stress, and the physiological issues that it can cause. Coincidentally, she also talks about waking up in the middle of the night during her own startup experience 3 or 4 times a week.

Being a mystical as well as practical kind of guy, I believe it’s worth looking beyond just the chemicals to see how we get stressed out and what happens in our mind, body and our energy fields.

It’s pretty easy to see that each person is different and holds their stress differently, resulting in different physiological symptoms. Two people going through the same situation have a very different reaction to how “stressed out” they are.

As an example, I mentioned that I wasn’t really that stressed out at MIT as a student, but some other students took it very differently. Suddenly, for star performers from high school, not being the smartest person in the room hit at the very core of the valedictorian personality they’d built up over their entire lives up to that point. This caused more than its fair share of angst, depression and worse.

The truth is that different people react to the same situation in different ways. Therefore stress is personalized and is held into the body of each person, to a certain extent.

Wilhelm Reich, who along with Carl Jung was one of Freud’s most esteemed disciples, believed that we hold accumulated stress in the fascia — the connective tissues in between our muscles and our bones. He came up with a therapy that involved learning to breathe as a way to “release” this accumulated stress, which had dramatic physiological results in many of his patients, and many consider him the the grandfather of body-oriented psychotherapy.

Surprisingly, this view coincides very well with the Yogic/Eastern view. From a Yogic point of view, this has to do with our individual personalities, our habitual thought-forms, our karmic tendencies.

As we build up stress, we create and hold onto little deformations into our energy fields, called samskaras, which accumulate around our body in previously transparent sheaths called khosas.

According to some Yogic traditions, these samskaras are the result of vrittis, or mind reactions (literally vortexes of thoughts) that are usually some form of grasping (desire) or revulsion (pushing away).

Finding ways to relieve that psychological/energetic holding not only reduces stress, it lets go of some of the karmic traces we’ve accumulated, clearing up our energy field and our ability to see the situation clearly. I like to use the analogy of a muddy windshield — it blocks your view of what’s really happening. The clearer it gets, the more easily you can see what’s happening around you, and your role in it, and sometimes that’s enough to give us the perspective to get un-stressed.

In the Buddhist point of view, the ability to let go of all that is locked up in our minds (and by extension our bodies) is actually similar to the process of leading to enlightenment.

These samskaras are caused by our “grasping” and “aversion” — reactions we have to the situations we find ourselves in. There is literally a sanskrit term for these — vrittis — or whirlpools of thoughts and desire.

As we hold these thoughts in both our mind and bodies, we have muddied up our system, leading to a lack of sleep and even dreaming about our problems. One reason we use the term “sleep like a baby”, is that babies haven’t accumulated enough “stress” or “samskaras” to disturb their sleep (at least in this lifetime).

We tend to think of Yoga as a set of asanas, or postures, but the most famous definition of Yoga is the “Yoga narodha chitta vrittis”, which roughly translates to Yoga is the cessation of the whirlpools of thought.

The reason that different people handle stress differently is usually a combination of how they accumulate and release these karmic traces.

I remember one situation where we had what could have been a company ending event — One of our major sources of revenue shut us down completely. I was extremely stressed out, as the CEO who had given projections to our investors, not just embarrassed but beating myself up for allowing this to happen. My co-founder wasn’t stressed out at all — he just brushed it off as “something that happens”. I felt a responsibility to find ways to return our investors money. My co founder’s reaction was “startups fail and they lose money all the time”.

The fact that we had very different reactions to the same situation (as equal equity holders) was very instructive for me to realize that we had very different internal processes which were leading to very different “stress response”.

Part 2 of this article, located here, will explore techniques and tips for dealing with the stress of the startup journey.