Overcoming Startup Anxiety
A process for personal & professional goal-attainment
Anxiety is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of the experience when building a business.
The uncertainty, the infinite different outcomes, the impact of random events, the fast-pace, the ever-changing environment and information. All of these things mean that the environment we operate in is inherently complex & uncertain. And when humans are faced with uncertainty & complexity, we naturally feel anxious.
Anxiety, however, is not something that we need let capture our attention & negatively affect our performance & wellbeing. If harnessed correctly — if overcome — we can use it as a powerful tool to not only make us more effective in leading our business & achieving our goals, but also to help us find a little more calm in our work & to enjoy the journey more.
Using a system I’ve developed to deal with the anxiety & uncertainty that inevitably comes with innovating & building a company from the ground up, you can learn how to overcome anxiety too.
Everything is Uncertain
When building a business, everything is uncertain.
We don’t know what problem we are trying to solve. We don’t know who our target customer should be. We don’t know what we could — & should — build to solve a specific problem. We don’t even know whether we can acquire customers, retain customers, and, ultimately, make money from those customers.
Everything is a question waiting to be answered.
And everything we do is dependent on a multi-layered, grey area of unanswered assumptions that we need to validate to ensure that our business can actually become a success in the long-term.
“Everyone has a plan until it comes into contact with the enemy” — Von Moltke
But, frustratingly, each assumption can only be addressed one at a time. We have to work out what solution to build so we can test whether we can acquire customers or not. We need to acquire customers to test whether we can retain them. We need to (in most cases) retain customers to work out whether we can actually make money from them. We need to make money from them to then work out whether we can make enough money from them to help us reach profitability.
Yet the inherent uncertainty of building something new is simply a reality of our existence. It’s an unavoidable fact that must be confronted & overcome.
Unfortunately, many founders try to simply ignore this inconvenient fact. They operate with blind, stubborn confidence that the plan is definitely going to work. That the vision for what they are going to build is brilliant. That customers will *definitely* love it.
Although such an approach will allow you to operate in blissful, calming ignorance, the outcome is almost always one where the team building the wrong thing & does not create a profitable, sustainable business. When the inevitable disaster arrives, as the team suddenly realised they’ve fucked up by dodging difficult questions they should have answered at the beginning of their journey, it’s too late to change course. (Trust me when I say I don’t encourage anyone down this path. I’ve been there before.)
Yet on the other hand, when we do accept a reality of deep, complex uncertainty, many founders crumble under the pressure & anxiety of the task, because you realise the gravity & enormity of the task ahead of you, with the odds stacked against you.
Many founders’ knee-jerk reaction to realising the enormity of the risk & challenge they are taking on is to simply rush around, panicked, busying themselves with anything & everything.
Rather than focusing on being truly effective, and focusing on the big strategic assumptions they need to answer to know whether they have a valid long-term business model or not, they just busy themselves and focus on inconsequential busy-work.
To avoid overconfidently avoiding the truth on one hand, and to help us confront & systematically overcome the anxiety that stems from accepting uncertainty, we require a process to help us find the right balance.
The process that I have developed to achieve this not only works, in terms of helping you answer key assumptions along your journey towards building a profitable business, but one that will help you overcome & mitigate anxiety along the way.
Replacing Uncertainty with Certainty
Far too many founders I work with in the startup world lack a good plan.
They may have a vision statement — something inspirational about changing the world — but apart from that they really just improvise as they go, working on anything & everything that seems urgent as things appear.
Time is spent putting out fires, not moving deliberately & strategically towards a specific goal.
And when there is no clear, actionable goal we are moving towards, nobody knows what to prioritise, what to work on, how to proceed at all.
So teams rush around, stressed, wide-eyed, not really sure what they should be doing or why (which makes them more stressed, more wide-eyed, more anxious, more busy). It’s a bit of a vicious cycle really. And one that does a huge amount of damage to a business’ chances of building a product that ultimately leads them to delivering value to customers & reaching profitability.
Teams don’t, in essence, see the need for a clear strategy.
If vision is our big, exciting goal (or destination), then strategy is the route we decide to take to get there. A strategy can — and a lot of the time *should* — change as new information comes in that maybe it’s not working, or maybe there’s a better route to help us get to our destination.
Strategic decisions are those big, important decisions saying, “Guys, we are going this way for these reasons, not that way.”
It’s about picking one clear direction for everyone to head in — for everyone’s actions to focus on achieving — at the expense of everything else.
And by stating clearly & confidently which direction we want to go, we avoid a thousand other small decisions that would have otherwise happened:
_“Should I busy myself with these ten tasks today, all of which seem important?! Well, not if they don’t serve the strategy.”_
Priorities come into focus, the endless, seemingly important tasks that used to busy us are eliminated, there are less meetings & discussions about what we should do & why, because things become clear when we communicate our strategy clearly.
To define our strategy, we do so prominently, as part of our business & product development process:
For example, my vision is to live ‘a purposeful, financially free life’.
One strategy to help me achieve that is with my startup, Scribe.
The other (the one displayed above) is another strategy I am working on to help me achieve that vision. That strategy is to effectively market & sell 100 copies of my new book this summer, as I assume this will create a strong springboard for further consultancy, speaking & writing opportunities.
However, to achieve that goal, I have had to break down a list of assumptions that need to validated in order to help me achieve the goal of 100 book purchases.
If, for example, I cannot convince 10 people to sign up for my newsletter through my articles, as well as any of my other strategic assumptions, then I will not achieve that strategy and should pivot to try something new.
This approach makes the achievement of our strategy somewhat daunted, as we realise it depends on answering a lot of other questions to get there, but such a methodical approach is the only way to ensure we are actually progressing — or not progressing — in a tangible way towards achieving our goals.
Again, we can either ignore this inconvenient truth, crumble in the face of this daunting reality, or simply accept it, confront it and deal with it methodically.
Using Strategy to Bring Certainty
Once we define our strategy, we need to focus our work on answering the assumptions that our strategy need validate to succeed, as well as track progress along the way.
The problem, however, is that as we move back into our day-to-day work, we quickly forget about those vision meetings & strategic decisions we made, which can be dangerous.
Therefore, in order to keep ourselves focused on answering our strategic assumptions (remember, those big decisions about which direction we are going and checking our progress to determine whether it is the right direction), I use the following approach to ensure that everything we do is tied to our strategy & the strategic assumptions that underpin the success or failure of our business.
As you move into executing to achieve our strategy, you can manage your time using the following framework to keep you focused on your goals:
1. On a second tab, write out the big strategic assumption you must answer to validate whether your strategy is working or not. For me, for example, I’m currently working out whether ‘1000 True Fans (customers) will buy my book’.
2. Define clear metrics that you need to improve to help you get there. In my case, for example, my current strategy is to:
1. acquire newsletter signups, so I can provide value & trust with my content
2. Send out regular, high-impact content that engages my audience to build value & trust
3. Ultimately sell 100 copies of my book to that audience (it could obviously be more than 100, but that seemed to me a good first goal to aim for before redefining my approach)
3. Define experiments that will help you increase those metrics and, ultimately, ensure that your current strategy works
1. Impact: Define how much impact you think this experiment will have in increasing your key metrics. Considering we have limited resources, we should always aim to work on high-impact, low-effort tasks so give us the best chance of achieving our goals (sometimes there are necessary, but low-impact things we need to work on, such as my early newsletters, which only had a handful of readers)
2. Description: Rather than defining our work as a ‘task’, where we focus on the thing we are working on (e.g. ‘a chat feature in our app’), you will be far more effective if you describe your work in concrete terms, in relation to your strategy & key metrics, as an ‘experiment’ (e.g. ‘building a chat feature will increase sales by 20%’)
3. Key findings: Once we have developed and launched the experiment, we must stop to evaluate whether the experiment was a success or a failure (i.e. did it achieve the increase in key metrics that we assumed it would)
4. Action steps: Once we know the outcome, we can then use that information to inform what to work on next. If the experiment didn’t have enough impact, we can scrap the idea or work on what we assume to be a better version. If it did had impact, we can double down on it and try to improve again.