How to stay sane as a startup founder and team

Exactly one year ago I made the biggest decision in my life. Leaving steady-income job, family and friends in Norway and transitioning into a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, I would embark upon a startup adventure in San Francisco as a co-founder of Megacool. Since then my life has been enriched with a lot of valuable experiences:

  • we have worked on 10 different business concepts, built out the most promising concept to a product,
  • lived out of our suitcases, shared rooms and separated our beds with chairs covered with blankets for privacy,
  • been rejected twice from the YC interview process,
  • pushed our boundaries,
  • built our network from scratch, released a closed beta and
  • raised funding.

More than anything, during the last year I’ve grown as a person.

I’ve experienced anxiety at different times through the last twelve months. It’s been my hardest year, yet also the most rewarding. Living exclusively off your savings takes a heavy toll on your psyche, but it’s also a good exercise in mental wellbeing: How do you cope with the fact that all your life savings are reduced every time you need to buy food or pay rent? We have received a lot of “no’s”, and things always takes longer than anticipated. I’ve learned to rise from nervous breakdowns by telling myself that: how we handle uncertainty and seeing clearly through the mist of opportunities determines if we’ll be able to make it or not.

Every entrepreneur experiences hard times and doubt at one point or another. This is where our resilience, persistence, willpower and ability to change course, are put to the ultimate test.

Through the year I have made four things top priority to stay sane on this rollercoaster. These realizations have developed over time and been made clear from tracking my behavior and habits with the Momentum app. These “sanity hacks” might be intuitive, yet few actually focus on them and make them top priority:

1. Reflection

Write down what’s on top of your mind every weekday night. I use a regular sized notebook (~A5) where I have to write exactly one page. Nothing more, nothing less. This takes you only a couple of minutes. It’s not a diary, but a collection of thoughts or reflections on things that made me think, surprised me, was wonderful or had an impact that the day.

I’m able to reduce my stress a lot by emptying my brain like this before going to sleep. It’s like I’m telling my brain that it can relax, because I’ve moved my train of thought to paper and I can resume it tomorrow — no need to fuss over it all right now.

On the top of the page I write the date, number of entry and a smiley face which reflects my mood at the end of the day.

Some people prefer to write digitally. I would strongly recommend you not to, unless you can add restrictions for number of words. Once you write digitally, your writing duration can vary a lot. This may reduce the chance for you to continue writing the next night when you are tired and don’t feel like writing as much.

In the end you should do whatever makes you follow through with the writing. It’s not the output, but process that’s important.

Make this your 30-day challenge, ideally together with someone else, and get in the habit of writing whatever. Review it after 30 days and you might be surprised of what you learn about yourself. Don’t hate yourself if you miss a day, and try to aim for five out of seven days.

2. Be Active

In the two previous startups I worked at, I never got in the habit of regular exercising. When we started Megacool we made this a top priority. We even have it as a topic on our weekly meeting to address how much each of us has worked out during the week! My goal is to be active at least four days of the week, meaning I’ve walked at least 10,000 steps or exercised.

We have joined a bouldering gym where we go as a group three mornings a week. It’s easier to follow through when you have made a commitment to someone else to go.

Through bouldering I manage to truly challenge myself both mentally and psychically. Bouldering is a lot of creative problem solving with clear parallels to daily life as an entrepreneur; you might see the start and the end of the problem, but you have no idea how to connect the dots.

Each problem usually has multiple solutions, and what works for someone else might not work for you- don’t give up!
GIF source: Giphy

3. Drink water

This a no-brainer to most, but the days where I’ve been the least productive and feel a headache coming is also the days with low water intake. I simply forget. I try to drink a lot in the morning and then carry a water bottle around. Simple, but easy to forget. Lack of water is usually the root cause of my vicious headache cycle.

GIF source: Reddit

4. Laugh

You just can’t laugh enough. In Norwegian we have a saying: “A good laughter extends your life”. I’m lucky to be on a team where my co-founder Nicolaj takes his role as CEO and “responsible of fun” seriously, and we make it a priority to laugh a lot together. Yet, there are days where I haven’t laughed enough and I will have to watch a comedy before going to bed.

During my time at Dirtybit we would watch a comedy during lunch. It might sound like the least social thing to do, but it made us laugh a lot, and it felt like we were building common ground. To laugh more throughout the day is actually my most important sanity hack! Laugh and then laugh some more!

GIF source: GIPHY

During any startup rollercoaster, frustration will arise within the team, and if you don’t address this, it will become a problem. This is especially true for teams that live together and spend all waking hours together. As a team we have developed two main sanity hacks to avoid frustration to result in big fights. We aim to address potential issues early by:

1. Personal evaluation

Every two months we sit down together and give each other and ourselves feedback: two constructive and two positive. This allow us to praise what we enjoy and value with each other, at the same time as we address areas of improvement. By preparing the same feedback to myself, I get to reflect on how to become a better team member. You can read more about how we do personal evaluation here.

GIF source: GIPHY

2. Good night hugs

Like in any relationship, you shouldn’t go to bed without working through your issues. Since we’re co-founders it’s not possible to have make-up sex after a frustrated discussion, but we can “hug it out”. Therefore we have made it a habit to always give each other a goodnight hug before heading to bed!

Given that you don’t want to be close to or touch someone you are very frustrated with, this forces us to either talk it out or reflect on whether it’s a big deal after all.

Like any relationship you have to pick your battles, and hugging each other reminds us of why we are doing what we are doing and why we want to do this together.

GIF source: GIPHY

This is the most honest and personal piece I’ve written and I want to put more focus on the dark side of entrepreneurship and ways to handle it. I’d be very curious to learn more about how you stay sane and whether my tips worked for you. Remember that you are doing something for the long run:

Treat your life as a marathon, not a sprint!