Burning Out While Building a Startup is NOT Something to Brag About
In a society — especially the U.S. — where people are working over 40 hours per week it becomes fairly easy to achieve burn out. Waking up early, staying late, and being too tired to do anything on the weekend. It is incredibly easy to be caught in a mental and physical burnout, and extremely difficult to leave it.
One thing that could be leading this charge is people want to feel busy and productive, simply because their peers are talking about it and it can feel degrading if you are not working on something. I went to a college with a lot of intense entrepreneurs — many who were actually working on nothing, but made it sound like they were the next Bill Gates — and it had a negative impact on the people who were not building a business.
One night at the dining hall a fellow student came up and asked if she could sit with us. We welcomed her and asked her how her Saturday was going. She responded, “Well I did some work and relaxed, but did not really do anything productive.” What she said was perfectly fine, but the way she expressed it was concerning. She felt ashamed she was not productive and as if others would look down on her for it. I will never forget this. We reminded her that relaxing on the weekend is beyond reasonable and as long as she is happy doing what she is doing she should not care what others think of her.
We, as entrepreneurs, need to stop saying how busy we are. Busy does not equate to success. Often people are wasting their time, such as going on social media during the workday, or various tasks to seem busy. Cannot tell you how often I see this happen.
My goal today is to share a few reflective stories of how I reached burnout in 2017, how I refuse to let it happen again, as well as some tips from what I learned.
Burnout in College
Growing up I always wanted to start a business. Throughout my second half of college, I started working on a company called Shelfie that would create fundraising multimedia campaigns for nonprofits. I was working alone and constantly made mistakes.
My junior and senior year I took ~20 credits per semester. I would do my entire schools work on Monday so that I could work on Shelfie throughout the rest of the week. I loved what I was doing but I never had a teammate or someone who was really there by my side building the product. This definitely added stress to my life. It also made it a bit difficult to find a co-founder because I wanted someone as committed as I am, but I was already too deep into the project to find a co-founder.
My physical health was poor due to injuries from soccer, where I broke the growth plate in both knees, which causes most of my body to weaken. This led to chronic insomnia, meaning my sleep was inefficient and I never felt rested. Anytime someone asked to hang out I said I was too busy and I would work, then relax and play video games at some point to relax. There was no point during this process where I put aside time for myself. I truly wanted to build a company and would do whatever it took to do so.
Looking back I view these ~2 years as an opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, and gain experience. Also, I now realize I was burnt out most of my junior and senior year of college. Demanding school work, trying to build a business, and taking no time to relax. This led to no success in building a business that was launched, but I was still determined to succeed.
In May of 2017, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. Three weeks later I moved to San Francisco, where I spent the previous summer. I loved the city, environment, and grew a nice network in SF.
From June to September I experienced intense burnout. This time I had a team with me — 2 software developers — but we lacked team chemistry and we never finalized a project we could launch. They also had to go back to school in September, therefore, I was alone again.
The second week of September I flew home and held a wine tasting to fundraise for Shelfie. We raised ~$7,500, which was incredible. The following week I flew to Denmark to compete in the University Startup World Cup. After the USWC I took a week to do some self-discovery and reflection. I flew to Poland and spent two days at Auschwitz, which changed my life. After some of the saddest days of my life, I visited a friend in Belgium for about 4–5 days. Then I flew back to Denmark for a day and went off to Boston for the Forbes summit. It took about six weeks before I arrived back to SF.
This trip changed my life. I had an entirely new perspective on life. I had a new idea for a complete different pivot, needed a team,— which I thought would be easier since it is almost like starting from scratch — and I would spend the last two months of 2017 gather customer feedback, building a team, and talking to early customers.
Towards the end of 2017 I started going to physical therapy and can touch my toes and sleep through the night,— which has not happened since 2009 — started going for nightly walks, and began taking the weekends off. These changes have set me up for success.
Burnout is one of the worst things a founder can do and it can be avoided. By taking time to reflect on my life and figure out where I need to improve, I was able to get an incredible start to 2018.
We pivoted to a sports fan engagement platform called Shelfie Challenge, I now have a technical co-founder who will finish the MVP next week (started 1/15/18), we are onboarding a third, technical co-founder, and receive pro-Bono work from designers, lawyers, and strategist. We have early customers, are starting to talk to investors, and have a lot of demand to join our team.
Without two years of mistakes and experimentation, I would not be where I am now, and I still have a long way to go before I consider myself successful. Next step is to launch our product and generate revenue.
Furthermore, the best thing you can do as a founder is taking a break from your business, travel — domestic or international — to get a bit out of your comfort zone and away from your regular life, and reflect. The below tips are from my personal experience and I hope they too help improve the quality of your life and business, as well as prevent you from burning out.
- Focus on your health. Without your health, it is incredibly difficult to function at your highest level. Eat healthily, do some breathing exercises to avoid stress, exercise, and always put your health first. For example, I woke up at 6 AM for a conference yesterday and did not get to bed until 11 PM. This morning I slept in an extra 75 minutes to make sure I was rested and ready to go.
- Take weekends off. This was tough. The first weekend I took off I was not really sure what I should do — I have never had this much free time. On Saturday’s I sleep in, go for a walk,— often to the beach — and hang out with friends at night. Last Saturday I went for a massage, took a nap, and then went to a roller disco, which was awesome. On Sunday’s I slept in, got groceries, then go for a walk or play soccer, and end the night playing video games. I still do light work such as answer a few emails during the morning — never check my email in the morning on weekdays — but ensure to
- Wake up early. Two years ago I went to bed between 3–5 AM and woke up at 11 AM. Now I have been waking up at 8 AM, with the goal of 30 minutes of breathing and physical therapy exercises, and getting to the office by 10 AM. My goal is to get this down to 6 AM. One thing I did when I was burnt out was rush in the morning. By having a bit of time to yourself in the morning you have time to prepare for the day and
- Go to bed early. Ideally, get 8 hours of sleep per night. To do this I set my alarm for 8 hours and 15 minutes from when I go to bed. Doing this allows me a few minutes to fall asleep. The more sleep you get the stronger your body will heal, but try to avoid less than 7 and more than 9 — each can make you drowsy. I never thought I would recommend going to bed before midnight, but it absolutely increases your health and productivity.
- Exercise. Currently, I have been going for a nightly walk, but now that physical therapy is working I plan to start going to the gym daily. Exercise is not only good for your health but it allows you to think. Rigorous exercise can be somewhat painful and pushes you, which distracts you from all of the business or personal problems you are going through. Now that you are more relaxed, you can reflect.
- Plan ahead. Set 3–5 weekly goals and the necessary steps to get there. Plan an hour a day to do something you love, such as read or play video games. Think about your monthly goal and how these weekly goals will get you there. Plan tasks out, complete a few, change direction based on what you learn, and repeat.
- Do not do this alone. You could have a team of 20 people, where two of them are founders. No matter how intelligent the two founders are, the power of 18 brains is powerful. You need teammates, whether they be an employee, adviser, or friends helping you out. Stop doing everyone by yourself. The sooner you realize to ask for help rather than hold your problems in, the faster you will move and gain momentum.
- Have a few mentors to rely on. I compiled an excel sheet of roughly 100 people I go to for help when I need it. If I need help with my pro-forma, I reach out to a friend in finance. If I need help with a new strategy, I reach out to a friend in strategy and execution. They teach me what I need to do, I try it, make mistakes, learn, and become better in the area each time.
- Build a routine. This ties back into planning. If there are any two areas of a routine to stick to, make it your sleep and eating schedule. Think about this. Why does the same plan from Boston to San Francisco, only take that route? The engine and the rest of its part become accustomed to this routine and start to become more efficient. The more you do something the less you have to think about it.
- Stop talking and start acting. When I was on the east coast many people were afraid to share their ideas because of fear of being told their idea was terrible or someone would take it. If you take action and stop talking about it, then what do you have to fear? If you move quickly then your competition will have to catch up to you. If you are doing nothing, admit it. You will be embarrassed if someone then asks to see your product or traction. Be upfront and honest.
- Stop flaunting your schedule. We get it, you are busy. Stop working so hard and make time for your loved ones. I have yet to meet a retired person who says, “I wish I worked more.” Often they say, “I wish I spent more time with my loved ones.” Working your ass off in your 20s is common, but we also need to develop a work-life balance.
- Put aside time for yourself. Every day I put aside one-hour to do whatever I want. This allows me to unwind before bed and be able to relax. Again, without your mental and physical well-being, it can be difficult to function.
Brendan is a Co-Founder and CEO of Shelfie Challenge, a sports fan engagement platform where fans complete challenges at live events and can win prizes. For any questions or suggestions on the blog or Shelfie Challenge, please contact me: email@example.com or on Twitter @barbatobrendan.