I can officially say that the past year of doing my startup is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. As a first time founder, I had a lot of misconceptions about what it would look like to start a company. I thought that I would come up with some brilliant idea, write a pitch deck, get investment, build the thing and be a superstar…well, I was completely wrong.
I’ve often thought that it takes about 3–6 months in any new job to really feel like you’re contributing meaningfully…even if you’re fulfilling a role you know well, you need that time to learn the company, the people, the politics etc. Well, in the case of my startup, I needed that time to realize that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. (I’ll talk another time about how I figured that out and pivoted)
In order for your startup to be viable, you must have a combination of all three of these elements:
1– You need to build something people truly need
A lot of startups either start with the solution before the problem, or a micro-focused problem based on the founders singular experience. The result is a solution that doesn’t solve a big enough human need…at least not in the right way.
2- You need to be able to start small and grow big
For your product to succeed, you have to be able to start small enough to prove out the value proposition, and ideally generate cash flow, while having the potential to grow exponentially. There are a lot of solutions to small problems that don’t scale up, and solutions to big problems that don’t scale down, but solutions to small problems that can expand exponentially are a much rarer breed.
3- You need to have the right unit economics (profitability metrics)
In addition to solving a need, and being able to start small and then grow big, you also need to be able to command a price high enough that you can be profitable. You need to be able to sell the widget, API call or whatever your unit of measurement is, for more than it takes to produce it, market it & get it into the hands of the consumer.
Time is your best friend and your worst enemy
Solving for one of these three must haves is hard enough on its own, but for all three to be present in the same company/product is exponentially more difficult. In order to accomplish it you need to put in a lot of effort and ingenuity, use the right tools, recruit the right team, and most of all you need time. It takes time.
When your bank balance is running on low, and you calendar barely has a spare minute to fit in dinner, time feels like your greatest enemy, but it’s just the reality of the situation. The reason that time is so important is that companies and products that are capable of fulfilling all three must haves don’t just come into existence in one go, they’re the result of multiple iterations and pivots around a core need. You need time to manoeuvre your product through these iterations for it to truly be successful.
A startup is a marathon, not a sprint
Instead of thinking of a startup as a 6–12 month sprint, it’s time that we start talking about them as a marathon; a marathon that takes mental, physical and emotional endurance. Founders need to be aware of this fact, ideally before they make the decision to jump in, and they need tools to take care of themselves. Without these tools, burnout becomes the most likely situation, and if you’re burnt out, you’re no good to your team, investors, family, friends or even to your product.
1- Physical activity
Working out at the gym and practicing yoga has been a key tool I’ve used to manage my stress levels since university, and it’s become even more important now that I’m doing a startup. It can be exceptionally difficult to set aside the hours in the week when there are so many other priorities demanding my attention, but I’ve started to think of each gym session like a “mini-cation.”
Those 1.5–2hr snippets throughout the week are time for me to clear my head and let off steam. On top of that, it literally increases my physical endurance, actually enabling me to work harder on my company.
The biggest change I’ve had to make with my gym sessions is to remove the stress of attaining massive goals. Over the past 10 years, going to the gym started as a stress management technique, and then became another place for me to set goals for “gainz.” In order to ensure that my physical activity is not adding additional stress into the pot, I’ve had to switch to a maintenance mode perspective.
Meditation is a relatively new tool in my toolbox of stress management. Although I had tried in the past, my mind would become far too muddled the moment I closed my eyes, and so I depended on yoga and other physical activity to clear my mind as a moving meditation. The problem is that most gym or yoga sessions require a minimum of 1–2 hours, which in the middle of the day is not realistic. Meditation by comparison is a break for the mind that can be done any time, anywhere for as long as you’d like.
Almost every day I hit a point where my productivity drops…this is usually evident by staring mindlessly at my computer for 15 min and accomplishing pretty much nothing. Sometimes I reach for another cup of coffee, but the short term energy hit, followed by the crash an hour later significantly reduces the value. Instead, I now try to take 10 min to calm my mind and just breathe, almost always coming back refreshed and focused for the rest of the day.
The other amazing thing about meditation is that it actually maximizes your brain’s recovery periods. Any good gym training regimen involves rest periods as your muscles need time to recover and rebuild stronger than before. Our brain is no different, it needs a break to recover, and meditation makes that break way more effective. As you start to meditate, you gain the ability to shut down the useless, cyclical thoughts that prevent you from relaxing during your time off and sleeping well. The result is that your down time actually becomes quality recovery time, so that you’re far more productive during your working hours.
3- Support network
I will admit more readily now than ever that I have an ego. Most founders do, as part of the appeal of doing a startup is the risk and potential reward of succeeding where 80% of people fail. While being a positive influence and added fuel to my determination, that ego also made it incredibly difficult for me to ask for help in the past.
I thought I had to handle every task and curve ball thrown at me, while simultaneously remaining completely calm, cool and collected. Well, with the quantity of curve balls and brick walls I’ve experienced in the past year, that’s pretty much impossible now. In trying to maintain my un-phased exterior persona, I experienced a massive build up of stress that made me a pretty miserable person to be around, but also caused me to become a purely emotional thinker. That emotional state is kryptonite for a startup founder as you start to lose perspective and the ability to make impartial decisions, which are incredibly important when making the decision to pivot. You must remain impartial and listen to the data and to your users, even when they’re telling you things you don’t want to hear.
After pushing many of my personal relationships to their limits, I finally broke open and became honest with myself, my team, my friends and my family about my concerns. Through exposing this vulnerability to those that I trusted I learned that no one expects me to have all the answers or for it to be easy, they just expect me to keep trying to figure it out. Apart from the massive reduction in stress I experienced by being honest, my support network also rose to the occasion and provided resources where they could to offload tasks and concerns that they could help with.
by no means am I perfect at applying these strategies, but stress is a constant reality as an entrepreneur. The challenges and curve balls are only going to get bigger as the company grows, and I believe that training my physical, mental and emotional capacity is not just good for my health, but also increases the likelihood that my company will be able to succeed.