goes a kannada proverb.
Which means “build a house or organise a wedding”. Historically, two key tests of human endurance.
In this age, let me add a third,
I have met countless founders, both as an entrepreneur and now as an aspiring angel investor, who put on a face and go on bottling up the stress and pressure of the startup, day in and day out. And when you ask them – how are you? The answer is always a variation of the same – great! Its great. We are making progress, We see good traction, Things are looking good.And in my meetings i always let them finish this pitch. And ask them again,
How are YOU doing? Not the unicorn you are chasing.
And that is where the big problem is. The startup becomes you. And you get subsumed in the startup. And it is not OK to talk about the struggles – the personal ones, the insecurity, the stress, the uncertainty and the self doubt that comes with it.
And so it continues. The bravado, the “fake it till you make it”, the “i cant be seen weak”, and countless other excuses for not being able to unload/share the stress.
I know of many founders personally who have barely enough money to eat, or on certain days unable to take a cab to an important meeting, or worse – have overborrowed to pay salaries, put company expenses on overdrawn personal credit cards, borrowed money from friends which they are not sure they will every pay back, and moved children’s schools because they couldn’t afford fees that year.
Its cruel. Its mind numbing. Its lonely. And its supremely stressful.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I know its humanly impossible to have a work life balance in early stages of your startup. No leaving work behind at 5pm, or even 11pm in the night. The stress, the urgency, the uncertainty, and the expectations are inevitable.
Its still possible to find ways to deal with this everyday pressure, not by escaping it but by building the support mechanism to cope with it, as much as possible.
Here are five ways that i have personally benefited from and have seen others benefit from as well.
A. Find a Coach – Not for your company. For yourself. There is no better way to deal with the stress, and the uncertainty than having an expert coach work with you. Its even more important because the most important skill needed for a CEO/Founder of a startup is to gradually learn how to be a CEO. Particularly if you are growing and the pressure of growth is weighing you down.
Read this article for my experience with coaching – Not without my coach
There are many organisations which offer coaching on a pro-bono / low-bono basis and can be an excellent resource. If you would like me to refer you to some potential coaches, reach out to me.
B. Find a Peer Support group – A group of entrepreneurs whom you can spar with, who are in the same phase in life as you are (both individually and as startups) is worth its weight in gold. While i was building Vaatsalya, we used to have a small group – almost a entrepreneur anonymous type- with four of us, from different sectors, but in almost similar phases in our lives. We used to meet almost every quarter to shoot the breeze, cry on each others shoulder and learn from each other. We had the meetings religiously setup on our calendars well in advance – we used to call them the SPAM board meeting (acronym for the four of us)
You can join a peer group at Ascent which i have heard good things about.
C. Ask for help – Particularly from your team, your board, your advisors. There is no shame in saying to your team, i don’t know whats happening here. You don’t have to have all the answers. I have seen that getting the team to equally share in this journey, both the joys and suffering, allows everyone to step up to their big game. And not watch from the sidelines.
Also, have at least one advisor whom you can talk to, on a one on one basis. Not as investor/board member, but a person who talks about you and your needs. If you don’t have one, get one, preferably an entrepreneur.
In-case of adverse affect on health or signs of depression/anxiety, seek professional help. Depression and anxiety is fairly common and untreated/undiagnosed in India. You can reach out to seraniti.com for confidential & pro-bono support for founders from experts. (Disclosure: I am an investor in seraniti.com)
Don’t forget to check out my opinion about advisors.
D. Exercise – I know this one has been beaten to death. But there is no excuse. Period. Exercise. Try C25K, you will run 5k in 9 weeks. If running is not your thing, play a sport, anything which keeps you moving for atleast 30 mins.
I once heard a great advice. Think of your day – you have 24 hours. Block 30 mins to 1 hour for yourself. Rest you can use to change the world.
Read about the evidence and science behind exercise
E. And the number one way to manage the stress is – Acknowledge it. Stop hiding it. Its ok to let yourself come to terms with it. Once the elephant has been acknowledged, you can plan on how to eat it. Which is, one bite at a time, by the way.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
– Francis of Assisi
And remember. You are not the Unicorn. You are awesome. The world might benefit from more unicorns. But the world surely needs more awesome-ness. So take care of yourself.
Also published on Medium.