May 25, 2017
Leaders don’t often feel like they can — or should – share their stress and worries with others, especially with a team that’s constantly striving for success. Which is why I was surprised to see this statement in an email sent to founders and CEOs of a leading Silicon Valley VC firm:
“Ever since I started the company, I’ve lost the ability to sleep through the night. I wake up with worries and concerns and anxieties, and toss and turn a lot.”
Most of the founders and executives on that email list run companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of venture dollars and employ several hundreds, even thousands, of smart, driven people. But within minutes of that email going out, dozens of responses poured in, all echoing the same sentiment: “Wait, me too.”
Many also expressed their relief to discover they weren’t alone. As a startup founder, it’s so easy to think that you’re the only one confronting these challenges. But in the US, one in five people suffer from emotional and mental health symptoms every year – and only a small subset of people seek and receive care. For entrepreneurs and people going through drastic career changes, these symptoms and numbers are magnified — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
To quote Ben Horowitz, “The most important lesson in entrepreneurship: Embrace the struggle.” Once you understand what you’re going through, you too can build the positive mental habits and skills you need to overcome roadblocks when the going gets tough.
Startup Stress, by the Numbers
Stress impacts employees the team at every level in an early-stage startup — from the CEO to the newest hire. Amongst cofounders using Ginger.io, we found that 71 percent identified ‘stress’ as a key challenge for them. Additionally, 57 percent identified ‘anxiety’ as their leading challenge.
Starting a Company Isn’t Easy
If employees working at established corporations — with all of the resources and support that having a team offers — are stressed out, imagine how stressful it is to go solo as a startup founder or cofounder. Creating something that doesn’t exist today is challenging. Innovation is risky. Each step you take — from building a prototype to hiring people — multiplies the risk.
Within a single week, a founding team may experience any number of these scenarios or more: failing product features, customer rejections, team conflicts, making payroll, investors doubting you capabilities, legal or banking issues or spouses or family questioning your journey.
Based on what I’ve learned, here are four ways to keep your head in the game and get through challenging times
Remember What Drives You
Creating something that didn’t exist before, like a new product, service or company is an incredible risk and hard. And dealing with challenges is much easier when you believe the problem is an important one to solve. Every now and again you’ll need to remind yourself what drives you when you hit an obstacle or feel lost.
Don’t Take Feedback Personally
Being a leader means receiving constant feedback, and it’s usually not positive. When you care strongly about your company, it’s hard not to take feedback personally — but if you do that, you’ll miss seeing the bigger picture. Negative feedback, like rejection, isn’t a reflection of you. Instead, it’s crucial information that you need to have about the state of the market, industry and product.
When you receive negative feedback, instead of becoming discouraged, ask more questions and find out the reasons behind their reaction. Perhaps this customer had a negative experiences with similar companies or the investor you’re talking to has more insight into the market.
Build Up Your Thick Skin
With more feedback comes thicker skin and it will help you become more resilient as a leader.
There are also many other behavior changes that you can make to build resilience and lower the stress and anxiety of starting a company and it starts with the basics, like eating well and getting enough sleep, but it’s important to test different strategies to find out what works for you.
Build a Strong Support System
There’s a reason people say that, “It’s lonely at the top.” Many leaders I’ve met over the years take a lot of responsibility and don’t reach out when they need help. But it doesn’t have to be lonely to be a leader. It’s crucial to reach out to a diverse group of people and create a strong support network.
Having a community you trust is especially important because as an early-stage entrepreneur, much of your self-worth is tied to the success of your company. Expectations from within, early employees, VCs and that media article will add up.
By building a strong family and friend network, you can separate your identity from your startup, overcome the fishbowl effect, and it may even help you make better decisions.
Founders and early leaders set the tone for the emotional and wellbeing of the company. And when you offer tools, like Ginger.io, to support for your team, you normalize wellbeing and set the right culture for your team.
Read more about stress relieving practices at Tech.Co
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