Through trial and error, actually more errors than anything, this is what I learned from my first startup experience. I hope my blunders will help you avoid the potholes or, at the very least, know how to recover when you bottom out.
Listen to music and recenter
Whenever I’ve had an exceptionally intense creative session or argument with my co-founder, I find myself in an extremely emotional place. I might be really excited, nervous or frustrated, but whatever the emotion it’s not my natural state of being. To bring myself back to center, I slip on my headphones and listen to music. Right now, my favorite “centering” track is Mumford & Sons “I Will Wait” because, for some reason that I can’t explain, this track eases my mind and relaxes me. By minute three or four of the song, I feel calmer and more apt to deal with whatever it is I need to work on. While Mumford might not be your “zen” inducing track, to survive your first startup you need to find something that will help you center yourself whenever you feel out of balance. The activity should be no more than five minutes and you should feel yourself unwinding at least mid way through. If music isn’t your thing, then try reading (sometimes the New York Times works for me), singing, writing, or even air guitar.
Exercise, exercise, exercise!
I can’t stress exercise enough, in fact I think it’s probably the one thing that has kept me sane throughout everything I’ve ever done. I know some entrepreneurs like to say they don’t need to exercise because they’re not naturally athletic people but I think that’s a load of crap. Everyone needs exercise. Exercise is a stress reliever, a way to break up a sedentary work schedule, and a much needed cerebral break from whatever you’re working on. Exercise will also improve your sleeping habits because it tires out your body which then sends “I need to sleep” signals to your brain. I know from personal experience that someone exercising is much more positive, creative and effective than someone who isn’t. The keys to exercise is (1) finding an activity that you enjoy doing and (2) finding the perfect level of exercise that will exhaust your body but not overexert it. I encourage you to try different activities to figure out what works for you. Also, remember that your exercise doesn’t need to just be one thing. I play soccer and swim and the combination of the two is enough to keep me sane.
Step away and disconnect
I know most founders argue “I can’t disconnect, these early days are the most important” but I’ve learned that’s completely untrue. Yes, you should be laser-focused on your product, growth and income during the early days of your startup, but this is just the natural state of a successful entrepreneur. Creating a company requires a butt load of your time, more so than any corporate job, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that you spend every literal second of the day on your company. Let’s be honest, no one can keep up that type of lunacy. You need to find time in the day to step away from your company and disconnect. You should still carry your phone in case the server crashes or a big account signs up, but otherwise do something else. It can be as simple as taking five minutes to get a coffee or something longer like going to the gym (exercise!!) or meeting a friend for lunch. Stepping away from your company will allow you to reboot, relax and reacquaint yourself with your self, not the person who runs X company.
Be your own biggest fan
So many people say starting a company is a marathon and not a sprint. I totally agree with this but I also know that marathoners need to push themselves just as hard as sprinters. Just because your timetable is years rather than days doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be just as productive or time-sensitive. To do this, and to stave off indecision and inactivity, you need to find a way to motivate yourself. Not to overdo the metaphor but marathoners, unlike sprinters, can’t see the finish line. Hell, at times they can’t even see a tenth of the total track that lies before them. As an entrepreneur, you need to find a way to push yourself harder, farther and stronger than anyone else even though you can’t see the end. Unlike your buddies, you’re not working for a paycheck, the weekend or the end of the day. You’re working to build something out of nothing, to make an almost impossible change in people’s ingrained behaviors, and to succeed where many others have failed or been too scared to try. Unfortunately, motivating yourself can’t really be taught since everyone motivates themselves differently. There’s no one solution for all but to get started, I suggest goal setting, visualizations, and personal mantras. I also recommend getting a dose of motivation from your friends and family, packing that experience away in your memory, and recalling it whenever you feel down or stuck in the mud.
Focus on solving problems, don’t spend time celebrating
It’s ok to celebrate the small accomplishments of a startup company, especially since they are usually few and far between, however, you shouldn’t waste too much time on them. Focusing on accomplishments can actually be detrimental to a team’s productivity simply because celebrations, by design, are a natural let down. The celebration itself is exciting and invigorating but the time immediately after is unfailingly less fun. So instead, spend your time solving problems. Problem solving creates a natural high because (1) you have a goal to work towards and (2) there’s a payoff at the end for all your hard work. When I solve a problem, I feel overly accomplished and almost invincible. More times than not, when you solve a problem you’ll move on to another one because of your bloated feeling of confidence.
When I say “stay normal”, I mean your normal, baseline, beautiful self, whatever that may be. It can be really easy when running a startup to get carried away whether it be with investors, ideas of grandeur or snarky social comments. The worst possible thing you can do when running a company is lose sight of who you are. The company you’re creating is an extension of yourself and if you lose your identity, your company will follow. The investors who gave you their money? The users who gave you their trust? They did that because they believe in you, your company and your vision. So my advice to you: stay normal, stay you.
This can be a difficult thing to do, especially if it’s your first time out of the startup gate, but it’s possible if you do these three things:
1) Spend quality time with your friends and family. I don’t mean the friends your investors introduced you to or the people you met at the last tech conference. I mean the friends who knew you before your startup. These are the people who drove you home after a long night at the bar, who’ve seen you without makeup in your “mom” jeans, and who cried with you when Bruce Willis died in Armaggedon [spoiler alert!]. They’re the first people who congratulated you when you launched your product and the first people you go to when you need to relax. Don’t push these people out of your life just because you’re a big shot startup founder now. They know the real you and, believe it or not, you need them more than they need you.
2) Do what you want. Too many times it seems like founders bend under pressure and do something they don’t really want to do. Remember that this company is your creation, your idea and your vision. This doesn’t mean ignore all advice that’s given to you but rather, consider the advice and then make your own decision. By making your own choices, you’ll have more self confidence going forward, you’ll feel more responsible for the product you put out, and you’ll create a company that you actually want to continue working on.
3) Keep doing the things you love. Just because you started a company doesn’t mean you should throw away the habits you’ve created. Your favorite things, like yoga before bed, playing softball or reading the New York Times travel section, are what make you you. Yes, your schedule will change as your company grows and you’ll find other demands on your time but instead of chucking your favorite hobby out the door, learn to manage your time and fit everything in.