I found myself writing to a great young founder the other day with a perspective. They’d had some tough times recently, having to reduce the size of the team and getting feelings that traction and product/market fit were more difficult than initially anticipated.
This is a bit of a copy/pasta and paraphrase of the advice I sent him about the personal side of being a founder.
Right up front, being a founder is a shit job.
You have to balance a ton of priorities, and by definition, startups are high risk endeavours. As you grow, you have employees, and suddenly you are accountable not just to you and any cofounders – they rely on you to keep food on the table and a roof over their head. That in itself is stressful, particularly at the early and volatile days.
But even as you raise money and have ‘runway’, the job doesn’t suddenly get easier. Sure, you might not feel like you are tearing your hair out with a pile of unsecured debt1Credit card equity is great until you find you can’t service it…, but now you have another group you’re accountable to – outside investors, who (no matter what they might say otherwise) expect you to create a return on investment.
As a founder, your job is to sell your soul and life to the business. Being a leader of a company is a truly crap job 99.99% of the time. You can’t make a company from only icing, you have to bake the damn cake too. But to succeed, you have to go through the tough times and the good times keeping a laser focus on the business.
Some would say that you can and should have a work/life balance, and that is definitely possible! But to be honest, the best founders are so passionate about what they are doing (or so challenged by it) that their startup becomes de facto their life, at least for a while in the early days. Trust me when I say that you’ll look back on it and think you were insane and nearly killed yourself over and over, but it’s also kind of fun and you’ll miss it.
Expect your “business emotional state” (the emotional state related to the work part of your life) to be extremely volatile. Some days you’ll get great wins, where big companies get on board or you solve a major tech challenge. Some days you’ll get great losses, where you lose a ton of customers, tech stacks spontaneously combust, or you suddenly have less cash than you thought you did.
Notice there I didn’t mention PR. It’s easy for founders to think that PR is a measure of success – after all, that’s when all of your friends and family congratulates you on how great you’re doing! But it’s not. PR has its place as one component of the marketing stack, but it’s not a success metric. It’s a path to marketing and sales, and treating it any other way is going to end you in a lot of pain.
Don’t let yourself get too buoyed in the long run about anything other than the core business metrics going up and to the right. Those metrics will depend on your business – it might be MRR, DAUs or any other metric – but you should know what they are, and have a close eye on them.
You need to be able to make consistent decisions when the business is going poorly just as much as when it is going well. That’s a vital part of strategy execution: while your decisions may change as new facts come to light, you need to continue to make good consistent decisions (in terms of how you make decisions, not what they are) – regardless of whether you had a big win or a big loss yesterday.
The analogy I liken it to is hedge fund traders2Yes, this is a simplified model of how hedge funds work.. Let’s say they manage a portfolio of $500m. They’ll have an investment hypothesis (strategy) involving some kind of belief on how to make money – that might be buying companies that are undervalued, watching for changes in commodities markets, or a view of how government policy shifts exchange rates. But every day, they go in and execute that strategy, refining it where needed.
Some days they will make a killing – particularly with leverage, they can make ‘bets'3Bets yes because the outcome is uncertain – if it were 100% certain then either the rest of the world doesn’t have the data they have, or they have run the numbers wrong. that might give them exposure worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
If the market shifts favourably, that leverage multiplies the return – you can go home and open the champagne, having made $200m from a trade from a $500m fund (40%!!). But if the market shifts the wrong direction, they lose, and sometimes lose big. A $200m loss is a hard thing to stomach for anyone.
But the best4Yes, simplified model of what best means here, it’s a combination of subjective and objective factors. hedge fund managers go into the office the next day, and make decisions in the same way they did the day before.
Either their ongoing hypothesis (which may change over time, that’s part of the strategy) is right, or it is wrong. But if they play extremely defensively the next day after a big loss, they might miss the opportunity to make $250m, or even manage to magnify their losses by stalling at the wrong moment.
I could never be a hedge fund trader for this reason – while I am somewhat detached from work5And slowly getting better, I definitely wasn’t like this at the start…, I couldn’t be that detached.
But whatever you do, don’t rely on your startup to make you happy.
That’s buying a first class ticket on the train to pain. Businesses are volatile beings no matter of how ‘safe’ you think they are6Having money from VCs does not a good business make…. Your “business emotional state” will fluctuate, and at times it’ll be a wild ride.
If you rely on your business to make you happy, you are going to have an extremely bad time.
So what do you need to do?
Find something (anything!) that makes you happy independently of work.
For some people, that may be a person or relationship. That might work great for you, but relationships can be volatile beings sometimes and have a multiplying effect on problems at work. This is particularly the case when you work with your significant other – something I personally plan to avoid, but it works for others!
Personally, I’m still discovering the things that make me happy outside work. I love to go sailing, but that’s sometimes a tricky thing to squeeze into gaps. But find your thing(s), and use them to build your ‘happiness portfolio'7I am really stretching the financial metaphors in this article. Don’t ever rely on your startup.
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|Credit card equity is great until you find you can’t service it…
|Yes, this is a simplified model of how hedge funds work.
|Bets yes because the outcome is uncertain – if it were 100% certain then either the rest of the world doesn’t have the data they have, or they have run the numbers wrong.
|Yes, simplified model of what best means here, it’s a combination of subjective and objective factors.
|And slowly getting better, I definitely wasn’t like this at the start…
|Having money from VCs does not a good business make…
|I am really stretching the financial metaphors in this article