There are a lot of books and blogs on entrepreneurship, but you can read everything out there and still be wildly unprepared for the task. Plus, every startup is different, each with its own set of challenges.
After working on Sprowt Labs for the last two years, I’m ready to reflect on what I’ve learned, and think about how I can carry those lessons with me in my future career.
This first post will focus on the unique stress of starting a startup, successful coping mechanisms that I used, and some takeaways.
Why so stressful?
Most people have heard that starting a company is stressful, but until you have been part of the process, it’s hard to relate to. For me, the two things that separated job-related stress from startup-related stress are uncertainty and time management.
There are many times in life when things aren’t certain. For example, you recently started dating and you aren’t sure if they like you all that much, or you finished a test and haven’t been graded yet. These examples are anxiety-enducing and stressful, but generally short-lived – you learn that she does like you and you passed the test. With Sprowt, this kind of stress was constant – uncertainty was the air that I was breathing.
For starters, the company itself is uncertain. Our company has business plans, mission statements, value propositions. Each of these texts try to predict future events, scenarios, or mechanisms by which Sprowt will be successful. But the only true way to test them is by starting a company. The company itself is an exploration!
A startup friend of mine has four questions that he asks to every prospective startup:
- Does society or an identifiable market need your product or service?
- Do you have an ability, skill, or knowledge set that makes you especially capable of carrying out your idea?
- Is your idea distinctly different or better than what is currently on the market?
- Would you be willing to work on your idea for awhile, even if you didn’t make very much money?
These are great questions, mostly because they cut to the heart of the issue. If you answer a solid “No” for any of the above, congratulations, because you just saved yourself time and money!
While I didn’t have these specific questions at hand when I started my adventure, I can say that my answer to each of these as always been some variation of “Maybe”. But even a maybe can help you hone in on more concrete questions that can get you to a “Yes” or “No”. Questions such as:
- How big is your identified market? Both in $ and people.
- What aspects of business are you best doing yourself vs outsourcing to another company that is better equipped?
- Which other companies are trying to do what you are doing? Which other companies are capable?
- Are there strategic partners who you could be acquired by?
- Does your idea make sense as a standalone company?
- How much does your product cost to produce?
- How much will customers be willing to pay or willing to accept for your product?
- How much can you sell your product for while still making a reasonable profit?
- How many you will need to sell at that margin to stay in business?
- What is a realistic launch timeline?
- Do you still enjoy work?
Questions like these are valuable, because they force you to question the foundations of your company.
Starting a company has many similar challenges, but with some extra kinks – own boss, own schedule
First, there are so many things to get done all the time, it can be easy to overwork. You may have heard the following saying:
“When you are your own boss, you can work whenever you want…as long as you are always working.”
Long days are also hard because they put stress on relationships and prevent you from taking care of yourself. I found that I often times just didn’t have enough time in the day for work, my partner, friends, family, and staying in shape.
I also found myself wasting the little time I had watching uninteresting Netflix content for a mental repreive.
Second is maintaining momentum and morale. Because, while there is always work to be done, it can be tough to want to keep going after a long day or tough week. When we shipped our first product, we pulled long hours for about two weeks, coding, emailing, ordering, and physically building the product. When we were done we immediately, day of, drove to the east coast for a conference. I was exhausted, and my morale was broken, at least temporarily.
The variety of entrepreneurship keeps life interesting. But also exhausting. I brought up coding, emailing, ordering, and building for a reason – it is mentally exhausting to juggle so many things. I can’t say what a typical day at Sprowt looked like, because there isn’t one. We eat lunch and answer emails each day, but otherwise who knows!
There are many ways to cope with work, but here are some that worked for me.
Scoping, prioritization, and maintaining focus
When you have too many things to do, prioritization is key. Agile teams often use the concept of a Sprint to manage time and and organize tasks. We have used a similar approach, prioritizing and assigning work in 2-4 week “Quests”. Each quest has a Quest Planning to organize and prioritize what needs to be done, and a Quest Retro (short for Retroactive) to reflect on what happened in the last quest, and a check in on how we are feeling.
While the Planning session sounds more important, it is my experience that the Retro is equally vital. Having a dedicated time for reflection is a good opportunity both to celebrate victories (in an endless marathon of work), err interpersonal grievances before they fester, and redirect work before going too far down the wrong path. I cannot stress this enough. A former 18F co-worker once said
“There are two kinds of teams: teams that Retro, and teams that don’t Retro.”
I see why. Frequent reflection is key to maintaining a healthy startup.
There are a number of times where Christopher or I have outsourced work to save time and money, and reduce the burden of code switching. We have used services like Upwork, have had parts manufactured elsewhere, and have leveraged connections in our prefessional networks.
Launching a product takes awhile, so we paced ourselves, generally restricting working to a 5 day week, with 9-10 hour days – not insane at all by startup standards.
Friends, family, and exercise
This has been the hardest one me to cope with and I’m not sure I’ve been very successful coping.
In recent years I have been trying to say “No” more because I have a tendancy to stretch myself too thin. Startup life has made me better at this, but when you say “No” to too many people, social isolation can be a problem. I think I have a particularly hard time with this because I get a lot of joy and satisfaction from maintaining connections with people.
In retrospect, I think I should have done more exercise and been proactive about therapy. Since donesizing my role in Spowt I have been exercising more and seeing a therapist. Both are a healthy distraction that make me more emotionally available to important people in my life.
Stress will exist in any startup. And every person in every startup will find certain activities or events stress enducing, or stress reducing.
You can’t control everything, but you can control how you spend your time and the way that you think about things.
Be honest with yourself about how you need to spend your time. Be honest with yourself about the state of your startup. And be honest with the people who are close to you – your business partners, significant others, close friends, and family. By communicating your thoughts and needs, you will likely use your time more productively and reduce the feeling startup stress.