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At a time when most people are coming back from some rest and relaxation at year’s end, the reality is that many founders have been working furiously straight through the holiday season. Sometimes, there’s just no getting around it. If, however, you’re a founder who is in a position to take some time at the beginning of this year to check in on your mental, emotional and physical health, I hope you do so. I also hope you might consider doing some things a little differently in 2019.
The real story, one that lives outside of the shiny press releases and inspirational founder spotlight stories, is that founders are usually deeply strained, in one way or another, whether they realize it or not.
In my own life as a founder, I was mostly unaware of the strain I was under, but ended up still feeling effects from my eight years running a company as long as a decade later. And by now, having worked with a generation of founders as a teacher, mentor and angel investor, I hear and witness so many stories that mirror my own experience.
The truth is, as founders, we’re like the proverbial frogs in boiling water. The heat and pressure of being a founder gradually increases without you even realizing the toll it’s taking on you. Many founders wake up one day a few years after they’ve started their company and they are fried. Fundraising in particular exacts a brutal toll.
Fundraising is one of the most stressful activities that founders deal with because, in addition to the day-to-day grind, it’s another full-time job suddenly dropping like a ton of bricks on your life. You already have your hands full, keeping the plates spinning on every aspect of your business–making payroll, evangelizing your brand, managing employees, selling–and now you have to prepare for and handle an ultra-taxing experience.
There are only certain times when the doors for fundraising are really open–September through November, and then February through May–so you have limited time on the calendar to come out swinging in an incredibly competitive process. There can be excruciating due diligence, endless meetings with potential investors and time spent answering the same questions from one call to another as cheerfully as possible. And no matter how many well-intentioned and excellent blog posts that tell you how to “do it right,” fundraising is almost always a slog and takes months of your life every time.
Let’s go a step further with another uncomfortable truth–it’s traumatic even when you succeed, because when you do finally raise money, you have just hopped on another hamster wheel. If you’re lucky, you’re going to have 18 months of capital, but you know you’ll be out fundraising again six months ahead of time. In other words, you’re under pressure to position yourself for the next round of fundraising with the right key performance indicators and metrics that will help you do it all over again–but bigger.
Well, this is the life you’ve chosen and you know it’s what you signed up for and that there’s no “easy way”. Good. Acceptance and extreme ownership of this reality is the first thing I recommend. Many founders lose heart and get overwhelmed by the difficulty involved and lament it instead of accepting it.
Second, I recommend hiring a respected founder coach–someone seasoned who has been a founder, and can fulfill a very specific function that your board and casual mentors cannot. They will be an outside eye on you, hopefully able to identify your blind spots and help you put together a system to keep you as healthy as possible. This may well include advice on diet and exercise, as well as use of time. They will be a consistent sounding board, and a set of eyes and ears you can rely on both in regular intervals and ad hoc whenever you are in a bind. We all know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but perhaps there is a Founder’s Hierarchy of Needs which is immensely more modest–and is focused on survival and maintaining the best possible health under stressful circumstances.
Not surprisingly, it’s hard for many founders to accept that they could benefit from a founder coach. The type of person drawn to entrepreneurship is oftentimes also the type of person that is very driven, self-reliant–and proud. It’s also often hard for a thrifty founder to think about spending money on themselves. It feels like an affront to what they are all about. But think about it. Not only does it make sense to get help from a health perspective, it makes sense from a business perspective.
You are no different from a high performance athlete. You have to be so many things–evangelizer, communicator, manager, coach, positive, encouraging, possessing boundless energy through all the ups and downs and on and on. You’re also in an environment where one false move could spell disaster for your company. For example, you don’t want to lose your temper when you’re exhausted and frazzled and end up yelling at an employee, potential partner, reporter or investor. Think about how many coaches a professional athlete has to help them stay on top of their game.
So, ask other founders if they know of anyone who would make a good coach. Make sure they’re well recommended–not everyone can have the likes of a Jerry Colonna in their life, but ask around to other founders and you’ll be amazed at how word spreads about some fantastic people that can be of great help.
Another good practice is to build some constants into your life, as much as possible. These will serve as bulwarks for your health that will keep you strong and motivated. The key is scheduling all this. On a daily basis, have scheduled time to de-stress–perhaps meditating works for you. Schedule workouts well in advance. Schedule four-day, off-the-grid breaks on a quarterly basis. And of course, your coaching sessions should be a constant–at least every two weeks. Do this all it with the full knowledge that you won’t be able to fulfill each and every one of these activities you have scheduled, but force yourself to have it in your calendar because it increases the likelihood that you’ll actually do it.
Finally, don’t skimp on sleep.
How do you stick to this plan? One trick I recommend is using a physical calendar that shows your year at a glance. Put it on a wall that you have to see every day, and every time you exercise, make an orange dot on that day. Do the same thing with another color for another part of your routine–your mental health practice, your founder coach sessions, whatever you’ve decided will help you. Not only is that a visual reminder to stay on track, you can look at it and see if your month is going off the rails and be able to recalibrate.
Remember, you have your own hierarchy of needs as a founder. You are not superhuman. All this stress is affecting you whether you realize it or not. In my view, you need consistent regular sleep, consistent regular exercise and de-stressing activities, excellent diet, regular “breaks from the action” and a respected coach. I hope you have some time at the start of the year set this schedule up for 2019.
January 9, 2019 at 12:06PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs