There are things that I wish I had known before I had started my startups. Not because it would have changed my mind, but because I would have been prepared for them and I wouldn’t have obsessed over them.
Not the obvious, ambiguous things like — “It’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done” or “It’s the most rewarding.” The non-obvious, the in-the-trenches truths.
There are many, and everyone’s experience is different, but here are the five that I had wished I’d had a better sense of because they’re the ones that better capture the essence of being a founder on a daily basis:
1. You’ll have to find a different level of belief in self.
Startups are not about products. They’re about wills. The will of one person or a team to do what everyone says can’t be done. To keep going. To find the source of faith, belief, inspiration that will create a bubble over your team to do the hard work. But it also means it’s your job to venture outside of the bubble every so often to make sure you haven’t drank your own Kool-aid too much and you’re now ignoring important realities. Talking to your users regularly solves that pretty easily. So be prepared to become your own cheerleader and your own worst critic – no one can do that for you.
2. You will wake up every morning terrified that this is the day everything will unravel.
Every day your mind wants to tell you all the ways that you don’t know what you’re doing. Just like athletes, your job becomes increasingly about managing your mental game. About funneling all your energies into what you can control. Which is your attitude, your focus, your willingness to talk to your customers relentlessly, to suspend disbelief while you do the work. You’ll have to actively shut the down the thoughts that try to crowd in at 3 a.m. by literally telling yourself you’re not allowed to think about this until your first cup of coffee.
3. You’ll never be fully present.
This is the one that I most wish someone had warned me about. Being a founder means you’ve gotten obsessed by a complex, seemingly impossible problem. Which means you spend of your waking and many of your “sleeping” hours thinking about the problem, your team, the company, your competitors…. the list is endless, the thinking unending. So much so that it takes immense amounts of effort to constantly pull yourself back into the present — with your kids, your spouse, your friends. Essentially the most important people in your life, for whom you can start to feel distant and unengaged. When really, you’ve just fallen in love — with something that can’t be always ‘dimensionalized ‘or verbalized. It will be your job to adjust. To help your loved ones understand your obsession, but then also learn to set it aside so you don’t forsake your most important relationships.
4. Your team is the source of your strength.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have a partner or two in starting your venture. If not, you’ll need to get on building your team quickly. But not just anyone. And not just people who are smart — those are actually a dime a dozen. You need to find the grittiest, the most loyal ones. The smart ones with the heart and the will. It’s a tall order but you have to do it. Because these are the people that will see you at your best and very worst — when you’re erratic and anxious and frankly, a bit nuts. They’re also the ones that will know to just hold the boat steady and keep going to buy you the time to pull your s$%# together and focus again on point the ship in the right direction. Your team is your strength. Never forget that.
5. Your heart will feel emotions for your work that you have only otherwise felt for your partner or your kids.
In the same way that language fails to really capture the feeling of your daughter’s hand in yours as she skips down the street or when you sit hip to hip with your spouse on the couch after a long day, quiet but content, language fails to communicate the highs and lows of starting a startup. I don’t think finding the words are necessary. Just know that you’ll feel feelings about your work that you never thought were possible — both joyful and devastating. Embrace them all.
Like startups, these are complex topics – neither all positive or negative. But I believe that we can make starting startups more accessible the more we can have the honest discussions of what it’s really like.
How about you? What do you wish you had known before starting your startup, launching your business or embarking on your creative project?