There’s a conversation going on about mental health and burnout in startups, and we need to keep it going. My friend Dave Mayer shared some of his own experiences as a founder and friend of founders, and I read another powerful view from the trenches by Sarah Jane Coffey last year. There have even been sessions during Boulder and Denver Startup Weeks dedicated to this important topic.
We tend to glamorize the startup life as a place where brilliant, dedicated, and — most of all — energetic people are changing the world, making it a better place and making their first millions in the process. We are the engine of the economy, the force of innovation, the ones who keep America from falling behind the other superpowers through the sheer power of our brilliance and the sweat of our furrowed brows. We tell each other things like, “I wanted to work somewhere that I knew I could make an impact,” and “I don’t want to be a corporate drone, sitting in meetings all day.” We don’t meet, we scrum! We don’t just write code, we sprint! We work all day, take a short keg break on our rooftop deck, and then we work all night, with the occasional foosball game to keep our reflexes sharp and aggravate our carpal tunnel. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Corporate drones, that’s who!
But there’s a dark side to startup life. Yes, you have a greater impact when you’re one of ten people in the company, but those ten people are usually trying to do the work of 30, so you do the math. You’re never bored, but you’re never offline, either. Office perks are fun until you realize that you can never leave, and it turns out that “dedication” and “passion” can quickly become presenteeism and a grinding competition over “who wants it more.” But on the bright side, the stock options are generous!
The problem for leaders is that these changes usually happen when we aren’t looking. The excitement that you feel for your market-beating/world-changing idea masks the little problems until they become crises. You look around at the tired faces of your team and think, “We’re just in crunch time right now. After this push, we can relax.” But this little push is followed by another little push, and then you land your first big customer and they need “a few small enhancements” to make the product work for them, and then there’s the release for the big industry event, and then you find out that you have competitors…. There are blogs to write about your development philosophy and Medium posts to show how awesome your company culture is. Pretty soon, the rooftop deck is covered with snow and you’re explaining to your wife that you just have to do a little bit of work on Christmas to make sure that the release is ready by the first of the year. Meanwhile, the other startup founders you know are bragging about being able to get by on 3–4 hours of sleep a night, and you start to wonder about how to quantify the Sleep Gap as a measure of your company’s competitiveness. When people quit, they tell you that it’s not because they’re unhappy; they just got another offer that was too good to pass up. You notice that the foosball table is pretty quiet these days, but you don’t hear the grumbling that’s replaced it.
The startup monster will eat everything you put within its reach, including your free time, your health, and your family. As leaders, it’s our job to fence it in and protect both our teams and ourselves.
The startup monster will eat everything you put within its reach, including your free time, your health, and your family. As leaders, it’s our job to fence it in and protect both our teams and ourselves.So how do we do this? There’s always more work to be done, and for every triumphant cry of “inbox zero!” there are a thousand whimpers of “I’ll never get through all of this.” The startup employee who leaves at the end of the day thinking, “I have nothing left on my to-do list” either isn’t paying attention or was just laid off.
So here’s a thought: stop trying to get to the bottom of the pile. One of the worst mistakes that startups make is that they grossly undervalue their own time. Instead, acknowledge that time is a valuable and limited resource and decide how you’re going to invest it. Start saying, “we’re not going to do that right now,” and keep saying it until you find the most important items, then do them. There are probably a few items on your team’s to-do list (and your own) that you can quickly knock off, but this quickly gets difficult as you’re forced to make tradeoffs and give up things that feel really important. Remember, though, that the most successful startups are those that ruthlessly focused on a single goal until they were big enough to diversify. An unfocused startup is one bad decision away from a death spiral. So, focus. Ruthlessly. If that email, phone call, or feature idea doesn’t move your company definitively towards its goal, then it can wait, maybe forever.
Of course, in order to do this, you need to know what that one goal is. You do know what your company’s one goal is, right? If not, stop what you’re doing right now and go find a quiet corner, a mountain cabin, or a dark closet where you can put a towel over your head, and stay there until you do. Until you know why you’re in business and can clearly articulate that vision, you’re going to do more damage than any competitor could possibly do, chasing after bad revenue, distracting your team with useless projects, and generally diluting your valuable efforts. The biggest complaint that I hear from front-line people in startups is “Management doesn’t know what they’re doing.” The key words to note in that sentence are management and doesn’t know. When you start wandering all over the landscape in search of a purpose, you stop being a leader and you become “management.” Find your vision. Test it. Cling to it. Defend it like a loved one, and don’t let anything, even the lure of side money, pull you away. Even if you decide that you need to pivot that vision, do it purposefully and completely. Charlie Brown can be wishy-washy; you can’t if you expect people to follow you.