Empowered Team

Reading Time Time to read: 6 minutes

How to manage the stress of building a great startup

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

It seems we are more aware than ever of how our mental health needs to be taken as seriously as our physical health. But perhaps it’s no surprise that startup culture, which has notoriously seen founders push the limits of their physical stamina, also often sees founders over do it when it comes to their mental threshold.

Key takeaways:

  • Build a support network
  • Think of mental health like physical health
  • Prioritise and be decisive

Part of tackling this challenge is about understanding the common misconceptions that can be a great causes of stress. So this article talks through key areas of the startup experience, and gives you some hands on advice about how to avoid key mistakes.

Build a support network

Being a founder can be lonely, especially if you are a solo founder, and when things get busy, the temptation can be to keep your head down and muscle on through. If you do bump into someone you know, and they ask how things are, you tell them it’s great and you’re smashing it.

It’s crucial not to slip into a zone of isolation where you are forced to tackle every thought and stressful situation alone.

Within your particular area, try to find support networks of of other founders, with whom you can honestly share notes and discuss detailed challenges. Networking doesn’t count as you still have to present your best self. You need a group where you can be vulnerable. Groups like ICE are great for this. Some of these groups are invite only, but there are other more public groups found on sites like Meetup.com.

At the same time, don’t lose sight of the value in being able to escape your startup bubble. Do stay in touch with your old friends and family.They may not be able to advise you on the ins and outs of CAC and LTV, and that’s fine, because their real purpose is to help you forget about it for a while. They will likely be delighted to hear from you about something other than building your business.

Your mental health and physical health are linked

In a recent conversation of a community I frequent, members of the community were asked for their best advice to ensure physical health and minimise stress.

The most popular suggestions were naturally exercise -- but just as many emphasised the importance of meditation and mindfulness to work through particularly stressful phases.

Elsewhere, some advocated keeping a journal through the experience of building their business, giving them a record of previously stressful times, and how they managed to navigate through them.

Again, this is about giving their mind some distance and perspective from the current all-encompassing stressful challenges. In doing so, they can then deal more clearly and astutely with the situation at hand.

The other approach to this is to use a mentor or coach in a similar fashion, especially if writing doesn’t relax you as much as speaking. But coaches are much more than therapists -- they will help you work on your weak spots and stay focused on the bigger picture. Think of them more like a performance coach, helping you get the best out of yourself, including managing your time and others.

When working is not working

In the face of stress, there can be a temptation to double down and give every waking hour to the challenge. Sometimes, this might be the right idea -- but you can’t do it for long and you shouldn’t try.

In fact, nobody can work seven (long) days a week without a break. When you are considering your capacity and how much you can work in the week, all day every day is not an option.

If you aren’t realistic about this, you will inevitably crash out against your will. And there’s nothing more stressful than losing control completely.

During these phases, you may learn to trust your brain’s capability for passive thinking. It is a much discussed factor in problem-solving and creativity, but to step away from stressful challenges when you hit a wall is often the trick to overcoming them.

And finally, sleep. It’s your brain’s primarily recharging state, and humans need sleep more than they need water.

“Everything” cannot be your priority

Building a startup is impossible to do alone. You cannot truly achieve everything you want to all at once. It’s very common for stress to come from the desire to complete everything you know your startup needs to survive.

But the only path through is acceptance that this is impossible -- and get really focused and have clear systems that help you make these tough choices.

The better your systems are to prioritise what is feasible and when, as well as what will have to wait for now, the better you can move forward with confidence and less doubt.

Accept the things you cannot do, so you can focus on the things that matter right now.

Be clear and decisive when it comes to people

Many startup founders are dealing with management and people skills for the first time. You may find you have to hire a team that’s more junior than you’d like. Or that you cannot bring as many people on board as early as you hoped.

You will also have to let people go and move on for the good of the business.

Through all these challenges, stress is generally caused by prevarication, and hesitance to do what must be done. There are useful concepts like Radical Candor, which emphasise the importance of being as clear and consistent as possible with your team -- from the basics, right through to the hardest conversations.

That’s not to say it’s easy -- but you will encounter much more stress through hesitation and lack of clarity in these relationships.

Management is an incredibly difficult skill at the best of times but when things go wrong, make sure you are communicating. Take responsibility, but make sure everyone learns from the experience together. Placing the blame won’t get you anywhere.

Double down at crunch time (but not how you think)

Fundraising is a classic time of increased stress in startups. It’s the one moment you need to be really cool and confident, and yet you are managing another full time responsibility that further distracts you from your business and immediate challenges. You have to acknowledge it’s going to be stressful and that you won’t be able to do everything that was happening before. Delegate where possible and ruthlessly cut the least important tasks.

The temptation can be to self-soothe through this experience by going out more, drinking, sleeping less and doing more work.

In fact, it’s crucial that you don’t lose focus on the things that you already know actually help decrease your stress. Do MORE exercise. Spend MORE time with your network and confidants.

If you prepare properly for stress during normal operating times, it will give you good habits for harder periods. That means it’s even more important than you assume during business as usual.

So, when you find yourself in total tunnel vision, when you find you cannot stop thinking about the business, when you find you have to let someone go or the data is all going in the wrong direction -- that’s when you must flex these muscles even more strongly.

With startups, everything often goes to the wire, especially in the beginning.

A lot of founders think they need to present supreme confidence to overcome this. But instead, they can start to become blind to their actual weakness. And in doing so, they paper over the cracks, which emerge fresh in these hardest times.

The number one most powerful thing you can do to reduce stress is be honest about your weaknesses and build habits that help you improve and work on them over time. There is no room for superficial solutions in this game.

There is no way to achieve all of this from day one. But by keeping it present in your mind, you should be able to prepare, keep focus and discipline that gives you the best fighting chance in every situation.

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

Dharmesh is Product Partner at Forward Partners and helps founders the've backed go from ideas to a great products and businesses. He has a passion for User Research, Lean UX and using data to inform decision making. Dharmesh has a background in artificial intelligence and has been doing product for over 12 years in his own or other high profile startups.

Apply for Office Hours

We’re looking for great entrepreneurs with great ideas.

Apply here

Similar Guides