Right Skills

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How to stay sane when starting a company

Nic Brisbourne

Managing Partner @ Forward Partners

In December 2010 I got an email from one of our CEOs saying he was getting divorced, let's call him Dave. Dave explained that he had been working 80 hours per week on his startup that his marriage had deteriorated and that his wife wanted to live somewhere else. Then over Christmas he put his relationship back together a bit and in February he found himself with an awful choice. Should he stay with the startup that he loved or move to a different country with the wife that he loved to try and save his marriage. He chose the latter.

Key takeaways:

  • Make sure you are really committed;
  • Find a co-founder, investor, or advisor who can help you in difficult moments;
  • Don't take it personally;
  • Take care of your physical and mental health;

I'm pleased to report that Dave's still married, that he's happy now and that his company survived and prospered. The process nearly broke him though and there's lots of things that founders can do to avoid ending up in a similar place.

Before you start, make sure you know what you want, it might be fame, fortune, or to change world, but you should know what you want and make sure you really want it. It's now a cliche to say that there will be tough times at a startup, but they always come, and strong desire gives you the energy to pick yourself up and keep working.

Conversely, failing because you didn't have enough desire to keep going is soul destroying. If you have co-founders make sure they share the same ambition and level of desire. In a related point, it's also important to be ready for the downsides. Most successful entrepreneurs are love their companies and obsess over how to make it the best it can be. That usually translates into long hours, which can be tough on friends on family. It's common for personal relationships get stressed and for friendships to whither through neglect.

You have to want success enough for that not to matter, and if you're married and don't want to get divorced then you should make sure your partner is on board with your impending workload. Support at home will keep you sane.

You should also be prepared financially. Make an honest assessment of your living costs and make sure your savings and income from the company will be able to cover these without assuming success will come too quickly. Feeling too short of money, or having a partner that feels you aren't pulling your weight financially will drag on your commitment.

Once you've started your company the single best piece of advice is not to be alone. Find someone you can talk to candidly when things get difficult. They could be a co-founder, or investor, or advisor but their perspective will stop you worrying yourself needlessly into tunnels of despair. Partners at home can help in this regard, but it becomes wearing on a relationship to talk too much about work and someone who has intimate knowledge of the business has more perspective and can be a better sounding board. You don't want somebody to amplify your panic.

Secondly, try not to take things personally. Your identity is inevitably going to get wound up in your startup, and that is part of where you will get the energy to succeed, but if you can maintain some perspective and self belief that isn't tied to the success of the company you will be more mentally resilient. A common mistake born of taking things too personally is to misinterpret bad luck as a sign of personal incompetence, causing self confidence to spiral down. Another is to unfairly blame other people when things go wrong. In this case the mind is flipping into denial to protect itself, but the protection is fragile and leads quickly to energy sapping cynicism.

The final piece is to take care of yourself, mentally and physically. You should enjoy the journey. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep and consider meditation (my favourite body hack). All of these will reduce stress and ward off depression whilst improving decision making and productivity. There are short term gains to be had by scrimping on any or all of the above, and that can make sense in a crisis, but even then only for a short time.

Building a startup into a successful company is a marathon not a sprint and you need working practices you can sustain for ten years. Few people can do 80 hours a week for that long. Be self-aware, notice when you getting tired, or stressed, and try to find time to do something about it. If you're not good at noticing then ask the people who care about you. If you're going down the venture route you most likely have a plan that takes you from $0 to $100m in five years and I hope you are one of the lucky few who get there without a hitch. If not then maybe this advice will be of some use to you. As with many things, the earlier you can prepare, the better.

Useful links:

Nic Brisbourne

Managing Partner @ Forward Partners

Nic is Managing Partner at Forward Partners. He has 15 years experience in the venture capital industry and prior to founding Forward Partners in June 2013, was a Partner at leading venture capital firm DFJ Esprit. He has worked and invested in London and Silicon Valley, leading over 25 investments and enjoying a number of successful exits including buy.at (acquired by AOL for $125m) and Zeus Technology (acquired by Riverbed for $140m).

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