It is no secret that the demands on startup founders can be very tough. Whether it is working long hours, having to solve tough problems or living with high levels of stress over a long period, we know the role inherently comes with significant effort and sacrifices. One of the best accounts of this was provided by Ben Horowitz in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which reads almost like thriller, with its ever-increasing stress and pressure made up of a complex mix of personnel, product and financing issues — which all have to be resolved with a great deal of urgency. One of the main lessons from Horowitz’s book is that founders need to muster high performance levels for long periods of time, something that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s founded a business.
In other words, when you are a founder, how you prioritize self-care is closely aligned with the chances of your startup succeeding. In this article, we’re not going to spend much time covering self-care basics like sleep, exercise and nutrition, as there is already plenty of easily accessible information on those topics. We’re also not going to cover more controversial practices like biohacking and intermittent fasting that have become popular in parts of the tech community. Instead, we’ll cover the particular aspects of being a founder that make self-care critically important.
There are two facets of self-care we’d like to draw attention to here:
- Maintaining and improving both personal and team performance in order to deal with the increasing amount of challenges that come with growing a successful startup
- How to deal with unavoidable setbacks along the way to prevent burnout and depression from impacting your performance
Learning from athletes
Some of our greatest performers are athletes, people whose entire existences are built around improving their ability to compete and win. And while the notion of “winning” in the startup space may seem less obvious than it is in a sports arena, the need for founders to grow and perform means they may be able to learn from top athletes. Here are some facts about top athletes and their ability to perform in general.
- Great performances don’t exist in isolation but are buttressed by both practice and rest.
- Athletes’ energy levels are managed through their workload, diet and sleep.
- Their competitive mindset is managed through various forms of mindfulness practices, routines and coaching.
In other words, top athletes never rely on talent alone. It is said that LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of the past 15 years, spends $1.5 million on self-care every year, including physical coaching, physiotherapy, diet and mental coaching. In his quest for performance, no stone is left unturned; he has multiple advisors and experts he can lean on and learn from. So if a supremely talented athlete like James spends in excess of $4,000 daily to maintain and improve his performance, what can startup founders learn from his mindset? Here are some transferable points.
- Build productive routines over time. Routines can help reduce unnecessary energy expenditure and reduce your cognitive load. Sleep and rest are an essential part of athletes’ daily routines, and they are as serious about that as their physical practice. In the same way, founders must build their own routines, at first by getting basics like sleep, exercise and nutrition right, and then by adding routines for both learning and managing stress.
- Learn from others. Athletes have both managers and trainers to learn from. In addition, they often collaborate and learn from one another, even competitors. Other founders seem to be the best source of learning for founders, and many seek peer communities through accelerators or dedicated peer-to-peer organizations. If you are a venture-funded company, your VC will also be a source of advice, as well as a connection to other founders. Maybe less known is the desire of other advisors, such as your lawyer and accountant, to connect you to helpful resources both inside their firm and in their client portfolio.
- Learn discipline: While it is clear that performance is built over time, where discipline is needed is at perhaps the most obvious moment — when athletes are recovering from injury. Serious injuries can require surgery and a very long, methodical recovery process that may take up to 12 months. In the short career of an athlete, that kind of process is a test of patience and discipline. Interestingly, despite best efforts, setbacks happen regularly for founders as well. Whether they’re related to product performance or failures, customer losses or VC rejections, they will happen. As a founder, you are forging a new path, without a detailed blueprint to rely on. This is partly why entrepreneurship is such an exciting and fulfilling field, but it’s also the reason you need to expect and plan for setbacks along the way. Such setbacks will cause stress, especially if they occur more or less simultaneously, and how you deal with them is essential for your personal well-being, as well as for the venture itself. Many founders find it difficult to recognize when the pressure is reaching unhealthy levels, increasing the risk of burnout and depression. Yet there is very little talk about how to recover from such setbacks except for the usual “power through,” ”persistence” and ”knuckle-down” language, which isn’t helpful when it comes to making actual change. In reality, just as LeBron James seeks out the best help money can buy, founders need to do the same in an effort to develop a solid mental process for recovering from stressful situations and setbacks. Exactly what that would look like varies among individuals. For some, calling a therapist may be the most effective way of working through a period of stress and burnout; others can work through it with the help of one or more executive coaches or by relying on their peer network. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that seeking help for dealing with stressful situations has become less stigmatized. We hope founders will see there is no difference between getting help to deal with a stressful issue and calling a physiotherapist when recovering from injury.
You and your company
Importantly, how you as a founder go about increasing your own capacity and performance will also impact the culture you are fostering within your startup. After all, building a performance culture is essential in order to tackle complex problems like building sophisticated products, competing for investment, scaling your organization and breaking into new markets. Key characteristics of a high-performance culture include:
- Quality decision-making
- Approaching problems with urgency and drive, not stress
- Solving complex problems
- Finding new and unique ways of analyzing data
- Continuously building lasting relationships — with colleagues, customers and investors
While the focus that comes with stress helps channel energy toward a task, stress over time — chronic stress — actually reduces your ability to perform several of the tasks listed above. Similarly, having high levels of stress in an organization has been repeatedly proven to be unproductive, showing the importance of maintaining a careful balance. In a high-performance culture, the focus is on learning and growth as a way of dealing with the challenges startup life presents.
Part of how athletes learn is by using data to analyze their performances. While data has long been a feature of baseball, other, more complex team sports like soccer are have only began to embrace a data-driven approach at both an individual and a team level. Data provides an objective measurement that can be compared across time and to other athletes and teams. While not everything can be measured, removing guesswork in certain areas is a very worthwhile endeavour. Just like athletes leverage data to inform their practice, founders can build a culture that appreciates data in its planning and decision-making. Having a data-driven culture doesn’t make it less hard to start a company, but in our experience, removing subjectivity from certain parts of the decision-making reduces the interpersonal tension and stress from those situations. It allows founders and their teams to focus more of their energy on getting judgment right in the areas that are harder to measure.
Here are other areas in which founders play a key role in helping to build a resilient culture.
- Build a learning culture — one in which it’s understood that growth at both a professional and a personal level is expected and supported. Beyond the above point on data-driven culture, prioritizing feedback and coaching is critical for fostering growth.
- Design your team structure to allow for a large degree of autonomy. A lack of autonomy has been shown to be a great source of stress in organizations, so leaders who invest time in providing a clear description of responsibilities and expectations for each role will be rewarded with a less stressful and more productive environment. While the unpredictability of startup life means it is not always possible to make upfront and permanent organizational decisions, using a planning framework like RACI (which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted and informed) helps ensure clarity and alignment at the project level.
- Similarly, having a strong focus on building and maintaining fair diversity and inclusion practices reduces stress in the organization. When you ensure everyone feels like they belong, staff can focus on their work rather than questioning their place and value in the organization.
- Be open to different ways for staff to arrive at growth and performance. Exercise might be the greatest source of energy for some people, but others need time alone with a book. For some, meditation is a great way of managing stress, while others prefer cooking or musical practice.
- As a leader, demonstrate care for your staff and colleagues by avoiding late-night and weekend emails.
- Sleep is probably the single most effective self-care tool. Getting sufficient quality sleep on a regular basis helps with decision-making, creativity and analytical capabilities, as well as diet. Jeff Bezos is famous for prioritizing getting eight hours of sleep per night, avoiding early morning meetings and eating a healthy breakfast every day. His reasoning for prioritizing sleep is that as a CEO, he is responsible for making a few high-quality decisions every day, and a good night’s sleep is the best way to prepare for that. While startup life typically involves all-nighters, be aware that they are quite disruptive and do not help build high performance over time.
The final point we want to make about self-care, is about the importance for founders to act from a place of truth. As a founder, you and your team should be mindful of your own areas of strength and weakness, and your values and motivations. Not only does this help foster a certain humbleness and form the basis for listening and learning, but it also allows you to lead from a place of authenticity. Showing up every day with that kind of acceptance provides the best starting point for leading a startup and building a resilient and high-performing culture.
References and resources
HBR Ideacast – #786 – Building a company while battling depression
HBR Ideacast #771 -Why burn-out happen and how bosses can help
What is biohacking?
Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Jeff Bezos sleep habits