Stress and Leadership:
My Experience as a Startup CEO and Some Steps to Cope
I got involved with my first start-up in my mid-20s. I was hired as the first “business” hire, where most others were on the engineering side except for me and the CEO. I was hungry for the challenge to prove myself and dove headfirst into the start-up life.
Resources were thin at this early stage, so I worked my ass off booking all the meetings at our first trade show, writing website copy, confirming meetings with potential clients, and preparing sales handouts. Ultimately we had a great show, which led to deals with studios and TV networks. We achieved enough early milestones to raise capital and hired more people to help execute on ever-larger goals. Fast forward four years, we sold the company for over $100 million, and I became addicted to the journey of start-up highs and lows. But that early time still stands apart as a self-inflicted high-stress environment that many start-up employees and founders go through.
Next, I started my own company as a first-time founder/CEO. The pressure was higher, but I was young with no family pressures and a lean personal burn rate. I could share the burdens with a co-founder in the early days. As the company grew, I felt the brunt of that pressure as the Founder/CEO. Sometimes it was so bad that after dealing with a stressful situation, customer issue, or even an investor, I would go to a bar and ask for a tall glass of vodka on the rocks and chug it to take the edge off. Not a healthy coping strategy, but it got me through a couple of challenging moments. There have been other times where the pressure drove me into periods where I didn’t sleep, and it felt like the world was crashing down around me with no way out.
From my own experience and hearing similar stories from friends, I know that many people are going through this struggle right now and don’t recognize that it’s not okay. Mental health stigma has thankfully come into focus in recent times, but it is still a huge problem. Back then, it was not something you talked about. The stress and constant anxiety that kept you up in the start-up world was part of the ethos. Start-up “grind” and “grit” are what VCs wanted, and many still do. The profile is a young, hungry tech graduate willing to code all night. It wasn’t a job. The company was your life.
Making it worse, as a founder or start-up employee, you are constantly seeing articles and news updates of the big raises and newest acquisitions. You are always reading about company highlights and the most recent overnight success story. These stories don’t cover the grit and hard times in between, the challenges you overcome, or how you put your shoulder into it to get through a huge challenge and still manage to keep going. This struggle is where you live for the first few years of your company, and that anxiety will always be present.
During this time, company leaders struggle to cope. The constant pressure of when will we raise the next round? What happens if we hit the “wall” and run out of money without a backup plan? Will the employees who bet on us be left without jobs, and their families be in financial trouble? What about the early investors who put their money in to support the idea? The anxiety can take your energy away and send you into thought spirals that can easily throw anyone into a state of high anxiety or even depression.
When all the world feels like it’s coming down on you and you struggle to deal with the stress and anxiety of starting something new, I would recommend a few ideas from my experience that could help you cope better:
- Find a friend who gets it! Someone you can vent without consequence or a leadership support group that you can bounce challenges and ideas off. I have many friends on my call or text list who get the text from me periodically, and we can lay it out to each other. “This Board situation is driving me crazy; I have to get this investor to get on board with our plans.” “My head of sales/engineering/operations just quit, and I’m going to need to rehire this role yesterday.” It can be invaluable to build relationships with people who know your industry and deal with similar situations. It’s helpful to let you vent and also get advice on what your next steps could be.
- Spend “unplugged time” with people you love. This may be your best friends, life partner, kids, extended family, or even your dog. Spending time with those who make you feel good and happy is healing. Staying unplugged will make sure you are not distracted from the moment and receive that positive energy. The challenging situation will still be there when you go back to it, but your perspective will have changed.
- Get a workout in. Stress can make you feel like crap, so getting a sweat going is excellent for your body and mind. For me, I would hit the treadmill and had the rule to spend 10 minutes not letting any work-related thinking hit my mind, then would spend 10-20 minutes allowing thoughts to enter and think through ideas. It’s amazing how your brain operates more clearly with some endorphins running around in there.
- Take a breather in the moment. Sometimes you feel anxiety rising in your body like a wave inside. It can happen during the day or at night when you are alone with your thoughts. Take a moment to short circuit that response. Try a stress relief app like Personal Zen designed to break the cycle of stress (where I’m a co-founder), or try a 3-minute breathing exercise to get yourself centered again. Try to find tools or content that work for you and that you will actually use.
Mental health has been seen as a trait of weak-minded people for far too long. But it should be seen as a common challenge and the mind seen more as a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise. In start-ups and large companies alike, the leadership in the organization must also set an example. If you are struggling with mental health, it will show up in how you manage and how you make decisions, yet so many of us in leadership roles fail to acknowledge or admit when we are struggling. But it’s critical we do, not just for ourselves but for our organizations too. The good news is that more resources are available now than ever before. So take good care and find the formula that works for you.
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