I was asked a great question yesterday from someone who is just beginning their startup journey:
“How do you handle the uncertainty of being a founder? I mean, there are so many unknowns how does one even start?”
There are a few ways to take this question but the one I see and hear the most from people is from the angle of how different a startup is from a typical job.
Most of the time a job has a description, some requirements, parameters, metrics to be measured upon, and a boss to report to. In and of itself, a job is limited and defined. And most people are comfortable with being limited, since the limitations that are placed upon them at least provide an outline of the playing field where they will have to perform. Do what’s expected of you and stay. Don’t do what’s expected and you’re let go.
Requirements + measurement = outcome.
This is not so in a startup, or is not as apparent I should say. The unknowns are vast and immense – such as what market are we focused on, what’s the product going to look like and how is it function, whom should be my cofounder(s), what ownership levels does everyone receive, what happens when people aren’t using our product, or when a larger competitor copies what we are doing, when do we know when to pivot or quit, when should we sell, etc…
In my opinion, the best approach to dealing with such uncertainty is to understand what a startup is and what the journey is all about.
According to Steve Blank, a startup is “an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Clearly he’s stating that during the early years of a startup everything is uncertain. The whole purpose of a startup is to go from uncertainty to certainty – or from nothing but an idea to a repeatable and scalable business model, to use his words.
The secret to being an entrepreneur is becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Just as Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis towards the west, they had no clue where they would end up. They just went west! They were comfortable with not knowing what they would encounter during the journey or where they would end. Lewis and Clark were explorers, but they were also the epitome of an entrepreneur.
Coming to terms with the fact that thousands of decisions lie ahead in the future and are totally unknown today is the #1 thing founders need to do on the outset of starting a company. And simply focusing on the two most important decisions sitting in front of their face is the 2nd most important thing a founder must do. Tomorrow, two more things will present themselves and will need to be addressed, and you will focus your attention on those. Outside of establishing a vision and plotting the direction of how to get there, most other aspects of building and growing a company will fall into place.
This is becoming a problem. It’s high time we set aside pride and bring these issues out into the open. Massive amounts of stress that possibly lead to depression are symptoms of a larger problem haunting founders and entrepreneurship right now, and I feel its getting worse.
I learned through the process: it’s not if you are going to experience depression, but when. Will it happen right out of the gate due to anxiety about starting something brand new? Will it grip you once your honeymoon phase wears off and you realize startup life is not as easy as the media makes it seem? Or will it be once your bank account balance is red with parentheses around the numbers?
It’s just a matter of time.
Any one of those scenarios can trigger a withdrawal reaction deep inside your psyche, which kicks into motion a series of events that can end in a downward spiral. And you may be so focused on your task at hand you won’t even know its happening.
I believe this is a huge problem, and its getting worse. Much worse. So bad that we need to start paying a lot more attention to the causes of these pressures before it’s too late. We need to figure out how to battle back, because one more founder suicide is too much. I mean really, we should never accept people jumping from buildings simply because they missed their monthly projections and received another NO from a potential investor. Never.
I will point to us (as a society) and the media (wanting evermore clicks) for creating this nightmare, and here’s why.
The pressures of being a founder have magnified with social media. Heck, today the pressures of being a decent human being seem to have magnified to scary extremes due to technology pervading our every second.
All this real time social sharing of our “awesomely magnificent” lives places unattainable standards on the most average of people. Back in the day you would have had to pick up a US Weekly magazine when standing in the line at the supermarket to see bikini clad women on a beach partying with a group of good looking guys. Or an exotic beach house someone is renting for a weekend get away. This was all normal because it was typically celebrities living a life of abundance or random paid models in a magazine or on TV. Psychologically, we could deal with the dissonance.
Now, all you have to do is open Facebook on your phone to feel the pain of missing out. The excruciating difference is you know them personally, and maybe were even invited but couldn’t make it! And now you have FOMO.
“Man, look at them. They’re all are having a great time and I’m laying here on the couch like a loser.”
Can we all agree that most of the shit we see Facebook, Instagram, twitter is not real life? It’s people’s highlights. It’s the best of the best pieces of their lives. When surfing Facebook and Instagram we must keep in mind no one shares the boring, crappy and mundane stuff (okay, yes there are those people we end up hiding but most sane people filter their thoughts and posts).
If you look at Facebook, Instagram or other social photo sharing apps – numerous times a day – you are subconsciously beating your self up. EVERYDAY.
You are doing this because as humans we naturally compare ourselves to others. It’s a survival mechanism. Survival of the fittest, and if someone is doing better than you, or stronger, or better looking, or more fit, prettier, wealthier, smarter, free-er, etc… it threatens your very existence.
Of course, all the above is a function in startups and happens to founders as well. We read about such and such new startup raising a huge round of funding on TechCrunch and wonder why we haven’t hit it big yet. We hear about a big acquisition deal and beat ourselves up because we haven’t earned our millions yet. Couple that with the pressures of supporting a company, sharing the vision with everyone when they don’t believe you, making the employees payroll and all the other things to worry about. A founder’s shoulders can only bear so much weight before they break.
I don’t have the ultimate answer but I can say this: depression happens – probably to most everyone – so it’s not the thing to worry about here. What is most important is what you choose to do before and during your most challenging times in an effort to ebb and flow through it.
Do you have a pet who can be your best friend and bring you joy no human can do? Do you meditate or frequently reflect on your thoughts? I just started and I’m excited to see where that journey takes me. Do you have a therapist or someone unattached you can counsel with on a consistent basis? Do you get enough physical exercise to blow off steam and stay healthy? Do you monitor your social media and technology usage so you maintain the proper perspective about yourself and yourself worth?
Depression happens and quite possibly outside of your control . What you do about it is up to you.
A common challenge many founders experience is when it’s time to pull the plug on their startup.This issue has been brought up a number of times in recent conversations and given my experience in this area I thought I’d lend a little perspective on the subject.
First a little background.About 4 years ago I cofounded a startup called Seconds with a handful of people.We ran it for a while but really didn’t hit breakout velocity to raise venture capital and build out the business full scale.So after 2+ years I decided to pull the plug and move on.
That is about the shortest and easiest way to describe what I went through at the time, which was much more excruciating and painful than those last few sentences describe.I’ll save you the 10 page novel!
But it’s a horrible place to find yourself. If you are anything like me, you don’t quit. You uphold your promises. You are competitive and want to win.You and your cofounders have stuck together through thick and thin and you feel if you bailed right now you would be quitting on them and going against your word.So you just keep holding on, thinking it will get better.
Well, I quit and it’s great to finally be able to say things are much better now for me compared to 2 years ago. I finally realized I was really stuck and the best thing for me to do was to stop and look at all my other options. Like an addict, I needed to step away from my daily habit of trying to make things work in my company and focus my energy elsewhere. I committed to improve in the areas in my life that were giving me the most stress – namely money (or lack there of) and that meant I needed to get a job. I realized I could move myself forward in our industry as an employee of a startup, not having to be the founder. I decided I’d join another startup so I could continue to grow as an entrepreneur and startup executive, being able to learn all the things I wasn’t able to learn during the time with my company.
In the summer of 2014 I joined Knotis as Director of Business Development and was able to pick up right where I left off in my own startup. I am now heading up strategic partnerships and assisting with investor relations to help raise money for the company.The last year has been chock full of investor meetings with people held in high regard in our industry, strategic partnership conversations with companies we read about in the news, and a continuation of my entrepreneurial path void of massive stresses like how will I afford to eat and drink each night.
Anyone looking in the mirror wondering if they should continue hammering away at their startup when it seems like it’s not moving forward should take note.It does get better.But you may have to quit your startup to get there.You may have to stop dead in your tracks, notice the road you are on is not heading in the right direction – in fact it dead ends right up there around the bend – and turn around.Find a new road.There are more roads and options for which direction to take your self and your creative career than you actually realize.
All it takes is courage to own up to the fact you didn’t succeed THIS TIME and creativity to find a new opportunity so you can succeed NEXT TIME.
Most readers will know I have been consistently posting on this blog for about 4 years – we’ll 3 and a half due to the 6 month break noted above. For some reason, around February this year I hit the skids. I don’t know what really happened or what was the reason for the break but simply put sometimes we just need a break from things we do on a regular basis.
About a year ago I took a full-time position as Director of Business Development at Knotis, a startup here in Seattle. It’s been a fun year full of lots of meetings and getting to fully embrace a whole new vision and business direction. Couple that with the Bitcoin related company called Coinme I helped get started last year and my schedule definitely started to get full by end of summer.
So suffice it to say I have been a busy guy.
Add to all of this a year-long relationship with a great woman and now you can see why I might have gotten a bit burnt out on things. In the end, my writing took the hit.
So here I am, getting back into it and finally getting a post out after thinking “Damn, I need to start writing again. I’m not exactly sure as to what I will post, hopefully similar things to what the last 3 years have been all about. But until then, I’ll post a few pictures from my last 6 months to show you what I have been up to.
Photo 1: We jumped on a friends sail boat during one of the Duck Dodge nights here in Seattle to enjoy some sailing.
My Dad came to Seattle to visit myself and my sister in early June. Here we are chilin’ with two of my nephews.
I went to Austin for a weekend getaway, and rode a water hover-board. (That’s not me but I did ride it!)
Left to right, Fred Thiel, CEO, Local Corp; Anne Bezancon, President, Placecast; Manish Patel, CEO, Where2GetIt; and Nick Hughes, Business Development, Knotis, speak on the “Facing the Challenges Inherent in Building Local Companies” panel at Street Fight Summit West, the premier event for businesses working in local commerce, marketing, media, and technology. It was held this year at TerraSF, San Francisco, California, June 2, 2015.
I hosted a panel discussion at the Street Fight Summit in San Francisco in June.
I had the awesome opportunity to go to the U.S. Open when it was held at Chambers Bay in Washington.
I wrote a post recently touching on my brief bout with Founder Depression. As a result, many mentioned it on Twitter or reached out to personally thank me for writing it and to let me know they also struggled with it.
This sparked a few thoughts: “Is depression actually normal?” And “if everyone deals with some sort of depression in their life then what can we do about it?”
I have come to realize depression is something all of us deal with at one point in our lives. It should not be taboo or anything. It should be addressed and talked about openly as part of the entrepreneurial education process. As founders, we encounter depression usually from external events such as failure of a business or a negative outcome of something in which we had hoped for when we first started out.
I am starting to realize being a great entrepreneur starts by perfecting how to handle the shit in your life. Because it hits the fan waaaaay more times than you plan. I have also come to understand the successful ones figure out how to identify the piles in the road ahead of time, and navigate accordingly before they hit something fatal.
Athletes strength train and stretch in prevention of injuries. Why are we not doing this in the startup community? Why are we not helping people to prevent what inevitably happens to those of us who strive for more?
The point here is to understand its not IF it will happen, its WHEN it will happen to you. And then go into your entrepreneurial journey armed with the idea that you will at times feel very down about yourself and your company. This is reality and this is serious. If a founder doesn’t take it as such they are potentially setting themselves up for disaster.
Like I did.
In a recent conversation with my father we touched on this. I noted that only when I realized I had dug myself into such a deep hole emotionally could I fully grasp where I was and what I had to do to get out of it.
I realized even though I was not in control of external events I was in control of my thoughts, feelings and internal dialog. And I was the only one who could bring myself out of the funk in which I had brought myself into. I had to consciously think and make decisions that would place me in a neutral or positive place.
No more negative self talk. No more whoa is me. No more pity parties and thinking I had let myself, my family and my community down. I had to stop fighting myself, put my ego aside and choose a different path. One that – although it has a few more twists, turns, roundabouts and curves to it – is leading me into an even better position than when I was CEO of my own little startup.
The fact is, if you are a high performer and things don’t turn out exactly the way you planned you will naturally tend to go into a dark place. Those sort of feelings will not help you move forward in any way whatsoever, so please think now about how you will respond once you sense yourself going down.
You might have asked someone recently, what the heck is going on with Bitcoin? Or maybe you are still wondering what Bitcoin is, or even questioning its relevancy?
A lot has changed in the last year in the cryptoworld — most notably Bitcoin’s price. It’s a good time to dissect a few points about Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency market, things I couldn’t help but notice during my first year in the industry.
The biggest point is the false dichotomy in the general perception of Bitcoin. I’d like to unpeel this and provide a deeper evaluation of the industry, because people who commit the mistake of false dichotomy do themselves a disservice by not taking a full view of what’s going on.
First, a definition to help us here:
A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy that presents two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted.
As one of the few people here in Seattle who frequently (attempts) to explain Bitcoin to non-technical people, and being the one who handles customer interactions for Coinme, I have noticed a problem. The media, tech executives and the general public talk about Bitcoin mostly by committing to a false dichotomy. Quite amusingly, I find people either preach the positives of Bitcoin or they dismiss it, like Gagnam style. One side thinks we’ll live in a libertarian world where Bitcoin will eventually be an anonymized currency to rule us all, and the other believes it’s only for crooks in the shady, dark interwebs. “It’s doomed to fail!” they pronounce enthusiastically.
Well, neither are true.
When I read about a new random Bitcoin startup here, or a larger funding round there, I start to understand how things are changing, and in what direction. The more I talk with highly technical people who mine Bitcoin or build on top of the blockchain, I learn we’re very early in something very special. Even though we aren’t living in Crypto-utopia, there is a subtle rumbling deep within the Internet we should pay attention to.Studying Bitcoin and watching the markets adjust has taught me a very important lesson: nothing ever ends up being 100% of what you think it will be. Innovation cannot be predicted, and the future cannot be known ahead of time. Correctly predicting the future is simply a function of luck. But seeing around corners can be a function of deep listening, observing and learning. So the best action for success is to (safely) get as close to the something as possible, and learn as much about it as you can, so you start to identify where the world is heading. Only then are you equipped with perspectives on where to invest your time, capital and energy.
My time around Bitcoin has shown me that our world will not be changed as much by the cryptocurrency you read about today as by the underlying technology.
Joichi Ito, who has been involved in building many layers and pieces of the Internet — from helping start the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan to investing in Twitter and helping bring it to Japan — recently wrote about the similarities between Bitcoin and the internet:
The similarity is that Bitcoin is a transportation infrastructure that is decentralized, efficient and based on an open protocol. Instead of transferring packets of data over a dynamic network in contrast to the circuits and leased lines that preceded the Internet, Bitcoin’s protocol, the blockchain, allows trust to be established between mutually distrusting parties in an efficient and decentralized way. Although you could argue that the ledger is “centralized”, it’s created through mechanical decentralized consensus.
What Ito is saying is that we could actually be witnessing the early stages of the next phase of the connected world, a time not so dissimilar to what we experienced in the early 1990s.
An often quoted example of a false dichotomy was when the Internet first gained media attention in the early to mid-nineties. Back then, many people thought it was a fad, hard to understand and a waste of time and money. They simply couldn’t get their head around the fact that there were more than just two possibilities: A (success) or Z (failure).
And therein lies the fallacy of the false dichotomy around Bitcoin.
What we witnessed with the Internet was the invention of the web and the browser, which commercialized the internet and brought with it every major corporation in the world. By ending up somewhere between A and Z, the world changed forever.
It’s clear to me and many others in the industry we are still in the “pre-browser” era of Bitcoin and blockchain technology. It’s there, but you really don’t know how to interact with it. What happens when we reach the “Netscape” moment of Bitcoin?
Could Bitcoin — the currency — pop and crash?
Yes, it could.
But seeing investment dollars in the cryptocurrency/bitcoin market grow each quarter, one has to believe that if Bitcoin the currency pops, then something else will emerge even better and more suited for the general public.
What will that be?
I could take a guess but in reality I don’t have a clue. Yet committing the false dichotomy sin here is a grave mistake. An important point to understand is that Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, is just one app that runs on the blockchain technology. People well-versed in bitcoin are familiar with the blockchain, the underlying open-source technology (or rails) that bitcoin the currency runs on. Looking deeper, theblockchain stack presents interesting solutions to problems which have hindered our society for quite some time — outside of finance. Issues such as trust, security and identity can be improved with applications built on the blockchain.
In fact, here are a few other areas where the blockchain serves as underlying technology.
OpenBazzar: An open peer-to-peer marketplace not controlled by any specific organization such as eBay or Craigslist. Ideas like this, using a decentralized platform to exchange goods and services, could change e-commerce as we know it.
Factom: A conceptual framework for a system that secures and proves the authenticity of records, documents or other important types of data that are later enshrined on the Bitcoin blockchain. This could transform how we handle record-keeping online.
Counterparty: An example of digitizing property and identity. Developers are starting to build networks that work in parallel to the Bitcoin blockchain to perform tasks that the bitcoin network can’t, but that make use of the bitcoin blockchain to, for instance, timestamp or validate work.
The reality is that no one really knows what will happen next — that is why it’s called innovation. But something is going to happen in this area to improve our lives and I hope you don’t get caught up in thinking only A or Z is possible.
Most likely somewhere in between A and Z we’ll see Bitcoin technologies enhance our digital lives. There’s more down there than you think.
No one knows it all. When it comes to startups and entrepreneurship things seem to change so quickly generally accepted conventional wisdom is actually becoming obsolete before our very eyes.
For that reason I strive to stay up to date with the industry, what’s taught at the major universities like Stanford, and what young founders are learning in accelerators like YCombinator.
Here are some resources I have been using recently to gain more insight as a founder and entrepreneur in the tech industry.
The Stanford ecorner is something I have been listening to for almost 6 years now. They record one speaker each week addressing the class and then post it to the site the next week. Topics range from Creativity & Innovation, Opportunity Recognition, Product Development, Marketing & Sales, Finance & Venture Capital, Leadership & Adversity, Team & Culture, Globalization, Social Entrepreneurship and Career & Life Balance. Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Corner offers 3000 free videos and podcasts, featuring entrepreneurship and innovation thought leaders. I highly recommend it!
Startup Class – Stanford CS183B, taught by Sam Altman of YCombinator. CS183B is another class taught at Stanford. It’s designed to be a sort of one-class business course for people who want to start startups.
Videos of the lectures, associated reading materials, and assignments will all be available here. There will be 20 videos, some with a speaker or two and some with a small panel. It’ll be 1,000 minutes of content if you watch it all.
Reboot.io (podcasts) is a new resource put together by Jerry Colonna and his business partners. Jerry Colonna is an executive coach who uses the skills he learned as a venture capitalist to help entrepreneurs. He draws on his wide variety of experiences to help clients design a more conscious life and make needed changes to their career to improve their performance and satisfaction. The Reboot podcast will showcase the heart and soul, the wins and losses, the ups and downs of startup leadership. On the show, Entrepreneurs, CEO’s, and Startup Leaders will discuss with Jerry Colonna the emotional and psychological challenges they face daily as leaders.
The A16Z blog and podcasts are one of the best new daily resources an entrepreneur can read. As previous entrepreneurs and now some of the most popular venture capitalists, they provide their unique views of the technology market that will help any founder gain valuable insights on trends, investment thesis’ and the newest startups that are raising money and making a dent in the world.