Founders: speak up about your fears and anxieties, you are not alone.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison
When VCs speak about their business, we say that we invest in very risky opportunities, we say that our business follows a Power Law distribution where a small number of winners will drive our returns. This means that many of the startups that we invest in will fail. When we coldly look at it from a portfolio perspective, that’s fine, but what happens when we look at it from an individual perspective? What happens when we look individually at those failures?
Failing is, unfortunately, an innate part of the startup world, so one would think that founders would easily accept their startups failing, but that is most definitely not the case. While every founder knows that there are high probabilities of failure, no founder believes their business will land in that bucket, they all believe they are the outliers, they all believe their companies are the ones that are going to return the fund. And if it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be investing in those founders, we invest in the entrepreneurs that trust their businesses, that adore their products and services and know they are going to be successful. So what happens when they are not? What happens when they begin to struggle? What happens when they begin to doubt? (Notice that I didn’t say “if”, I purposely said “when”). The answers I’ve seen (and felt) are fear, lack of motivation, anxiety and even depression.
So this post is for all those businessmen and women that are struggling in their companies, that are having a hard time reaching their goals or are feeling the anxieties and pressures of operating their business.
I would like to start by saying that what people believe the road to success looks like is very different from reality. I have been working with entrepreneurs for more than 18 years now, and not one of them has had easy success. Not one of them has been free of being on the brink of financial collapse. All founders I know have sleepless nights and all suffer from certain anxiety of failure.
So, when you do feel bad, unmotivated, and even depressed you have to remember several things:
- It’s normal. It’s common. All founders go through tough times.
- While nobody wants to fail and it is certainly not what anyone looks for, all failures bring great wisdom.
- The only sure way to fail is to give up, so don’t give up, change and always be looking forward.
- Speak up. There are many people that want to hear your story and want to help you continue in your journey and avoid failure.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill
My single and greatest advice is to speak up: do not, under any circumstance, struggle silently and suffer alone. To me, while I was an entrepreneur, what worked best was to open up and speak about my feelings. It is extremely important to share your fears. There are a lot of people you can talk to:
1. Fellow entrepreneurs
2. Professional coaches
3. Your team
4. Investors, advisers or mentors
Other entrepreneurs often are the best source of support. However, we have seen that egos get in the way and often time founders do not want to seem weak or vulnerable in the eyes of their colleagues. My recommendation here is to leave your egos aside and remember that all entrepreneurs have felt (or will feel) exactly what you are feeling at some point in their path to success (or failure). In DILA, we try to keep our portfolio companies close and we push them to communicating more among themselves, sharing their thoughts, best practices and hopefully their fears and obstacles.
Professional coaches are psychologists that specialize in helping business-people cope with problems they are facing at work, they are another great source of conversation. A professional coach is an independent professional trained to ask the tough questions. They function as a guide to aid in tough times. We have seen that many founders don’t want to work with professional coaches because they feel they don’t need professional help or because they don’t want to spend money on their “personal” issues. My recommendation here is to remember that your problems are the company’s problems, your attitude (as the CEO, co-founder, or leader) will dictate the company’s attitude, so you should never spare when it comes to investing in solving your problems. In DILA, I personally work with an amazing coach and she works with many of our portfolio companies as well. Please reach out if you would like an introduction.
Your team is probably the toughest one to speak to. We have been taught to lead by example, to always be enthusiastic, to walk the talk, and so on. So how can you talk about your anxieties with your team without dismaying them? My suggestion here is to be very open to your co-founders (if you don’t have a partner at your level, I highly suggest you start looking for one: it’s never too late). In DILA, I am very open with Eduardo and when I’m not at a great mental moment, Eduardo takes the lead with the rest of the team, and vice versa.
Finally, your investors. I am obviously biased when it comes to this last point because as an investor I want my business partners to trust me and be very open about their concerns. I believe that we are good listeners and that a very important part of our job is to help founders out in rough times. But, sometimes, founders have a tough time speaking to their investors: they don’t want to show vulnerability, they don’t want to say things are not going as planned and they don’t want to let them down. My recommendation is to let those feelings aside: your investors are not your boss, they are your allies and should be there for you (specially in tough times). Your investors need to know when things are not going well and it’s more important to let them know earlier than when it’s too late. In DILA we like to have a culture of “No surprises!”, this is both internal and hopefully with our investments as well. Your investors will most likely have experienced this with many of their portfolio companies and will hopefully have great advice for you. In DILA we always ask our portfolio companies “What’s keeping you up at night?”, and we try for that to be the first slide in our board meetings. But if you don’t feel comfortable speaking about your feelings with your investors (I would first suggest finding other investors), having independent mentors and advisers is an extraordinary idea. In all honesty, even if you do trust and speak with your investors about your issues, speaking with independent mentors and advisers is always a great source of feedback, advice and unbiased observations. The “independent” part of the equation is extremely valuable, it gives these advisers a true objective view of the situation.
My final advice in respect to this is that your mental state depends not only on the current state of the business, it depends on your well being in general. I am a true believer that a balanced life will lead to greater success in business. Most times, founders are so passionate and obsessive about their business that they leave aside the rest of the very important things that lead to balance and general well being: meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, family time and having breaks to relax and have fun with friends. Your founder mind needs a break and having a holistic, balanced life style can be your best ally in achieving success. I would like to note that I am far from achieving this balance myself, but it is something that I have seen all successful people do and it is something I work on every single day.
To sum it up, when you doubt in yourself or your business, remember that it’s normal, it’s common and there are many ears out there eager to help you out. Please reach out if you feel that there aren’t: firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to thank Eduardo Clavé, Juan Jose Solorzano and Liza Schvartzman for their help and input in this post.