the stress of a start-up

Images-1This summer I invested in a company that realized soon after closing that although we all thought the idea was a brilliant way to help and disrupt a part of the restaurant industry, the restaurant industry kind of liked the way they operate.  I have seen this before when people from the tech industry are so dismayed at how some industries operate and they know fundamentally by streamlining many components digitally it could be huge but not all industries are ready for that leap. 

The entrepreneur did the right thing and gave the money back.  Doesn't happen that often as many would just try to push forward and prove their concept and it takes a lot of humility to do what he did.  We caught up this week and had a very interesting conversation about the post re-cap.  Not surprising but he felt really depressed for a few weeks afterward. 

We spoke about the pressures of the start-up industry.  It is the emotional piece that few people talk about.  First time entrepreneurs find that they have nobody to talk to about many issues that happen within companies because there isn't a peer at their level.  Sometimes there are co-founders but there is generally one that takes the lead.  Nobody wants to talk to others entrepreneurs (their peers) and tell them that they are so stressed out that they go home and cry every night or feel so overwhelmed that their head feels like it is going to explode.  After all, we are all going to succeed, right? 

There is so much money being tossed around these days at ridiculously high valuations which puts even more pressure on an entrepreneur to succeed.  As an entrepreneur you look around at the landscape, companies are getting funded daily, companies are getting ready to go public, companies are changing the way we live our lives, there are new companies everyday launching in the same space and the competition is rough.  Need I go on?

I try to be available for anyone I get involved with.  Some don't want advice and that is fine too but it isn't always about the business.  I have also spent time talking to people who are trying to figure out what is next and although they are positive you can tell that there is a part of them that is frustrated and confused.  When I speak to people who are trying to get funding after being initially funded by some of the many funds out there from 500 Startups or to even the organizations that teach you how grow your company like Techstars or Y Combinator I wonder that many of them are probably not scalable businesses for VC's to fund.  Most entrepreneurs believe they are going to be the next big thing and the reality is they are not.  What happens to those entrepreneurs mental state? 

I have suggested to many first time entrepreneurs to speak to a professional coach that will help them navigate the emotional landscape easier which in turns help their career.  More than anything speak with someone, a mentor, an adviser, an angel about your frustrations.  It is ok to say growing a company is not easy because it isn't.  There are the ups and there are the downs and sometimes they don't work out.  Nobody talks about the downs and the closings and perhaps we should be talking more about them since everyone has a start-up these days and the odds are most of them will not succeed.

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Not often said this well:’…when people from the tech industry are so dismayed at how some industries operate and they know fundamentally by streamlining many components digitally it could be huge but not all industries are ready for that leap.”I’m guilty of this at times.If you are in connection with anyone working to do this in the wine business, I’m interested in knowing more.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i will keep that in mind. haven’t seen any disrupters of that area yet…you should be!

  2. Andy Ellis

    Joanne, that is certainly a reality check of a post for me. Do you think the entrepreneur you mentioned might be willing to chat some about his experience?Restaurants are indeed a fragmented and often close-minded bunch; luckily for us we’re not losing money and are moving in the right direction but at times feels painfully slow. Anyhow, thank you as usual for posting a thought provoking start to my day; hopefully your honorable formerly-funded friend finds great success in his next move.

    1. Gotham Gal

      I am sure he will find success. It was his third venture. Hopefully he will read these comments and get in touch.

  3. sharon

    This is a really wonderful post. Doing a start-up is very, very hard. And most people do not realize it until they are in it. Its like most big experiences (such as marriage, parenting, leading)… you can’t really know it until you do it.  Also, if you ask most CEO’s who have success, they will tell you that more often than not, they had to adjust their model over and over again. You can’t know the value of your idea to the market-place until you test it out. I think it would help if entrepreneurs knew that there are typical phases to doing a start-up– and within that– psychological phases– that are “normal”– that most everyone struggles with.  In this way they would feel less alone– or an “only” in their private moments of wondering how to keep everything a float and their self-esteem intact. Because it can be all consuming, one’s identity often gets caught up in the success of the business. Sharon

  4. Rohan

    Truly a wonderful post, Joanne.One of the things I really hope is that every person goes about spending time building a ‘board of directors’. Not necessarily for their venture, but for themselves. These are just mentors/people who are ahead of you/people who have done things you respect who you can turn to for advice, help and mentorship. When things are good, it’s important to really invest in these relationships and make them feel great.And when things are bad, these people would help greatly.Mental difficulties are the most difficult to deal with. 

  5. Colin Hayhurst

    More people need to talk and write about this, so well done.I’m in agreement with your views based on my own experience both as a startup entrepreneur and as a mentor to numerous startups. I’ve found that the down times, the crisis points, the dramatic but private, things that happen in, yes, all startups are fundamental to success and failure. There is so much hype and noise about pivots, funding rounds and launches, but that’s only part of the story.As a mentor, I’ve pointed out to many frightened entrepreneurs that nearly every startup goes through, one or more, near death experiences. Most of these you will never hear about. So many founders don’t realise that it is normal to be worried and frustrated now and again. So having someone you trust to rely on; to talk to; to sound off too; is vital. Ideally that person is independent but a angel investor like yourself, who supports founders through thick and thin, is a massive help too.

  6. Erin Newkirk

    “Nobody talks about the downs and the closings and perhaps we should be talking more about them since everyone has a start-up these days and the odds are most of them will not succeed.”And then there are the failures that don’t close a business, but forever change the direction of your company + test the sanity of your existence.I strongly recommend surrounding yourself with people you can lean on + who can lean on you. Nobody is successful without constructive cheerleading.Great post, Joanne. You are ALWAYS ahead of the curve.

  7. David Noël

    A coach really helps. Kudos for addressing this topic

  8. Jim B

    Very sobering post – thanks for this. I joined a startup about 5 years ago that struggled with traction. The core leadership team had to fold up as the business had to streamline, pivot and some of us on the sales/biz dev side had to move on. It was the right thing to do and the company is now growing well. The exercise cost me 2 years of struggle both in terms of time and financial sacrifice.Not sure what the answer is but there is a difficult balance between chasing dreams and managing reality.     

    1. Gotham Gal

      i am sure that was incredibly stressful. the light seems to be at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t as bright as you thought. even successful outcomes of companies where the founder ends up not being part of the entire journey has to be emotionally difficult.

  9. naveen

    “it’s lonely at the top” is a phrase i used to hear a lot but only recently have come to understand. having mentors and peers you can talk to might be the best and only way to deal with all that’s on your mind.

  10. kdillon

    I think this is a great post. As someone on my first startup, I know first hand that it can be very lonely. As a female founder, I find that not only the emotional, financial stress, but the stress of not being there for my friends and family in the way that I usually am. The plus though I have found is that my cofounder and I are complete emotional opposites. Stress makes her more of a pitbull, and traction gives her anxiety and vice versa. I am now learning that is why team matters so much. 

    1. Gotham Gal

      Spencer Fry wrote about that today. The key in having a well-balanced co-founder is a huge help emotionally.

  11. Joanie

    Thanks for posting this! I have an early stage venture, and this post resonates with me. I never know how to answer people when they ask how it’s going. It’s scary! And it’s hard to have perspective, especially when you’re a lone founder.

    1. Gotham Gal

      there is nothing wrong with saying, things are going well but it is tough. it is tough!

  12. Christine Tsai

    Coincidentally, one of our founders wrote about this very topic. His soul-bearing post is here:…

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks for sharing this christine. i would hope that most investors would care. i push everyone i invest in to find at least a handful of investors who really are passionate about them and want to be there for them to help them succeed. the start-up world is a two way street…and it should remain so on every single level. it is heartbreaking to read that post and that the investors don’t give a shit. i certainly do not feel that way and i can speak for my husband that he doesn’t feel that way either.

  13. daryn

    Higher highs and lower lows. It’s a self-imposed roller coaster ride that I can never seem to bring myself to get off of. For what it’s worth, we have a lot of commiserating between startup founders, most of it is just over beers not blogs 🙂

  14. lilytjwu

    “Although they are positive you can tell that there is a part of them that is frustrated and confused.” It’s like talking from my heart! I try to act confident and present myself positively because that’t the image I want to project. but it’s tough b/c there is so much stress under the surface.

  15. Zuhairah Scott

    Thank you for this post, Joanne. I really think there needs to be much more open dialogue in “safe spaces” about this.  I find that in particular women are great at being positive and telling each other “Yes, we can!” (which I believe wholeheartedly) but sometimes we equally need to hear the “Oh crap! I didn’t!” story (smile). Makes us all feel more human and allows us to learn from each others mistakes.   How can we facilitate more of the “beer” sessions @daryn refers to? Move beyond the TechCrunch funding stories and get to the real nitty gritty needed to amplify success?Personally, my husband is my counselor/coach/BOA and sounding board.  He is not formally a part of my business but he is my most trusted advisor and confidant. 🙂

    1. Gotham Gal

      “safe spaces” i like that. you are right.

  16. Natasha

    Entrepreneurship feels like training for a marathon (or how I imagine that would be!).  You need to learn to love the burn, to manage the troughs with grace, to slow down when appropriate.  Problem is:  I like to sprint!  But, I’m learning.   As they say, adapt or perish. 

    1. Gotham Gal

      a very different way of life and you definitely have to learn to adapt. someone who is not in the start-up/tech world told me they had got an email back from someone who is a big player in the industry. they were impressed that they wrote back. i said there is no way they wrote back that was one of their assistants. she said, 1030 at night? i said yes, welcome to the tech world.

  17. ShanaC

    Thank you for writing this.  One of my best friends knew Ilya really well in high school.  Now with me involved in the same world, I worry about her, and her stress.  What can friends who are not in that world do to ease some of the pressure?  How do we create private spaces where we’re off line (i’m learning that one)

  18. Sunchowder

    I really want to take the time to properly respond to this point, but I am being pulled in many directions today.  Your timing is impecable, many critical points and it does help so much to have a candid space to communicate within.

  19. Corie

    The most useful book I’ve ever read, which is on a similar topic, is The War of Art.  Steven Pressfield does an amazing job describing the creative process (be it writing a book or starting a new venture) and the ‘resistance’ we all face.  Sometimes having words to describe the challenges you’re facing just helps.  If you’re on a bootstrapping budget (or just love the book and want more) he also wrote Do the Work which is free through the Domino Project   

  20. Alisondinerstein

    Your post and everyone’s comments seem to encompass the entire mental process of being a founder of a start up.  It is always so great to hear that you are not alone.  I think someone should start group therapy for start ups.  What a wonderful way to unload….

    1. Gotham Gal

      Read the book that Coree recommended. It is tough being in that start-up cave all alone.

  21. leigh

    funny i just posted on my FB profile “Starting a new company is just like having a freakin’ baby that doesn’t sleep through the night.” The more i think about it, the more the process is feeling like it did when i had my first child and all the highs and lows that came with that.  She turned out pretty fantastic i have to say, so let’s hope the business lives up to the standard already set.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Nice comment. I can totally relate

  22. jaklin badr

    A coach really helps. here