How to Stand Tall While Being Human

Starting a company is a stressful, draining, and extremely emotional undertaking.  

The burden of responsibility to your investors, your customers and your employees--not to mention to yourself--is the heaviest of weights.  Sometimes, it takes every last drop of strength you have just to endure it one... more... day. 

Yet, at the same time, everyone looks to your confidence.  Lost faith can go viral quickly.  Your temperament around the office and in board meetings gets noticed, even if unconsciously.  Maybe you don't realize that you used to end stand ups with a little clap or a smile and you don't anymore.  Then there's that little sigh at the end of an intense board meeting.  

The cracks start to show at the top before anywhere else.

Well, what does anyone expect?  After all, you're human.  

Much has been made about the mental and emotional health of founders--about how the idea that everyone's company is always killing it 100% of the time is complete bullshit and how sometimes, even in the best companies, things really suck.

So how do you balance?  How do you allow yourself understandable, but difficult, emotions while trying to lead a company and its morale by example?

I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are a few things that might be helpful.

First off, it's ok to be down.

The only thing worse than feeling bad is feeling bad about feeling bad.  There's no reason to give yourself extra grief because things are just getting to you.  You're allowed.  

Be specific.

Identifying exactly what's wrong directs and focuses your negativity, minimizing the collateral damage of everything else.  For example, if you have a difficult conversation with your board about fundraising options while they're trying to be helpful, saying "This sucks!" makes everyone else feel like they're wasting their time and not being helpful.  You already feel bad, and now they're going to feel bad, too.  

Saying that fundraising can be frustrating is better and actually more honest, because it more accurately reflects what you're feeling--lest they get the impression that you think being CEO sucks and you're ready to throw in the towel.  More specific and honest still is to identify what about it sucks--that you're frustrated by the fact that investors aren't seeing your value proposition or the real traction you believe you've made.  That's something actionable that someone else can actually help with, and maybe help you feel better about--supporting your view that lots of progress has been made and working on ways to convey that better.  

Spend time with other founders.

Absolutely no one can make you feel more supported than other people who are going through the same thing.  They're going through it at the same time, and despite the fact that you have no time for anything, you have to find a way to connect with peers--especially if you're a solo founder.  

Never use stress as an excuse to treat others poorly.

You need an outlet, but that doesn't mean treating the next person who comes through the door as a verbal punching bag.  Taking someone else down, especially someone who could potentially be helpful, isn't going to make you feel better anyway.  It's going to make them feel worse about interacting you and it will alienate you from others, creating a negative feedback loop.  You'll be more upset that no one wants to help, and you'll feel more alone when you have no one to tell that to.  

Strengthen relationships by making sure they're a two way street.

You need a lot of help, but you can't just be a taker all the time.  It's really important to have the kind of relationships where you can be open and honest about what you're feeling, but those relationships get built.  For example, you may have a board member you want to count on for support, but you owe them some things, too--like the willingness to listen, to take feedback from, and the determination to be better founder.  It's the same with employees.  You need to be there for them before it's ok for them to be there for you.


When you think about what you're going to accomplish ahead of time--and do the work to lay out that path, spelling out risks and alternatives--hardship is easier to bear.  When you know what could possibly happen and what you're going to do to mitigate it, you're less likely to feel the full weight of a situation, because you'll already be on to your previously planned next step in Plan B.  

Know when to fold 'em.

Sometimes things just don't work.  You have to know your limits--and knowing those limits also gives you some certainty when you haven't hit them.  If you're going to spend X dollars of a marketing budget to figure something out, you won't get too down when you're halfway there, because you already planned to spend twice this much.  It's easier to say it's over when you've decided what that point was going to be ahead of time, as opposed to in the moment.  

The toughest thing you can ever do is throw in the towel, but it's easier when you knew it was possible all along and how far you had been away from it.