startup founder stress

How To Avoid Startup Stress And Founder Burnout

I made this mistake and I’ve seen hundreds of first-time entrepreneurs make it too.

You don’t need me to tell you that running your startup is hard. You think about it 24x7x365. When you’re playing with your kids, it’s on your mind. When you’re at dinner with your partner, you’re thinking about tomorrow’s meeting. I know, I’ve been in your position 5 times since 2001. It’s a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs – but there are too many downs if we’re being honest, right?

For my first few companies I tied my identity and my emotions to the business more than I should have. When asked what I do for a job, I would proudly proclaim “I’m an entrepreneur!”. When asked what I do for fun: “Fun? I’m all in on this thing. I run my business 7 days a week, 12 hours a day!!!”.

Both statements were true. And it took me about 11 years to realize that was the wrong approach. As entrepreneurs, we have a mindset and mentality that 99% of people don’t have – otherwise they’d be building their own companies. We can cope with enormous amounts of pressure and stress. We internalize everything and take the weight on our shoulders because, well, we’re entrepreneurs. It’s our company and we’ve got to figure stuff out.

When things go well, we celebrate. Friday afternoon drinks! Bonuses for everyone! Life is great. But when things don’t go well, we interalize the issues and make them our own. After all, your startup is a huge part (if not all) of your identity, right? When your startup isn’t going well, YOU are not well. And that stress manifests itself in your emotions outside of work too. You’re snappier. Your mood fluctuates. And you can’t do much else until you solve that issue your startup is facing.

Pretty soon you’re a miserable son of a bit*h and most people don’t want to be around you – your family included. Some people can snap out of it and leave work at work, but most can’t until they come to a fork in the road and decide they won’t let their startup run their life.

I remember pretty clearly when I got to that point back in 2012. I was in a bit of a funk (some may call it depression, some might call it stress) and my entire identity and emotions were, of course, tied to Bigcommerce – the company I co-founded in 2009 which today is going quite well – 500 employees, approaching $100M revenue.

The company was going well, but like every startup, was having its ups and downs. We were moving from the “getting ready to scale” phase into the “scaling for hyper growth” phase (watch my latest whiteboard video if you want a detailed explanation of the predictable phases every startup goes through) and we had to figure out a lot of stuff quickly.

Sometimes we’d hire the right people and make great decisions. Sometimes not so great. And when we messed up, I took that and internalized it irrationally – “that decision I just made could tank the company”, which of course wasn’t true. But when you’re in the deep of it, you can’t see the forest from the trees.

Around that same time I had a great life coach. She taught me about tying your identity and emotions to your startup and how it can destroy you if 1) you don’t realize you’re doing it and 2) you don’t get help. Over a period of a few months we worked on the problem and she shared with me some really great ways to separate my identity and emotions from work – not completely, but enough so my emotional state wasn’t tied to the success of Bigcommerce.

Here are the things she taught me:

  • Volunteer – If you’re stressed about building a multi-million dollar company, nothing puts your problems in to perspective like volunteering. I ended up volunteering every Thursday from 9am-11am because we worked out that’s when I would typically feel the most stressed during the week. For me, I love dogs, so I would go to one of our local no-kill shelters and feed them, play with them, etc. It not only helped me put things into perspective, but I genuinely loved the work.
  • Mentor – Helping other founders who were just getting started on their journey really helped me a lot. It not only helped me realize what I’d learned along the way, but also helped me look at the problems I was experiencing from a different perspective. They say the best way to learn is to teach and I try to live that mantra as much as possible.
  • Vice – Find something you love doing that has absolutely nothing to do with your startup. For me, this one was the hardest things to do. “Why would I take up a hobby that’s not work related?”. Of course I would spend time with my wife, friends, family, etc, but I didn’t have any hobbies. I ended up learning the piano and producing music for a few hours a week and that really helped shift my focus (even for a few hours) from the issues at hand. Plus, I’m a high “C” (DISC profile), so the creative side of me really got to come out.
  • Exercise – Nothing will shift your mental state faster than exercise. Nothing. Not alcohol, sex or food. I’ve written about how I lost 31 pounds and then put on 37 pounds of muscle before and it was around 2012 when I really ramped up my training. By ramping up my training, I also significantly improved my diet, which improved my emotional stability. If you don’t lift weights at the moment, give it a try. It’s not about packing on muscle, it’s about the mental benefits. Even if I never gained another pound of muscle in the gym, I’d keep lifting weights because of the huge benefits on my emotions, psychology and mood.

Once I learned and applied these 4 things to my life, I quickly unravelled my emotions and identity from Bigcommerce. I still loved the business and still worked on it like a mad man, but it wasn’t all I was. I was also a husband, a father, a music producer, a writer, a volunteer, a weight lifter and a better friend, brother, etc. That time back in 2012 was definitely a transformational experience for me and I hope by reading this, you can apply what I’ve learned and get yourself out of the same funk I found myself in all those years ago.

Remember – YOU have to be a success long before your startup is. Working on yourself is one of the best investments you can make. Not just for you, but for everyone around you as well, including your partner, kids, friends and employees.


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