Overcoming Stress and Fear as a Start-Up Founder

(Carina read ) #1

I am interested on whether folks in this Community have experienced overwhelming fear/stress that has “frozen” their progress at any stage in their startup / Entrepreneurial career, and if so, how they overcame it?

It is said that the quality of any new business is as much down to the people as it is the business idea, but something that just recently occurred to me was how so many very well educated, competent and skilled entrepreneurs “crash” not because of a poor idea, or lack of competent skills but because of the impact of Fear and high levels of stress on their own well being.

Do you agree with this? Have you seen it first hand in practice?

Sadly, I have, and I am overcoming a phase of being “numbed” and I am now looking at strategies to get myself back on track (everything from mindfulness, to functional medicine approaches of Health Supplements that ease the impact of stress on the brain etc).

In doing so, I want to share my learnings with others but I am conscious that it may be a very personal experience that no one else has felt or experienced which is why I don’t want to presume it has affected others.

(Bill King) #2

My father started a successful electronic engineering company. It did well initially, but eventually it folded and it was really hard on him. Unfortunately I lost him two years ago, so I know first hand how this can affect entrepreneurs.

(Tara Pham) #3

Full disclosure: I am not particularly intentional about “mindfulness,” and finding the tools that work for you individually is key. (For example, my meditation is going on walks.) But related directly to work productivity, I’ll share my personal experience here:

I’ve found shipping faster and iterating quickly (i.e. delivering something, even — maybe even especially — before I felt ready) has made me way more resilient. It’s not just big things like product releases; it’s even small things like sending an email to someone important or booking a flight. In doing so, I learned that most “failures” are survivable and that even the worst-case scenario is never as bad as I had feared. This practice basically killed anxiety for me.

As an entrepreneur, you have incomplete information. But you always make the right decision because you make it the right decision. You adapt after the fact. It’s an exhausting and often psychotic rollercoaster, but it’s just the nature of the profession.

When I am overwhelmed with analysis paralysis or with plain ol’ anxiety, I find that focusing on one, achievable thing helps me pull myself out of it. For me, in a way, anxiety is the inability to get. over. yourself. and to just be open to imperfection. Setting expectations is key here (for example, setting the expectation that this is all an experiment, and we’re humans who fuck up), and being good at managing expectations is the best possible thing you can do for your business and your personal well-being.

Obviously, don’t Hail Mary everything you do, but shipping early and often really did make me more comfortable with pushing things forward, regardless of how imperfect they were at first. Then, I learned what things to prioritize and what things I could afford to slack on a bit. And then I realized that half the things I was stressed about are not worth the brain power!

But also, just finding other founder friends to talk you off your weekly cliff. :slight_smile:

Hope this helps!

(Tolu Adelowo) #4

Last year, I believe my startup had essentially failed but I probably was too busy firefighting to notice. When the reality did hit us, we had run out of ideas, cash and energy. Engineers left in droves and I remember on one occasion being so jealous of our lead engineers resigning.

It was the worst period of my life and I essentially just froze. I did not trust myself to make the right decisions and so I just did not make any key decisions and coasted for a few months. But there were a few things that really helped me get out of the rut

  1. Read Like Crazy - The startup had essentially sucked everything I knew and owned so I was mentally broke I figured the best way to fill myself up was to start reading again. I read everything from lean to product management to marketing. I also listened to hundreds of podcasts on the same topics. Eventually a light bulb came on and I started to understand where I had gone wrong with my company and then started to get ideas on how to get it back up.

  2. Focus on 3 things tasks at a time - I remember one of my mentors advising that I just focus on 3 important tasks at a time. Before this, my wunderlist would stretch to hundreds of to-dos and eventually just wear me out. Now I keep a backlog of to-dos in a backlog list and then use the 80/20 rule to sort of pick 3 really important items from the backlog and move to my inbox. I focus on getting through those 3 tasks (and ignore everything else) before moving on the next 3 tasks. This has done wonders for my stress levels by being able to see just 3 tasks at a time in my inbox.

  3. Forgive Yourself - As @tarapharm mentioned in his comment, as an entrepreneur you are constantly making decisions with less than perfect information. You need to be able to forgive yourself for making the wrong calls because we all do it. As a deeply spiritual person, I have learned to forgive everyone that wrongs me but it has been much more difficult to forgive myself for the mess-ups. But I have figured out that I need to quickly forgive myself for the sake of our customers, employees and the company.

The company is now in an extremely better place than last year and I hope this helps you in some way.

(AB) #5

Currently in the very early stage of a pre-revenue startup , SaaS model, in the People Resources area, gaining traction and interest pre-launch. I have had quite a few years of experience in other industries and at management level, so I feel I am approaching this project eyes-wide-open.

I am lucky in that I am also currently working within the tech industry, in a mature startup, so I am able to learn a lot. I agree with the previous reply, bullet point 1: read a lot - not just to learn, but to get yourself into the entrepreneurial mindset. (currently reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, Zappos co-founder).

Despite all best efforts, I do have those moments of angst which more often than not revolve around the fear of failure; what seem to be working for me is to rationalise the overall project and remember that I am following a structured path to achieving my goals, hoping to remove some uncertainties and working in the knowledge that I have done my research - no blind chaos for me -

So whilst I feel I am giving myself a chance by establishing strong foundations, I am also very aware there is, and always will be a risk; but to surmount this fear(stress), I have two personal “techniques”;

  1. familiarising myself with & rationalising the potential risk well in advance not only motivates me to work smarter but also helps to lessen the daunting feeling.
  2. belief and total conviction in my project and myself.

I don’t know if this personal view helps, but the few minutes it took to write this reply were quite therapeutic - keep going and best of luck :slight_smile:

(Jacob Strachotta) #6

Hi Carina

Everything we experience internally or externally is filtered by the long term memory in our brain, before we are consious of what is happening we are already being affected by previous learning.

It might even be things we thought we overcame a long time ago, but still has an emotional echo in the mind.

I’m I founder too, and has founded HelloMind (hellomind.com) which provides help in all areas of the human psyche (not all but, many… :slight_smile: ) … Sometimes people try to solve a problem consciously or with logic, when the problem really is subconsciously in nature, and there can be faster solved through the applied psychology of hypnosis. Its kind of an anesthetic for you conscious mind, that helps the conscious release old tension.

It could be your subconscious holding you back and what you feel is a kind of numbness which can be alleviated. If you can’t get your conscious mind to do what you think of, often it is the subconscious that is contradicting your conscious mind/goals.

(Greg) #7

I’m not familiar w/ any founders paralyzed by stress or fear, but burnout is definitely a common factor. I think the trick is not to get too excited about the successes nor too disappointed with the failures. You always have to keep making progress no matter what. I’ve done 7 startups, 4 of my own. They lie in the range of never taking off, to burning brightly for a short period of time, to leveling off, to rolling upwards–all over the spectrum. The one I regret the most is the one I funded myself using AI on Nvidia graphics cards and was voted America’s Most Promising Company in 2009. We were close to finishing a deal with Myspace to recognize brands in images in 10 million photos a day. We were way before our time and unfortunately my company imploded spectacularly. My wife sometimes tells me that I am missing chips for stress and fear. If nobody has ever told you, being an entrepreneur isn’t very very compatible with financial stability or having a life outside of work. Those things induce fear in most rational people. I guess it’s how you look at it. She is afraid of flying which is a fear I don’t share at all. The root seems to be that she feels like she’s not in control. As a startup founder, you will never be in complete control of all sorts of things necessary to make a startup successful. The best you can do is build a team to complement you, hope they work well together, and concentrate on the things you CAN change.

(Lilian Gong) #8

very help advice. Very practical. I will start using it right away. Thanks!!!

(Lilian Gong) #9

Hi Carina, thank you for posting this. I definitely has encountered this “frozen” stage. Im the founder of www.RollingPear.com. Now while I’m supposed to review the App screenshots. I resist doing it. Because there’s a voice that’s saying “My web site is so great. I should spend more money and efforts on the marketing to get more members, instead of investing on R&D on the app.” But we all know every startup nowadays needs an app. So I come here, and see your post. It’s a slight comfort to know other startup founder experience this. I’m still working on it. Some people gave some good advice on how to get over it. Wish to see more people who can share how they got over this “Frozen” stage.

(Jonathan Biles) #10

It’s not an experience that “no one else has felt or experienced”. We all as founders feel it. I’ve had some wins, had some losses, but I’m still going.

You just have to recognise that this is a (very) high risk activity and it could easily fail. But just as long as you give it 100% and be sure you’ve done you best then you can do no more than that. If it fails just accept you’ve made a mistake. Learn from it. Don’t do it again. Get over it. Move on.

The market is fickle, unreasonable and unpredictable. But you can get lucky and as was once said to me why a (very senior) US corporate titan “I’d always rather be luck than good”.

The fact is that we are in “the game” and the “rules” of the game are do your best, hope for the best and if it all goes wrong you WILL recover, it WILL NOT kill you. The highs are very high and the lows are very low - don’t let the lows make you give up on your dream.

(Carina read ) #11

Thank you so much for this @tarapham - this is brilliant insight. I guess its the idea of “moving forward” on anything that gets the inertia that can come from fear of imperfection (which is what keeps getting at me).

(Carina read ) #12

Wonderful advice thank-you for sharing this @ToluAdelowo.

(Carina read ) #13

thanks @pharlanne for sharing those thoughts. I can definitely resonate with them and I did want to ask you more about the “rationalising the potential risk” and how you feel this makes things better as in my startup the worst risk is Bankruptcy because I believed in myself so much I personally guaranteed UK Govt startup loans for the company and didn’t consider it wouldn’t work out. The reality is I will find a way to repay them personally IF it goes under but I guess I felt that to have the “balls” to do a high risk startup part of me had to not consider the worst possible risks.

So maybe I took too much risk personally guaranteed loans to my startup pre revenue and pre build!

(Carina read ) #14

Hi Jacob

That is really FASCINATING insight. Thank-you.

So I think you are spot on as during this process I have done a lot of personal work both in therapy but other mindfulness work such as Meditating and Body work.

I would be interested in learning more in terms of how as an entrepreneur founder I can find and overcome what those sub conscious patterns might be. Can you help?

I see a therapist and she had me read Brene Browns work around Shame which was excellent as I realised I was beating myself up for “small fails” and not taking them very well as a perfectionist as my previous life I was an investment banker who never failed and did very well so this new role of doing something completely different that “could” fail and in which day to day I have made mistakes because of the constant unknowns, has been really hard to take!

Would love to learn more about your approaches to releasing any of these sub conscious blockers.


(Carina read ) #15


Lovely advice and insight, thank you @gbolcer

Your sentence “I think the trick is not to get too excited about the successes nor too disappointed with the failures.” sums it up for me as I got too excited AND I then have been devastated by failures.

Also I don’t have a co founder - its just me - and I have got divorced during the process in the last year and my ex was my support but now isn’t, So that is hard. I think I need to find more like minded co founders who can help me assess when its worth worrying versus when it isn’t!

I am a HUGE risk taker. Taking the risk is not an issue, its when things don’t work to plan that I get upset.

(Carina read ) #16

Thank-you Jonathan,

It seems that is the key - not to let the lows get us down.

Thanks for taking the time to share and reiterate it.

Just knowing that others are going through similar really helps.

(Jacob Strachotta) #17

Hi Carina

Everything is about perception. The problem with examining ones own subconsious patterns is that the subconsious has filtered what you are thinking when you are thinking it. And may thereby block, enhance, subtract or distort the thoughts about the problem one is trying to analyse.

So the data is so to speak contaminated before you can get a clear view of what might be going on. What I would do, is to focus on the emotion in the current situation and check how I feel. I.e. when you are writing you could beat yourself up for small fails, then feel how that feels and deconstruct the actual situation you’re in and let your mind broaden to get an idea where this particular type of emotion have been felt earlier in your life. That will help you to deal with the actual part of your mind feeding this emotion. And then work on that earlier situation to get closure. Often it is something that has frightened us or that we have a hard time accepting. Settle with it and you will find that the future gets much brighter and easier.

Everything is connected in some way or another way :slight_smile: