Tips to cut the stress of a startup: plan for learning, take time to recharge, join a peer support group, don’t compare yourself to others.

Q: How Can I Manage the Stress of a Startup?

Q: Six weeks ago I took a leave of absence and began working on my startup full time. I have made a good progress, but I always feel anxious. I am a solo founder and this is my first venture. I worked as a freelancer for several years but this feels like it has more unknowns. I read a lot of articles and blog posts about other entrepreneurs passing all of these milestones, but I don’t really have anyone I can ask questions about getting a startup off the ground. How do other first-time entrepreneurs cope?

A: You sound like someone who sets high standards for your performance and seeks to improve both your capabilities and your results. This creates a certain amount of tension between what you have accomplished and where you want to be, and between what you are currently capable of and capabilities you want to develop.

I think all of us deal with anxiety in different forms. There are two parallel approaches to consider:

  1. Take the pressure off by giving yourself an experiment budget, or an error budget, or a homework / practice budget. Plan for a high rate of failure since you are venturing into unknown territory and be gentle with yourself. The medical profession has a model they call “forgive and remember.” They are very forgiving of errors in judgement but don’t tolerate ethical mistakes. I think that’s a good model for entrepreneurs as well. Pay close attention to where you were unkind or misrepresented the situation or cheated someone. These actions are sometimes advocated as effective shortcuts but do more damage to your business than any honest mistake you can make.
  2. Engage in activities that reduce your stress level and increase your resilience. This includes mundane items like making sure you are getting enough sleep, taking breaks for regular exercise (even if it’s just going for a walk), maintaining connections with friends and acquaintances. I find meditation is also helpful but your mileage may vary.

Some lessons from the Max Erhman: one poem I find very helpful is the Desiderata by Max Erhman, here are a few key lines I repeat to myself from time to time when I feel my stress level creeping up.

  • If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
  • Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
  • Many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
  • Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
  • Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
  • Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

attending a bootstrapper breakfast helps you manage the stress of a startupBootstrapping a startup is buying a ticket for an emotional roller coaster. This is one of the reasons I founded the Bootstrapper Breakfasts in 2006. It’s a low key roundtable discussion among serious entrepreneurs. You can see a schedule at https://www.meetup.com/Bootstrappers-Breakfast-SV/

Entrepreneurship is a a very demanding calling. I try to compare notes regularly with a number of other entrepreneurs. I ask for help and criticism so that I can improve, even when it stings a lot, and I try to be helpful to others where I can.

Anyway, I hope this helps. I have included three quotes I believe offer useful perspectives:

“One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it. When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.”
Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take”

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”
Tom Magliozzi

It’s only after you fail once or twice and learn to rely equally on thought, analysis, and anticipation–in addition to speed, talent, and execution–that you can really call yourself an entrepreneur. ”
Barry Moltz in “You Need to Be a Little Crazy”

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