Google defines “anxiety” as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. It can be a serious disorder, but anyone bold enough to be a startup founder likely confronts more than his or her share of anxiety-producing situations. Startups are fraught with uncertain outcomes on a daily basis.
I am not qualified to discuss mental disorders or to prescribe benzodiazepines, so this essay is confined to general recommendations on how to cope with the stress of the unknown. I’ve heard many people say they don’t have the entrepreneurial gene because they can’t imagine working for anything other than a steady paycheck. My own parents were like that; my father worked in a textile mile his entire life and was extraordinarily risk averse. He was a child of the Depression, and his outlook was not uncommon in his generation. His father and his younger brother, however, were entrepreneurs. They were in the construction business and built everything from fine homes to high rises to shopping centers. I take comfort in having some entrepreneurial genes from my paternal ancestors, and, on my maternal side, I believe 100% of my parent’s generation were self-employed in the economy of what was then small-town Georgia.
There are many moments of high anxiety in any startup. Probably the most pronounced is when you have a game changing deal in the works, appear to have agreement from all sides, and are just waiting for all the paperwork to be finalized and the deal to close. I can attest from experience that sometimes things can go wrong during that quiet period, so however much anxiety you develop is well justified. Bear in mind that it’s business and not a life or death matter or a family crisis or whether your team wins the big game, so keep it in perspective in the greater scheme of your universe. If this deal croaks, there’s another one behind it that may even be better.
It’s tempting to control your fears by pestering the parties to a transaction every day, or every hour, to make sure you’re doing all that is expected of you toward the closing. That has many downsides. When you have the sale made, the best thing you can do is quit talking. You are more likely to talk your way into trouble than to speed things up. And, your bargaining power is somewhat dependent on your bravado; you don’t want to show your nerves and make people wonder if you have the moxie to carry through whatever has been agreed. If you are dealing with a major corporation, you never know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes, who has to sign off, how the internal politics play, and how powerful is your deal champion. You have to anticipate delays as deals of consequence work through the system. No news is just no news. Summon your patience, if you have any.
Be especially careful if you are inclined to bluff. Somebody might call your hand when you try to pressure them by talking about alternatives you have in the wings. When you have reached an agreement in good faith, don’t call that faith into question by unnecessary gamesmanship. The time for that was earlier in the negotiations. You foremost mission now is just to complete whatever you have set in motion. That’s all.
Would you like some practical advice? Just get out of the office and let nature take its course. Play with your kids. Go on a long bike ride. Write your next blog post. Read a book. Go to the movies. Get your mind on something else and keep your head clear. You don’t need meds or behavioral therapy, unless you have a more serious underlying disorder. Alcohol won’t help either. Stay sharp, stay occupied, believe that your deal will get done, and store up your reserves for that happy moment.
Second only to the game changing deal in terms of creating anxiery is the constant threat of exhausting your cash runway. It’s never a pleasant task to raise money, especially if you are constantly doing so without ever achieving any breathing room that lets you focus on building your product and your business. Dealing with the runway is a double edged sword. If you raise too much money too early, you pay dearly in valuation and potential upside. If you are more of a gambler and raise just barely enough to get you to your next milestone, you may end up with zero. I’ve said many times that startups fail because they run out of time. There’s always money out there for a viable idea, but if you need cash now for payroll, what’s potentially available in the future is of little comfort.
The cures for this form of startup anxiety are careful planning, creative financing techniques like customer prepays, very loyal core investors, and a bit of luck. You may be able to justify every cell on your forecast spreadsheet, but just like the maxim that no battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy, once you have a business in motion, stand by for surprises. You may have followed all the customer discovery and other rules of the modern lean startup theory, but, until you have something to deliver and for which you are ready to be paid, you have only limited insight into what’s ahead. When the machinery envisioned in your business model is measured against actual customer behavior and when money starts changing hands, you will have your first glimpse of whether your planning was on the mark or off. You will also then have your first glimpse of how long your runway really is. Did you bet wisely by raising a big cushion, or did your gambler’s instinct that you could beat the plan in fact prove true? Will you experience the cruel phenomenon known as “missing payroll?” Will your employees hang with you? Will your family understand?
Again, business problems do not rank as the highest anxieties of the human condition. If you have gotten a startup underway, you undoubtedly have some of the traits to offset the worries. You can sell. You have leadership skills. You are a creative problem solver. You never lose your cool or your confidence; you know you can get out of a jam. You have hard earned loyal relationships with investors, employees, and customers; you can talk with them and make them part of the solution. You have options. You are not starving in the streets of icy Petrograd in the winter of 1918, and nobody is shooting you or making you a political prisoner. (I just read an engrossing new biography on Lenin; I do not recommend it for relaxation or anxiety reduction.)
Since startups are a team sport, you as a founder need to govern your actions in a way that reduces everyone else’s anxiety. Yes, you may be shaking in your boots, but keep those boots on and never infect your colleagues with your own worst fears. A founder has to show steadiness that builds confident followers. Treating them with candor is always appropriate, but it does no good to say the sky is falling if you don’t have some idea of how you are going to put it back up.
You will always have anxieties, and then you will die. Prior to your last day, there’s a lot of great living to enjoy if you don’t let your anxieties impede you. There is too much good work to do; and many great accomplishments await.