September 8th, 2021 | By: Wil Schroter
Startups run on money but survive by optimism.
The greatest currency in our startup is our wildly insane, totally manufactured optimism that things might actually work out, even in the face of everything taking a giant crap on us. That of course sounds inspiring, but when we're actually living in that position when everywhere we turn things are falling apart, it's hard to pretend we can just put on a happy face and make everything a resounding positive.
This isn't a pep talk though — it's a game plan. The difference between letting our startups implode and bringing them from the brink of destruction is how we plan through this mess. As a 9-time startup Founder myself, I can tell you it sucks every. single. time. There's nothing cool about it. But, after you've been through this battle enough times you start to notice a pattern in how to deal with the lows.
The first step is to write off everything that already happened. Co-Founder quit? It's done. Investor pulled out? It happened, move on. We spend so many valuable cycles trying to rehash what just happened or where we went wrong. We have to look at every moment of worrying as valuable capital we're just throwing away. We need those cycles, we need that focus.
That's not to say we can't learn from what just happened, but right now isn't the time for deep retrospection. I have a funny little method I use to keep myself focused. I have a simple notepad that lists the thing that went wrong. Every time I start rehashing it, I move to the notepad and force myself to write one new thing that I learned. 90% of the time I have nothing to add, which forces me to realize this is a huge waste of time, but the simple act of making me realize it's a waste of time is powerful.
We're not the only people that need to move past this, either. It's our job to let everyone else in the organization know that whatever happened is done and over with — move on. Sometimes optimism doesn't come from rainbow and unicorn thoughts as much as it does removing what was dragging us down in the first place. It's a deliberate effort, and that's part of the plan.
Not only do we need to wipe our distractions clean, but we also need to narrow our focus to really small goals. For example, let's say that our lead investor just bailed on us. Instead of setting a goal to say "I need to find a new lead investor" our goal is far smaller. We set our goal to just do our research to figure out who we are going to contact next. That's it. We haven't sent an email, we haven't pitched anyone. It's just that goal and nothing else.
The reason we get so laser-focused is so that we can start to see demonstrable progress again, which is the foundation of our optimism. The broader and more amorphous our goals are, the less chance we have for completing them, and by way of that, the more our optimism fades.
Conversely, watch what happens to ourselves and the team when we end every day with completed tasks and forward progress — we get our groove back. We win not by the volume of things we do but by the completion of them.
Part of where we throw ourselves off is being overly focused on what went wrong. Again, that happened - we're moving on. What we need in order to start our optimism machine back up is recognition of the wins. Every customer that signs up, every positive investor response, every like on social.
The reason we shift our focus is because victory will come not from crying about past failures but doubling down on present wins. This is how great Founders bring demotivated teams back. They remind them that they can and will win again. They give high fives until their hands are bruised because they know that if the team isn't motivated, they can't win this alone.
Our optimism should never be left in the hands of fate. We need to actively cultivate and spread that optimism through consistent rigor and discipline. Every startup hits epic lows, no matter who they are, and everyone always thinks it's unique to them. It's not. This is part of the startup lifecycle, and like any other process, we need to manage it like a pro.
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Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.