Startups are Built at the Expense of Founders

TL;DR: Startups are often built at the expense of Founders long before they are built for our benefit. From the outside, people see us at the top of the corporate ladder (even if that ladder only has one rung!) and think that we're running shit.

May 26th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

That's not how this works. We don't get the benefit of sitting on our thrones and commanding our armies until much, much later in life — and in many cases, never. What we are guaranteed along the way is a wraith-like drain on our life force (D&D reference there, fellow nerds) in every possible facet.

What we need to understand, and accept, is that our startup's future can very easily come at the expense of everything we hold dear. It's very much hard-coded into how the Founder Journey works, and damn, do we pay a lot of bills along the way.

First, We Pay With Our Savings

Long before we raise money or earn some revenue, 100% of our "income" is just our personal savings. We use terms like "sweat equity" as if working for free somehow magically puts food on our table or pays our rent in the process.

We not only work for free, but we also begin a long and vicious cycle of ripping through all of our savings, and then, when that's not enough, we go out and take on new debt in the form of credit cards, lines of credit, and even that one "interest-free financing" scheme we used to buy laptops for everyone. Yeah, that's signed in our name, too.

Lots of people burn through their savings, but we take it up a notch. We start creating new debt we not only never would have had before, but probably have no way to pay off in the future. Put simply, we start off by bankrupting ourselves.

Then, We Pay With Our Health

But, we're irrational morons (I am one of you), so we think that's not enough. We also put ourselves on a path where no matter what we do, we'll be wrong almost all of the time, because there's no possible way to get all of this right. We're building something that has never been built before, with a team that has never worked together, in a market we invented 9 seconds ago, so we can't possibly know the answers!

That lack of “knowing” translates to not enough time to maintain our physical health (the "Founder 15" is real), a non-stop siege on our personal self-worth (we're wrong all the time), and an express pass toward anxiety and depression (unless you really enjoy the word "no" all day!).

We keep incurring those expenses because in our minds we believe they are temporary, similar to how we feel about our financial costs. What we don't realize is that even if the business side improves, the stress it takes on our health often increases as the demands on our life get amplified.

Finally, We Pay With Our Relationships

All of this stress gets mapped right to one place — our relationships. There's no version in this process where being stressed out and financially stretched 24x7 leads to happy, healthy relationships. It doesn't matter if it's our spouse, our kids, our family, or even just those friends we used to hang out with. Our startup consumes us at the expense of all of them.

Unlike most employees, we can't turn it off. Our staff can go home at the end of the day and know that they've got a minute until they have to turn it on again. We don't get that luxury. That's because our staff only needs to worry about themselves, and maybe their team. We have to worry about everyone, all the time.

That nonstop pull totally ruins our relationships because it starves the two things that relationships need — time and focus. Slowly, but surely, both are stripped from us, by our own doing, leading all of our relationships into a dark place.

So... When Does This End?

Well, maybe never. Oddly, it doesn't end when we become more successful because the draws on our time and emotion only increase. It gets worse when things don't go well because we're constantly stressed over pulling it all together.

Our startup success doesn't pay this expense — only we can pay it, by stepping back and evaluating how much we're willing to accept, and in most cases, just refusing to pay more. If we don't stop paying the costs of this journey, no one else will pay it for us.

In Case You Missed It

What Problems DO Just Go Away With Time? While our startup problems don't go away entirely, our ability to manage them changes over time.

What to Expect in the First Year (podcast). As Founders, we think we know how our products and businesses will look and function for years to come, but as with time, it's nearly impossible to expect the unexpected.

Growth Isn’t Always Good. In many cases, our focus on growth runs counter to what our goals really should be: becoming a better startup — not just a bigger one.

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, 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.

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