One day we wake up and realize our startup is working great for everyone but us — the Founders.
What the hell happened? We started out with big dreams of building our dream job, creating true financial independence, and just being able to do whatever we wanted on our own terms. That sounded great, right?
Yet here were are, spending our days at everyone else's behest. Our days and schedules are driven by the needs of staff, customers, and investors, all of whom mean well, but have essentially put our own goals and needs well into the back seat, and in some cases, forgotten about altogether.
When was the last time we got paid first (or at all)? Or took a vacation without being pulled away 100x by everyone else's needs? Or spent our day the way we wanted to, not how someone else needed us to?
We zoom out and realize that this amazing creation we built from nothing has been awesome for everyone — except us. How did we get here?
The thing is, this didn't get away from us in a single move. It wasn't just because we took on investors or made a single customer commitment. It was all of those decisions. Each time we chased after that next big goal, we lost sight of our own original goals in the process — and we mortgaged them in the name of our startup's progress.
It's easy to see the upside, we just don't do a great job of truly considering the "loss." When we took on investment we thought "OK great, we'll be able to grow the team!" but we didn't think "Wait if we have to answer to investors I'm going to have a new boss that will indirectly prevent me from doing everything the way I want to do it."
We didn't build a startup to satisfy investors. But that's now the business we're in. Their needs now trump our needs, and along the way, our goals got set aside.
Of course, the sacrifices didn't end there. We needed to scale up, so we used what little money we had to bring on some new staff. That meant we were going to have to cut back our own pay, or in some cases, continue taking no salary at all (the fallacy of all Founders). It's not that we stopped paying ourselves, it's that we begun to get used to putting ourselves last. In many cases, we used it as a badge of honor.
Once we started down this path, especially when we became proud of the sacrifice, what we unconsciously did was start allowing ourselves to be put at the back of the line. In fact, we created such a powerful behavior that not only did we feel most comfortable being put at the back of the line, we actually felt guilty when we put ourselves in any other position.
We felt guilty when we took time off. We felt guilty when we increased our salary. We felt guilty when our stock was worth more than someone else's. We convinced ourselves so readily that we were last, that we sentenced ourselves to being last.
Not only did we convince ourselves that we deserved to be at the back of the line, we convinced everyone else that's where we belonged. We didn't do this intentionally, nor was it their fault. But every time we stopped putting ourselves first, we voted ourselves to be last, and no one complained.
Our investors never emailed us to say "Hey, you know, your salary is well below market even though everyone else is getting paid market wages to remain competitive." Our staff never said, "Hey, I've noticed you haven't taken a vacation in the past 2 years, you should really take time off." They just assumed that's the way things are because we set that assumption implicitly.
All of these little steps put us where we are. But here's the thing — it's reversible. The same power we used to put ourselves to the back of the line can be used to change position. The first step is recognizing that our initial goals and intentions weren’t to build something wonderful that would control our lives, but to empower them.
We need to revisit those goals. We need to remind ourselves why we built this thing and what we wanted it to accomplish. Then, we need to step up and make a non-stop concerted effort to put those goals at the forefront of every decision, breaking instantiated behaviors and expectations that have made us a slave to our own creation.
We built this. it's ours. It works for us. Not the other way around.
How Do I Leave My Startup Stress At Work? While startup stress might not ever diminish completely, how we manage it can help us navigate balance in our lives as Founders.
The Emotional Cost of Being a Startup Founder. (podcast) Wil and Ryan discuss how to start having a more open conversation about what it really costs to be a startup Founder.
Start Faster by Starting Smaller. Building a startup is a game of tiny wins over and over and over. The big wins come as a result of the micro victories. The key is how you pick your battles.
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.