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The Startup Canyonlands

The entrepreneur/investor Mark Suster has a great post on the differences in emotional states between the startup person and the VC. In short, he says that for the entrepreneur, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

This week has been both for me. The entire Yesware team came into the office on Saturday and Sunday to crank on our various projects. We had lunch together and a great dinner outside on Sunday night. It was awesome. We also spent four hours with a possible hire who decided to do his own startup instead. In between those extremes, we had lots of mini achievements and failures.

emotional curves of entrepreneurs and VCs

Which all got me thinking about Mark’s charts. I know he’s lived it, and he describes the startup challenge brilliantly in prose. But his graphs are wrong. The curves are just much, much, much too smooth.

Having been working in startups since 1995, this week is not exceptional. There’s always something going well or going off a cliff. And the impacts of any of those various things are significant – something going well can mean a huge step forward. And we literally could fall off a cliff. So I think the real emotional state of an entrepreneur looks a bit more like this:

Emotional Graph of Entrepreneurs

It’s clearly not smooth. There are big swings between ecstasy and despair. And it’s pretty random. Just because you are on the way up over the last two days, there’s no inevitable move one way or the other the next day. There’s just no trend.

The unpredictability  of the startup experience is exhausting. That’s why so many people who start companies are happy to take challenging but relatively padded jobs in bigger companies afterwards. Having a predictable salary is a big draw, which is why so many successful entrepreneurs move into venture capital after the requisite number of years in startup land.

But for those of us still here (and I’m happy to say there are more of us all the time), we have to develop habits that make the inherent randomness of the experience more tolerable. Instead of chasing the highs (which has a certain appeal) and drowning our sorrows (likewise), we need to develop some appreciation for the Zone of Sustainability.

The Zone of Sustainability

The Zone of Sustainability

In a startup, there’s not a lot of time in The Zone of Sustainability. It’s impossible to hang out there. In fact, we don’t want to hang out there. That’s what normal people with normal jobs do. But when we are in the Z of S, it’s good to appreciate it. I’m there now. My team cranked all weekend. We have a great release coming out on Thursday. We have more interviews scheduled for our job openings. This time won’t last – it could end with the next email I receive – but while it’s here, it’s healthy and sustaining to appreciate the situation.

Other things you can do to cultivate some time in the Zone:

  • Move around a bit at work – Use your body a little. One of the very first things I did at Yesware was build a standing desk so I could improve my posture while typing. Posture is really really important for happiness, and just thinking “sit up straight” wasn’t doing it for me.
  • Minimize Interruptions – We’ve implemented “work mornings” at Yesware. No meetings before lunch. Everyone can come in and do their work interrupted for 2 to 6 hours. People get here earlier to have more of this time.
  • Cultivate a personal discipline – I won’t call it a hobby, it’s more holistic than that. Cultivate a contemplative practice or activity that helps you develop a personal foundation that doesn’t hinge on your work situation. If you can run 2 miles, then 4 miles and then 10 miles without stopping, you can run 10 miles no matter what that customer just did.

The Startup Canyonlands

Looking at that chart, it reminds me much less of “an emotional roller coaster” and more of Utah’s Canyonlands. When you are in the canyons, you’ve definitely left the Zone of Sustainability. You are carrying everything, traveling light. You are exploring. Exploring is the closest analogy I can think of to the startup experience. You cannot avoid the highs or the lows. In many ways, you don’t want to. You are curious. You are adventuring. It’s a challenge. It’s a very real test of survival. Can your company do this? Will the team make it? Can you get others to join your possibly insane expedition to who-knows-where?

As in the canyonlands, you don’t quite know where you are. You really don’t know the “best” way. There’s very little way to tell if a possible shortcut will actually end up slowing you down. If you weren’t an explorer, this would really suck. Frankly, even though you are an explorer, sometimes it does suck. But you explore that too. The lows aren’t avoidable in a startup. They aren’t optional. But the attitude you bring to them is. As an entrepreneur, you explore the lows as well as the peaks in the Startup Canyonlands.

Exploring the Maze: Photo Credit - Tim Bardsley

Exploring the Maze: Photo Credit - Tim Bardsley