Startup burnout is a real thing.
As the stigma traditionally associated with mental health issues melts away, we’re seeing a lot more entrepreneurs and startup employees raise their hands when the stress levels get too high.
This is, by all accounts, a welcome trend, because we’ve also seen a lot of those same folks push themselves past the point of no return, oftentimes with tragic results.
Startup burnout is an unbiased epidemic, inflicting young and old, experienced and first-timers, rich and poor alike— it doesn’t care about your background, your skillset, or how successful you’ve been. The pressure can get to anyone, and those of us who lack the tools to manage it can find ourselves in a dark place quickly.
But it’s also an addressable epidemic with some very tangible solutions. Startup, done right, doesn’t require the people doing it to work themselves into a hot, useless mess. Despite conventional wisdom.
Let’s talk about that conventional wisdom. And debunk it.
So That We Don’t Take This Lightly
There are three caveats I want to make up front.
I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve had a front row seat to the reality of mental health issues several times. If I had to put a guess out there, I’d say chronic mental health issues, when viewed the same way as chronic physical health issues, are more prevalent than most people think. They’re harder to identify, easier to hide, and more difficult to address.
So in no way do I want to minimize the gravity of mental health issues, or for that matter, the devastating effects of stress and anxiety. What I want to do here is help us entrepreneurs do our best to not throw our startup on top of the long list of triggers and causes. For ourselves and for others.
Second, I also understand the specter of financial stress as it relates to entrepreneurship. I don’t come from money, but the way startup has worked out for me, I’ve never been down to my last dollar. I’m a gambler, for sure, but I always gamble with money I’m prepared to lose. So let me make this very clear: All of us entrepreneurs should only gamble with money we’re prepared to lose.
Finally, I want to plead with anyone who is experiencing more mental anguish than they feel they can handle. Ask for help. I’m not lying when I say that the stigma is fading. Talk to someone.
Now, let’s de-stress our startup.
Startup, Math, and 110%
I get why startup is so stressful. I do. I’ve been through it. I’m stressed right now. But it’s rare that startup stress actually points back to the tenets of entrepreneurship. Put startup ethos up against corporate ethos and the distilled reasons for startup come down to freedom over lockstep, satisfaction over money, and people over numbers.
Startup is not Utopia, but it is, by any definition, the splintering of an organization from the status quo. When we start leaning back into the status quo again is when everything starts to turn upside down.
One of the holdovers from status quo is the idea that in order for us to survive, in order for us to succeed, we need to work harder than everyone else. This is where that 110% number comes from. And it’s a myth.
First of all, ha ha, we get it, 110%. But there’s an underlying message in that purposefully misguided math — that we entrepreneurs need to push ourselves to the breakpoint, perpetually, to be the best at what we do.
Here’s the truth. In 20+ years of doing startup, I’ve never seen a startup brute force work itself to success. Not once. That 110% number implies that every other company out there is only giving 100%, and that’s how we’re going to beat them. That’s a lie.
The fact is that only the bottom 10% of our competition can be beaten by sheer force of work. No matter how hard we work, I can guarantee you that most of the rest of our competition is working just as hard if not harder.
110% isn’t a wrong idea, per se, it’s just applied incorrectly. When we get back to normal math, we need to be at about 80% busting our asses and 20% working creatively to beat the competition by being smarter. The creative solutions are where the extra 10% is going to come from.
We can’t get to the creative solutions we need if we’re constantly under the gun of the work.
Solutions outside of startup
Now that we’ve done the 80/20 math for the workday, let’s do some more math on work versus life. I don’t like to be in the business of telling other people how to live their lives, so this is just what I do. Walk your own path.
If we’re talking all the hours not sleeping, including weekends, vacations, and holidays, I try to create an even split between my life and my work. At crunch time, I’ll let that balance shift to 60/40 in favor of work.
That seems like a lot of down time, but it isn’t. It’s something like 10 hours a day of free time on the weekend and four hours a day during the week including eating and showering and stuff. But those down hours are critical to my performance, not only as an entrepreneur, but as a human being. They include:
Family and friends — I’m not here to preach, just know that if we don’t take care of our support system, it won’t be there to take care of us when we need it.
Health — I’m right now at a point where I don’t like the state of my physical health, and it impacts everything I do. I need more sleep, I don’t have the same focus, and I crash every day at 2:00 and have to coffee back up.
We don’t need to be in peak physical condition to be good at what we do, but the farther away we are from the norm, the harder we have to work to get the same output, the less time we have to be creative about what we do.
Outside interests — This is probably the most controversial take in this post, but we, especially entrepreneurs, need a second thing to focus on. For me, it’s advising entrepreneurs and writing these posts. My second thing forces me to think about problems that aren’t my own and come up solutions without having to get too deep into the weeds. The creativity required to do this, as well as the escape it provides, winds up informing a lot of my own challenges, opening new doors to solutions to my own problems.
If all we’re doing is working, then we’re not living, and it won’t be long until we’re no longer any good to our vocation. Writers who only write are boring. Leaders who never leave the office narrow the possibilities for their company to only what’s directly in front of them. We need to be learning, experimenting, and sometimes we just plain need to get distracted with something that doesn’t count as much as our startup.
The Answer Is Goals
I learned about the correlation between stress and goals early. My first job was not a startup job. It was a consulting position using data and technology to make healthcare better. My first task was to build a new software system that would use data to save providers money while improving patient outcomes.
This sounded awesome. But that was on paper. What it came down to was, short story, working 16 hours a day using cookie-cutter instructions with an unmovable timeline. Every time I suggested a way to make something better or I pointed out something else that was completely contradictory and stupid, I was admonished and told I didn’t have time to worry about that stuff.
I couldn’t get through 40 hours a week of that. I burned out in six months.
On the flip side, I can rock a 60-hour work week right now and totally be surprised when Friday evening rolls around and I need to knock off. And it’s not just about doing what I love, although I am, but I would have loved solving the money vs. patient care problem too. It’s the fact that I’m doing what makes sense to me to get from point A to point B.
A colleague of mine, Ricky Spero, a founder and CEO of an eight-year-old startup, crystallized what goals can do against the 110% rule:
“I don’t worry about whether our people are working enough. I worry obsessively about whether we’re working on the wrong things. If you worked on the wrong things, your productivity was 0% of what it might have been. Plus, it’s demoralizing to realize you wasted your time. When we’re recruiting, I tell candidates that there’s a lot of bullshit in startup culture about how hard everyone has to work. I don’t buy it. There is zero ‘ass in the seat’ culture [here]. Sleep 12 hours a night for all I care.”
The corporate ethos counterargument is: How can you keep everyone aligned and productive with that kind of attitude? How can teams collaborate if they’re operating on their own schedule? How can you measure productivity without a baseline?
The startup ethos answer is: “Goals.” It’s vague rolling off the tongue, but it’s crazy efficient in practice, provided we do it right. I’ll let Ricky walk us through it:
“We set goals that will deliver meaningful dividends for the business. If the goals are realistic, well defined, and well-matched to the owner of the goal, AND if the motivation for the goal is clearly tied to the company’s goal, AND if the company’s goals are worth pursuing, then people will work like hell to hit the mark.”
And Friday evening will roll around and they’ll be surprised it’s time to knock off. Hopefully they will do just that, go practice that work/life balance for 48 hours, and then return in top form on Monday.