While it can be tempting to focus on flashy business successes, there's another side to entrepreneurship not often discussed: the emotional toll it can take.
Starting a company can be a lot like battling an ocean storm from inside a dingy. One minute you’re experiencing smooth waters (you just signed on a big client), the next you’re in the middle of a typhoon (your funding source went dry and you may be forced to close up shop).
After last week’s death of Internet visionary Aaron Swartz, I touched base with entrepreneurs Jake Nickell of Threadless, Elaine Wherry of Meebo and Evan Doll of Flipboard to get their views on the pressures of being a young, successful startup owner.
Katie Morell: Is it emotionally difficult to be an entrepreneur?
Jake Nickell: Yes, definitely. Whatever business you start becomes a piece of you, and everything is emotional.
Elaine Wherry: Absolutely. Think about it: You have someone in their mid-20s with little or no management experience in charge of the livelihoods of their staff members. And you can’t really confide in the people you work with, because, unless you have a co-founder, you are their manager.
Evan Doll: No question. Even now (two years after the launch of Flipboard), the highs and lows are as intense as anything I’ve experienced. It is so hard because you are investing so much of yourself into your business. If something goes sour, it attacks your feelings of self worth. And the fact that when you start something new, you are out there in space and there is nothing holding you down—you feel untethered from the rest of the world, which can be pretty scary.
The recent death of startup icon Aaron Swartz, pictured here at a December 2008 Creative Commons event, shocked the startup world. (Photo: Fred Benenson/Wikipedia)
KM: How do you stay emotionally healthy through the highs and lows?
JN: I don’t dwell on negative things. What has really helped me is talking to my wife and a few close friends. I can tell them anything, which is a nice release for me.
EW: When things were crazy with Meebo, I got really into exercising. I would go to the gym every morning even if I hadn’t slept the night before. When I transitioned out of Meebo, it was very stressful and exercise didn’t help, so I hired an executive coach, which helped give me the confidence to make the right decision.
ED: Being around people helps. And talking with my wife. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have stuck with the company. There were many times when she helped me calm down and reminded my why I was doing this in the first place.
KM: What advice can you give entrepreneurs struggling with the emotionality of it all?
JN: Try not to take things so seriously. Step away from what you are doing. Think about what you would do if your business fell apart tomorrow and write it down as an exercise. If things don’t work out, at least you will know your next move, which will probably be awesome.
EW: Try to keep your eye on a longer-term perspective. Startups change so quickly; I recommend learning how to ride it out. Know that everything will pass.
ED: Get some distance from your work. Even now, I will go home for dinner every night to be with my wife and son. During that time, I don’t look at my phone or computer. If I have more work to do, I will go back to the office and crank through it at night, which can be really peaceful.
KM: What are a few common mental health-related mistakes to avoid when launching a business?
JN: Using drugs. Seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people go down that path. It can be really hard for entrepreneurs to shut off their minds. I think meditation can be great for that. When my mind is racing, I try to watch TV or listen to music to calm down.
EW: There is a tendency to stay up late every night and physically exhaust yourself and go days without eating or sleeping just to show your commitment to your company. That isn’t a good idea. You end up getting stressed out and not being able to deal with things.
ED: A lot of entrepreneurs will hold on to one idea and not let go. This can be a mistake. You need to be wiling to throw away ideas that you feel strongly about.
KM: What resources can entrepreneurs turn to if they are struggling?
ED: I recommend finding a mentor. Back when I was starting out, I would send cold emails to people I admired just asking if we could meet and I could pick their brains. A ton of them responded and were more than happy to help. I’ve been on the receiving end of those emails, too, and am happy to chat with startup founders. I really cherish these relationships because it's always nice to have someone to talk to.
Photo: Getty Images
Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.