I'm convinced that founders need to be absolutely crazy to start a company. It's not the long hours or instability that makes it tough, it's the soul-grinding lows that puts the founder in a constant existential crisis with no relief in sight.
If you ever find yourself in one of these low points, it helps to remember you are not alone. Ben Horowitz, who sold Opsware to HP for $1.6 billion, talks about "The Struggle." Elon Musk suffered through deep depression when Tesla, now worth about $20 billion, was near bankruptcy in 2008.
Victor Hugo put it best in Les Miserables: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” As entrepreneurs, we set out on our journey with a certainty of darkness. It is how we manage ourselves during these downtimes that are critical to our success.
A few years ago I had a job as an innovations manager at an advertising agency. My days were spent trying out various "intrapreneurial" projects, while my nights were filled with personal entrepreneurial experiments. The project that I ended up settling on was a niche do-it-yourself blog targeted towards suburban housewives called DIY Weekender. We featured interesting home projects and craft ideas that you couldn't find on some of the larger DIY sites.
Once the site launched, it had little traffic for months. Here's how I pulled through the tough times:
Darkness sets in. Advertisers pay based on impressions (views of ads), so the low readership meant the site made no money. An unhappy advertiser canceled and the publishing software started giving me problems. I would lay awake at night fantasizing about shutting the website down. Everything was going wrong and the only thing that I could do was to focus on little things that I could control. Every day I made an effort to come up with a handful of new topics or ideas that I thought would boost traffic. The next day I tried the ideas and if they didn't work I rinsed and repeated.
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Persevere through dawn. After a number of iterations, I saw dawn. The idea that worked involved using video to increase my advertising revenue per page view. When I researched existing video systems I couldn't find one that fit my needs, so I built my own. Shortly after, PK4 Media started licensing the technology from me and started making a killing by allowing their publishers to use it.
The sunrise is amazing and absolutely worth it. About 12 months from the launch of DIY Weekender, I received an offer to acquire the company, which included both the website and the video platform. I took the acquisition offer, left my day job and spent a month pursuing my dream of learning to fly airplanes before the earnout started.
During this downtime, I was able to reflect and found that I was fundamentally different. Not because of the sudden influx of material things, but because I saw that the world is created by people who walk through the darkness just like I had. Now I believe that anyone can do it if they choose to stick it out.
Many times when things get really dark, I remind myself that entrepreneurship is a journey that with each step you get closer to success. There will be many failures, but if you stick it out, the sun will always rise.