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New Business Burnout: Don't Be a Victim

How to keep stress at bay before your startup grinds you down.
June 21, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/180694

Anyone who has ever launched a business knows that stress goes with the territory. Long hours, insufficient family time, endless decision making and "the buck stops with me" responsibilities create a pressure cooker environment, even for those with nerves of steel. Unchecked, the strain can lead to startup burnout, not to mention business failure.

Three years after opening a handyman service, one entrepreneur was so frazzled that he was ready to close up shop for good. He was working 70 hours a week, still in the red, pouring his own money into the company every month to make up for cash shortfalls, having difficulty keeping employees, and struggling to cope with the toll being taken on his marriage. Startup burnout had struck with a vengeance.

If you burn out in a corporate environment, you can fix it by switching jobs. It's a trauma, but there's less at stake than for a business owner with his or her heart, soul and resources tied up in a company.

If you burn out in a new business venture, it's the result of intense and arguably greater pressure built up over a shorter interval, and it's infinitely harder to walk away. It means abandoning your dream, leaving your employees jobless, and facing sometimes dire financial and psychological consequences. I personally know of one suicide and one near-suicide caused by the startup stress trap.

That's why it's important to take preventive measures to avoid letting your startup drive you to the brink. Here are a few simple ways to nip burnout in the bud:

1. Build a knowledge base. You may know everything about plumbing, but that doesn't mean you know how to run a plumbing business. Learn the financial and marketing basics before you open your doors and continue educating yourself as you go along. Local community colleges, business association workshops and your personal mentors can help.

2. Adapt your business plan. Your initial business model may look good on paper, but it may not work precisely as planned. I know of one internet startup that expected to sell recycled auto parts to car mechanics and quickly discovered that their real market was insurance companies. When you're first starting out, you may have to adjust your business plan every 90 days based on the lessons you're learning on the street.

3. Make daily lists of the next day's tasks. Many business owners get caught up in the minutiae of their work and neglect the more important tasks and planning that will solve problems, secure new customers or otherwise advance the business. One strategy for prioritizing activities is to take a few minutes at the end of each day to create a "things to do tomorrow" list. That'll help you focus and avoid busywork during the day.

4. Hire a good team. The only way you're going to build your business is to delegate, and that requires competent employees. Don't hire someone just to have a warm body or save a few dollars. If you wait for the right person, you'll get a far greater return than the 10 or 20 percent extra it costs you in salary. Then be sure you provide the training necessary to get the most out of your employees.

5. Leave your work at work. You need a break, and your family needs your attention. (Lee Iacocca once said that you're not successful in business unless you're home for dinner.) If you must work after hours, have your family time first. If you work from home, as many startups do, get dressed as if you're going to an outside job, change your clothes when the normal business day is over, and limit your work to one area of the house, such as the office or den--never the kitchen.

6. Get a coach. When you're involved in a startup, it's frequently difficult to see things clearly, especially when the going gets tough. You're too close to the situation, you're stuck in a rut, and you may not have the business background to know how to climb out. Turning to personal mentors, coaching businesses like ActionCOACH, or volunteer organizations like SCORE can give you a fresh perspective, as well as the benefit of their broader experience.

Coaching came to the rescue of the burned-out handyman company owner mentioned earlier. With the coach's guidance, the business owner made a laundry list of changes that turned the firm around and cut his work hours in half in a year's time.

The lesson would have been less painful, however, if he had taken steps to protect himself before he hit the burnout wall. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.