You’re worried about all the wrong things.
That was how James Hong (angel investor, badass, founder of HotOrNot) responded to an article I had written two years ago about the loneliness of being a founder. The piece was a response to the hype engine of Silicon Valley and its larger-than-life founder stories -- and an attempt to break through the founder norm of business always being “great.”
Founders aren’t superhuman, but the world wants them to be. The role requires the ability to lay off dozens of employees, fire close friends and appease unhappy customers -- while seeming impervious to doubt, fear or uncertainty.
To survive, I developed a series of coping strategies: unabashed transparency, sharing challenges with those I trust the most, and asking for help. I shared these strategies with other founders and learned in return how they faced their fear and isolation.
But more recently, I’ve been wrestling with a new question. Not about how to survive, but how to thrive as a founder. As an investor (in fact, a board member of a competitor) recently asked: “How did RichRelevance get its mojo back?”
The answer ties back to James’ comment. The right things to worry about as a founder are the things that truly grow your company and character:
We decided early on that family was a core principle of RichRelevance. One of the biggest mistakes I made while cutting expenses to achieve profitability was to stop inviting significant others to our holiday party. This decision, while small in overall impact, was something I’ll never forget.
Family and our personal health frame our lives in meaning, without which none of the sacrifices of a startup matter. This framing is also a critical reminder that while our work is ridiculously important, it is just that: work. Life transcends startups, failures, successes, financial or political gains.
Product is, and should always be, at the heart of a company. It is the reason your employees get up in the morning. It’s the reason your customers love you, and ultimately why we founders have a job.
At RichRelevance we deviated. For a time, we were 100 percent focused on creating an amazing sales organization and we lost a lot of our passion because of it. But we learned from it, and I owe a debt of gratitude to a group of passionate developers who got together one day to say we must re-envisage our product.
We had to restructure our company from a general management structure to a product-oriented structure. We had to re-hire our product-management staff, and we had to change our relationship with customers. This transition has become the heart of our company -- our passion and our collective belief in the future of our product.
Per the above, great people at RichRelevance (not me) saved our company. That’s the coolest thing any CEO/founder/startup junkie can say. Amazing people that bring passion and capability are an incalculably powerful force.
We did one thing right during our challenging periods at RichRelevance: We always directly engaged our top-performing and most committed employees for their feedback and partnered with them through our challenges. We have an amazing core of about 20 people who’ve been with us for more than four years. Combining their strengths and shared history with the 200 or so other RichRelevance employees enables us to power through failures and to truly appreciate the amazing successes of our team as a family.
How do I thrive? My family and life-framing help me remember what really matters, so I am able to avoid the downward spiral of despair. I look to the power of the product to show the path to the future. And I am surrounded by the right people who stick to their guns when the going got tough.
James, these are the things that matter. And these are the things every founder needs to survive the dark nights of the startup soul and thrive in the next day’s light.
In the timeless words of Metallica: “Nothing else matters.”