The Startup Marathon: How One Founder Avoids Burnout
Burnout is a real threat in Silicon Valley, and anywhere else high expectations demand high performance. There’s been no shortage of stress in the 10 years since I founded Wrike, including the many 80 hour workweeks that were needed to survive bootstrapping and the logistics of scaling rapidly post funding. Three things carried me through these times: my love for the mission, a sense of responsibility for the team, and managing my own limits. Building a company starts with a sprint, but it turns into a marathon. It’s important to know the limit of your stamina, and brace for the long haul.
There were a few times when I came close to burnout. Since founders can’t always take long vacations to disconnect and recover, we need to find little ways to allow ourselves to recover quickly so we can come swinging back. Some days when I was exhausted, I’d spend a Saturday binge watching movies, and a Sunday doing nothing at all (that’s a little harder now that I have kids, I should add).
One of the most inspiring movies I watched recently was the WW2 film, "Fury." In the movie, Brad Pitt plays the commander of a fiercely loyal crew of soldiers as they pilot their tank from battle to battle through war-torn Europe. The team is exhausted from combat, their missions are dangerous, and their battered tank is outclassed by the enemy. Still, the team’s battle cry is the defiant, “Best job I ever had!”
The soldiers in "Fury" knew the importance of winning the war and understood the horrors of their enemy. I would never dare to compare a Silicon Valley job to the courage that soldiers showed in WW2, but I admired the team and purpose mentality of the crew. It reminded me that camaraderie and commitment are essential to sustaining energy over the long haul.
That’s why I circle back to culture as the key method of preventing burnout for both entrepreneurs and team members. You have to build a culture in which everyone loves what they do and who they work with, and has the context to make smart decisions with autonomy. And you need to start from Day 1.
Related: How to Avoid Burnout in Your Team
When teams understand the vision of their company, they can be trusted to do what’s right and take ownership of their work. This reduces your workload as a founder because you don't need to micromanage them, and it helps prevent them from burning out because they know they are valued, and have autonomy to be creative in their roles. Burnout isn't just a symptom of overwork, it's a symptom of feeling undervalued, and autonomy goes a long way in preventing it.
If someone is showing signs of burnout, there are some practical things you can do as well. Offer them time off, or even try sending them to a conference for a few days. Meeting some colleagues and hearing fresh ideas can be energizing. Also make sure teams have a budget for offsite activities on a regular basis, like happy hours after work or celebration dinners for accomplishments.
For me, I draw energy from my team's accomplishments. I see people who joined Wrike years ago who have since grown into leadership roles and are accomplishing great things, and their dedication motivates me to keep fighting through the low tides and challenging times. Sharing professional and personal successes amongst your team is a great way to build friendships and company pride.
The most important thing is genuinely caring about the people you work with. Starting a business in a competitive landscape has a lot of ups and downs, and there will be moments of high pressure and tense emotion. When your team loves working together, you pull together and carry each other through the difficult days. At Wrike, even when I’m exhausted I feel blessed. I get to look around at the team we've built and think, “Best job I ever had.”