Coping with startup founder setback blues

“Like being punched in the face repeatedly” is how Y Combinator’s Paul Graham characterises the devastating setbacks that founders have to be able to cope with. Here’s how you cope

It’s going to happen

Suddenly, your seemingly unstoppable journey to success will unexpectedly come screeching and juddering to a halt.

Something will tell you that your amazing disruptive idea, which looked perfectly attainable yesterday, now looks totally impossible.

The first time that this happens to you as a founder of an innovative startup, you won’t be ready for it.

While you’re experiencing this nightmare, the of state of mind you’re in is unsurprisingly the very last thing you need when the thing that you should be focusing on is how to stop things from getting even worse (especially if your spending is ‘high burn’, even more so if it is your own money that’s getting burned).

Fortunately, there are some really powerful tactics that can help you stay functional and sane, even when things are looking unbearably bleak.

If there’s one theme that encapsulates all the best strategies for doing this, it’s ‘cheering yourself up just enough to make sure you can get back on your feet’.

You’re outside of your comfort zone and you can’t see a way back in

Just keying in that phrase above gave me the creeps.

You need to understand ‘what’s going on under the hood’ in order to get to grips with something so bad to us that it looks like it can’t be fixed. In this case, ‘under the hood’ really translates into ‘inside your head’.

Whatever’s going on out there in the world, it turns out that in our minds, when we’re suddenly no longer being driven along by the irresistable wave of passion, excitement and optimism that made us start our startup, we get hit by a nasty double whammy.

As if the trauma of monumental disappointment wasn’t enough, an incredibly powerful resource which all demonically dedicated founders subliminally draw upon constantly, a resource which would seem to be the one thing that could help us weather the storm, is also suddenly and brutally cut off like a severed air supply.

Psychologists call the (natural?) mental resource that we deploy when we’re faced with a need to come to terms with the fact that we are not a position to derive any direct or immediate pleasure from what we happen to be doing, but expect to ‘cash in on our present commitment to self-sacrifice’ at some point in the future ‘deferred gratification’.

Almost by definition, the more natural it is for you to be able to defer gratification, the less you’re likely to notice that you’re actually deferring anything, or that there is anything to defer.

If you love what you’re working towards, doing the work itself is gratification, so how could it ever feel like you could possibly have anything to defer?

You could be doing some grindingly boring, thankless, exhausting, frustrating, demeaning, or even nerve-shreddingly scary task and still treat every second of it like it’s a labour of love: for many, that’s the whole startup experience in a nutshell.

But if something has happened which makes ‘the big picture’ suddenly look completely and irredeemably hopeless, anything involving effort and dedication becomes instantly drained of any sense of whatever it was that made it seem worth doing.

What’s the point?

That’s the one question which seems ridiculous and stupid when things are going well.

But it’s the one question that you’ll be asking yourself over and when the vision behind everything you were doing seems totally out of reach.

And the very things that will be triggering that question will be those ‘labour of love’ things that you would normally just go ahead and do without thinking, let alone feel that they were too much of an effort. A serious enough setback instantly turns deferred gratification into ‘no gratification’.

Things that keep things going

Your natural tendency (which will determine how you react to a setback on a spectrum which ranges from being energized to being  paralysed) when you’re hit with dashed hopes will depend upon your personality, but here’s some tips:

Don’t experience it on your own: get someone you can confide in and let it all out: talk it through, it’ll help you get some insight, not just into how you got into your current predicament, or even into how to get out of it, but more importantly it’ll help you reflect more productively upon exactly what your current options are and what kinds of things will motivate you to choose your next steps rationally, rather than as a knee jerk.

Things to do with vision

If your vision looks like it has been shattered, start asking bigger questions. Look deeply into what attracted you to it in the first place. Is what you were working towards part of something even bigger? Could you find something in this bigger picture that is worth exploring? Has everything you’ve been working on up til now just been an education, a preparation for exploring possibilities that you couldn’t possibly have seen when you started?

Things that cheer you up

Intersperse every small chore (or every small part of some big chore) that you have to work on with a small treat for yourself before you move onto the next one. You probably didn’t  need to do anything like this quite so much when the prospect of you not reaching your goals  seemed unimaginable, but after a severe setback, ‘self-cheering’ is a life-giving medicine (but remember, self-cheering is strong medicine, so it’s only safe when administered in small doses, in between chores: cheer, not binge).

Keep things short

Whatever you’re doing, keep it short and do things in short sharp bursts of activity: short sessions, get feedback, keep talking. Setback recovery is not a time for extended solitude, or purge-by-burnout. Don’t ‘grieve by ‘burying yourself in your work’. Time spent exploring new possibilities and thrashing out ideas with others is much healthier and will ‘get you back on your feet’ more quickly than any other activity. Exploring ideas is one of those treats you should fit in between chores.

Start keeping an eye on things that demonic startup founders normally don’t pay attention to, such as not going too long without eating, not going too long without sleep, not going too long without getting up out of a chair and walking about, not going too long without going outside for some fresh air: in other words, start paying more attention to your physical state, because ‘startup founder setback blues’ is just a form of grieving and is just as likely to damage your body as your mind.

Exploration as therapy

Exploring new ideas is such a fundamental activity for innovative startups that if you find that a setback puts you off exploring ideas altogether, you either need to find someone else who does want to explore ideas with you and can inspire you to want to get back to exploring and doing new things, or if that doesn’t appeal then you really need to ask yourself why you still feel that founding an innovative startup is your preferred option.

A restart inevitably needs a brand new vision and if you don’t have one and you don’t feel motivated to do what needs to be done to get one, it may just be a matter of being patient with yourself for a while, but at some point you need to recognise that it is the extent of your attraction to the job of exploring new possibilities that will ultimately determine exactly how you respond to your setback.