This one goes out to all the Founders and founding teams out there – those who’ve been there and done that, and those contemplating going there to do that! For those that have, I know you’ll likely relate. To those that have not yet, (i.e., normal people with normal lives so far) – it will in many ways be shocking to hear what Founders go through. Several ‘normal people’ have exclaimed to me “I don’t know how you do it.” It takes a bit of a slightly “not all there”/ “screw loose” / “two cubes short of an ice tray” type of person to want to build and run a startup.
The amount of pressure startup CEOs go through is immense and very few can really relate unless you have been through Hell and back yourself – and even more so when you’ve done it a few times over. It will drain you mentally, physically, emotional and psychologically for an extended period of time with continuous pain and suffering. Putting in 80 to 100-hour weeks continuously is not what normal people do, but it is what Founders end up doing … including me.
A couple of doctors told me that I had the adrenalin profile of a soldier coming back from a theater of war. I would never dare compare us Founders to our brave women and men in uniform – frankly, most of us wouldn’t make it through the first day of training much less real combat. But you get the picture.
I thought for the Founders going through the grind now, and the would-be Founders wondering what lies ahead, that sharing a few things I do to get through it all could be helpful. Or as my Veteran friends like to say, “Embrace the Suck” (i.e., the situation is bad, but deal with it). I also thought some of my Knightscope teammates would benefit – as they are in the grind day in and day out as well – literally 24/7/365!
1. Negative Fuel – every day you are told “no,” “not right now,” “you are wrong,” “you will never make it,” “what you are doing is impossible,” or worse, the trolls get out their keyboards and start writing patently false and unfair dissertations about you and your company. Read it. Absorb it. Then turn it around. The more you are told “no,” the more fired up you need to get to prove them wrong – no matter what it takes. If you really believe in what you are doing, then taking a multi-decade approach should not be a problem. In the end, you will ‘force the win’ to happen.
2. Disregard – at times you must make decisions that no one supports. Not your team, not your family, not your friends – it may be a new product, a strategic path, an investor, a recruit, etc. Sometimes you just need to conduct a serious gut check, disregard all the input, make your decision and stick with it. You may bump your head, but you may also be rewarded with one of the greatest liberating feelings: being right when everyone else was wrong. Just be careful when and how often you decide to pull this one – it should not be an everyday occurrence!
3. Recruit – nothing like having new blood on the team! Fresh attitudes, fresh perspectives and a craving to learn help to reinvigorate us all and can change the dynamic big time. But you can’t just recruit anybody – it has to be the ones that will put in the hours and work hard with a smile on their face, a great attitude and understands the need to lift up their teammates. Don’t just hire a warm body to fill a role – you will fail.
4. Watch – ok, I confess, when I’m watching a movie, a TV show or anything, I’m pretty much always watching from an angle of “what can I learn here that will help Knightscope?” I guess that is why my wife calls me “possessed.” So even while being a couch potato (during those last three minutes of my day), I can still be moving the ball! As many of you know ‘taking time off,’ even for something so mundane as a TV show, is filled with so much guilt as you are always thinking “why am I goofing off when I could be helping my team?” The compromise is this: when I end watching cop shows, military stuff, science fiction movies, political drama, etc., I look for that moment of tactical learning, a new visual treatment of something from a design standpoint, or just pure inspiration. “If those officers or soldiers can get up and do that every day for the country, the least I can do is stop sulking and go fight the good fight – and get back in the ring.”
5. Connect the Dots – sit back and look at your entire organization. Department X is complaining about this, Department Y can’t get something done, and Department Z is off driving in a different direction. Sit back, find some strategic common thread that in one fell swoop, integrates and addresses all the problems and opportunities (i.e., do your job as a leader). No one needs to know, except you, what you did – but the reward can be fulfilling.
6. Exercise – this one is hard for a lot of us, but the payoff is immense. Exercise clears your head, gives you energy, and helps you sleep (I struggle with the latter – way too many meetings in my head all night long). There is just isn’t enough time. So, my wife forced me to take swimming lessons (haven’t drowned yet, but sure felt close!) and now I’ve temporarily deleted my car – to force me to walk back and forth to work. We’ll see how long that lasts! Besides, being an ex-automotive executive, the lineup of vehicles out there is depressing to say the least. I haven’t seen anything particularly inspiring that I’m really excited about, so I might as well lose some weight while I decide on the next buggy.
7. Plane – get on an aircraft and get out of town. You’ll meet new investors, new clients, new potential recruits, and new connections that can turn things around for you for the better. Plus, the change in scenery can help clear your head or inspire a new idea. This works – but be careful with too much travel as can have the opposite effect.
8. Music – find that 8-track tape or cassette (just kidding) that got you through the hardest times of your life, or the one that brings back great memories and blast it on volume eleven! When I was at Carnegie Mellon, I coded (in Pascal, oh my) for a final exam. I completed the 3-hour exam while blasting Metallica. Good times! Or that time, my teammate convinced me to bring my guitar to a business interview to finish off the program.
9. Toxins – yes, put down the fries and burger (this is difficult for me) and get a bunch of green juices going for the week, slow down the coffee and switch to tea for a while, and maybe not hang out with that person you might care about but seems to always bring you down. All hard stuff to do sometimes but you just have to do it.
10. Cook – this one is a recent one for me… just stop for an hour and cook something. You’ll be so focused on timing stuff right and not burning down the house that it will help clear your mind. Then there is the satisfaction of completing something in a short period of time and (hopefully) enjoying the fruits of your labor, which most Founders can relate to intimately!
One of my best friends calls me the “no door guy.” He says normal people – when they see an open door, a closed door, and a small door – will seek the path of least resistance and go through the easy, open door even though they know they likely won’t get what they set out to do. The way he sees it, none of the 3 choices is acceptable to me, so I have to create a door where there is no door!
As funny as that might sound, I fear that short-term focused investors have indirectly trained Founders to focus on easy problems that are simple to solve. We are Americans and we need to focus our efforts on what is right and what is difficult but must be addressed – not what is easy and in fashion. And if the traditional investors don’t like it, tough. Move on without them and create your own door.
If you choose that path, know that it will be difficult and painful with lots of suffering. But the victory will be so much sweeter in the end!
These are some of things that have helped me get through the worst of times and hopefully maybe a couple will help you through your own startup Hell. But remember, no matter what – no matter how hard it gets, no matter how difficult, no matter how much it hurts – never ever give up. Be relentless – and force things to look up – you have the power to do it! – Bill