Startups are incredibly stressful. I know many founders whose companies are doing great, but they are still stressed and unhappy. Polyvore is doing great (growing fast and cash-flow positive!), but I still have my moments of extreme unhappiness. Here’s my theory on why this happens.
The trajectory of a successful startup looks something like this, up and to the right:
It’s not a smooth, straight ride though. There are ups & downs along the way. These ups & downs can be caused by seasonal traffic changes, bouts of good or bad press, employees leaving or joining, etc.
If you’re lucky enough to have gotten from point A to point B on this graph, you should be happy, right? After all, B is much higher than A.
Unfortunately, humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. For example, when you are on a plane it is hard to tell if you are moving at 300 mph or 500 mph, but it’s easy to tell if you are accelerating from 300 mph to 500 mph.
My theory is that a founder’s happiness is tied to the rate of change of their startup’s success. In other words, your happiness graph is the first derivative of your success graph.
Even though point B is 2x better than point A in terms of success, it is a deceleration from the moment before. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.
Some tips to keep from drowning when your happiness is below the line —
1) Remember where you came from. Celebrate your wins and remind everyone of how far you’ve come. When we opened Polyvore’s New York office, I made sure to remind everyone of how we used to work out of Pasha’s living room and in an old bike shop. You can see a big increase in the absolute quality of our offices and our furniture:
2) Great culture and great people are your glue. They keep your startup from falling apart in those moments of deceleration. Have fun events where people get to know each other. Create silly traditions. Enjoy the people you work with.
3) Don’t let your self-worth be completely defined by your startup. My friends keep me grounded because they always treat me exactly the same, no matter how good or bad things are at Polyvore. When things are bad, they are my support network. When things are great, they still troll me anyways.
Strangely, this comforts me :-)
4) Get out there and talk to other entrepreneurs. I’m an introvert. I hate networking. I’m awkward at dinner parties. For the first 3 years at Polyvore, I kept my head down, worked my ass off, and hardly ever spoke to other entrepreneurs. In hindsight, this was one of my biggest mistakes. Without any perspective from other founders, my only data points on startups came from TechCrunch, which is filled with overnight success stories and positive spin. Therefore, every one of Polyvore’s problems felt like the end of the world to me. After I started talking to other founders, I got the benefit of their wisdom, their encouragement, and their suggested solutions. It was a huge relief and good for my mental health. If you’re an introvert like me, I recommend that you meet other entrepreneurs 1:1 for coffee, instead of going to startup networking events. Silicon Valley has a very nice “pay it forward” mentality, so I find a lot of people are willing to share. Whenever I am forced to go to networking events, I look for the other most uncomfortable, awkward-looking person in the room and try to talk to them. :-)
If you’re an unhappy founder, just know you’re not alone. Welcome to the great startup rollercoaster!