Outside of raising a child, there is almost nothing harder than founding and leading a successful startup, especially for solo founders. Turning an idea into a product and a business is quite a challenge. Scaling that business is still harder. And then there’s building and managing a team, fighting off competitors and possibly even fundraising. Which might even be before you hit profitability…
Then there’s the incredibly stressful mental rollercoaster of entrepreneurship: the epic highs and awful lows – not knowing if you’ll run out of money, worrying about having to fire your entire team, not feeling up to the challenge of leadership…
And the icing on the cake… you have NO ONE to talk to. You can’t tell your team or they’d probably quit. You can’t tell your partner or they freak out. And talking to friends… they just don’t get it. It’s like explaining the challenges of being a parent to someone without kids.
Yup… When it comes to entrepreneurship you are literally and figuratively alone, and 100% responsible for the success or failure of your business.
Talk about stress…
The question is: how do you build a lasting, meaningful business without losing your mind? Is it possible to create something significant without sacrificing your health and mental well-being in the process?
After working with dozens of founders & CEOs throughout the years and observing/interviewing hundreds more, I’d say yes. But you have to be smart about it.
9 Healthy Ways of Dealing with the Stress of Being a CEO or Startup Founder
We’ll start with the obvious ones:
1. Take time to actually exercise
We all know it is important. It is recommended by virtually every health (and mental health) professional and study. And yet, as founders, it can be impossibly hard to find the time to take care of yourself. You have a million things to do, tons of people counting on you and continuous fires to put out.
Despite all that, the best and most lasting founders & CEOs take time out of their hectic schedules to exercise – because it boosts their productivity, mood, energy levels and allows them to clear their head and think. No one can be “ON” all the time, and if you try to, you fail to see the forest from the trees – you become totally reactive rather than proactive.
To counter this and ensure you’re able to give your business your very best (ie, by regularly exercising) that means blocking out time in your schedule and ruthlessly protecting your “power hour.”
Because if it means you’re a better, more clear headed, happy leader for your team that’s able not only to accomplish more, but make better decisions… isn’t that more than worth it?
And that’s before you even consider the health & mental health implications!
2. Fixed free time
Similar to the previous example, taking dedicated time to think the big things over does wonders for your business. But it only happens if you enforce it.
We are only truly “creative” when we allow ourselves to be bored. That is when our minds wander (or brain“storm”) and come up with the truly innovative and forward-thinking ideas and plans that power success.
If an email or an “urgent” request are enough to break your sacred “strategic alone time,” it means you’re not dedicated enough to the company’s success. If you aren’t able to take 1-3 hours a week “away from the wheel” without your company crashing, that should be a wakeup call. It means you have crappy systems and people in place, and that is where you should spend the bulk of your time.
4. Have an “OFF switch”
Being founder or CEO means everything hangs on your shoulders. If you’re like me (and most CEOs), it means ALWAYS being ON. It means obsessing 24/7 over your business and how to make it more successful. (I’m even breaking my own rule and setting a bad example by writing this article).
If we don’t allow our minds time to relax and reset, we wind up with a short fuse and a shorter term perspective. We fall into the rat race of constantly sprinting forwards without ever considering, if perhaps, there might be a better/smarter/easier way.
And don’t forget the social implications. Good luck having a family or social life when you’re working 100 hour weeks. When something is truly all-consuming, EVERYTHING else dies… including you, your life and your dreams for your startup.
That’s not to say you’re going to build the next Uber or Amazon working 30-hour weeks and spending six weeks a year on the beach, but you need a bit of balance in your life. You need rules and/or a routine which allow you to “turn off.”
A good practice can be separating your work and personal environment (which can be hard with COVID) and email/phone, having set “offline hours” or even challenging yourself to be home every night for dinner with the family. All of these “hacks” also force you to get more done in the same amount of time. And you’ll be amazed what a little time pressure can do to your productivity and focus.
Which strangely enough, ties well into number 5.
5. Have lower expectations for yourself
Nothing is more stressful or less productive than having impossibly high expectations of yourself and your business. If you want to sleep only four hours a night, have six pack abs, work 18-hour days, achieve zen harmony and build a 9-figure business in the process, those are some pretty lofty goals.
And they are not manageable, certainly not sustainable. Like that ultra-restrictive, 1000-calorie diet or staying up three days straight on coffee and Redbull. Eventually you crash. Even after the cocaine/Ritalin/Modafinil… Eventually reality catches up to you.
But I know what you are thinking. I can relate because I too have been there. I just knew I could be “Superman,” I could be it all. I could outperform, outwork and outsmart anyone if I just tried hard enough… at least that is what I kept telling myself.
I had unachievably high expectations for myself and my business, which only set me up for failure. And most founders & CEOs suffer from something similar. We’re used to success, we’re used to brute force being enough to make things happen.
But how much extra stress does that bring into your life, both personally and professionally?
And what did we say about excess stress and your ability to make great decisions and thrive…?
It certainly doesn’t help, or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
So the next time you consider comparing yourself to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Elon Musk, think about how much they gave up (like friends & family), how long it took them and last but not least, that it’s never as glossy covers make it appear (plus two out of the three had a great coach, which being a coach myself, I can highly recommend :).
But now, things get interesting.
6. Get better at delegating and systematizing
One of the hardest things about starting a business is the moment you have to trust someone else to “take the wheel.” This can be anything from outsourcing social media to anointing a right-hand man/woman to handle daily operations.
Every bit of control you give up is hard, but also liberating. Anytime you can free yourself from a task, the weight on your shoulders lessens slightly. And when it comes to building something lasting and meaningful, there’s a great quote.
“If you’ve got a dream, it takes a team, and if it doesn’t require a team, you’re not dreaming big enough.”
I really wish I’d been smart enough to say that, but at least now, I try to follow its wisdom. If only I had earlier… That’s one of the main reasons I’ve never built something truly impressive and world changing in my career. Giving up control and training a team is hard. Trusting others to do as good a job (or better) is hard.
But as the other great quote goes:
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
So go hire & train great people!
7. Reprioritize your time
As founder or CEO, how do you find yourself spending most of your time? Take a second, stop reading this article and really think about it. Check your calendar, think back on your last few days and make a list of the things you spent the most time doing.
There’s a good chance email tops the list with meetings being a close second. But which of those emails were really “mission-critical?” Which of those meetings or calls could someone else have handled without needing the head honcho to oversee things? It saves you time and lets your team know you trust them – which goes a long way!
Reprioritizing your time comes back to taking control of your expectations and the direction of the company. When you’re stuck in the day-to-day, you’re not doing what you do best… the things only you can do to move the company forward.
Like making key decisions on which markets to enter, which employees to hire or which product lines to kill.
And what about raising your next round, staying up to date on the industry or crafting your company culture and boosting employee spirits and overall performance?
Odds are, you are probably doing a lot of things that sap your time and energy while bringing the company very little. To reprioritize, consider the following four questions:
- What am I great at?
- What do I love doing?
- What can only I do?
- What do I hate doing?
Anything that you hate doing (unless it is something ONLY you can do) needs to be “outsourced” at once – it is only draining your time and energy and causing undue stress. Find someone else, systematize and suddenly you’ll feel a heck of a lot better.
But what about the things you’re great at? The question is: can someone else do the job 80% as well as you do? If so, it’s time to pass that on as well.
And anything only you can do, like making critical decisions, managing investors and supporting/encouraging the team, those you’re stuck with. You’re the head of the organization after all.
But hopefully you’ve freed up a bit of time and headspace to think about and do the things that actually matter to move your business forward. Which is much less stressful in the long-run, especially as your business will be much more likely to thrive.
And as anyone who has ever led an organization knows, nothing boosts morale more than winning.
8. Find peers to talk to
One of the hardest things about being CEO is the loneliness. There’s literally no one to talk to, even when things are spinning out of control. Mastermind groups can be a great solution here – a group of dedicated founders & CEOs on a similar level that you talk to on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
But it only works if you’re open and honest with one another. Unless you’re comfortable really opening up about the sh*tsstorm your company is going through, the fact your terrified you’ll run out of money before your next round or that your newest product line is a “major dud,” you’re not going to get much out of a mastermind group.
Which is why finding people you trust is SO important. So is having an NDA, so you can talk openly about all aspects of the business, even the ugly stuff. Because let’s face it, if you just needed someone to brag to or get inspiration from, meetups and conferences are great.
But the funny thing is, EVERY SINGLE person at those events always seems to be “killing it.” They’ve got the best stories and smooth sailing.
Yet, you’re overwhelmed, stressed and reading this article. That’s cause they are full of sh*t and only you know how bad it is and that you need help.
And you know the funny thing about stress? As you relax, you actually think better.
Studies show worrying about money alone lowers your IQ 13 whole points – as much as sleeping (again, see #3). And we all know that hangry feeling all too well – that’s just another form of stress.
So back to masterminds… when you can say what you’re really feeling, a weight falls off your shoulders, because suddenly you’re not alone. You realize others are suffering too – it’s not just you. And that is so reassuring that stress just melts away… Which lets you make better decisions.
BUT… being open and vulnerable about your business, your leadership challenges, everything… That can be incredibly hard. Especially with a group of your peers.
Which leads us to our last point.
9. Consider working with a coach
There is a reason professional athletes, musicians and most CEOs and high-performers work with a coach. Because, in addition to learning a great deal from their experience, having an impartial outside observer can help you see problems you’d otherwise be blind to. Again:
“You can’t see the forest from the trees.”
It can be hard to admit things aren’t working. And we’d all do “anything” to make our baby (I mean business) succeed. Anything… including fooling ourselves or overlooking issues.
That’s where a coach comes in… that’s where I come in. Not only by providing serious accountability, but also support. Because building a successful business is (like we said) one of the hardest things in the world.
And stress takes its toll on your life, your body and your decision-making ability.
A coach is someone you can trust completely to have your best interests at heart. Someone you can open up to about anything, without fear of repercussion, of losing friends or of others taking advantage of your moment of “weakness.”
I very intentionally use air quotes for “weakness” here, because how is sharing your innermost fears weak? If anything, it is one of the scariest things you can do. One of the most liberating and empowering for your business too. And that sounds a heck of a lot like bravery and leadership.
Which are exactly what great companies need from their execs. Hence why Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg (and probably hundreds more CEOs too “embarrassed” to admit they needed/wanted help growing their business faster) chose to work with coaches to uplevel themselves and their organization.
If you’re interested in support, strategy, growth & fundraising help and having someone on your team to spar with, spill your struggles to and reduce the stress out of being CEO, we should talk. Fill out my contact form and we’ll see I can help you and if we’d be a good fit.
And if not me, then someone at least. Because it is not only your physical and mental health (and future) we are talking about, it’s the success or failure of your entire business – and that is not something you want to leave up to chance, is it?
Still not sure if coaching is for you? Here’s what past clients have to say about working with me plus a little more on why, if you’re founder/CEO, you really need to have a business coach.
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