One of our earliest team members, who left to start his own company, sent us an email recently. I’ll paraphrase here, but the gist of it was that despite his being one of the first people to join the team at Ampush, nothing could have prepared him for starting his own company from the ground up.
I’m not surprised. Startup founders are often portrayed as “living the dream”: Young, bright, usually C-level executives of their companies, working on “cool stuff;” running “The Show.” It must seem like an incredibly attractive career option. You don’t have to work up the corporate ladder at BigCo, or even be employed by the startup itself. But reality looks a little different. While there are great articles that give advice for working at a startup and that outline the startup social contract, very few give an open and honest view of what it’s actually like to be a founder/startup executive. (Though Quora offers some solid opinions.)
I thought I’d share my own view. Below is a list of 10 things a startup founder often thinks, but will rarely admit out loud:
- “I don’t know the answer.” The entrepreneurial process is by definition one of making it up as we go. It’s important for startup founders and even employees to accept that we don’t (and won’t) know the answer often. Instead, we have to focus on how to get answers, either by experimenting on our own or by cultivating a strong network — and then relying on this network for advice.
- “Our company is going under.” Whether or not it’s true, this is a thought that probably flashes through every founder’s head. Because founders know their business so intimately, they can point blindfolded to the three potential things in the market that would run their business into the ground. Founders who succeed are the ones with the personality and drive to do whatever it takes to keep their company alive.
- “I’m doing more work than you know.” Whatever work you see a founder doing, they’re actually doing five times as much behind the scenes. Until a company is several hundred people strong, all the other jobs that have to get done go to the founders. This includes but is not limited to: a potential acquisition; a threatened lawsuit; settling a dispute between two VPs; and any other task we can’t delegate, but have to complete.
- “I sometimes wish I had a boss.” Decision fatigue is real and when we are the ultimate authorities, most decisions trickle up to us. Founders can’t look up one level and get the answer. Our decision is there for every client, employee, and partner to analyze, criticize and doubt.
- “I do take it personally.” We try not to, but we do. Whether you’re an employee who chose to work at our startup, a partner or a client – if you’re unhappy, it makes us unhappy. We started our company because we believed there was a better way. If someone at any level of the company is unhappy, we take it personally and want to do everything we can to fix it. Really.
- “I hate office politics.” Founders generally prefer to concentrate on designing and building products or developing a pitch for a big client. What we don’t enjoy is breaking up arguments, dealing with he says/she says scenarios or negotiating someone’s job title. We just want to lead and continue to make the company successful.
- “I miss the early days.” The workplace dynamic changes very fast when a company goes from five to 15 to 50. Admittedly, we find ourselves nostalgic for the days of familial camaraderie, knowing everyone’s story, and being able to move quickly. At the same time, we as founders are ambitious and want the company to grow – but we try our best to maintain that intimate feeling as we scale.
- “I’m struggling with work-life balance. A lot.” Yes, we have this issue in spades. While we do live for our company, we also know it can kill us. We don’t go to the gym enough, we eat horribly, and we don’t spend enough time with loved ones. Entrepreneurship can be a very selfish thing. We need to learn to manage our time better and to unplug to make entrepreneurship more sustainable.
- “I sometimes question the sacrifice I made.” This one is a big taboo. How can we ask other people to work crazy hours to build this company when we ourselves ask the question, “Is it worth it?” But founders are humans too. When we are working 100-hour weeks, investing all our money, and sometimes hitting walls, we will question what we are doing in the first place.
- “I’m not living the dream, I’m living in a dream.” As our company gets traction and starts to scale, sometimes it doesn’t feel quite “real.” It’s exciting but also surreal! This explains why we may have unrealistic expectations or why we don’t always appreciate the gravity of our words or decisions for the rest of the company. Oftentimes what we’re working on does not feel like a reality – it still feels like a dream.