The Founders Guide to Surviving Startup Life

founders survival guide

I used to feel a sense of accomplishment after working 100 hours in a week. That is what startups are all about, right? Long hours grinding it out in front of my computer hacking away on your startup living off ramen.

Wrong… I now realize I was trading short term gains for the long term health of myself and my company.

The startup world glorifies The Struggle because it’s the epidomey of the American dream. A smart, talented underdog takes a risk on himself and struggles for years, only to become wildly successful. We’re fascinated by a founder who pitches 80 VCs while living in his car for three months and finally closes on a term sheet. If that same founder goes onto create a billion dollar company, his story of grit is retold, perpetuating the myth that you need to grind it out to be successful.

Unfortunately, passion and grit do not turn you into a machine and after a year or two, your adrenaline reserves will empty. You are still a human and your brain and body have limits. If you burn out physically and mentally, your willpower is broken and you’re likely to give up. Therefore, the best way to make sure your startup doesn’t die is to avoid burnout in the first place.

Recently I’ve decided my new side project will be working on myself. This list of habits help me acheive more focus, energy, and happiness. My habits are in constant flux and I’ll be updating them as I learn what works and what doesn’t to stay in balance.

I wrote this post mainly for myself, but my hope is that by sharing, I can help a few entrepreneurs who are struggling with balancing the startup lifestyle and a healthy lifestyle. So without further ado, here is my guide for surviving a startup.

Eat well

This seems obvious, but it’s just too convenient to eat a breakfast sandwich every morning or grab a slice of pizza for lunch. I’ve noticed over time that if I eat crap, I feel like crap, think like crap, and my long term performance suffers. Food is fuel for your mind, and your brain requires premium when founding a startup.

Recently I’ve been learning to prepare cheap, healthy meals and cook them myself. Instead of a breakfast sandwich, I wake up 20 minutes early and cook a well-balanced breakfast full of vegetables, eggs, and beans.

Cooking and eating breakfast while thinking about my day has become a morning ritual and a time for deep thought away from the distractions of the day. If I don’t have time in the morning to cook, I’ll eat cereal rich in fiber like steel-cut oats or Kashi Go Lean Crunch.

The other benefit of preparing your own breakfast instead of picking up a bagel or sandwich is that you’ll save money. A typical week’s worth of breakfast supplies consists of a carton of eggs ($2.99), 2 bags of vegetables (2 x $2.99), 2 lbs dried beans ($3.99). That is breakfast for $1.85/day, or less than the cost of a bagel.

For lunch and dinner, I try to stick to meals low in carbs and fats. My favorites are turkey chili, fajitas, and stir fry, along with lots of beans (and occasionally rice). If I’m strapped for time, I’ll use a slow cooker on Sunday to make enough chili for week. The slow cooker is your best friend as it only take a few minutes to throw the ingredients into the pot, and then does all the work of cooking a delicious meal. Preparing meals in mass will also relieve you of the daily mental overhead of figuring out what to eat.

Sleep

Whether you’re nocturnal or diurnal, sleep at least 6.5 hours a night. Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 and 7.5 hours a night live the longest. When you are well rested, you’ll also make better decisions and be more pleasant to work with.

I’ve personally found it helpful to unplug from all technology for at least 30 minutes before going to bed. I’ll either read, play guitar, brainstorm a to-do list for the next day, or anything else that keeps me away from my television, laptop, or phone.

I’ve also had success setting a weekly alarm which I’m not allowed to adjust in response to how late I went to bed. If I don’t get my 6.5 hours, I’ll be punished the next day. Remembering how awful I feel on a low amount of sleep is a good motivator for going to bed at a reasonable time.

Budget

If you’re a startup founder, there’s a good chance you are not earning a market salary or any salary at all. Unnecessary stressed caused by a low bank balance is avoidable. Learn to budget your expenses and stick to it.

I keep an Excel sheet where I enter in every transaction at the end of the day. You can also use Mint or Simple to track your expenses. Personally, the knowledge that I will have to enter in an expenditure later often forces me to reconsider making an impulse purchase. I also notice patterns when entering the data, like spending money on coffee every morning when I could easily brew it at home. $3/day x 5 days a week x 50 weeks = $750 in savings/year (excluding the expense of ingredients).

Exercise

Admittedly I am no where near as religious as I would like to be about exercising. I haven’t figured out a daily routine yet that works. I did have minor success with exercising during the morning and am slowly working to rebuild that routine. I personally cannot save exercise for after work because I usually have something else pulling at my time (unfinished code, drinks with the team, dinners, events, etc). In the morning I have no excuse to not exercise except that I was too lazy to wake up and walk to the gym or go for a jog.

Starting small here is important. If you make it a goal to just put your workout clothes on, chances are once you’re dressed, you’ll be able to muster up the energy to hit the pavement or the gym.

Paul Graham says you should only do three things during YC – talk to customers, build product, and exercise. After a run, I also feel invigorated and good about myself, even if I’ve had a terrible day. Exercise is like a reset switch for your brain, and the endorphin production and physical exertion will help you level out the ups and downs of startup life.

Always be learning

Lately I’ve been trying to spend a few hours a week trying out new technologies. I head to the coffee shop for an hour or two on Saturday and try to hack on a fun project to learn something new. In a startup, you’re optimizing to get code implemented fast, and taking time to learn a new technology is not considered an optimal use of time.

In order to keep my skills sharp and my sense of curiosity in tact, I try out a new technology here and there. It usually doesn’t result in anything usable, but the learning does usually make it’s way back into my startup’s product.

Spend 30 minutes a day in the sun

Vitamin D increases weight loss, helps fight depression, strengthen’s your immune system and promotes bone development. The easiest way to get vitamin D is to spend time in the sun. Spending time in the sun also helps fight off seasonal affective disorder during the winter months.

I’ve found it best to combine spending time in the sun with another activity like reading, meditating, writing or exercising.

If you can’t make it out in the sun on a regular basis during the day, invest in a natural sunlight lamp. You’ll feel much better with simulated daylight than the fluorescent lights illuminating your office.

Read a book for 30 minutes a day

Drew Houston initially learned about startups by buying a dozen books on various topics, and reading them on top of his fraternity one summer. He then used that base knowledge to start Dropbox.

Reading is a great way to unwind from a stressful day. People are also trained not to bother you while you’re reading, so it’ll give you some quiet time without having to ask others to leave you alone and seem anti-social.

When I spend time reading, I really try to take the time to enjoy the experience. In school, reading felt like a chore to be finished as quickly as possible so I could move on to other activities. Now I try to read to learn, thinking about how the content applies to my life.

I’ve had huge success in building a reading habit by reading outside. The sun, breeze, and ambient noise really adds to the experience.

charles river boston

My favorite reading spot by the Charles River in Boston

Find a place where you can relax and unwind, and enjoy a good book.

Write 500 words a day

I try to write 500 words on whatever top-level idea is permeating though my brain when I eat my breakfast and drink my coffee. Most of my blog posts start as 500-word free-form brain dumps in Draft. When I hit my 500 words for the day, I stop writing so I don’t burn myself out and leave some writing energy left in the tank.

I’ve found that writing is an excellent way to declutter my thoughts after a stressful day. In David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, he talks about how thoughts can be considered stuff, and the way to get the clutter of stuff out of your brain is to write it down. Once you write a thought down, you are free to forget about it temporarily because you’ve outsourced the memory, allowing you to think about more pressing matters for your startup.

Not only will writing your thoughts down help you organize your mind, but clear and concise communication skills are important for success. Like all skills, communicating effectively takes practice. Spend time harnessing your thoughts about your startup into a cohesive narrative through writing.

If you really want to take it to the next level, I suggest publishing your thoughts on a blog. You will develop your personal brand, which will portray you as a thought-leader and make you a more compelling target for potential business partners or acquirers. If you really want to help your startup, you should write a blog before building your startup. The community you build around your thoughts will help you find new users for your product.

Some of my favorite entrepreneurs who have recently gained traction by blogging which they are applying to their products are Ryan Hoover, Adii Pienaar, Danielle Morrill, and Andrew Chen.

Have wins not tied to your startup

“How’s business?” This is a question my grandmother asks me every time I talk to her. My friends inevitably ask me when we catch up over beers as well. When things aren’t going well, this is a hard question to answer.

Having a startup is hard because when everything’s going poorly, it’s your fault. It is not like a regular job where you might find personal solace by blaming your boss, or your coworkers. When the answer to “how’s business” is “everything is imploding around me”, it’s easy to get discouraged.

If you tie your entire identity to your company and business is rough, you’ll feel defeated. It’s important to have wins that are not dependent on the success of your company.

Set personal goals for activities you do, such as exercising or blogging. If you have an awful week, but manage to break a 6 minute mile or publish three blog posts, you still can look back and tell yourself you’ve had a good week.

If you want to track how well you’re executing on your life goals and feel accomplished when you reach them, Lift.do is an excellent app for making sure you have small wins throughout the day. Everytime I acheive a daily habit, I get to mark it as complete in Lift. It’s a small gesture, but it helps me feel a daily sense of accomplishment towards myself.

lift screenshot

3 Good Things

I realized a few months ago that I am more pessimistic than I was three years ago, probably because I’ve been beaten down by the startup trough of sorrow over and over again. The good news is, it’s possible to choose optimism, and the best technique I have found for being happier throughout the day is the “3 good things” method.

At the end of the day, recap alone or with someone else three good things that happened that day. They don’t have to be majorly awesome wins either. Hearing a new song you liked, eating a really tasty lunch, or receiving an email from a happy customer are all good things. The goal is to force yourself to remember there are positive events happening throughout your days even if things aren’t working out well with your startup.

Know you’ll face despair

The trough of sorrow is unavoidable for 99% of startups, and the ones that do seem to have everything going right have days when everything is awful behind the scenes. It’s important to remember that in a startup, you’ll have extremely crappy and depressing days, but it’s just one day and tomorrow will be better.

If you can hack your mindset to not ride the startup roller, and instead replace work/life balance with work/life harmony, you’ll be much better off. The only way to do this is to not let the lows get you too low, and not ride the highs too high.

Startups are a long-term career

The startup myth of “sprint as hard as you can for three years and then exit huge to retire rich” almost never happens. Behind almost every successful entrepreneurs are years filled with struggles, learnings, and failed attempts before finally hitting on a successful business idea.

The greatest asset your startup has is you, and it’s critical you take care of yourself to survive the startup marathon.

I hope this recap of my habits has helped a few people. It’s what I wished someone had told me when I first started and came close to burn out.

What habits work for you? Any you disagree with? Leave a comment below.

4 Responses to “The Founders Guide to Surviving Startup Life”

  1. Vikash Gupta

    Nicely written post Andy. It’s really the case that most of the entrepreneurs become workaholic and don’t care for health. Thank you for your insights. I wish I improve a bit after reading this.

    Reply

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