Some of the qualities that makes a great entrepreneur are persistence, conviction, and hard work. Founders are told to fail fast, fail cheap, and sleeping under your desk is glorified as commitment to your cause. Fifty-percent of the first few years of your business is about survival and hacking your way to some form of sustainability. Then you work on reaching profitability before the investor dollars run out.
Going into 2016, we’re starting to hear about deaths of unicorns — the companies valued at a billion dollars — and in the coming months we’re going to get to see who can sink or swim as they restructure in the race to stay afloat.
A unique feature of being in the startup world is that the numbers are larger, the scale is bigger, and the dreams are fantastical. You’ll find that as you integrate your company into that eco-system, you talk about and perceive money in a way that can be intimidating to people on the outside looking in. Money is a tool — successful rounds don’t equal a successful company, and dreaming about your raise isn’t going to get you any closer — had word will.
What’s not being talked about is what’s going to happen to the founders of the unicorns that fail?
One of the biggest struggles for startup founders is finding someone to talk to about their personal struggles and emotions. There has been a lot of talk about mental health in the startup world over the last year, and we’re starting to see some real progress. Glen Moriarty, CEO of 7-cups of teaannounced a startup support system on product hunt as a way to help founders find someone to talk to, and 500 Startups Partner Sean Percival published an article about founder depression, to remind people that they have to ask for help, and calling attention to the fact that depression, especially in startups is a serious matter.
For founders who don’t have close networks of founder friends, it can be almost impossible to find someone to talk to about your struggles because they really can’t understand. People without startup or fundraising experience often see the numbers connected to your most recent round of financing and think you couldn’t have a care in the world. The other side of this bitter pill is that it can be difficult to build intimate networks of founder friends when you spend eight hours a day behind your computer, another four to five hours in meetings, and then squeeze in a few hours for sleep. Even worse — your founder friends are just as busy as you are.
One of the most important things we do as founders when we come to the valley is work on building a network of other founders, mentors, and investors who are there to guide you along your journey — but being at the beginning of your journey is a scary prospect. It’s also tough because a lot of the mentors you will work with aren’t in the throws of early stage business. They’ve had a successful exit, or they’re in a position that usually equates to some form of job/financial security. Now — that doesn’t mean they can’t relate to the position you’ve been in — they’ve been there before. But it’s never quite the same as being there in the moment.
Joining an accelerator program like 500 Startups or Y Combinator does take a lot of consideration — but there’s one important thing that you’ll take away from it that they doesn’t always get the emphasis it deserves.
You’ll get a startup family.
You’ll find a group of people who were in the trenches with you, at the same time as you, and who are struggling with the same decisions and issues in real-time. You will find a family of people who truly understand.
Looking back over the last 12 months, I’ve realized it’s been my batch mates that have helped me get through one of the most trying years of my entrepreneurial career so far. Investors and mentors have understood in a cosmetic sense, but the true visceral conversations have taken place with my fellow founders who are living both the highs and the lows just the same as me. They understand that your high is off the charts, and your lows can be one of the darkest places you’ll ever experience.
It can be difficult to open up to your investors and mentors — part of business is perception, and you want to make sure that you’re always putting your best foot forward and that’s why so many founders stuff their emotions down into an internal pressure cooker — some are better at hiding it than others.
Moving forward in your career, remember that it’s that family of people at the start who are the ones you can talk to. Take advantage of the time you spend with your batch mates, and cultivate those relationships. They will be just as, if not more important than any dollar you’ll ever make.