Are you running your startup, or is it running you?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens words from A Tale of Two Cities capture the turbulence of what most founders experience in their relationship with their startup. And in addition, there is an underlying question to ask: are you running your startup, or is your startup running you?

Running a startup is hard work and it takes extraordinary effort to succeed. Now, I know what you’re thinking. That’s just the price to pay when starting out, and there is some truth to that. But, that doesn’t mean that you should be at beck and call. Instead, you need to strike a balance so that you can successfully run your business and not the other way around.

So, are you running your startup or is it running you? Your initial reaction may be of course I’m running my business, it’s all I do! in which case I would argue that you actually fall in the latter category. What I mean by your business running you is a point where you feel like in order for your business to be successful, you must compromise boundaries or give more of yourself to it than you want to give. From this place, the business has control of you,  rather than the other way around.

If you are consistently overwhelmed, bombarded by a growing and endless to-do list, working hard with little obvious wins, putting out fires and perpetually functioning out of scarcity… then your venture has got the reigns over your life. Your free time may be spent just trying to get enough life back in you to face another week, rather than doing things you really enjoy or want to do. You’re spending more time working in and on your business than enjoying the life that you hoped it would afford you.

So, what do you do if your business is running you? There are practical solutions, then, more importantly, there are some changes in behaviour and mindset you need to consider bringing about a step change.

Practical solutions 

Put a good plan in place. This first step may require a little extra work, but part of the planning process may be to say that you are going to put some work in this month that allows you to set aside time for yourself next month. It’s okay if this can’t happen tomorrow. Planning allows you to tell your time where it’s going to go rather than spur of the moment demands telling you where to go. 

 Get an outside perspective. As entrepreneurs, we have zero sense of balance. We’re all in, all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, weekday or weekend. If you are being run over by your work, then likely you don’t have the objectivity to see outside of what you’re already doing. Inviting an outside party in can help you identify blind spots, get perspective and find freedom.

Work only with people you trust. When choosing team members, look for people who aren’t just talented, but who can also remove some of those hats you’ve been wearing. When you surround yourself with people you trust, you must resist micromanaging them. They’ve proven that they’re reliable and will always come through for you.

Changes in behaviour and mindset

These three actions will reprioritise your time to put some space between you and your business, but your relationship with your startup is really about your behaviour and mindset. Research shows that achieving better balance between professional and personal activities boils down to a combination of self-reflection and honesty, questioning your assumptions about yourself to increase self-awareness and intentional role redefinition.

Based on the research, my own experience and sharing that of fellow startup founders, here are ten pointers on how to change your relationship with your startup from a behaviours and mindset perspective. 

1. Pause Take a step back and ask yourself: What is currently causing me unbalance? How are these circumstances affecting how I perform? How are they impacting my personal life? What am I sacrificing? What is getting lost? Only after you take a mental pause and acknowledge these factors can you begin to tackle them

The idea of I must work, must work, must work had been indoctrinated into startup culture, but focus on founder wellbeing has given impetus to the benefits of taking a step back, becoming aware of the mismatch between the current business situation and personal priorities, and begin to denormalise habits of working long hours.

2. Pay attention to your emotions Once you’ve increased your awareness of your current situation, examine how that situation makes you feel. Ask yourself, do I feel energized, fulfilled, satisfied? Or do I feel angry, resentful, sad? When I discussed this with one founder, he agreed his current relationship with his venture was engendering some very negative emotions: You feel resentful and bitter that something that fundamentally isn’t that important to the essence of life is stripping valuable time and minutes away from you.

A rational understanding of the decisions and priorities driving your life is important, but equally important is emotional reflexivity, to recognise how a situation is making you feel. Awareness of your emotional state is essential to determine the changes you want to make.

3. Focus on equilibrium Instead of ‘work life balance’, aim for a healthy equilibrium. Don’t focus on having a balance of personal and business time every day, personal issues will come during business hours, and work calls when you’ve just sat down with the kids. Each day will skew in a different direction, but in the end, don’t worry about making it perfect.

Simply fuse balance into your week. If you spend Saturday morning responding to emails, spend Wednesday afternoon taking a walk. The reason you started a business in the first place was to operate on your own terms. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees. Businesses that run like clockwork without the owner being frazzled do exist, and yours can be one of them.

4. Hold your vision Hold what you stand for, what your business is there to do, your long-term goals, and what you’re going to do in the short term to make sure you achieve them. If you’re flitting between multiple agendas, then you’ll be left confused and frustrated.

And go for progress over perfection. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Stop filling your head with negative thoughts about your product not being good enough, all startups are skinny and scrappy, the most important thing is to work with early customers and share your vision. Stop criticising your team that it’s not good enough, or you’ll lose their respect.

 5. Address your mindset The difference between you running your business and your business running you are the boundaries you set for yourself. When’s the last time you didn’t check your email until 10am? Or left a colleague to deliver without micromanaging? How much do you take things personally? Do you unplug when you’re not working? Are you doing online banking when everyone else is asleep?

Remind yourself that you have made the choice to run a business. No one forced you to do it. If it feels like your business runs your life, the problem might exist solely in your mind. Develop other interests, give yourself space and don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t take the tough parts of self-employment without allowing yourself the perks.

6. Overcome your inner critic If you think you’re failing, you more likely to fail. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe you’re going to succeed. Pay attention to your thoughts. Don’t ignore those negative thoughts, acknowledge them, then do something positive to distract yourself. Find balance, rather than beat yourself up, look at your flaws as ways to improve.

Muhammad Ali said that he didn’t count all of his sit-ups; he only started counting them when it hurt because those were the ones that counted. Mentally strong people are often willing to endure pain as long as there’s a purpose.

7. Acknowledge your own limitations. Avoid blaming others for your mistakes or shortcomings, take full responsibility for your actions. Be aware of your weaknesses, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed. While some founders are hesitant to show vulnerability, doing so enables them to learn more and become better. Enhancing their skill set is more important than protecting their ego.

 8. Don’t be an ‘opportunity junkie’ – learn to say no Many founders are ‘opportunity junkies’, driven by the fear of missing out and feel the need to pursue every possibility that comes their way. They become addicted to the chase rather than rationally evaluating each opportunity. All their time and energy is taken up with racing after unqualified potential, not closing qualified leads.

Saying no to opportunities gives you the chance to practice exercising power over your startup. It creates space to focus on the highest potential opportunities and gives you back some time. In order to have any chance of keeping your head above water, saying no is a vital skill. Have a high filter, and refer back to your vision.

9. Stop chasing busy If done right, running a startup is the best thing, you choose who you work with, you deliver great work you believe in. You set your working times, your values and ethos and everything is on your terms. If done wrong, it’s horrible. You’re left fighting fires and backtracking, frantically spinning multiple plates. You’ve created yourself a prison and are being held hostage inside it.

How are things going? they ask. Busy, you reply, Busy is good! Better than the alternative!  This is an exchange that many startup founder experience.  But is busy really good? Sometimes – in fact often – we’re too busy and are actually struggling, and your startup relationship is turning toxic. We are caught up in the day-to-day whirlwind, pulled in a myriad of different ways every day. You allow yourself to be distracted and lose sight of where you’re heading. The key is stop chasing busy and focus on outcomes.

10. Be intentional and realistic – don’t compare yourself to others Running your startup should make you more tolerant of failure. It’s inevitable that you’ll make some mistakes. However, the most important thing is to learn and grow from these mistakes, so that you can change what needs to be done better and thrive in the future. Be intentional about how you spend your time and energy, it’s futile to use it worrying about what others are doing. Feelings like jealousy about someone else’s web site aren’t just exhausting, they’re pointless.

Bronnie Ware’s beautiful book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, based on her conversations with dying patients as a palliative nurse, reminds us that it’s common for people to wish they hadn’t worked so much when they’re on their deathbed. When we’re caught up in the daily grind, it’s easy to get stuck thinking that putting in an extra two hours a day is crucial to our lives. 

Give yourself permission to dial it back and change your relationship with your startup. You work hard, and you do work that matters. You deserve to achieve your goals while giving yourself the space needed to perform optimally as well.

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