The startup founder’s personal journey: sacrifices, risks & rewards

Like having kids, startup life is about bringing something new into the world. Neither are all sunshine, smiles and sandwiches, but for me there are parallels around personal sacrifices, risks and rewards in both endeavours. Each stage of bringing up a child and the startup lifecycle brings a set of obstacles and challenges to deal with and overcome, as well as joyful moments.

For startups, it’s as much about the founder’s personal journey, besides business decisions. Founders need to show both conviction and humility, to know when to follow their gut and whose opinion to trust. It’s hard to find that elusive balance between irrational hubris, visionary conviction, and self-delusion. If you end up being right, you’re handsomely rewarded. If you end up being wrong, you were crazy… and everyone told you that you were crazy. Why didn’t you just listen?

Another balancing act founders face is switching between short and long-term thinking. It can be tempting to compromise now in order to get your business to the next stage, but some decisions have significant long-term repercussions. Self-awareness is an ongoing practice that founders should embrace. Constantly assess your role: what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, what do you have to learn to be better at, and what you can delegate? What do you love and what do you hate doing?

Get ready for a bumpy road that 99% don’t survive. Being a founder is not as glorious as you think. In fact, it’s the opposite. So, let’s look at those three attributes – sacrifice, risk and reward – to be considered by founders, and put them into perspective.

1.         Personal Sacrifices

Don’t think of these sacrifices as literal sacrifices. You’ll be giving somethings up, sure, but try to think of it as a type of investment. You’re giving up intangible luxuries in exchange for something better down the road. You’re paying for the opportunity to find success in your own enterprise on your own terms. Here are some common sacrifices to expect along the way.

Stability You’re starting a new venture, and there’s no guarantees. Even if your idea and plans have solid foundations, there will be turbulence along the way, highs and lows, rocky at best, and there’s no telling which direction you’re headed until you’re several months into it.  Startups by their very nature are unstable, you will encounter unforeseen shifts as your work progresses. It’s part of the growth process. Eventually, with a resolute, clear vision, things will stabilise.

Security You’ll not only sacrifice financial security, you’ll also risk the security of your reputation. This pressure can present an obstacle to productivity. Prepare yourself by clearly outlining your financial commitment to the business. Know exactly how much money you will commit and what will happen if that investment is unsuccessful. Have frank discussions about the potential failure of your venture. These conversations will not only help you create a fall-out plan from mishaps, they will also help you identify risk factors.

Comfort Comfort’s the last thing you’re going to have on the path to success. Try and get into a new routine of doing things that push you out of your comfort zone. That requires discipline and perseverance. If you can get used to this, sooner than later your definition of comfortable will shift for the better. Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who learn to thrive in uncomfortable situations with confidence.

Headspace A new business requires consistent problem-solving. Every day brings a new challenge, which is both a joy and a burden. To prepare for this, clean up your daily life: avoid mindless activities that are distracting and aren’t priorities. When have a moment when your mind is clear and you need a break from the business, utilise it. Time management skills are important in preparing yourself for the loss of headspace you’ll experience with a startup.

A regular schedule Your startup has no respect for personal or business routines, demanding attention at inopportune times. You have to nurture it in a highly responsive way, especially in its earliest days. You’ll need to be agile to seize the moments to relax and spend time with family. Entrepreneurs have to be highly flexible and never expect things to go as planned. Learn to be spontaneous with your plans and maximise productivity in your windows of unscheduled time.

2.         Personal Risks

Entrepreneurship gives you the opportunity to make a mark on the world and improve people’s lives. For yourself, you can create a personalised financial landscape and, more importantly for me, the freedom of how to spend your time. Before you arrive at that place of satisfaction and fulfilment though, you will have to face certain risks.

The quality of your relationships and work-life split Some founders end up sacrificing significant relationships. However, if you lose worthwhile relationships completely, that’s a sign that there’s an issue with your ability to balance work and life priorities. Know that your time will largely be dedicated toward your venture but carving out time to spend with those you care about is critical. You’ll start thinking about business most times, sometimes because you want to and sometimes because you can’t help it. At the outset, your time invested in relationships will have to change but manage the timing and the intensity of this, put some clear bookmarks into your schedule.

Your physical and mental health By this I mean physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. You need to keep these on top of your agenda and not let your entrepreneurial venture take precedence. Just like with relationships, set aside time for taking care of your health every day but know if won’t be as much as you’d like. Nothing will come easy so be prepared to deal with setbacks and obstacles. Those are the times that will really make you question your devotion to your idea. It is how you handle these situations that will ultimately define who you are. At times you will think you are crazy to go through all the noise just to bring your idea to life. but remember it’s the crazy ones that ultimately change society.

Sleep It’s quite simple: the right amount of sleep leaves you with the right working hours in the day to get things done. Don’t sacrifice sleep, its counterproductive. Sure, there will be pulling all-nighters to get a proposal completed, but it’s never about sacrificing huge chunks of sleep every night in order to gain a few hours in your day. It won’t be worth it, because you’ll lack energy. In other cases, you’ll be getting up early to make a meeting or get all your tasks in order, or lying awake at night, restless and wondering about the future. Whatever, your sleeping habits are vital, and despite the rhetoric, you don’t need to run an 18-hour working day.

Your money and standards of living Many founders use their savings to get off the ground. As a result, you’ll have to tighten your belt and repurpose personal budgets. Start tapping into your inner frugal self, and you’ll discover you can live on less than you imagine. No regular pay-cheque and sacrificing personal capital are two key financial risks – have you made contingency plans?

Emotional risk Starting a business will mean that you will go through an emotional rollercoaster, highs and lows, euphoria and huge doubts about your ability to succeed and that it could all come crashing down with disastrous results. Try to find a balance, make the highs and lows less extreme and focus on steady progress. Outliers of either emotion are unhelpful.

3.         Personal Rewards

As you progress through your entrepreneurial journey, you will no doubt see close friends have great careers in the corporate world, allowing them to live a comfortable life. However, this should not discourage you, remember that their security has a ceiling for growth, and your limits are infinitely higher doing your own thing. You will have your time to shine when the time is right.

Hands-on relationship with the work you love Many people choose to go into a business because they love some aspect of it: a chef opens a restaurant. As a founder, you control your own destiny and establish an enterprise to serve as a statement of your ambitions. In the beginning you have to do a bit of everything and sometimes get knocked down, but you have to dust yourself down and get back up on your feet. You are setting your own direction and without being too dramatic, your own destiny.

Control As a founder you’re buoyed by enthusiasm as well as an emotional investment in your business and yourself. While it requires real exertion to kickstart, you now have control – ensure the business works for you, not that you work for the business. You can have success without major sacrifices, just set the pace.

Free Time You decide when you want time away from the business. Whilst at the outset you’ll be putting in a shift, but it’s about repurposing your time for maximum benefit. Flexibility to use the hours and days in the week is a great feeling, it was one of the personal drivers in my choice to do my own thing. Work your own schedule, when and where you like.

Freedom Aligned to flexibility in your schedule, a major benefit of your own venture is that you have a large degree of agency on of what is happening. You set the vision and make strategic decisions.  This freedom adds to your life satisfaction and make you more fulfilled. Set your agenda, no one else does!

Excitement and impact Building your own business is exciting as you get to apply your skills and abilities to solve problems, make breakthroughs and meet interesting people. Your work is dynamic, your venture is growing so you never get bored. There is no better feeling then creating something out of nothing. You get to see the impact you make first hand as you work closely with customers and your team.

Entrepreneurship has a way of sucking us in due to our drive and ambition, but your startup should bolster your happiness and fulfilment, not detract.  For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their startup norm.  Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers. The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and far fewer things that induce ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Sacrifices abound.

Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis - an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth - is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day; they just use it up. Risks are often knowingly ignored.

Push back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as the only measures of success – all are fundamentally flawed. Build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that leads to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress, they’re just indicators of noise and movement. No hair on fire. Build calm. Simply turn these on their heads and debunk the myth to get a batter balance of reward.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not. But do your best so that on balance be calm, by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Don’t follow-the-lemmings-off-the-cliff. Step aside and let them jump! Chaos should not be the natural state at your startup. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress.  Keep things simple. Leave the poetry in what you make. Focus on rewarding yourself. Success creates the reward of being able to chart your own course freely. In my opinion, my life is made up of a bunch of small wins that feed overall success, nothing is at odds. Success means that we live the life we truly want, and not just the life we settle for.

It’s hard to pinpoint a moment in the early days of your startup when it doesn’t feel anything other than about survival. Taking the plunge and following the beat of your own drum can be liberating for many but there’s no blueprint for success. Just ensure you press pause and review the sacrifices, risks and rewards. There is no single definition or metric for a founder’s journey, but if you want to become a success on your terms, find what motivates you and gives you meaning, balancing sacrifices, risks and rewards,

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