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Why founders need to invest in themselves

Over the last 5+ years of wearing various hats in the startup community, I have met thousands of startup founders, and worked closely with hundreds of them, across every stage of the entrepreneurial journey, across some different demographics, from across a few different countries.

Working so closely with so many founders, often at the most difficult phase of their startup journey, you start to notice patterns of behaviour and common traits of successful founders vs not-yet-successful founders.

The most common trait I see with successful founders is that they consciously and deliberately invest in themselves. But sadly, most not-yet-successful founders do not feel they have the luxury or the permission to do this.

The life of a founder is really bloody hard.

My office for Startup Catalyst is based out of River City Labs. There is a running joke at RCL that my office is actually the ‘founder confessional’, because on any given day ‘Father Birkby’ is likely to have a few founders visit for a download or chat, many involving tears (and not all of them are mine!).

From divorce to affairs, anxiety to depression, alcohol and substance abuse, co-founder and team disputes, rants and rages, funding rejections, bankruptcy, and just the everyday stress of being a startup founder. I feel like I’ve heard it all, but I’m sure there is a lot, lot more out there.

Entrepreneurship is really bloody hard. It is not a game for the faint hearted.

A startup founder has to present the facade of a well-organised company that is “crushing it” in order to attract customers, recruit talent, and pitch for investment. But meanwhile, in reality, they are strapped for cash, struggling to make payroll, pay (or even submit) their taxes, and basically having to use their Macgyver skills with whatever metaphorical duct-tape they can find, and a “borrowed” fire extinguisher, just to keep the show on the road and prevent anyone from realising that they actually have no idea what they are doing (yet).

As a result, imposter syndrome and self-doubt run rampant. Some founders regularly wake at 3am with panic attacks, convinced they should quit now and “be normal” by getting a “real job”. For some, that actually may be the best answer, because being a founder is not for everyone.

This all translates to most founders feeling under pressure to be ‘always on’ — to use every waking minute to be executing. Faster. Then faster again. The feeling is compounded when combined with the intensity and expectations of participating in an accelerator or other startup program.

But few founders ever properly talk about it, and even fewer seek help or advice about managing it. But even for those that do seek advice, most still fail to put that advice it into action, and even fewer still do it consistently enough.

Many founders (in fact, I suspect most people) let life happen to them. They live in a constant state of reaction, responding to the latest inbound request for their attention. They feel out of control, while taking on everyone else’s tasks in order to keep things in control. They get stuck working in their business, but rarely on their business. They have a background level of anxiety and stress that they can’t quite recognise, which they justify as being just a normal part of entrepreneurship (and it is).

Founders struggle to justify taking their time “away” from their business

With Startup Catalyst we take founders, investors, techs, and startup community leaders to places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, London, Berlin and Israel, with the objective of re-programming how they see the world, and waking them up to the world of opportunity that is right in front of them.

Almost all of our alumni describe the missions as “the best investment you can make”, and that it significantly changed the trajectory of their business. Some participants have ended up doing deals (often amongst their mission cohort) that have repaid their mission costs several times over.

But despite hearing all that, many other founders considering a Catalyst mission are still so focussed on the problems right in front of them that they believe they can’t justify the time or money to participate in a mission.

Similarly, if you tell a founder that they should exercise daily, or eat healthier, or take time to decompress and reset, their response is often “I’m too busy”, “I can’t justify the time”, or “I will when X happens or when we finish doing Y”. They are waiting for the right circumstances to magically occur for them, rather than deliberately engineering the circumstances they want.

Why taking time away from your business, and investing in yourself, is the best thing you can do for your startup

Just as parents should prioritise their partner and themselves above their kids (that may be shocking to some, but if you disagree, read some examples herehere, and here), similarly a founder should prioritise their self over their business.

Based on the more-successful founders I have worked with, I’ve noticed that founders who regularly take time to themselves (and consciously engineer the use of that time), and invest in themselves (through education, reflection, self-inquiry, and self-improvement), are typically in a better mental state to tackle the challenges their business throws at them.

They are typically more creative, and better at problem solving. They see opportunity, instead of problems. They have a broader “eyes on the horizon” perspective, and more awareness of the people around them. They have greater clarity of mind, and are more likely to make positive decisions based on facts or gut feel, rather than based on emotion, fear, or fatigue.

In short, they perform better, and their business performs better as a result.

Armed with the right techniques, they are also better at transitioning their mindset between their work and personal lives, resulting in a more positive home and family experience, and more valuable relationships with friends and loved ones, which then self-perpetuates an even better mindset and support network.

How to prioritise yourself over the immediacy of your business

Prioritising yourself over your business requires a mindset shift.

This first step requires you to separate your own identify from your startup. Too many founders merge their concept of self with their venture, and so if the venture fails, so do they. Founders first need to recognise their own identity independent of their current startup venture. They should be able to clearly articulate: this is me, and this is my company.

Second, you need to genuinely understand and believe that taking time to invest in and improve yourself is in the best interest of your startup. If what I wrote above didn’t convince you, then read some of the much better posts on the topic like this onethis one, or this one.

Third, you need to realise that you do indeed have the time. Of course you do. Everyone has the same amount of time in their day. All those excuses we use about being busy are just another way of saying “I am prioritising something else right now”. Stating it that way — “I am …” — requires you to take ownership of your use of your time, rather than believing the lie that you are a victim of it.

Fourth, you need to invest your time (and money) into yourself. I may be biased, but if you are a founder aiming to build a global startup, then I honestly believe one of the best investments you can make is to participate in a Startup Catalyst mission. Outside of that, invest in your own personal development, read, actively recruit and engage with great mentors, formalise a peer support group that meets regularly, and practice radical self-inquiry.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, you need to consciously engineer your life by using routines, habits, tools and techniques to obtain and maintain a peak mindset and mental state, not just at work, but also at home, rest, and play.

It’s the little things you do every day that make the biggest impact

An interesting thing happened a few months ago. We were delivering some training, during which we casually shared some of the habits and routines that we both personally use in our lives to help us manage our work and personal lives better. These were just some of the daily routines and tools we had personally developed over decades and use daily to help put us into a peak state to better do our jobs.

It was unplanned; just some off-the-cuff comments. But the conversation developed, and the participants became far more interested in learning about our habits, routines, tips and tools for changing state and managing emotions. Actually, they were far more interested in learning about that than in hearing the rest of the actual training content. We’ve since had similar reactions during other events and training.

Eventually it made us realise the value of those techniques that we took for granted. That is why I co-founded Peak Persona as a side-venture last month. In our rare spare time away from our day jobs, we’ve have taken the habits, routines and tools that successful entrepreneurs and athletes use, and distilled them into programs for founders to adapt and adopt into their lives to help them maintain daily peak personal performance.

Importantly, we don’t touch on clinical psychology, nor the treatment of mental health issues, stress or anxiety. Nor is it theory based, or motivational.

Our focus in on tangible, action-based routines that you can adapt to better manage your time, and to engineer your emotional state, on a consistent basis.

It’s very early days, but so far we have a couple of online programs: a 7 Day Morning Shift program (to help founders become morning people and set their day up for success) and a more intensive 30 Day Shift program with a variety of topics covered (the third cohort for 30 Day Shift will commence on 17 January). We also have an upcoming intensive 3-day offsite glamping on Moreton Island in March, with places for 30 founders.

The feedback so far has been phenomenal. We are not entirely sure where it is going, but we are developing a module for accelerator programs to use, and drafting a book, as well as interviewing more successful entrepreneurs and professional sports stars to capture more useful content. So watch this space.

What works for you?

I’m super keen to hear from founders about what works for them. If you have routines, habits, tips and tools that you use to consciously engineer a peak state of mind, to manage stress, and to optimise your performance, then I’d love you to share them in the comments or via direct message, so that we can share them with more founders.


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