Over the last few months that I’ve been building my startup (ServiceChat – a platform to help businesses have better conversations with their customers on Twitter) – this topic has been my constant companion. I am continuously discovering what it means to me to be a founder. There is no job description, no employee manual to tell you what to do or not do and actually no other experience to compare it to.
When I think back to all the jobs I’ve had – postman, video-tab-remover-guy, programmer, consulting coach, ‘startup founder’ is, by far, the hardest, most unrelenting, supremely challenging work I have ever done. It is also, without a shadow of a doubt, the most satisfying endeavor I have ever undertaken.
I have distilled my current feelings about being a startup founder and this is what I think it means so far, for me at least:
Incredibly hard work, emotionally exhausting
When I took my indefinite sabbatical from my really lucrative and pretty fulfilling job of being a consultant agile coach, I knew enough of the startup world to know it was pretty hard work. I knew also it is unglamorous work that demands you do what you know and often what you don’t, to make progress. Often for very little or no pay!
I easily put in sixty hours or more a week, work weekends and unsociable hours (the sky at 3am is beautiful!). All this whilst trying to be a half decent husband to a lovely wife and an attentive dad to four lovely people. Every spare minute I have is devoted to ServiceChat – building it, finding customers, crafting experiments to find customers, talking to customers, learning how to talk to customers, designing, developing , redesigning, strategizing, financializing (hey, that’s my word!). You name it, I do it because I’m a founder and it is what needs to be done.
And when I’m not working on my startup – I’m thinking about working on my startup!
Every success, every failure, every hope dashed, every dream realised is felt 100% by the founder. Praise does come, so does criticism – mostly from myself!
In any given day I go through the entire spectrum of emotions – fear, delight, sadness, anger and love. And that is just before lunch!
By the end of the day, I am not only physically tired, I’m also emotionally drained.
Requires focus, demands discipline
By nature, I’m easily distracted. This startup experience has shown me that starting is easy for me, I approach all new ideas with deep passion, huge excitement but I mostly suck at execution.
This is itself is great learning, because I now know what I need to improve on or buy in. Given that I’m building ServiceChat on a small budget, buying in an ace executioner is not really an option right now and besides, I need to get better at focusing and the discipline to focus.
Over the next few posts, I will share how I try and sustain my focus and train my discipline. Finding a focus is important because you bring all that you are to the challenge. You are present, some call it bringing your ‘A’ game, whatever you call it, you need it to be effective. What has helped me hugely is creating a routine that I can stick to and form a habit around. The discipline to stick to it becomes easier as it becomes habitual.
Without focus, time will pass and nothing would have been done. I would be no closer to my vision, remaining ignorant of the learning I need to more forward.
And time is money – whether you are spending it or not! ServiceChat is self funded, I moved to Spain (from England via Ireland) to extend my runway for a few more months, so every moment I am distracted, is cold hard cash that is burning away, inches of runway being lost to Father Time. But that is another story.
Deeply satisfying, hugely liberating
Being a founder is so deeply satisfying, I cannot find the words to articulate it as deeply as I feel it. Sure there are risks – it might not be viable, customers might not emerge from all the experiments. Finding those risks, facing up to them reaffirms my courage and encourages me to square up to the next scary thing. What a brilliant feeling!
Sure, there are dark undiscovered jungles in my map, big question marks about ‘what next? , ‘what if?’ and ‘how bad is it?’ . But discovering them, finding ways to answer the questions, learning what problems my startup could help solve and solving them are all satisfying things, at least for the curious mind.
Whether my startup succeeds as a sustainable business or not, I have learnt what professional liberation truly means. The freedom to learn and to explore. The freedom to take risks safely and to adjust the direction I take based on what I discover, the freedom to fail without the harsh judgements and condemnation of most traditional jobs.
As a founder, it will be damn near impossible for me to work ‘for’ someone else and be subject to their rules of how I work, when I work, what I do and how I do it. A wild bird is hard to cage, but an imprisoned bird that has experienced the freedom to soar unrestrained is almost impossible to re-imprison.
Feeling part of something
What I continue to love about being in the startup community is that there is one – and it is rich in learning and support. As a developer for nearly twenty years, I am used to the open source community, where ideas are freely shared and welcomed and I feel the same with the startup communities I have participated in.
I especially love the LeanStartup movement. Eric Ries (and to a large extent others like Steve Blank and Alex Osterwalder) has provided a manual that we can learn from and a common language that immediately connects us. Around it has grown a beautiful ecosystem to be part of, full of meetups, mashups, startup weekends, hackathons and so many community activities to help the starry eyed dreamers. They do help and support, but ultimately, as a founder, you have to go back and build your vision. As a startup founder, I feel part of something revolutionary, almost like we are redefining the future of work as something driven by passion and is deeply humanised.
What does being a startup founder mean to other founders?
I was really interested to hear what other founders thought, so I asked around and here a few responses from my twitter shout out:
What does being a startup founder mean to you?
It does not matter whether you are contemplating starting a startup or just starting up or whether you are a tried and tested founder, we each bring a unique perspective to this gig and I would love to hear and share what you think?
Do you find it exhausting?
What are the sacrifices you are making to be a startup founder?
What are you learning?
Are you enjoying it?
Keep dreaming, keep scheming!