Choosing to go down the path of founding a startup is often a pretty lonely and frustrating experience. It’s not all upward momentum and explosive growth. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave of disappointment and feelings of utter failure. It’s not uncommon for the well of optimism to run dry.
It’s in those darkest times that test who we really are. That is where experience is built and makes the wins that much sweeter. But, finding that strength to get up, wash our face, and point ourselves toward the world with enthusiasm can feel next to impossible.
This is compounded by the circumstances we find ourselves in at any given moment. Sadly, the world does not stop while we build our business. We are not only faced with the pressure of performing at our peak by our partners, investors, employees, and customers but also by those around us in our lives.
These situations take their toll on every part of our existence. The stress can be overwhelming and despite what we tell ourselves, we are not 100%. Every decision and subsequent followup becomes increasingly labored. We question whether we have all the proper information and whether our decision will pay off in the right way. We can become paralyzed by our internal analysis.
I’ve been there. I understand it intimately having gone through it more times than I care to count. But, I’ve always found my way out. Not by luck, but by remembering a few simple things that help me keep perspective.
Years ago, after taking an exit from a startup I had been building with some friends for a few years, I decided I needed a change. I threw myself into trying to build a business with a couple of partners in an industry I knew almost nothing about. My partners were not well selected for the task and I quickly found myself mostly alone trying to build this business.
As I carried on, I found that several larger customers decided to delay their contracts and new sales were proving difficult to muster into the pipeline. My personal bills were beginning to mount as I sank considerable amounts of my own money into the business. I began to shut down and enter a pretty dark place.
One day, I had the presence of mind to try and find something that would provide me some measure of wisdom or comfort. As I sat, wasting time in books and on the internet, I came across a long lost interview with Lt. General Hal Moore. In it, he said something that would have a lasting effect on my outlook. “There is always one more thing you can do.”
It’s trite, but it holds wisdom we often forget. No matter how dire the situation, something can always be done — maybe not to change the outcome directly, but maybe just to provide us with additional options. It’s not about finding the silver bullet that solves the problem, which is where we often focus our efforts. Instead, it’s just about finding that one string we can pull on that at least leads to a few more strings. Not always a solution in itself, just additional options.
When everything is crashing around us and the world is dark, the important part is to just find something we can control. Something we can do. It moves us forward and provides hope.
For me, at that time, it gave me the presence of mind to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working and I needed to pivot. I eventually found the state of mind I needed to accept that simple truth and begin taking the efforts to shift my thinking. This was not easy or fast and took quite a few small steps to reposition myself and what I was doing. One small realization led to a course of action and a plan to get there.
Being an entrepreneur carries with it the risk that at some point circumstances might necessitate us to make very hard decisions up to and including possibly killing that thing we’ve poured so much of ourselves into. That is not an easy decision and depending on how far along its gone is not an easy execution. It’s something that has to be a decision based in logic and reason. Sometimes though, it’s the ultimate one thing that can be done.
I’m happy to say that through my years, despite suffering the ups and downs of startup life, I’ve tended to come out to the positive. Even when I’ve had to make those hard decisions, I’ve looked back and realized they were right and opened other opportunities. I can also reflect and see that I would have never gotten to any of the big decisions in dire situations if I did not find that one string to pull. The end of the path — to the good or the bad — was not something I could hold in my head all at once. My state of mind would not allow something like that in those moments. I needed to arrive at it step by step by simply finding that one more thing I could do. It was only after emerging from the process that I had the clarity to find the path again.
While this piece has a distinctly negative tone, I hope the reader will take it from both directions. Pulling ourselves out of the hole of negativity will often result in a positive outcome and should not be taken just as a method to find a way to justify a pivot or a complete closing of the business. Instead finding that one more thing is to find some type of forward action. An action that is critical when everything feels stalled. It serves to remind us that regardless of how we feel, there is a great deal that is, in fact, under our control.