Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)
It’s Saturday afternoon. Another week of the startup grind has taken its toll, and I’m struggling to find the energy to do more. Thankfully, following a morning of management meetings and a much-needed workout, I’m finally at peace: perched at a workstation, headphones on and getting some real work done.
The doorbell rings. Quickly checking my calendar, I remember I agreed to meet with several aspiring high-school-aged entrepreneurs.
For a moment, I consider canceling. Instead I begrudgingly remove my headphones, grab my laptop and a Red Bull, and meet them at the door. When I see how excited they are to visit, I can’t help but change my tune and welcome them into LockerDome’s office.
Their youthful energy is contagious. We talk about their plans for world domination and my experience building LockerDome. At one point, they ask me if I’ve ever had a day where I wanted to quit.
I let my guard down and blurt out the truth. “Yes, I think about quitting every day.”
The entire room seems confused and terrified by my response, so I explain myself: “If you desire a decent work-life balance, a reliable paycheck, low stress levels, and some sense of sanity, pack your bags and go home because you are unlikely to find any of that as an entrepreneur,” I told them. “There are benefits, of course, but don’t let the glamorized stories of startups fool you — this shit is ridiculously hard and not the right fit for most.”
I owe that bit of bluntness to the past 15 months, which have pushed me to my limits on all fronts.
Professionally, I’ve spearheaded the growth of LockerDome, a venture-backed company with social and native advertising widgets embedded across some of the world’s top media properties; our products touch more than 100 million people a month. As a hands-on CEO, I’ve helped build and currently participate on all of LockerDome’s core teams, resulting in an insane daily schedule. Every Sunday night, I fly from St. Louis to New York City and work from LockerDome’s New York City office through Thursday. On Fridays, I catch an early morning flight back to St. Louis and work at headquarters through the weekend.
Beyond the daily exhaustion of day-to-day operations, I carry a constant weight on my back. You see, the CEO of a venture-backed startup must constantly act with one fact foremost in mind: that he or she is responsible for directing resources in a manner that will provide a positive return on others’ time, money, and reputation points. Knowing that poor decisions and inadvertent missteps can derail everything, and that you are ultimately responsible if this occurs, will mentally screw with you. As CEO, I act with that reality in mind while constantly exposing myself to, and battling, the company’s biggest fires; while draining, I must accept this as normal.
Outside of LockerDome, I’ve actively assisted in the formation and growth of GlobalHack, a non-profit I co-founded to host hackathons as a means to better the St. Louis tech ecosystem. Since early 2014, we’ve hosted five successful events, awarding $275,000 in cash prizes; teams have built more than 125 software prototypes as practical solutions to address corporate- and civic-focused problems. Currently, I’m working alongside our Executive Director, Matt Menietti, and my co-founder, Drew Winship, to scale the organization and reach our next major milestone: a $1 million, civic-focused hackathon to be hosted in late 2016.
On the personal front, my wife has battled a life-threatening illness since June 2014, undergoing three major surgeries and spending four cumulative weeks in the hospital. I therapeutically chronicled that journey in Contemplating Love, Life and Death and 7 Lessons About Life and Business Learned Again as My Wife’s Caregiver.
Having hit my cliff multiple times, but making a conscious choice to stay in the startup game, I’ve put extensive thought into what it takes for both founders and startup employees to avoid burnout. There are few hard-and-fast rules, so take what you will.
1. Embrace stress.
As a CEO, I spend my time on the company’s top opportunities and biggest fires. This, by nature, produces incredibly high levels of stress. But, that’s not always a bad thing. Stress can indicate precisely where a CEO should exert energy, thus keeping the train on the tracks and producing the best returns. This means stress is not only intrinsic to the job duties of a founder and CEO, it also must be embraced in order to excel.
2. Spend time processing information prior to taking action.
Good decisions are driven by well-processed information (further reading). I walk around constantly, as movement helps me process information. When I sit back down, I’m ready to more efficiently and effectively approach the task at hand. I also keep an absurd amount of raw notes in unformatted text files for all core teams and any key projects in play, as a means to brainstorm and better process information before speaking up.
3. Challenge yourself with extended projects that help you, and your team, win.
I constantly float between teams, an approach that requires me to learn new subjects on the fly. If you are not a natural floater, force yourself to consistently step beyond your comfort zone, broadening and deepening your thinking.
4. Evaluate your task list each morning.
Each morning, I spend 10 to 30 minutes digesting and refining my task list. Consciously prioritizing and choosing how I will spend my day results in maximum productivity, as I have thoroughly thought through what needs to get done and why. The task list also serves as a measuring stick by which to gauge my progress.
5. Eat healthier. Work out.
I spent years neglecting my health through habits I can control, like eating and exercising. At the turn of 2015, I decided enough was enough. I’ve lost more than 30 pounds since then, and eat mostly healthy meals, especially during the week. As a result, I have more energy and my brain is far less foggy.
6. Remember: winning solves everything.
The only guaranteed, long-term approach to avoiding burnout is to win. When one is having success, everything else fades to the background. When one is not having success, the sky feels like it is falling. To that end, do whatever it takes to achieve consistent victories, small and large.
7. Play the long game.
Have an ambitious, long-term goal, which extends far beyond your startup. Understand how your startup can play a role in achieving that goal. This will get you out of bed on the tough days.
8. Do a periodic hard rest.
For a 72-hour period this summer, I rented a bare cabin in the countryside and fasted from all food, electronics, and anything overly sensory. This forced me to reset my mind and body and to process information that I would normally shove aside. I’m considering making this an annual practice, as I returned to work with a clearer head than before.