Being the founder of a startup is glamorized these days, but the reality is, it is seriously hard. There is a private game of dreams, fears and stress that plays out in every founder's head -- every day.
Statistics say 80 percent of people feel stress in the workplace. But what happens when you are the founder, and quitting or time off isn't an option? I recently sat down with Greg Head, a growth advisor to CEOs and founders, to learn more.
1. How is the stress of being a founder different from working for an organization?
Founders of startups or small businesses who don't necessarily have an executive team to rely on experience stress very differently than their employees. Founders wear numerous hats and are ultimately responsible for the success of the business, so all the difficult decisions find their way to their desks for input or resolution.
Stressful issues include cash, funding, people issues, strategy, systems, investments, product design, service delivery, hiring, competition, business models and strategy changes. Like the whack-a-mole game at the carnival, they never stop popping up.
Most people are surprised at the seriousness of the problems and the complexity of the questions that founders grapple with continually. There's a lot of stress, fear, uncertainty and doubt weighing them down on the inside, but they have learned to put on their "strong leader faces" to show optimism and not negative emotions. This can exacerbate the stress level for founders to the level of "freak out" crisis if they don't find an outlet to discuss their issues more openly.
2. Growing a business comes with its own set of stresses. Why do leaders find this to be more difficult than early stage stress?
Most startups and small businesses struggle to grow and scale up, which creates continual survival-level challenges that stress out everyone in the company. It's a myth, however, that fast-growing companies don't create massively stressful challenges for their founders and their team members.
Hyper-growth companies are often more stressful on the inside, despite looking like a success story on the outside. Higher-expectations, impatient investors, bigger bets that don't always pay off, and just a whole lot more to do are just some of the challenges of fast-growing companies.
High-growth companies also change form quickly, requiring new people, organization, processes and culture adjustments regularly, like growing from infancy through adolescence to adulthood in three years, not 20. Rapid change and uncertain outcomes can be thrilling, but the are always stressful.
3. How can founders overcome stressful roadblocks and succeed as their companies grow?
In the last year, I have spent time with over 200 founders and CEOs of early-stage growth companies. Almost all of them share common traits like tenaciousness, optimism, extreme work habits, impatience, empathy for people, and big visions. The few of those that have succeeded at different stages of business growth also share common challenges, but those struggles are never revealed in their glowing press articles.
Successful founders who go on to lead bigger companies successfully have learned to apply new thinking to their new situations. Most habits or approaches that worked when their companies had 10 people won't work with 50 or 150 employees, but most founders don't change their playbooks and try on new thoughts.
This takes deliberate thinking, outside perspective and the willingness to let go of old thoughts that aren't useful any more. Changing the world can sometimes be easier than changing themselves, but long-time founders have always done both in equal amounts.