There are countless references to ‘the roller coaster’ of emotions felt by entrepreneurs (and by association their family and friends). The analogy of the rollercoaster is an attempt to describe the speed and amplitude with which situations can change and, given the situation, how much more or less likely you are to achieving you venture’s next milestone.
It’s not until committing to a venture full-time that it becomes clear that roller coaster actually means making continuous decisions in overwhelming and chaotic environments where the future is deeply uncertain.
Effective decision making relies on the capacity to process information. And everyone has a threshold up to which they can efficiently process information, even the most decisive leaders. Pilots refer to the distance between this threshold and relatively normal situations as ‘spare capacity’ (to cope with the unforeseen or unexpected). Spare capacity becomes compromised as the need to resolve multiple interlinked decisions increases. When spare capacity runs out stress and anxiety can make even the most elementary tasks impossible to conquer.
Founding or co-founding a venture inevitably means people are covering multiple roles, acting on imperfect information and driving urgently to get, keep and grow customers to demonstrate traction before running out of cash. The 100-hour weeks that this typically demands creates an ideal setting to erode spare capacity.
I could say that there are ways to avoid the roller coaster all together or quarantine spare capacity for the times that you really need it but that would be untrue.
The reality is that the unforeseen and unexpected, both good and bad, will happen most days. It’s what you sign up for when you opt-in to building something from nothing.
Here’s what I do and encourage my mentees to do to reduce the roller coaster effect:
• Open your calendar and count the number of days since your last small win. One of the greatest risks to a founder is the narrowing of their contextual awareness. That is to say that focus to achieve the next big milestone can often be at the expense of celebrating progress and reflecting on learnings. Often founders are closer than they think to achieving their next milestone but when spare capacity is in short supply, maintaining a balanced view on the state of the venture is difficult so take the step to count (out loud!) when your last small win took place. Prepare to be reminded that it was more recent than you thought.
• Go one step beyond a mentor, have an entrepreneur buddy. I have both and a couple in each camp because these two groups play different roles. An entrepreneur buddy is someone who has been a founder before or is at a similar stage to you and whom has empathy and compassion for your circumstance(s). Call them and vent. And don’t worry, they’ll return the favour soon enough. Sometimes it takes someone who has been there before to help navigate through complexity.
• Exercise. There is an enormous body of medical and psychological research that points to the positive effects that exercise has on brain chemistry. Help your brain perform at a new level by incorporating exercise at least once every two days.
• Take time to think about a pet project. At the risk of drawing criticism for not insisting you direct 150% focus towards your venture, be OK with thinking about other ideas that have piqued your interest. I’m not advocating for this to be a distraction, what I’m encouraging is to grant yourself permission to periodically think about ideas that free up creative mental horsepower, the exact ingredient that is likely to help you solve issues at your venture.
Is it easier for serial entrepreneurs?
To some extent, yes. There is benefit in relying on experience to help regulate the emotions and fatigue brought on by the roller coaster but no first-time or serial entrepreneur is immune to its effects (and I say that after having one of those weeks).