Mental Strength Tips for Entrepreneurs

Mental resilience can be learned. Usually it’s done through facing difficulties but why not save some sweat and read about it.

One of the greatest things about an entrepreneurial career is that you continuously keep learning. Things you wrote or did only 6–12 months ago always seem dated. You wonder “What was I thinking?” and “I can do this so much better now”.

In Finland the startup ecosystem has seriously boomed in the last 8 years and it’s easy to find experienced advisors on a wide range of topics. You can learn about raising funding, team building, lean development and a host of other topics. One thing people talk about less often is the mental side of building a startup. I find it one of the most important topics, if not the most.

Startup life has become synonymous with a roller coaster ride. It’s a correct metaphor because your business will inevitably be built from a sequence of alternating highs and lows, but one thing people forget to mention is that the roller coaster can also go both up and down at the same time!

It is quite usual that some aspects (money, team, product, sales..) of the startup are going well while some other part is in a serious downward spiral. Sometimes there are moments where you get to practice fast switching your mental state, like happened to me one time in London.

Years ago I was attending this highly exclusive invite-only event around branding that had a mix of corporations and startups attending. I was literally mingling with these big corporate heads (our potential customers at the time) and sipping cocktails when I received a text message from one of our employees. She was saying, quite nicely but insisting, that she would really need her salary today and that it hadn’t arrived. That message really gave me a jolt. Why hadn’t it?

I felt my heart start racing.

I stepped to the side and proceeded to call our accounting company for an explanation of the situation. It was true: our accounts had gone a bit too low for the full salaries payment and thus none of it had gone out. There was a big incoming payment that should’ve come in weeks before but hadn’t. After few more calls and money transfers (including me transferring personal money to the employee because that would be immediate) and the matter was settled.

I picked up the cocktail glass again.

That incident happened some ~3 years into my first startup and has kept me skeptical about the bank balance ever since. I still sometimes go and check it before the payday just to be sure, no matter how well I know the situation.

The emotional states switched very fast alternating between high, low and high. Living through such switches builds a kind of mental resilience. You may know how to avoid certain situations (it’s always good if you don’t repeat mistakes), but also the next time something unexpected happens you are not quite as terrified. You learn trust in yourself, in your ability to manage it. Whatever unexpected “it” might be.

One clear coping mechanism is to analyse and identify the sources of stress. Generally I’ve found three most typical sources of mental anxiety: money, fear of failure and time. I’ll use these stress generators as examples for the below mental strength methods.

  1. Boxing problems works e.g. with money induced stress. It is very rare a startup in Finland that would have too much money. The stress comes both from the company's bank balance as well as your own personal finances. One way I’ve coped with the money stress is to box it. I mentally put those thoughts in a box and I promise myself I will open that box again later (tomorrow, next Monday, next month depending on situation) but right now I will not think about it. It’s very hard to build a 6 month or 12 month strategy, if you know your runway isn’t that long. What you do is you put your money worry into the box and go build your strategy. Then you just worry about getting the money as a separate question later.
  2. Imagine the Worst works e.g. with Fear of Failure. All entrepreneurs hate to fail. We embrace it, we even celebrate it, but we certainly don’t like it. The less you’ve succeeded the more you fear failure, the more you feel the need to prove yourself. The one thing that has helped me most with this is imagining the worst outcomes. Like if all goes bad we’d need to sell the house and rent some other place. People might consider we were stupid to even try and just pure laugh at us. etc. The worst things I could imagine were still things I’d certainly live past very quick.
  3. 80/20 Rule works with time pressure. There are never enough hours in the day. For me having kids means there is even less hours that I can use just for myself. That has taught me the importance of good focus. Never forget that 20 percent of what you do yields 80 percent of the results. Always keep re-evaluating what is that 20 percent your startup needs at any given moment. It keeps changing!
  4. Shielding is a general method for dividing the stress between the founders. I’m a big spokesperson for open and transparent communication. However if everyone in the team gets every low as hard as the first person getting it, you all wear out faster.

One example of me doing shielding was when we got a big bill from the government pensions fund early in the year to catch up on last year’s missing pension fees. This was from a year when we had switched the accounting company and also hired an executive assistant (because I was having a baby the same year I thought I’d need help) so there were lot of people who should’ve seen we had been paying too little every month. Ultimately it still comes to the CEO to know better so I can’t really blame anyone. Over the previous year I had been surprised we kept having little more money in the bank than I mentally thought we should have but usually that’s not something you complain about..

In essence however the bill we got was about 50 000 euros. We had about the same sum in the bank, but we also had salaries and other payments to run and nothing in our budget had prepared us for an extra 50 000 euro fee. Our accounting company though owned the situation very well. It was them who called me first to warn this bill was coming. They also immediately volunteered to negotiate a longer schedule for the payment. But obviously I was quite shocked the day I got that call. However I couldn’t immediately share the news to anyone, I had to mentally process it myself first. Even my co-founder husband was quite stressed that afternoon about some product related matter and I decided it was not good timing to share this news with him. He heard only the next day when I felt stronger that this was something we could fix with the accounting company. Eventually of course we did and we managed to pay every cent in about 6 months time. The other founders heard about the bill later too, but it no longer was even big news at that time.

I’m sure I’ve also been shielded from design and technical problems that I didn’t have to solve personally but I could trust my co-founders to handle them.

I hope sharing these tips and experiences can be helpful for others. If you have experiences and tips on coping the mental side of entrepreneurship do share in the comments!

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