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Managing Stress At Work: How To Find Moments Of Zen As A Startup Founder

Mike Novotny

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When you’re the founder of a startup, people tend to assume you’re on top of the world. You created something great, you’re making a difference, and you’re earning millions of dollars doing it. 

And if you’re a unicorn, that might be true. 

But the rest of the time, most founders feel an immeasurable amount of stress at work. Every day, they walk into the office and do their best to put out the biggest fires. The truth is, they could work 100 hours a week without putting them all out. 

This is the part that, up until recently, very few people talked about—and yet, your mental health is directly related to the sustainability of your business. If you want to keep it going, you have to implement mindfulness practices before the stress hits. 

Startups are all predictable in one way, and that’s their unpredictability. You know something’s going to go wrong—you just don’t know what it is yet. It could be a software crash, a tough competitor, a downturn of the market, or a dropped deal. 

But whatever happens, if you know how to find moments of Zen in the chaos, you’ll be much better equipped to handle it. And that all starts with knowing who you are outside of your work. 

Figure out who you are apart from your company. 

I had just joined a group called Entrepreneurs’ Organization, and at my first meeting, they had me participate in an exercise. First, they said, “You have 30 seconds to tell the group about your business.” Done. Next, they said, “You have 30 seconds to tell us about your family.” Easy. 

Finally, they said, “You’ve got 30 seconds to tell us about yourself—and it can’t have anything to do with your company or your family.” 

I drew a complete blank. I had nothing to say. 

It turns out this exercise was intentionally designed that way. Almost every single founder in the group had the exact same reaction. 

When you pour everything into your responsibilities, there’s nothing left for you, and identifying solely as an entrepreneur isn’t sustainable. You’ll inevitably burn out, so it’s imperative that you carve out time to define and center yourself throughout the day. 

Meditate—whatever form that takes. 

In my experience, every founder meditates in some way. Maybe that’s biking, or dancing, or writing code. 

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sit cross-legged in a robe to reap the benefits. Anytime you’re deeply focused on one activity for an extended period of time, that’s meditation. 

When I first started my company Medrio 14 years ago, playing sports was my meditation. Then my wife and I had three kids, and I wasn’t able to set aside hours a day at the park anymore. 

Now, I use actual meditation to recenter myself, and it’s been huge for me. It gives me a few minutes a day to focus only on myself, but it also helps to clear my mind, improve my quality of sleep, and release tension from my body. 

That said, your meditation doesn’t have to look like mine. 

You can implement a gratitude practice, where you step back from the chaos and say “thank you” for the fact that you’re surrounded by smart people who believe in your idea. You can block out one hour every day on your calendar, so you can work alone without any interruptions. You can even turn your commute into your me-time, which brings me to my next point:

Find fun ways to multitask. 

Each morning, I bike an hour into work, and each evening, I bike an hour home. That’s two hours a day, and people often ask me, “How can you waste that amount of time?” The short answer is: I’m not wasting it. 

My commute serves multiple purposes. First of all, it’s an immersive experience that helps me focus on myself. Next, it’s a form of exercise. Finally, it’s mental stimulation or even an opportunity to get some work done. Some days, I’ll listen to podcasts, which serves as my down-time, and others, I’ll rig my microphone up to my bike so I can make calls on my way to the office. 

But for people who can’t make use of their commute, there are other ways to multitask throughout the day. 

For example, walking meetings are a big thing in Silicon Valley. Rather than sitting across a desk from one another, which creates a feeling of tension, two people go for a walk together instead. They get outside and get some exercise, but more importantly, it changes the entire mood of the meeting. It feels casual and collaborative, like two friends having a discussion. 

And speaking of, if you’re feeling a ton of stress at work, a discussion with a like-minded person is a great way to recenter yourself. 

Remember that all founders struggle.

I recently attended a conference with about 200 other founders and CEOs. One of them was giving a talk, and she said to the audience, “Raise your hand if you feel trapped by your own company.” 

Almost every single person there raised their hand. 

A founder isn’t like the VP of a company, who can leave and be VP somewhere else. More often than not, a founder has their own money invested in the company. They’re also betting on their reputation, their friends, their dream. It’s personal. 

Founders know that 90% of all startups fail, and they’re on the edge of that threat at all times. Sometimes, this stress manifests in illness, and sometimes, it results in a breakdown or the collapse of their family life. 

But it helps to know that you’re not alone. There are groups you can join (like the Entrepreneurs’ Organization I mentioned before), or there are blogs you can read: one of my favorites is Ben’s blog, written by the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz. 

Make an effort to connect with people who can identify with your situation. They can help remind you that you’re human, and you always have the choice to make a change. 

Keep your options open. 

Often, it feels like you have two choices: you can become that billion-dollar unicorn startup that expands at the speed of light, or you can run yourself into the ground trying. 

But it doesn’t have to be so black or white. You always have options. 

You can slow down your growth and actually earn some profit—a crazy thought, I know, but it is possible to pay out dividends to shareholders, including yourself. You can sell part of your company, but keep some of the founder shares, so you haven’t exited entirely. You can hire a CEO to take over some of the responsibility. 

It’s possible to do all of these things and still be a great company. And most importantly, your mental health won’t have to take a back burner anymore. 

After all, you likely started your company with the intent of finding happiness. Maybe you dreamt of money, success, influence, or the actualization of a goal—but what was it all for if you’re too stressed to appreciate the experience?

I am the founder and CEO of Medrio, a cloud-based software company that delivers integrated eClinical software designed specifically for the needs of researchers conducting early phase pharma, medical device, and diagnostics clinical trials. I bring 25 years of experience in research and software to eClinical cloud software.

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