It doesn’t get easier, you just handle hard better
One year ago, I became a startup founder for the first time — the first and last time I would be a first-time founder. From then on, everything was going to change about how I viewed startups, what I knew about entrepreneurship, all the assumptions I had about how founders work and live, and so much more.
It was getting real.
Fast-forward to Day 365 (or a little more). I am still here after multiple product launches, several pivots, hundreds of customer discovery interviews, tons of lessons learned, and countless connections made.
I can safely say that I have first-hand experienced so many of the challenges that first-time founders may face when they embark on this journey. It is such a gut-wrenching and fulfilling role that no matter what books you read or courses you take, nothing will describe it accurately because it’s something that can only be experienced.
I want to deep-dive into the 7 big lessons I reflected upon as I celebrated the one-year mark of becoming a startup founder.
Most wannabe founders or aspiring entrepreneurs who have an idea in mind and are waiting for the perfect stars to align need to know that starting is the easy bit.
However, many founders, including myself, waited too long for the perfect stars to align and the right signals to be seen and heard. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that if you are thinking about signing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), which I also contemplated, before sharing your ‘million dollar idea’ with a mentor or advisor, you have it all wrong.
While launching Geeks and Experts, my cofounder and I went with a custom-built app instead of leaning into more agile tools and shipping our product faster. This led to many delays in getting valuable feedback from users and added to our costs very early on. If I were to start again, I’d worry less about building a perfect MVP — I’d launch ASAP, iterate and pivot.
Nobody gives a damn about the idea. It’s all in the execution. It’s not even about successful execution and nailing it on the first try.
It’s simply about executing. Experimenting. Trying. Failing. Trying again. And again.
Far too often, we create sand castles or big visions about how a startup launch will be, the media outlets covering our success story and the fame, money, and power that will automatically follow.
I wasn’t intimidated by problems I had in my business but by those I anticipated would be future problems. I was stressing about the perfect business plan before I even had 100 beta testers. Those are two very different things, and instead of focusing on the task at hand, I was stressing about what would matter a few months later.
While having big and audacious goals is fabulous, it gets overwhelming when you see this as the end goal and want to accelerate to the finish line to see the outcome. You are setting yourself up to focus only on a successful outcome instead of thoroughly immersing yourself in the whole process of entrepreneurship.
It’s essential to take it one day at a time and break it down piece by piece.
That not only makes your goals seem achievable but also more realistic.
If you had told me one year ago that I would be putting myself out there talking about my startup lessons on Medium, pitching my story to journalists, and attending one networking session on average per week, I wouldn’t have believed you.
We tend to put way too much emphasis on ourselves and think that the spotlight is always on us. As a result, every action and reaction is overthought until we get to analysis paralysis.
Sometimes you just got to dive into the deep end.
I urge you to embrace this journey and relentlessly experiment inside and outside your startup. Building a network, writing online, and learning about different tools are all excellent by-products of being a founder. It is scary but also empowering to feel that growth within. Don’t be afraid of feeling like an imposter — we all do. But that’s what growth is all about!
As someone who considers myself a digital extrovert and an IRL introvert, being vulnerable online and offline has been the most challenging thing I have ever done. Yet, it’s the most authentic I’ve been.
Writing my journey has made me relatable. Because people love people, especially those who show their human side. Keep it real.
I keep going back to this one video by a Duke Basketball coach who tells her athletes that nothing ever gets easier.
You just got to handle hard better.
It’s one of the many hard truths for a startup founder. The minute you find yourself tackling one hurdle, the next one is already coming your way. It could be jumping from firefighting customer service requests to nailing your user onboarding flow. There’s always something!
I often thought that if I got through this one roadblock, got into that one accelerator, closed a pre-seed round of funding, or generated that first revenue, it would all be smooth sailing. However, the right attitude should have been not to wait or expect things to get easy.
The joke is on you if you think that only if you do this one task or achieve that one goal everything will be set. Don’t rely on the expectations for it to get easier. Not after that funding, not after that accelerator, not after that big media outlet wrote about your product, not after anything.
Be prepared to do everything in your control. But nobody owes you for it.
So, don’t expect anything in return.
What is futile is comparing your step 1 to someone else’s step 100. What is better is looking at someone who is a few steps ahead of you and studying ways in which you can learn and improve from them.
When we compare the big things like our status, titles and careers, we forget that we can narrow down and focus on improving ourselves by looking at what we can learn from others’ grit, leadership, etc. Just because another person or startup is big, it doesn’t make you small.
Seeing other competitors in a similar space that my startup is in used to intimidate me. I felt like I was in a very saturated market without realizing that some competition is good validation that you’re in the right market. It means it isn’t a zero-sum game, and you can carve your niche too. It also means you can learn from others for free and build your moat.
It’s easy to get distracted by your competitors or peers and chase after another shiny object like fundraising, PR, sales, branding, or whatever. Don’t try to do everything.
What matters is that you stay in your lane and do what is your priority.
Keep your eyes on the prize and focus on the task at hand.
My one mantra is that you can’t pour from an empty cup. And, with more and more founders and investors shedding light on the importance of well-being and mental health, founders have got to protect themselves.
This is a marathon and not a sprint; therefore, the essential thing you can do for yourself and your stakeholders is to look after yourself throughout this process. Invest in yourself by putting your time, effort, and resources into what will make you shine.
Certain things in my day are non-negotiables, and I follow the 80/20 rule to keep it that way. For example, hitting the gym for a strength training workout is sacred to me, making time to talk to my family when I eat breakfast energizes me for the day ahead, and unwinding at night with some guided meditation or a book helps me calm my mind before sleeping.
Whether that is reading, meditation, therapy, workouts, self-care, family time, traveling, or time off, make sure that you stay true to yourself in that.
No amount of burnout and glorified hustle culture is worth it.
Do what it takes to protect fragile things like your health.
When working as a founder, there are many times in the initial phases that you will be working in silos. Unless, of course, you already have a team.
During this time, it is crucial to be your biggest cheerleader but also to be a mirror to yourself and stay as authentic to yourself as you can. It’s human nature to downplay our wins and uplift others. So you have to make a conscious effort to extend yourself some grace when it gets tough.
You don’t have to go full power all day, every day. Instead, go as close to every day as possible, even if it means giving 100% out of 40% on days.
If some days you show up ready to power through 3 meetings, write 2 blogs and send 5 emails — celebrate those wins. If on other days, all you can manage is refining a pitch deck or getting 1 customer’s feedback — do that.
I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to hustle every day and get x number of hours clocked in, and as soon as I achieved a small win, I moved the goalpost to the next item and forgot all about the win. Now, I pause to celebrate every small accomplishment, even if it is ‘only’ a successful onboarding interview or a great pitch session I got into.
Celebrate invisible wins that might not move the needle but are needed.
Consistency over intensity. Always!