10 years of being a founder

“Everybody can be an entrepreneur”, said almost every startup “guru” on the planet. You must have heard it too.

I am a person on the totally opposite side of that belief. I rather think that if being an entrepreneur were easy, everyone would be doing it. I find that the book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, as scary as it sounds, is one of the most accurate accounts of what the life of a startup founder looks like.

As a startup founder, whether you’re successful or not, you’ll fail again and again. You’ll struggle to achieve goals way beyond your means, and you’ll often fall short. Things (disasters) will happen to you that will undermine every imaginable effort you were able to deploy. You’ll feel inadequate and helpless. You’ll feel responsible for other people and for things way beyond your control. You’ll end up sacrificing a lot, unconditionally and beyond anything you planned to sacrifice. You’ll be disappointed and you’ll disappoint.

I wonder why you are still reading. The average person would just say “this is not for me; I don’t want to experience any of this” and would leave this blog. But not you. Oh, it’s probably because you are not the average person, aren’t you?

What is it that you so desperately want, that justifies all that struggle, suffering and risk? Let me try and guess. I bet what you want are meaningful experiences.

Scientists from various fields agree that our brains are meaning-making machines, constantly working to make sense of our experiences. Yet it is hard to live meaningful experiences when we have to limit ourselves in order to fit-in, obey social or organisational norms and submit ourselves to transactional, revenue-driven nature of work.

An overwhelming amount of research studies found significant correlation between lack of sense of purpose and a range of mental health problems. It seems that we not only prefer to have meaningful experiences, we need them.

A very influential psychologist who laid the ground for the research around motivation and meaning, Viktor Frankl, says “it might well be the case that an experience is not meaningful because it comes with happiness, but rather, it comes with happiness because it is meaningful”.

Meaningful experiences probably justify all the struggle that comes with the job of a founder. If I am right, and that is indeed what you want, then let me tell you something: me too.

The exact definition of what constitutes a meaningful experience is still matter of debate, but concepts that often pop-up in literature include: connectedness with self and with the world, purpose, aiming for something above and beyond immediate physical, psychological, and social needs and concerns.

Creating a startup is clearly a way to aim for making something greater than ourselves, feel connected with ourselves and the with the world and experience a strong sense of purpose.

I’ve been on this pursuit of meaningful experiences for quite some time. 2022 marks the 10th year that I am formally acting in capacity of a founder/co-founder of different startups. I’m celebrating this anniversary by sharing with you what I’ve learned so far.

Methodology

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. — Carl Jung

But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

My primary method for the work presented here is introspection. I know, I know! As a scientist, I know very well what the limits of introspection are. There is an inherent bias, and the conclusive power of such work is just not comparable to valid research studies. However, I find that introspection is a valid method of qualitative inquiry when used to uncover the questions we should be asking ourselves, and to direct our curiosity to certain (often overlooked) phenomena.

I think that by downplaying the importance of introspection and looking the other way, we are walking through life (and through entrepreneurship) eyes wide shut.

Notebooks — Since 2012

Since 2012 I’ve been taking notes in Leuchttrum1917 notebooks, writing down observations during and after my meetings, drafting my meeting preparations, as well as noting general observations about my thoughts and behaviour, attitudes and decision-making.

In addition to analysing my notes, I’ve read (auto)biography books from many other entrepreneurs in a pursuit to uncover general patterns. When I find something interesting, and beyond common business school curriculum knowledge, I’d look into psychology, cognitive science and management research to see if I can explain what I observed with known theories or research findings about how our minds work.

The result is this series of articles that present a science-aware inquiry into a decade of my documented founder experience. It’s not science. There are no theories, hypothesis or proofs. Just some (hopefully valid) observations about overlooked and often uncomfortable topics that founders get to navigate on their journey.

Normalizing

The goal of these articles is to contribute to normalizing some of the uncomfortable founder experiences.

As founders we get to navigate challenges to our self-worth, failure, disappointment, adversity, crisis and many other hard experiences. It happens to all of us. Those experiences stand in complete opposite to the stereotype of a startup founder, overly confident, risk-loving, brutal individual.

This polarization between the stereotype and our experience fuels disconnection that the founders get to experience with themselves and with the others in their surroundings.

Normalizing is a process in which we learn to perceive the “who we are” and “what happens to us” as a part of a normal human experience, as a part of what researcher Kristin Neff calls common humanity — the understanding that unpleasant feelings are part of the human experience, that suffering is universal.

The distance from “I deserve my struggle” to “everybody struggles” is huge in a society that promotes stereotypes and silence about the true nature of human experience in a particular role. To shorten that distance means to start normalizing the founder experience.

Look ma, no hands!

In this series of blog posts, I will share with you a whole set of tools, approaches and attitudes — ways of looking at situations (and at the self) that I have developed through my first decade of being a founder.

I have practiced them over and over. I taught friends and employees to use them. I mentored startup founders and taught them the same. It would be presumptions to call this a validation, but when Jeanne, my mentoree, got a national award for her startup project from the French Minister of Research it made me very proud.

To give you just a warm-up, here are some of the main learnings. Being a founder:

  • means living in an environment where many things are out of (your) control. Sometimes you’ll do everything right, achieve the impossible and still fail at your goal. As a founder, you are naturally driven by heroic moves in seemingly hopeless situations. That is where you’ll encounter your human nature and limits that go with it. It is only when you have accepted what is out of your control that you can truly act in exceptional ways and sometimes turn a situation around to your advantage
  • requires a certain emotional efficiency — holding the tensions and processing emotions really fast in order to summon your best self’s pragmatic mind
  • is usually very uncomfortable and often requires unconventional behaviour

As I have integrated these learnings, I catch myself now almost applying them automatically. I have befriended the discomfort to the extent of getting accustomed to it. It is almost as if the discomfort has become a synonym for feeling alive. It is now a new challenge, for the next 10 years, to get myself to believe in the reality of comfort again.

Enjoy reading.

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