Update: I received a number of appreciative, heartfelt emails from entrepreneurs thanking me for sharing my experiences. And a few friends also sent me messages like, “Hey Kevin, I know you mean well but …”
In retrospect, I should have exercised better judgement in how I wrote about depression because this is a complex issue. Sorry. People who understand the disease have advised me that depression isn’t the opposite of happiness. I believe them – giving people simple tips I’ve used to make myself happier won’t help people who are clinically depressed. I should have written a post called How to be a Happier Founder since that’s all I’m qualified to talk about.
I thought about re-writing this post from that perspective but decided to let my mistake stand as it is. Hopefully others will learn from it.
A real disease with horrible consequences
Brad Feld just wrote a great post about startup founders, depression and its horrible consequences. I’m not refuting his points – we need to do more to understand depression and prevent these tragic suicides. I know of startup founders who have suffered from depression.
(Feeling depressed? STOP reading and get some help.)
Can entrepreneurship cause depression?
I don’t know. Actually I don’t know … well … anything about depression. I don’t know if being a founder can cause it or if the pressures of entrepreneurship exacerbate the disease. I only know that being a startup founder hasn’t made me depressed. On balance, I love being an entrepreneur and can’t imagine doing anything else.
But it can be brutal at times, so over the last 20 years I’ve learned a few tricks for being a happier founder – I hope they help you.
I am grateful for this opportunity
I’m so thankful to be alive in this amazing time. I’m 5’7”, weigh 145 pounds and can’t run or jump. For most of the world’s history I would have been lion meat or the village’s poorest farmer.
But I was born into an era of computers, the Internet, and capital markets, so I can make a living sitting on my rear and “working” in air conditioning. I can choose what to do with my life.
You know what I really enjoy doing?
- Making software.
- Trying to improve the world.
- Working with creative people.
There’s a career where I can do these fun things every single day – entrepreneurship. How did I get so lucky?
And yet I have the same problems that you do
I’m glad entrepreneurship is challenging but sometimes I wish it wasn’t THIS hard. My currently startup, SoHelpful, is about 18 months old and still an experiment. I often think about the opportunity costs of not having a more traditional career – I’d be wealthier and better at golf.
Everything seems to take 10x longer than I expect. I make rookie mistakes. I second-guess most of my decisions and have days when everything goes against me. My family is amazingly supportive, but I can’t often share what I’m going through because they won’t understand. It can get awfully lonely.
So, yeah, I understand how hard it is being a founder.
A few choices I’ve made that made me happier
But there are a few things I can control that have made entrepreneurship more rewarding.
I started by picking my market
I’ve tried starting companies based on making money, doing what investors wanted me to do, or working on some tech I found interesting. None of this worked … at all. So this time I decided to pick my market first – other entrepreneurs like you – and then look for solutions to serve them.
I now find myself working for people I really like. I don’t mind cranky support emails, I like learning more about my customers, and coming up with creative ways to help them succeed. Work is much more rewarding when you really like your boss.
I planned for 20 years
My worst entrepreneurial experiences have resulted from my own impatience. I didn’t just want to be successful … I wanted fame and riches TODAY. I tried to speed everything up by raising more money, hiring faster, and rushing products. It didn’t work and only resulted in frustration.
I still try to go as fast as I can, but I have no expectations of overnight success. I pick projects I would be happy doing for 20 years. Now I can judge 1 year of hard work in the context of a long-term goal – not based on some imaginary expectation of overnight success.
I don’t read TechCrunch
I don’t read popular startup entertainment sites like TechCrunch. These “news” sites are fiction and bear almost no resemblance to what I’ve experienced as a founder and investor.
Whenever I do read them I feel worse about myself – it seems like everyone else is succeeding but me. So I don’t read them.
I work very hard
Since I like what I do … I do more of it. I don’t count the hours and the line between social and work activities doesn’t exist (another benefit of picking your market first). I don’t sacrifice my health, I get enough sleep, and put my relationships ahead of work.
But I work hard. It gives me a sense of satisfaction and makes every small victory so much sweeter.
I hire happy people
The best part of entrepreneurship is the people. At SoHelpful we have periodic “staff meetings” over Skype where Joey, Chiara and I give updates. We spend half of our time laughing, all of us happy to connect after so many hours of toiling alone.
We’ve all got the same frustrations as every other team that struggles to build products and sell them – but we do our best to enjoy it. Whenever I visit Manila we have a ritual of buying (incredibly unhealthy) ColdStone ice cream. That’s us in the picture!
I help a lot of people
I spend most of my time helping people – my customers, my team, other founders. I always feel better about myself for doing so. It isn’t a distraction from my work – it IS my work.
I met Joey and Chiara as a result of helping people. We got all of SoHelpful’s first 100 customers by being helpful. Being helpful is a great way to start a company.
You have choices
Trust me – I know all about the ugly side of entrepreneurship. Sometimes things are out of your control. But you have choices and can take control of your crazy life.
You can pick your market, be patient, hire happy people, stop reading TechCrunch and work hard just like I do.
You can go get a job and come back to entrepreneurship when you’re 30, 40, 50, or 70. I’ve done it and have no regrets.
You can “fail” … again and again. No one is keeping score. You’ll just get more fun stories we can share over beers together.
You can travel to developing countries and see happy people living in abject poverty – it will give you a whole new perspective.
And you can be helpful
And you can spend less time … on you. Work less on your product, your blog, your landing page.
Instead, try spending more time helping your customers. You’ll feel better about yourself – and your business will be more successful.
Photo credit: ૐ Didi ૐ