The Real Cost of Being a Startup Founder - The Curated Collective
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The Real Cost of Being a Startup Founder

April 5, 2020

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Let me preface this by saying, I’m by no means an expert in this arena, and I won’t pretend to be. But as an early stage startup founder, the thing that I’ve found during this stage, is that you read a lot about other founders experiences. Their sage advice and charming anecdotes range from epic unicorn-esque wins, to crushing defeats.

Me? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle in my own fintech startup. Tinkering and perfecting my way to the ever tantalizingly and elusive unicorn-land.

I call it the trenches.

And those trenches?

They’re far from the tales of the magical Unicorn dust and insane billion dollar valuations you’re reading about in Tech Crunch. The trenches are ripe with hurdles; trap-holes leading to slow or rapid destruction.

How does one find themselves in the trenches?

Well, if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’ve….

A.) Just launched a startup and are wondering WTF you got yourself into. Trench Rating: 10/10.

B.) Are thinking of launching a startup because you have the next best idea since Uber. Trench Rating: French judge at the Summer Olympics who thinks they know everything about the perfect swan dive, despite the fact that you’ve never actually been in a pool yourself.

C.) Are knee deep in startup land and desperately hoping you’re not the only one out there who doesn’t seemingly have overnight success in said startup. Trench Rating: 9/10

And if any of the above apply to you, I say this: welcome to the trenches.

Here’s what you can expect.

Or at least, here’s what my own personal trench experience has been like thus far.

The “Waiting” Trench

When you first launch your business, or if we’re being honest, your “project” (which is what just about every person and their dog will call it) you’ll have the energy Elle Woods had on her first day of Harvard, before her professor kicked her out of class for basically not knowing what the hell was going on.

Your bright eyed and bushy tailed self will celebrate every small victory as a massive win.

We launched our website! We made our first hire! Our first customer just came in! We successfully closed our Seed Fund round! I think you get the gist.

But after that shiny new toy feeling wears off, and you’re feeling much more like Elle Woods after she gets thrown out of class, you’ll realize that even though your first customer wasn’t difficult to get, customer 1,000 isn’t quite as easy.

And once that feeling wears off, the reality of what lies ahead sinks in.

We live in a world that has become addicted to instant gratification. The generation that is currently launching startups, is also the generation that can order Pho from their bed at the touch of a button, and know that it will be at their door in less than 30 minutes, without ever actually speaking to a human.

But building a startup? It’s the exact opposite of this.

Despite what we’ve read and been taught about startup culture (namely; that it’s an insane whirlwind, which is true) it’s also a slow burn. Things don’t happen overnight. Success takes time. And more time. And even more time. And tackle on a little more time just for good measure.

Along the way, vendors will take 50% longer than they say they will. Tech breaks. Customers aren’t satisfied. Employees quit. Time hurdles on.

So strap in, because if you find yourself being a startup founder, you’re in this for the long haul. Patience is the name of the game. Set your expectations on a day to day basis somewhere between sadistically anxious and blissful euphoria, and you’ll be fully prepared for what lies ahead.

Takeaway: If you think it’s going to take 3 months, it will probably take 6.

The “Personal” Trench

Pre-startup you might have imagined that life would be full of zipping around from meeting to meeting, while simultaneously getting Google notifications alerting you that you’ve just been organically picked up on Buzzfeed and The New York Times for being the hottest new startup of the season. You just know you’ll have time to balance work and a personal life because for the first time, you’re in charge of your own schedule! Catch you at happy hour later, right?

What a sweet, innocent soul you were then.

In reality? You’ll look in the mirror and wonder who that zombie looking back at you is, and you’ll explain to anyone in your life that yes, you know you’re getting grey hair, but you promise this startup founder life is worth it.

Work life balance will become a mythical beast in the early stages, and anyone who tells you differently is sorely mistaken. Laptops in bed and working weekends will become the new norm, in fact, kiss the mere concept of a weekend goodbye. Everyday is both a Saturday and Tuesday.

When friends ask you how things are going, you won’t know what to say. When they ask about dinner: you’ll respond with “I’m so sorry, I can’t make it, work is crazy right now!”

You’ll have unanswered texts that are so old they’re now collecting digital dust.

The emotional and personal cost of being a founder is something that is rarely discussed, especially in the early stages. Know that at this point in your life, things will be different, and your personal bucket will sacrifice for the sake of your work bucket.

You’re chasing your dream — to get there, be OK with putting your personal life on pause.

Takeaway: You’ll have to be okay with your personal life taking a backseat for a while.

The “Financial” Trench

Every founder has the same problem: I have 3 weeks of runway when I need 10. I can pay for ad spend, but I can’t pay my vendor. I can pay for tech, but I’m probably going to eat cereal for the next week.

This is the nature of a startup. This is the trench that most start-ups stumble on some explosive tripwire. This is where your resiliency as a startup founder is tested.

Not only will this be applicable to you in terms of how long your startup can remain solvent — before becoming one of the 93% that fail within the first three years — but it applies to you personally.

I’ve read countless articles that mention before diving into a startup, you should have a minimum of a three month cushion.

In reality? You should be thinking more about how you’re going to make ends meet for the next year. This is the means to an end. But that end, will be so worth it.

Takeaway: If you think you’re going to need a 100k budget, you’re probably going to need a 200k budget.

So Why On Earth Would You Do It?

Despite waiting, despite your personal life going up in flames, and despite financial chaos, the trench is actually quite nice.

I work for myself. I’m following my dream. I’m working on something that I (hope) will actually impact others in a positive way. I’m getting my hands dirty. And I’m learning a hell of a lot along the way.

In order to get to the other side, you’ve got to make it through the trenches.

And if you’re still here and weren’t scared away (or aren’t profusely sweating by what you just digested) you’ve probably got what it takes.

So what are you waiting for? I’ll see you in the trenches, fellow startup founder.