How To Not Go Insane As a Startup CEO

A lot of people say that running a startup is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down. They say that because it is true! There is a reason that statement is cliche. Millions of things need to get done within a very limited amount of time, and it is literally a matter of life or death (for your startup).

Under that level of pressure, it is hard for anyone to keep it together and not go insane. But staying level-headed is critical to the success of your startup. Digesting information and evaluating your options while you’re stressed out is a recipe for making poor decisions. Stress will also make you irritable, and that irritability is contagious. Your team is affected by you way more than you can imagine, so you better get it together and be a leader for them.

Of course, as with most things in life, that is easier said than done. I think stress management is one of the most underrated aspects of running a startup. Most of us assume that startups are hard. VERY HARD. But we tend not to talk about how to actually manage the resulting stress.

The three pieces of advice I can give are…

Get some exercise.

This is advice that is frequently given to managers in general, but is often forgotten when it comes to startups. The common excuse is, “I don’t have time,” but what they really mean is, “it is not a priority.”  I get it, you have a million things to do, and your company is burning cash every month. Time is of the essence, and you feel you can’t waste even a second of it at the gym. If this sounds like you, I urge you to reconsider that perspective. Aside from the importance of maintaining your health so that your team can count on you, you’ll relieve stress and improve cognition. You’ll notice that things just don’t bother you as much, and your mind will be clear to think. Make time for at least 20 minutes a day, stay consistent, and you’ll get much more out of the rest of your day.

Hire an assistant.

This has been mentioned by Mark Suster at Upfront Ventures before, but I have to second that. As counterintuitive as it sounds, a startup CEO should hire an executive assistant as soon as they raise their Series A. This may seem like a luxury, but I see it as a requirement —perhaps even more so than for an executive at an established company. In the early days, there are no systems or processes in place, so you, the CEO, are essentially indispensable. You’re needed for pretty much everything from fundraising to recruiting to product, so you need to figure out how to scale yourself. Hiring an assistant will enable you to unload the minutiae in your workload, and free your mind for the important decisions you’ll need to make every day.

Block out time for focused work.

Having a lot of meetings doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive. Meetings make us feel busy, and feeling busy makes us feel like we are moving somewhere. But the reality is that if you book every day with meetings back-to-back, you’re probably not getting very much done. You need to block time out to think about what was discussed in those meetings, plan next steps, and act on them. Meetings will not only clutter your schedule, but they will also clutter your mind.

When you do block out time, make sure that it is uninterrupted time. If you can do this in the office without distractions, then great, do that. But the office can also be a distracting place, full of unrelated conversations and ad-hoc questions from your team. So if you need to work in a cafe or at home to get continuous focus in then you should do it. As a CEO there is always pressure to be in the office or to be present in front of staff. This is of course important for morale and communication, but blocking out at least 3 hours to get focused work into your day is reasonable.

There are many more ways to deal with stress, but these are just three that have worked the most for me. Some like yoga or meditation, but I just never got into those. If you have any more tips for dealing with stress, let me know!


Read Japanese version here (日本語版).

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