John Lennon once said that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This had never rung so true as the day I realized that all of our planning and forecasting had to be thrown out the window: Ctrl + Alt + Delete.
Now, I knew that our initial plans weren’t bulletproof but the pandemic hit us like a tsunami. What we thought would mean a delay of a couple of weeks of the soft launch of our MVP — a very disruptive subscription-based freemium insurance plan — proved to be nothing short of a major overhaul of our platform and strategy.
Priorities had shifted, both for people and companies. Risk assessment became an ongoing activity with things changing day by day. Learning to work while in lockdown created major challenges for those not used to working remotely. New products hit the market to satisfy new needs and demands. An accelerated — and sometimes forced — digital transformation took place in many industries and sectors. The list goes on and on.
For Zenda.la, the startup I co-founded, the challenges posed by COVID-19 included using more pre-seed money than planned in a pre-revenue stage, not being able to hire the people needed to kickstart operations and finish the platform, learning how to work remotely, not being able to hit growth milestones in the expected time frame, closing the seed round much later than we expected, coping with major uncertainty in relation to the time-frame commitments posed by some key stakeholders who had to learn how to operate under new conditions … again, the list goes on and on.
Frustration regarding the first few months of the pandemic and lockdown still lingers. What hit me the hardest was not launching on time, not having the resources to bring more people into the company and growth not responding as we had expected. I’m a numbers guy. And the numbers just weren’t adding up.
While COVID-19 and its repercussions forever changed the way we go about our daily lives and how we conduct ourselves in a personal and professional manner, there are some things that remain constant, like the presence of frustration in the entrepreneurial journey. As entrepreneurs, we are used to dealing with frustration. It is basically part of the job description. You need to be quite a resilient person to be able to climb your way to the top.
There seems to be somewhat of an agreement regarding the most common issues we face as founders, but my personal Top 5 triggers for frustration are:
1. Hiring and engaging employees
Assembling your founding team is hard. Adding the right people to grow your team is hard. Now add into the mix everyone working remotely and bigger companies poaching people in other countries for far less money than what they are used to paying, but still more money than what you can offer initially. Now you face the Hunger Games: Human Capital Edition. Competition now comes from near and far, and not only in the recruiting process, but also regarding benefits, culture, incentives and purpose. B. Joseph Pine II, co-author of The Experience Economy: Competing for Customer Time, Attention, and Money, makes an excellent case on why this matters: “It’s your employees who create all the economic value for your enterprise. You need, therefore, to stage a remarkable employee experience.”
Finding joy in the process of securing capital to keep your startup going is not easy. Pitching over and over while trying to find the right investors for your endeavor makes you feel like you are trapped in an alternative universe where you are tortured by the hypervigilance needed to find common ground: values, mission, vision, network, portfolio, track record, reputation ... everything needs to be assessed. Not being able to know right away your chances of securing the investment and the time frame of closing the round adds an extra layer. Alejandro Cremades, author of The Art of Startup Fundraising, shares a great insight: “Learning to embrace and savor rejection is one of the best things that entrepreneurs can do. Launching a startup is the time to find your ever-optimistic inner child again.”
3. Wearing many hats
There is something to be said about having to make payments, keep the books, interview users, organize events, design the product, curate and create content, do PR, have food delivered, become a thought leader, participate in industry events, do legal stuff, manage investor relations, and engage with the team. There are days when being overwhelmed by having to play out so many roles is just too much to handle.
4. Limited resources
Guy Kawasaki puts it simply: “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” Having to deliver results with the bare minimum is not for the weak. Too little time, money and/or hands on deck could drive you mad, eventually. Managing expectations becomes less than an art and more of a science when it comes to operating under these circumstances.
5. Burnout, working too much
I like to enjoy life: spending time with my wife and kids, meditating, climbing mountains, exploring rivers and trails, learning something new, savoring a good book, traveling… I also like to work hard on what I think has a purpose. Not being able to strike the correct balance and finding myself working more than 10 hours a day and watching life go by without being able to log off is not fun. But it happens, more than I would like it to.
Now, I do have my very own secret recipe to tackle frustration: Mindfulness, extreme sports and the right attitude. Visiting white-water rivers and jumping into a raft and facing the uncertainty around every corner makes me feel in control and free to do what I need to do to get where I need to and how I need to. I take pride in how I handle myself there. It gives me a certain glow.
Once, I heard Curtis J. Morley, author of The Entrepreneur's Paradox, in a podcast called The Trusted Leader Show, say: “If my attitude is that life happens to me, I’m a victim. If my attitude is that life happens for me, all of a sudden, I turn into a victor. But if I say life happens through me, now I’m a vessel for something greater than myself.” I couldn’t agree more.