September 7, 2012

It's really, really hard, and not just on you

[Note: this is Post #10 of 10 in the blog series, 10 Things to Consider Before Launching Your Startup.]

Like many of you, I love the Olympics, and watched more than my fair share of the London Games this summer, especially the Track and Field.  Other than the field events, which NBC didn't show nearly enough of, my favorite events are always the middle-distance races.  Maybe it's because I wasn't a very fast sprinter.  Or maybe it's because I wasn't a very good high-jumper.  Come to think of it, I wasn't much of a middle-distance runner, either, so I'm not entirely sure why I like those races.

I wasn't sure, that is, until I watched Mo Farah of Great Britain win the Men's 5,000 Meters.

After about 11 minutes of running and with about 1,000 meters to go, Craig Masback, NBC's middle-distance analyst, commented on the fast pace and what a fast pace feels like in that part of the race:
This is when it starts to hurt.
This is when people can begin to wonder whether they are going to make it the rest of the way at this sort of pace.
And if you see people fall off, it's because they doubt themselves, or they're starting to feel the pain of maintaining this pace over multiple laps.
He could just as easily have been talking about what it feels like a few years into your startup.

Maybe a startup is like the 5,000 Meters.  You're constantly in a hurry to get hard things done - and faster than they should be done - so it takes the strength and speed of a sprinter.  But you'll be running a long time - longer than you think - so it also requires tremendous endurance.  It's aerobic and it's anaerobic both at the same time.  It seems impossible to maintain that level of speed for that long.

In your startup, it always seems to feel like you're 4,000 meters into a 5,000 meter race.  You will have moments when you'll wonder whether you can maintain the pace.  You will have moments when you doubt whether you can make it the rest of the way.  You will feel the burn and it will be painful.  You will be in a prolonged sort of agony and the last 1,000 meters will seem to go on forever - and it might. I lasted through 11 years of it.

And yet you won't quit.  Instinctively, you'll sense that the difference between winning and losing comes down to who can suffer the most, who can tolerate the most pain, who can block all that out and just keep going.  You will feel the urge to win.  Until the end, or at least until you have put a safe distance between you and your closest competitors, you will simply put your head down and fight through it.

All that fighting and pain and discomfort takes it toll on you.  You might become cranky, irritable, feisty, short-tempered and constantly on edge - at least I did - and you'll risk becoming damn near impossible to be around.  I was.  I was all those things and worse.  Maybe I still am.

The stress of it all - the uncertainty, the pain, the not knowing when it'll end, the financial sacrifice - affects the other people in your life, too, especially your family and close friends.  It's not intentional.  It's not willful.  It just is.  Be ready for it and do what you can to monitor it in case it gets out of hand.

It is not easy to accept the suffering that's required to do a startup and it's not for everybody.  Quite the opposite.  It's for the few.  Because it's really, really hard, and not just on you.

(For those interested, watch the race here.  Tremendously exciting.  The race starts at 00:00 of the video and the quote is ~08:15.)

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