The Apathy Epidemic: Why your startup will suck you dry
With entrepreneurs, there's rarely a lack of drive, at least in the beginning. After a while, though, as your idea matures into an actual startup, apathy can rears its ugly head. Almost every entrepreneur experiences this, though is usually loathe to admit it. It might present itself as a slow decline in motivation, with each day feeling a little less exhilarating than the one before, or a sudden slack of the wind in the sails.
Everyone, no matter how unconventional the business he’s in, is at risk. It happened, for example, to Andy Drish, founder of TheFoundation.com, a-software-as-a-service education platform that preaches a bootstrap philosophy. Last year's product launch, though wildly successful, left Drish and his team in a slump.
"We were so focused on the launch that we made the mistake of not asking ourselves what the following hundred days of business looked liked,” Drish says. “The launch was so fun -- immediately after that, it changed. Our customers felt the results of that too. It felt like depression."
As a venture capitalist, quoted anonymously by Psychology Today, put it, "You discover that the real fun was getting there... Not only is achieving the goal a letdown. You don't feel good about yourself."
And, of course, there's Marc Andreessen's infamous thoughts on the subject:
A start-up puts you on an emotional roller-coaster unlike anything you have ever experienced... And I’m talking about what happens to stable entrepreneurs. The level of stress that you’re under generally will magnify things (into) incredible highs and unbelievable lows at whiplash speed...Let’s call it “Entrepreneurial Apathy.”
If it’s happened to you, you may have written it off, figuring you'd get over it. If you've watched friends of yours go through this, you might have dismissed them as mere “Starters” – people who never achieve that fabled “Finisher” status. It's easy, after all, to feel the high of a new project. It’s far more difficult to follow through to a successful exit.
To get there you have to start right, and to do that you must understand what happens just after you start wrong.
Entrepreneurial Apathy tends to strike right after you begin to hit successful milestones, like raising a round, hitting profitability, or achieving a certain number of users. When your business reaches one of these goals, you experience the entrepreneurial version of la petite mort; that moment where you flop back on the pillow and wonder if it was all you'd hoped it would be.
This moment of post-victory existential doubt breeds apathy. The fire and energy you put into pursuing your goal dissolves in a single moment of ecstatic entrepreneurial achievement, which can leave you feeling empty and apathetic.
Taking vacations right after hitting milestones has become a common and socially acceptable occurrence, but something is broken about that. Vacations are great (recharging is critical), but apathetic entrepreneurs dream of sandy beaches precisely when they've arrived at The Place they've always dreamed of. The apathy epidemic is in full swing when you're mentally checking out at the moment that your real career begins in earnest.
Apathy springs from the way you dream about people and ideas. The fetish of startup culture has created a generation of aspiring entrepreneurs that prizes milestones over the miles themselves. One good example is how starting a business has become more about getting funded than the actual creation that comes afterwards.
Evolutionary Psychologists (cynics that they are) have the answers: Human beings are driven by reproductive urges. We use sophisticated systems to signal our potential as quality mating partners. You can spot this easily by watching Jersey Shore: He with the biggest muscles wins.
Every behavior you carry out (yes, all of them) are designed to send these signals. They can be summarized in six categories: general intelligence, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extroversion. You seek out these traits in prospective mates; they measure you right back.
Psychologists assure us that no one is immune -- every segment of society, from WASP-ish Wall Street guys to dirty-bearded Dead Heads, engage in full-time signaling of these traits. Sometimes it’s through obvious consumption (what does your car say about you?); other times through ironic, counter-culture choices designed to set you apart from the rest.
As a member of the business elite, what better way to demonstrate your value as a breeding partner than by creating a startup? It checks all the evolutionary psychology boxes: the creative thinking, the agenda of social-impact and the track record of successful negotiation, and there's always the assumption that you're a genius.
Entrepreneurs are often motivated by start-up milestones because they represent the ultimate top-shelf social signals: Get your badge of "Funded", "Exit" or "100,000 users," and wear it proudly. It tells the world you've made it.
Herein lie the seeds of apathy. Think about it: The purchase of that new Cadillac feels great as you speed out of the dealership. By the time you arrive home, though, you feel empty. The shine has worn off.
What has reaching that goal really cost you? Were the hours spent lusting over the car well spent? You've reached your goal – a new car – but you're left wondering whether it was truly worth it, now that achieving the goal is over. The same happens to the startup entrepreneur who wanted to show the world he was a success. Once he reaches that goal, the rest is a letdown. Actually creating something was just an afterthought.
Apathy occurs: Your intuitive mind deflates as it realizes what you thought would make you happy...hasn't.
To make sure you don't unconsciously fall into the apathy trap, you can ask yourself a few simple questions at the onset. The answers to these questions prepare your brain to anticipate moments of achievement and appropriately contextualize them.
In other words, you can stay motivated for the right reasons – and avoid disillusionment. What are the questions? Simply consider your start-up goals, and ask yourself:
What will happen if I get this?
This is like asking what your goal really means for your business. And for you. You might ask yourself what would happen for you the day after you hit your milestone. When you wake up, how will your life be different?
How will I feel about this?
You're awake, sitting up in bed, the milestone behind you. Think about how you feel – not about the victory, but about what's to come in the next week or three.
What will happen if I don't reach my goal?
Not all startup goals are a success, and chances of not reaching yours are fairly high, so it's worth rehearsing how you might feel about Plan B and Plan C and prepare for them.
What else will I gain or lose if I achieve this?
Achieving this dream may change your life indirectly. Think laterally about the other people and things in your life this will affect.
And lastly, here's an opportunity to practice radical honesty with yourself:
For what purpose do you really want this?
Take a moment to look deep inside yourself and really check in with what's important to you. Is this business goal guaranteed to deliver it? If not, make sure you reign in your expectations.
These questions might sound obtuse, but so few entrepreneurs consider them properly. The goal is to pre-frame what success really looks like, which prevents your unconscious mind from coming down off the high with a case of buyer's remorse. By checking in with yourself before you start working towards your goals, you're truly making the best possible decisions that every part of you supports.
And if you can hold up the answers to these questions in your mind and genuinely think, "Yessir I still want to make this start-up dream fly!" then you're successfully insulated against apathy. Energy and motivation will flow.
[Image Credit: Sanofi Pasteur on Flickr]