Rolling with the Punches: The Emotional Journey No One Ever Told Me About.

It’s 3.00a.m. in the morning and I can’t sleep.

Our new startup has been trying to get a key project off the ground now for over a year and a major partner has just pulled out. I feel anxious, worried and stressed. It’s not easy coming to terms with the disappointment of being let down and, besides, I’ve absolutely no idea what to do now.

Ask any business founder and they will tell you that this is not a new phenomenon. Startup life by its very nature is tumultuous, not helped by the unexpected roadblocks, hurdles and derailments often encountered and for which dealing with emotional anguishes can be one of them.

With a million and one things on our to-do lists, every aspiring entrepreneur experiences ups and downs and peaks and troughs with the low points often characterised by an unavoidable confluence of mental upheaval, stress and despair.

"Like many business founders in the early days of startup, I initially tried to do everything myself."

It is the inevitable strain that creeps up on us when we feel uncertain about how our business is going to unfold and what may happen if things don't transpire the way that we’ve planned. The times we fear that we might fail or the worries which surface when we are unsure of what the end result is going to be.

In retrospect, I wish that I’d been armed with a better understanding of the emotional impact that starting a business would have on me. That is the toll it would take, the sacrifices that I would have to make, not to mention the sheer amount of time that it was going to consume.

Like many business founders in the early days of startup, I initially tried to do everything myself. Unsurprisingly though, the all-consuming approach of juggling many roles and overextending myself proved detrimental, only compounding any pre-existing feelings of pressure and exhaustion.

Something always seemed to weigh heavily on my mind, keeping me up at night, whether the frustration of having insufficient time in the day to address challenges and try out new ideas, to concerns over generating income and the amount of money that I’d spent on a venture that may or may not work out.

Speaking honestly, not once did I ever stop to consider how emotionally draining starting and running a business would turn out to be, and it appears that I’m not alone. In a survey conducted for a recent Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index, 45% of entrepreneurs admitted to feeling stressed.

In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that one of the trickiest aspects of business ownership is being able to manage our emotions, burnout and stress. However, if we choose to live the life of an entrepreneur, we have no choice but get to grips with this ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurship as it comes with the territory.

As would transpire, this would prove the inspiration for my new book, Born to be the Boss, which I co-authored with Bianca Zee-Geissler, another small business owner. For the book, we interviewed business founders, men and women of different experiences and varying levels of success and failure.

"Jennifer faced a moment of unexpected despair when the landlord for one of her most lucrative cafés decided not to renew the lease."

We talked to them about their startup journeys, namely what it takes to turn an enterprising idea into a million-dollar business. We also asked them about the real-life difficulties that they’ve encountered - their internal struggles, stresses and setbacks, plus tips for overcoming common startup issues and concerns.

Although each business founder’s story is different, what is apparent is that the underlying themes are the same. There are parallels amongst the entrepreneurs that can be drawn, not least the notion that you need to have a passionate, persistent disposition, coupled with a willingness to roll with the punches to introduce something new or different into the world.

While discussing their troubled times in business, we were interested to learn about their strategies for coping with the daily strains and frustrations that can often arise due to factors such as excessively heavy workloads, not living up to expectations or worst still, when something goes wrong.

All in all, most appear to accept that emotional upheavals are part and parcel of growing a business. To this end, they seem to share a winning mindset and mental toughness that helps them deal with the demands of startup and those days when they are swamped, stressed or overwhelmed.

When it comes to dealing with challenges and adversity, an optimistic attitude that focuses on identifying solutions rather than fretting about problems better equips them to handle knockbacks and regain control of situations. i.e. they believe that there are always ways around obstacles and problems.

Another recurring trait is an ability to adapt when circumstances change. Most are continual learners capable of thinking creatively around problems. In turn, they appreciate that taking risks and making mistakes are part of the game, viewing failures as opportunities to learn and bounce back stronger.

A case in point is that of Jennifer Liu, founder of the lifestyle dining group, Sir Hudson International. Jennifer faced a moment of unexpected despair when the commercial landlord for one of her brand’s most lucrative café locations decided not to renew the lease.

The hospitality entrepreneur shares that her coping strategy for overcoming setbacks and emotionally frustrating situations is to focus on the positives. When disasters hits and negativity sets in, Jennifer acknowledges her emotions and then tries to remind herself that she can get past them.

Admittedly, she says that this does require an open mind and willingness to explore new solutions and push the boundaries. For example, one way her company has learnt from setbacks like being ousted from a major site by a landlord is by keeping its brand fresh.

Discussing how to turn setbacks into lessons and to make sure the same mistakes never happen again, Jennifer says, “It was essential for us to build our brand. Once we had a brand, we could build a following that had a domino effect. It meant that there were always other landlords happy to accommodate us.”

"If I’d hired an accountant earlier, it would have allowed me to apply my time to more strategic tasks"

When starting a company, the long list of tasks that we have to manage can also prove overwhelming. Nicole Wakley, founder of the eco-furniture business TREE, recalls how she struggled to hold everything together on her own in the beginning, including dealing with nitty-gritty, time consuming jobs.

Nicole concedes that like most entrepreneurs, she was concerned as to how she’d be able to afford employees or other support staff given that money was tight, and the business had yet to prove itself.

With the wisdom of hindsight though, Nicole admits to the benefits of taking on people who can help. “My forte was not overseeing the payroll and issuing cheques, and if I’d hired an accountant earlier, it would have allowed me to apply my time to more strategic tasks,” she says.

Nicole expresses that although it may be difficult to balance your bank account in order to hire support, it could, ultimately, help to both relieve stress while enable your business to reach the next level. “That was one of the hardest lessons to learn, but things started to fall into place once I finally relented.”

In addition, we shouldn’t feel embarrassed over self-doubt and the emotional struggles that we go through to achieve our entrepreneurial goals as let’s face it, it takes courage to live a lifestyle that entails stepping out of our comfort zones and pushing ourselves to explore our potential.

"It is vital also to recognise that it is impossible to do everything at once."

That said, while working on the book which was designed to help people understand what it really feels like to be a business owner and what you have to go through to achieve your aspirations, it became abundantly clear that we, nonetheless, do need to develop coping mechanisms and healthier business habits to survive the emotional rollercoaster.

For those who may be feeling overwhelmed or struggling in silence with taxing moments, practicing stress relieving activities such as mindfulness which encompasses taking a breath, stepping back, recognising feelings and responding in a more positive, resilient way may help our mental well-being.

The thinking here is that when we regain control of our mind, it breeds greater resilience which allows us to cope better with difficult thoughts and emotions. The knock-on effect is that it can help us deal with challenging events and scenarios with greater composure.

Regardless of how hard working or committed you are, it is vital also to recognise that it is impossible to do everything at once. When things pile up and you have too much on your plate, another effective way to attack an overwhelming situation is to identify your major priorities and take it from there.

If truth be told, many business owners find prioritisation easier said than done as all tasks may seem important. Be that as it may, it is hard to be productive when you are overwhelmed. Ranking goals by importance makes dealing with the busiest and most testing of situations more manageable.

On a related note, try focusing too on progress, not perfection. Put frankly, it is impossible to move forward if you are constantly waiting for perfection. That is not an endorsement to sacrifice on quality but, conversely, don't allow the strive for perfection to get in the way of progress.

"Why do we do it? Well the answer is easy…"

No matter the source of the anxiety, leaning on your support system, creating health boundaries and engaging in other stress-reducing activities such as physical activity, volunteering, hobbies or outdoor pursuits can additionally all help as long as you choose activities that you enjoy.

Likewise, a well-balanced diet, getting adequate sleep and social contact can alleviate daily stress and pressure. A further tip is not to get bogged down in the details. Instead, go back to your purpose, think about the bigger picture, and stay focused on what matters most to help keep things in perspective.

Given that entrepreneurial life is an unpredictable journey that is not a linear line, but full of highs and lows, it therefore begs the question, “why do we do it?” Well the answer is easy…

It is the sense of control it gives us over our destiny. The opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment from building something that is centred around our goals and belief system. Alternatively, the excitement that comes from doing things that nobody else has attempted before that we feel can make a massive impact.

Personally, I have found that it is a lifestyle that is also incredibly addictive. That is – have you noticed how all the distress and anguish that you have suffered seems to disappear when you achieve success? Moreover, once you’ve had a taste of this success, it drives you to try and find success once again.

Consequently, everyone has bad days, but it doesn't always have to escalate to excessive anxiety. More significantly, if you can find a way to master your emotions and manage stress, you can build a rewarding future where you not only learn about business, but you learn even more about life.

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By Janet E. Middlemiss, JEM Group
© JEM Group Limited. First published in Foundr Magazine.
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