On Building Resilience in a Startup

If the word “resilience” makes you groan, much like the words “synergy,” “best-in-class” or “unprecedented times” might, I get it. 

But, hear me out. Resilience is one of the most underappreciated and important character traits in humans—especially when working at a startup. So what does it mean to be resilient within a startup context?

Embrace the suck

Startups are a lot of fun, but they’re also a lot of hard. 

The Fun: You get to work with other like-minded people to create something from scratch. Your work has an impact. There is an abundance of creativity, flexibility, and teamwork. You’re not just another cog in the wheel—you ARE the wheel! 

The Hard: You have to be willing to do everything yourself, as there’s often no one else to delegate to. You’ll work long hours, put out tons of fires and probably fail a lot. You’ll go back to the drawing board more times than you can count. 

That’s where resilience comes in.

When founding or helping to start a business, you must have an almost obsessive, obstinate focus on the end goal in order to push through all the challenges, second guesses and flat-out “Nos” you’re going to face. You need to believe that, against all odds and costs, you’re going to win, and you need those around you to feel the same. You can’t just try one thing, get discouraged if it doesn’t work and then question, “Why should I believe?” 

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be creative thinkers who use the limited resources available to them to fail fast, learn and keep innovating until they’ve achieved viability. They embrace challenges and are not afraid of change. They find the fun in the hard parts and don’t get discouraged when the original thing they dreamt up doesn’t work out. They don’t stop pounding the pavement until they find the thing that does.

So, are you ready to be a cockroach?

Startup realities that demand resilience

Let’s expand upon some of what I mentioned above in terms of the hard parts of startup life.

  1. You won’t build the right thing the first time

Or likely the second, or even the third or fourth. You’ll probably have to start over, and it will feel like wasted time, money and effort. It will be painful, especially when you look at your runway. Be careful of the sunk cost fallacy—you’ll be tempted to keep going down the comfortable path and ignore signals that suggest you need to change your approach. Be prepared to pivot, and be careful not to treat any idea as precious.

  1. You will hear “No” A LOT

Almost as much as you might hear it from a toddler exercising their newfound voice and quest for independence. Sometimes this will be a soft no you won’t even detect. Sometimes you won’t even know who you should be talking to client-wise. Finding market fit might take a long time—it could be years before you find the thing that clicks. Just like with many things in life, you have to remember that lack of validation isn’t about you personally—it’s about your business/model/product. Be mentally able to disconnect a failure of the latter from the former. 

  1. You will hear many opinions

People love giving advice. Only some of it will be good (or even relevant) advice, and a lot of it will be conflicting. Remember: Ideas are cheap, but execution is hard and comes at a real cost. Accept the advice, but take it with a grain of salt, and be very careful about paying for it. 

  1. You won’t have a safety net

Unlike at an established company, you can’t just screw up and be OK, because it’s all on you and your resources. And you will probably be compensated less than at your last bigcompanyjob, so you might be asking yourself, “Is this worth it?” a lot.

Advice for anyone working at a startup 

The above shouldn’t dissuade you from starting or joining a startup. Anything worth doing in life is hard and can take a long time and repeated mistakes to achieve. To navigate the pain points of startup life, you must:

  • Always have a clear vision and mission in mind. Remember what you’re trying to do during the tough times. This is really like anything worth working toward in life—a lifestyle change, a financial goal, earning a degree, etc.
  • Prep yourself. Talk to other startup people—especially those who have gone through a failed startup. Because many current entrepreneurs have previous failed ventures that all led them to eventual success.
  • Get ready to hurt. Develop a thick skin. Be okay with being on “the bench” a lot. Have a team of supportive colleagues, friends or family members around you that will both cheer for you for the wins and also sit alongside you when the going gets tough and remind you that it will get better.

And for managers:

  • Prioritize hiring people with small company and product-oriented backgrounds. People who have mostly been cogs in the wheel are often told what to do instead of taking the initiative to do it and being willing to do things outside of their job role and scope. You need people who can execute, work autonomously while being collaborative and sharing information and who won’t roll their eyes if you ask them to do a more menial task. 
  • Reinforce a culture of urgency and focus. Your startup is probably not yet profitable, which means every hour of effort counts towards revenue, which both pushes back the drop-dead date and makes it easier to fundraise. Always being aware of that date, and having a team that is focused on action, will ensure you’re surrounded by people who want to win.
  • Ensure large company executive hires are “doer leaders:” To be clear, doer leaders don’t always actually “do.” But they could do the job if they had to and, therefore, are credible and supportive of their teams, familiar with what everyone is working on and why and able to unblock support when necessary (or tell the team to go figure it out themselves).

Having the right mix of background and attitude will help prevent morale from plummeting at the first sign of difficulty, and the pivot around the corner will be just that much easier to execute. 

Being willing to mentally embrace the realities of working at a startup could be the difference between success and bankruptcy. You’ll be in good company: YouTube, Slack, PayPal, Instagram, Airbnb, and Shopify all went through substantial change to become the business they are.

As Paul Graham wrote: “The good news is, plenty of successful startups have passed through near-death experiences and gone on to flourish. You just have to realize in time that you’re near death.”

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply