Where Founder Stress Really Comes From

Over the past three months, over 500 people have taken my Founder Type Quiz. The last question of the quiz asks, “When it comes to growing your business, what is your biggest challenge?”

Of the choices, “Managing Stress and Burnout” was one of the two biggest challenges, chosen by over 25% of Founders - even exceeding Growing Sales.

Having lived the Founder journey multiple times, I know this terrain all too well.

If you ask a Founder where their stress comes from, they’d probably say, “Where doesn’t it come from?”

The life of a Founder can feel so overwhelming. Getting an idea off the ground, finding product-market fit, raising capital, and building and leading a team are all potential sources of stress and can produce huge clouds of overwhelm.

But while there are lots of sources of stress, they break down into four buckets, each with an underlying trigger. Let’s break them down:

1. Uncertainty / Fear Response
Most Founders are risk takers. They are driven by a mission or vision to create something new, and in doing so take on vast amounts of uncertainty. Uncertainty triggers fear response, which then fires primal wiring in our psyches as we imagine potential negative outcomes. Often the fear is greater stress than anything that would actually happen. As Seneca said, “We suffer far more in our imagination than in reality.”

2. Overwhelm / Ambiguity
One trait of Founders is that they are able to tolerate high levels of ambiguity. This is good when creating as many things are unknown: the product, the team, the funding, systems, processes, etc. However, there’s a threshold where ambiguity starts creating stress. When the target customer is not well defined. When hard decisions are not confronted. When who’s responsible for what gets fuzzy. These kinds of ambiguity have a tendency to all cascade to the Founder.

3. Incongruity / Inauthenticity
Incongruity happens when a Founder is working out of alignment with their values, role, talents, or mission. This is a tricky one because it’s one that sneaks up on a lot of Founders since it unfolds as a series of decisions as opposed to one event. But at some point, the feeling of inauthenticity starts to permeate and create stress. A classic example of this is when Visionary Evangelist and Expert Craftsperson Founders try to fill the Organizational Maestro role as their org grows.

4. External Forces / Lack of Control
Most of everything is out of our control. You never know when a customer is going to decide to go elsewhere, a security problem pops up in your code, or a global pandemic hits and totally obliterates your business model. In some ways, this is a variation of Uncertainty / Fear Response, but the idea of control deserves its own category.

When you gain awareness of different buckets and triggers of Founder Stress, you can start deploying strategies to better ride the ups and downs of the journey.  

The antidote to all of these buckets and triggers of stress is by owning the things you can control:

  1. Creating Ruthless Simplicity
  2. Establishing Single-Threaded Focus
  3. Finding Maximal Leverage

If you aren’t already a client, and haven’t watched it yet, you may want to take in the recent free webinar I did on “Building a Rocket Ship Business Through Ruthless Simplicity." You can watch it here.

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Steve August
March 4, 2022