I've spoken with nearly 50 YC founders in the last two weeks and thought it would be helpful for me to share some of the themes and common strategies that emerged from these conversations, below. Although I consider all founders to be professional fear mitigators, I’m observing that many of you are approaching the upper bounds of your skill in effectively tolerating anxiety.* And that makes sense: Although the predominant emotion in startups is already fear,** additional uncertainty around COVID-19 and its repercussions have injected a whole new vein of it into your systems. It makes sense that you would need to augment your existing emotional regulation strategies to accommodate the possibilities and pitfalls of our new shared reality. Here we go:
The world is presenting you with an opportunity to become the Founder you’ve always dreamed about becoming, so be it - now.
The world needs strong leadership right now, and by being a member of this community, you are it. Inherent in being a Founder is the responsibility of modeling for others how to respond to crises appropriately and effectively with integrity, trust, compassion, realism, hope, and strength. You are being presented with the chance to become the anchor that your company will loop themselves into for strength, reassurance, and focus - the time to emerge and come forward as your best selves is now.
To do this, imagine a leader or a founder that you admire - maybe famous, maybe not. Call them to mind and ask yourself: What qualities does this person have that I’d also like to possess? Then brainstorm actions you can take now that would immediately embody those values. How would this model founder respond to the problem you’re currently facing? Use this aspirational person as a guide for you in the sticky moments when you aren’t sure what to do or how to respond. Literally just imagine what they would do, and then do it yourself - immediately. No more thoughts, no additional consideration, no doubt whatsoever.
The deeper benefit of this practice is that if you develop a habit of responding to crises as if you’re the founder of your dreams, each of the inspired actions you take will accumulate and eventually crystallize as your true character. One day in the future you might pause for a moment’s reflection and discover that you’ve pulled into reality and consistently made manifest the exact qualities you once only daydreamed about occasionally demonstrating. Seed now the possibility that you make that moment of reckoning real for yourself - and everyone else in your life.
Discern the wisdom in your anxiety, and use it to your advantage.
In my experience, the best founders harness their anxiety to play 5D chess with their environment. Fear allows you to reach into the future, to name potential threats to you and your company’s survival, and then to create contingency plans that can be enacted if/when necessary. It’s only when threats are known that they can be mitigated, and your anxiety is the muscle you use to peer into the distance and identify them.
Anxiety can be deeply uncomfortable. :( It pokes at you to keep you aware, vigilant, and actively mitigating risk; this is a feature, not a bug. Founders who struggle to tolerate the discomfort of their anxiety long enough to hold it in mind and extract the information it carries often miss crucial data about how to best resource and position themselves in a sea of confusing, chaotic information. The fear and uncertainty a founder faces never diminishes (in fact both grow in lockstep with success) so rather than avoiding your anxiety or hoping that the next milestone will diminish it (it won't), the best course of action is to learn to sit with your anxiety and use it as an asset and a tool.
Specifically, what this looks like is:
Actively ally with your Cofounders.
In moments of intense fear, survival instinct kicks in and founders tend to see other people as either allies or adversaries. It is difficult to trust the world right now, and many of you will internalize this uncertainty and unwittingly project it into your closest relationships. Interpersonal conflict is likely to spike if you do this. However, now is exactly when our actions need to flow out of a place of trust in one another, not fear. Actively treat your cofounder as your greatest ally. This looks like regularly asking questions like, “How are you feeling? What are you needing right now? How can I support you? What can I help you think through? How are you taking care of yourself? Can I help you prioritize everything that’s on your plate? There’s a lot of things up in the air right now; let’s make sure we book recurring Level 3 Conversations to make sure you and I are always aligned.” It also looks like you repeating sentiments like, “We’re in this together. We will get through this. I’m here for you. We will figure this out. I’m here to help. I trust you. I’m glad I’m in this with you.”
Founders’ external behavior and communication will always reflect the internal distinction they’re making of others as friend or foe. The failure mode is when founders shift into ‘adversarial mode’ for an extended period of time without catching it. Founders who see others as adversaries are more likely to blame others for real or perceived failures, to micromanage or be overly controlling, and to be more demanding, harsh, and critical. If you notice yourself in the previous sentence, let me provide you with a reality check: If you continue to allow your fear to control your behavior in these ways, it will win and you will fail. It's okay to be afraid that your company might not survive - that's entirely reasonable, human, and justifiable given how much we don't know right now. But if you take that fear and unconsciously inject it into your relationships by communicating that you don't trust the others who are in the best position to help you succeed, it will push them away along with their creativity, motivation, dedication, and ability to help. This is how fear insidiously becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, functionally disintegrating the resources that would otherwise put founders in the best position to succeed. Please check in with yourself and how you're feeling to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, and listen to your cofounder(s) if they give you feedback about coming across as controlling or micromanaging. Remember that they your ally, and you are theirs. They are protecting you from the worst-case scenario I just outlined; join with them in finding a solution and keep moving forward together.
Ground, breathe, and travel through.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling that pulls us forward into a scary future. As helpful as this emotion can be, it can also disrupt our health, sanity, and relationships if we remain in it for too long. Anxiety pulls us in the future, so we need to practice bringing our full awareness back into the present moment - this is called 'grounding;' the practice of being here, now. Fear communicates that you need something else in order to feel safe; grounding communicates that you are safe now. Tracking our breath (count to 4 or 6 as you inhale and again as you exhale, repeat in sets), digging our toes into the floor beneath us, exercising, being in nature, turning off notifications to have a quiet period of rest, asking a loved one to tell us that we're safe, connecting to ourselves via meditation or to friends/family via intimate and vulnerable conversations, developing a soothing sleep routine, taking a bath, and trying to drop back down into the physicality of our bodies are all ways that we can ground into the safety of what exists in our lives right now. The world is going to assault you with chaos, and your anxiety will need to operate on overdrive as a result. This will be tiring. Find calm. And when you do, allow it to soak into every cell of your body. Remember the felt experience of this moment so you can more easily recall it the next time you need peace.
Like all emotions, anxiety is a tunnel that has a beginning and an end. Sometimes the tunnel is short and terrifying. Other times, the tunnel is longer and the ache of it feels more dull. We’ll never have enough information to know the length or quality of the tunnel we’re in but we can always trust that the tunnel will end. Time is an arrow that is always moving forward; we trust time and so can trust that it will eventually bring with it the end of this emotion. If the tunnel you're moving through feels very bad, use a daisy-chain of breaths to viscerally stitch yourself to that arrow, allowing it to carry you through a series of moments. Track your breath as it goes into your nose, your lungs, your belly, and then out. Then again. And again. Time passes with each breath so you know you're getting through it. As long as you're breathing, remember that you're safe, you're alive in this moment, you're connected to others, there are options and you will find them soon. The end of the tunnel brings with it an opportunity to feel differently - now loop yourself back into the first theme I mentioned here and we start again. :)
(*) I use ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably in my work. ‘Uncertainty’ is a milder form of either but still synonymous.
(**) Fear that you won’t hit your next milestone, fear that you won’t land this client, fear that you won’t raise your next round, fear that you don’t know what your product is and won’t figure it out in time to survive, fear that you can’t get the team to align, fear that you aren't moving quickly enough, fear that you don't know what your role is, fear that the market will shift and you’ll die, fear you won’t be able to make this key hire, fear that you don’t know what you don’t know, fear that you aren’t capable or competent, fear that you’re making the wrong decision, fear that you don’t have enough time to get everything done, fear that you won’t meet expectations, etc. Founders experience more fear over the course of their morning coffees than most people do in a year.
This is the the second part of a Founder Communication talk I give to YC founders during the batch to strengthen the cofounder relationship from (ideally) day 1. Part 1 can be found here.
Manage your Relationship Debt
Relationship debt, just like technical debt, is the accumulation of emotional baggage in a founding team that's created by making choices that feel expedient in the moment but which has a lasting and wildly deleterious impact if not attended to. Choosing to avoid or ignore difficult, potentially emotion-filled conversations is often the default because founders don't know how to message their thoughts productively, or are afraid of what their cofounders' response might be.
Founding teams can get by with some relationship debt for a short time. However, when founders choose to deprioritize a tough conversation, they contribute to a relational plaque that builds into resentment and frustration that won't go away without thoughtful attention and direct action. Enough relationship debt will rust out the very foundation of your company - the founding team - and this psychological erosion (and the misalignment and intense feelings that come with it) kills founding teams in the long-term. Too much relationship debt in a founding team who has no tools to resolve conflict is the reason why almost all startups die of suicide rather than homicide.
Founders: You need to engage in tough conversations before your relationship debt kills your founding team and your company.
These "tough conversations" are what I call "level 3 conversations." Here's what I mean:
This is the the first part of a Founder Communication talk I give to YC founders during the batch to strengthen the cofounder relationship from (ideally) day 1. The second part can be found here.
Everybody fights. Your challenge is to learn to fight well.
Feeling tension rise between you and your cofounder is normal, healthy, and expected. You should expect to fight with your cofounder as you inevitably bump into each others' perspectives and particularities while building your startup. At any given moment, founders may be fighting about equity allocation, roles and responsibilities, who to hire when, the "right" product strategy, or each others' performance - or all of these at once!
There's a good way and a bad way to fight, and no one is born knowing how to fight well. Not having a healthy roadmap for conflict means that we either tend to avoid it altogether, or we repeat the same problematic behaviors without realizing there's another way to engage that would feel better for both us and our partner. Communicating productively, respectfully, and honestly about difficult topics is a skill that is built through practice and experience. Your challenge as a startup founder is that you to learn to fight well.
My first piece of advice for founders learning to fight well is that you become aware of how you currently fight (what I call here your "attachment style"), and you use that knowledge to shift your behavior to balance out the dynamic in your founding team. Doing so alleviates the emotional intensity inherent in founding teams, and allows for healthy conflict to take place.
Tip #1: Know Thyself (and thy attachment style)
Many of us already know that when we're stressed, our sleep suffers, we eat like crap, and/or our exercise routine takes a nosedive. But do you know how your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions toward your cofounder change when things are going less than smoothly?
Startups are messy, confusing, chaotic, hopeful, lonely, depressing, inspiring, and challenging, sometimes all within the same 5 minute span. As a founder, you'll be operating under stressful circumstances that will pull your behavior away from how you "normally" act 99% of the time. The more you know about you relate to those closest to you in times of stress, the better you can manage yourself when those inevitable conflicts erupt, and the faster you can get back to building your company.
Luckily, psychological researchers have made this task easy for you in the past few decades, and have found that most people behave in predictable and consistent ways in times of stress (called "attachment styles")(1).
To simplify even further, most cofounders act out one of only two (2!) attachment styles repeatedly in times of stress: anxious and avoidant.
If you're a YC Founder, read the section of the User Manual called "Scaling Yourself" for the YC-approved advice I wrote for founders seeking emotional support. It also contains a list of great therapists you can contact who already see many YC founders and are familiar with tech and startups.
"How do I find a therapist?" is one of the most common questions I get from early-stage startup founders. Their immediate follow-up question is something like, "We're only paying ourselves enough to cover the basics. How can I afford therapy?"
First - props to you for being brave and reaching out for support. It's a sign of good decision-making to realize that you would benefit from extra help, and you don't need to wait for a breaking point to do it. Talking with an expert is preventative medicine for burnout. You should do it before something breaks. As Pete Koomen (Optimizely, YC W10) said on an episode of Startup School Radio, you need to scale yourself in order to scale your company. For many founders, that begins with seeing a psychotherapist who can help you manage the emotional turbulence running a startup even before you hire your first employee or achieve PMF.
Finding a Therapist
Finding a great therapist is hard but you can circumvent the challenge of 'the system' and call the Well Clinic. The Well makes it simple to find a therapist perfectly suited to you, and their clinicians are top-notch.
First, you'll call to set up a second 15-min call with a therapist who specializes in client-therapist matching. This "intake" call will be a brief conversation during which you'll talk about what you're going through and what you're looking for. You can mention any special factors that should be considered in the matching process like your location, your scheduling constraints, your budget, etc. The intake therapist will then match you with the clinician on-staff whose style, experience, and availability is best-suited to meet all your needs. That's it!
As a bonus, the Well Clinic was founded by a YC founder in his pre-YC days, Cameron Yarbrough, (who's currently running Torch, YC W18) so you can trust that the experience Well Clinic provides is top-notch and extra efficient. FYI I don't get any kickback from the Well for my endorsement of them - it's actually illegal for therapists to pay for referrals - and our only relationship is that I occasionally provide trainings about the psychology of startups and founders to Well Clinic therapists (for free) to help them provide founders with the absolute best care. I recommend them because I feel the pain of the therapist-finding process, think the Well has solved it, and I deeply trust the work that Well Clinic therapists do. There's simply no reason not to be in therapy given how easy the Well makes it for you to land with someone who can really help you from day 1.
Other therapists I recommend who see many YC founders (and YC Partners!):
Affording a Therapist
Cost is commonly a blocker for early-stage founders but the investment is worth it and it shouldn't stop you from getting into therapy. You should expect to pay somewhere between $80-$180/hr for therapy, and should plan to go to therapy once weekly for a few months at least.
There are two things you can and should do to unblock here: First, pay yourself more, and second, negotiate the cost of therapy down.
First, pay yourself an extra $500-$1k per month as a "'personal development" allowance to help defray the cost. Have a conversation with your cofounder if necessary and say that YC and I both recommend this line item. You can mention in this conversation that you know you'd really benefit from seeing a therapist AND if you were to do so, you'd be more productive for a much longer time (anecdotally, by multiple years) at your company. It's a win/win to bump your pay up for this reason and if YC just happened to fund you $150k, this increase is both reasonable and justifiable. I suggest you provide the same salary increase for your cofounder if they're interested in the idea too. FYI, investors won't freak out about this line item on your financials (if they ever even see it) because it's symbolic of your proactively caring for the most important asset of any early-stage company: the founders.
Second, you can negotiate the cost of therapy down. Advertised rates are almost always negotiable but you have to ask (and it's not weird for you to do so). When you call the Well, you'll tell them in the intake call what your budget restrictions are and they'll put you with a therapist who can match that. If you're engaging with non-Well Clinic therapist, ask whether they have any "sliding scale" slots available and describe your circumstances including the ideal hourly fee you can comfortably afford (after having decided on the amount of that 'personal development' allotment).
If you're located outside of the Bay, you'll also want to specify for the Well Clinic on your intake call that you need a therapist who can work remotely or via Skype. Many therapists don't because of the many legal and ethical considerations their licenses bind them to that preclude remote work. One therapist who is particularly incredible, who does work remotely, and has developed a near-cult following among YC founders is Virgine de Paepe (https://www.emdrtherapistsf.com). Virgine is experienced in navigating the many ethical/legal considerations that remote therapy entails, and is a fantastic therapist to boot.
Thoughts? Questions? Post them below!