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Start ups are mental.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The quiet Japanese cleaner walked into the office cubicle and found the dead lawyer lying in his suit underneath his desk. She screamed. Then he screamed! And then she screamed again. Louder this time.
The lawyer wasn’t dead. Not physically at least. He was me. 14 years ago in my law firm in Tokyo. I’d been shipped out there to do a stint in our aircraft finance department and remember being so excited to explore this strange new world. But my explorations were mostly limited to the corridors and filing cabinets of our office. I had become the stereotypical ‘salaryman’ (the somewhat pejorative term for a white collar worker who swears blind fealty to his corporate overlords).
Cut to approximately 7 years later and there I was again. Endless days, sleepless nights and inhumane targets. Except this time it was better. And worse. This was a start-up.
It was 2012 when HelloFresh started in earnest. It was the craziest time of my life since two of my dreams had landed in my lap in the very same month. One was an offer to shoot a TV series in Italy and the other was the chance to launch a company that I believed could change the world. It’s said that “luck is when opportunity meets preparation” and I’d been preparing so long for these opportunities that I wasn’t going to let either go. So I said yes to both.
The workload in that first year was ridiculous. I’d spend 20 days straight developing new recipes, photographing them (we couldn’t afford a ‘real’ photographer yet), writing marketing comms and working at our sales events. The next 10 days were spent shooting 3 episodes of the cooking show in Italy from dawn until dusk, then trying to find a wifi signal at night to check back in with London. I became utterly, utterly dependent on espresso.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I don’t look back at those times with a single morsel of regret. People ask me what I learned from my experience as a lawyer. “You must be so savvy about law now. That must have made such a difference when you went into start-ups” they say. Nope. Not really. It wasn’t my legal knowledge that helped me, it was the stamina. The ability to just suck it up and grind through long hours.
But stamina alone isn’t enough to face down the start-up experience. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a team that were as close to me as family. Yes it was blisteringly hard work but we had so much fun in the process. The magic that can happen when you don’t waste energy on internal politics is incredible.
That said I’ve seen the darker side of start-ups.
Working in ‘The City’ is hard. When my intake started at Clifford Chance I remember it became a badge of honour to rack up all-nighters. They were like purple hearts. “Anyone seen Becky recently?” “No, she’s been closing a Blackstone deal. Hasn’t been home for 5 days apparently.” What a titan we thought.
But here was the crucial difference between the corporate world and the start-up world: emotional investment. In my experience of the city (I don’t claim to speak for everyone) you could leave at the end of a day or week and actually compartmentalise that part of your life. Maybe you had a bad day but in all likelihood life (and your job) would still continue. You would get paid at the end of the month. And besides, you didn’t really care about what you were working on anyway.
In a start-up it feels different. You’re a small team. You know that if you don’t do the work then someone else will have to. And they’ve been working every bit as hard as you have. You’re cranking through the same brutal hours except there’s actually no end in sight. You don’t get ‘post-deal’ Nobu celebrations in start-ups, you get another post-7pm half price box of sushi from Itsu. In a start-up you genuinely don’t know if you will get paid at the end of the month. I remember the outfit in the office below us disappearing literally overnight. 40 people. There one day, gone the next. We took no pleasure in liberating their chairs and desks.
But it’s the emotion that makes the biggest difference. If you’ll indulge a hackneyed metaphor, the start-up is your baby. You’ve been there since it’s awkward, fumbling conception. You did the Lamaze breathing when it first went ‘live’. And you’ve been running around after it, bent over, with your arms outstretched ever since, while it threatens to walk into a wall or fall off a step. You feel every failure and every victory as if you were still umbilically one. The highs are so exquisitely (addictively) high and the lows can be crushing.
The best founders I’ve observed are the ones have have that seraphic combination of business acumen and emotional intelligence / self-awareness. The gift of objectivity, logic and freedom from ego. They’re the ones who don’t ‘react’ and who don’t allow the words and opinions of others to trigger them. They’re the ones who still manage to keep a sense of objectivity and perspective when the site crashes / the product gets a recall / the [insert catastrophic act of god here].
For me, I’ve relied on a hotchpotch of books and videos found or recommended over the years. I’ve followed and tried to emulate the people I admire the most. A quote that I saw this morning from Warren Buffett is a perfect example:
“You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True Power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.”
And so with it being #mentalhealthawarenessweek it begs the question: how are we equipping start-up founders with the psychological tools they need to create the movements of the future and the companies that will change our world?
My latest investment has been into a platform doing exactly that and it’s called litupforlife.com. Created by acclaimed wellness coach Angelika Alana it’s gives thousands of her subscribers their own online coach for the price of an oat-milk latte per week. Videos tutorials, accompanying PDFs, accountability emails, a private community forum and live weekly coaching calls work on everything from motivational techniques, goal-setting (and achieving), how to navigate hard conversations, optimal sleep practices and much more. There are hacks to deal with tricky situations in the heat of the moment but fundamentally the platform supports a more foundational, ongoing development of physical and mental wellbeing to give her audience the tools to thrive in all areas of their lives. It’s the platform that I wish existed when we started all those years ago so that we could give it to everyone who joined the team and I’m so happy to see it making a difference in the world now. Check it out for yourself and for one week you can use the offer code LITUP100 to get an entire month of coaching for free. Just put the code in at the checkout and it will take the price down to zero.
Question: what was your worst start-up moment and why did it become your best? (or at the very least how did you get through it?)