In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about death.

Losing a loved one is a very painful thing to deal with, and can have a huge impact on a person, especially if the loss happened at a very young age. While there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to deal with the grieving process.

In today’s episode, Steli and Hiten talk about Steli and Hiten’s personal experiences with death, how death has affected Steli’s view on life, how Steli dealt with the death of his mum and much more. 

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic.

00:34 Why this topic was chosen.

01:11 Steli and Hiten’s personal experiences with death.

02:48 How death has affected Steli’s view on life.

05:44 How Hiten thinks about the worst-case scenario first.

06:21 Hiten’s experience with death.

06:57 How expecting the worst can be a good thing.

07:15 How overcoming a tragic situation can strengthen your character.

08:38 How Steli dealt with the death of his mum.

09:43 The impact losing close family members has had on Hiten.

3 Key Points:

  • Once it happens, it’s part of your universe.
  • I think about the worst-case scenario first.
  • If you are expecting the worst, and the worst happens, then you’re in a better position to deal with it.


Hiten Shah: It’s a very good idea to talk to somebody and just bring out their emotions. I’ve done it a couple of times. It’s worked.


Hiten Shah: Today on the Startup Chat with Steli and Hiten and we’re going to talk about death.


Steli Efti: Holy fuck! Elaborate.


Hiten Shah: So both of us, when we were children, a parent passed away and I think that’s impacted how we both think about death. Steli and I have never talked about this before. I didn’t know that about him when I first met him until very recently. So I want to talk about death. My mom died when I was eight.


Steli Efti: My father died when I was six. And also we’re doing this recording on a balcony. There’s airplanes flying and construction work going on. So, just to give you guys some context, but, so my dad died when I was six and I had both of my grandparents die of cancer in our house. So I saw them over years struggle with it, and then ultimately die. So those are the vivid deaths in my life early on.


Hiten Shah: Okay. So when I was eight, my mom actually passed away in her own bed surrounded by everybody she loved basically. There was a house full of people. I don’t even know how many people. I as well watched as I was growing up, my grandfather die of cancer. My mom died of cancer as well, but in our house, same situation.


Steli Efti: So yeah, my dad died in our house. It was very unexpected. So it seemed like he had just a virus or cold, a really bad cold for a few days. And then he died at night in his sleep. So the next morning my mom just thought he was sleeping really long and eventually she figured out that he’s not reacting. And then the whole thing happened. I remember it was a Sunday morning playing with one of my older brother’s Lego, we had a Lego castle or something like that. And we were as quiet as possible because we thought our parents are still sleeping. And then I remember just tidbits of my mom telling us to go to the window and wait for the ambulance to come. And I remember a bunch of commotion and people in and out and everything. And then people started crying and … So then it’s just chopped up little movie clips of what I remember happening. But it was very unexpected for us and it basically had some virus in the heart that basically clogged up the heart. So his heart just stopped beating in his sleep. So a peaceful way to die, but very unexpected for the rest of us.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. So I’ll give some context now, the audience at least has a background.


Steli Efti: I’m not sure if the artist is prepared for this conversation. I’m envisioning people are just like, “I want to be motivated to do something. Call the mailing today.” And then they started like, “What the fuck is this?”


Hiten Shah: All right. But we like to talk about things other people don’t really talk about. That’s part of this. So I think the reason I just wanted to talk about it, it’s something I don’t hear people talk about. I think there’s everything from religion to fear of the unknown, right? That impacts this conversation about deaths. Where does the person go? What happens? Will I ever see them again? And all these other things. That’s not really what I want to talk about though. What I want to talk about is what do you think is done to the way you think about life?


Steli Efti: That’s a great question. So when I was young, I think it made me … Feeling I was young, it messed me up in some very predictable ways. I had a conversation with somebody at a conference a few months ago and she was telling me about her dad died as well. And we discovered that led in the conversation. But one thing that she was saying was parents are the gravitational center of the universe of the children. So when one parent leaves or dies, it messes up the universe of your world and everything needs to be readjusted. And it was funny, she was talking about this experience of her having older siblings that went through the death of a parent and also a death of I think a brother or a sister. And then her and her sister being born after all that tragedy and how different her and her sister were growing up, all being blood kids, upbeat and all excited and how the older siblings were much more serious and not cynical, not as hippy-dippy life is amazing. So it was an interesting conversation to have, but I think that, so a few things that happened with me, number one is I think that I realized that my parents were not for granted. So I started worrying a lot more about my mother and my other siblings in the sense that when my mom was late, death was the first thing that I was thinking about. Like, “Is she dead? Was she in an accident? Did something happen?” Right?


Hiten Shah: At six years old?


Steli Efti: Yeah. So I remember that probably between being six to 14 being a very instant reaction, just like, “Did somebody die that I love?”


Hiten Shah: So you were almost expecting the worst?


Steli Efti: Yes. Or all of the sudden, when you tell your six death and life, all these things are not really playing part. But once it happens it’s then part of your universe, and the way you think about things.


Hiten Shah: So I actually want to … When some people would call double click on that. And so I’ve heard people say that off and on. I thought it was a funny one. But you mentioned it in a way where I think for me at least, I think of the worst case scenario first, still, always, and it doesn’t paralyze me, but it prepares me. It’s almost like an instant preparation of, “Okay, here’s the worst that could happen. We’re not going to optimize for that. We’re not going to focus on that. But at least we know what the worst that could happen is, in that situation.” Right? And I think that, that’s actually a very interesting point, because that’s just instantly where my mind goes and it’s probably for the same reason. I don’t think I was … For lack of a better word, I’m just going to start adding words for you on this. I don’t think I was tortured by it like you were. I was a little bit older, but I also had known my mom was going to pass away for the previous like … Since I could understand anything. So I had known for at least five years, let’s say six years. And so, I find this interesting about founders also in the sense that if you are expecting the worst and the worst happens, but you expected it. You were like, “Okay, I see what that looks like.” You’re already ready for it. And then you can really legitimately say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” So I just wanted to get your thoughts on that because those are the things that I’m thinking of.


Steli Efti: It’s interesting because I think about it I think a little differently in the sense that, I think that when people die that you love, I mean there’s a lot of things that happen, right? Just so you have to deal with the trauma of somebody’s not being around that you love, realizing that life is short. And all that stuff, it seems a little cliche to even save the way I’m seeing it, but I haven’t thought about it deeply enough to have a different way of saying it. But so there’s a bunch of that going on. I think for me, just overcoming that and being able to deal with life after that big traumatic event. Also just adds strength and depth to your character. It’s invisible, I can tell, but when you talk to people, you can tell what the depth of their character is based on the shit they went through life. And for people who didn’t have to go through a lot of shit, these people are hopefully really happy and nice people. But there’s a difference that you can feel that this person just is maybe not as wise, maybe not as deeply rooted in the universe in life. Because they didn’t have to weather so many storms. So think it adds strength. It can add strength or break somebody. We talked about this in a prior episode of about origin stories. So I think that’s one thing. And the other thing is, I went through a journey for many years, I was really afraid, especially about my mother. And then for whatever reason I was able to let that go. So today … I could not, I physically could not live in the US, and do what I do and my mom living in Germany without being paralyzed by fear and guilt. And I don’t have that anymore, because at some point I was able to let that go and not be as afraid. Not that I don’t think about death, but it’s not as present in any moment. And I feel like I’ve made a little bit of, “peace” with that it can happen, but I don’t have to be terrified about it. And it doesn’t have to be the main thing in my life every day. Let me ask you, so going through that experience of losing your mother that early on, how does that impact you? I mean one thing that you said is about the worst case and you really know what the worst case is and how it feels and preparing for that without being paralyzed by it. But then how do you think that influenced the way you live your life? Do you think … Again, for lack of other cliches, do you think that you’ll try to get more out of life because of that? Do you try to spend more time with family because of that? Are you trying to build bigger castles to prove more that you’re worthy of her love? Or what do you think is still an impact of that event of your early childhood in your life today?


Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think on a personal level I can see a gap of something missing in my life that I probably either seek out or seeked out around having that relationship. Right? Because that relationship no longer can be had. That’s on a personal side. I can see all examples of that. But from a more … The way I think about things, I guess it’s a very much sense of peace at all times for me, quite frankly, of … I watch a lot of people pass away that were close family, but also not taking it … So for lack of a better word personally. And so it almost is a detachment. In some ways it could be a bad thing. But for me it’s a detachment of even like in business or anything like that. If there’s an outcome to be had and for some reason it just doesn’t happen, I get over it pretty quickly. So it’s a little bit of a detachment from other things and more of a, “Hey I’m pretty grounded as myself.” So I think I’ve been able to over time put it in a … Not positive light, but be able to use it in that way. Use this event and use it to think about the world as like, “I can actually impact it, but I’m not necessarily so attached to anything.” One of the things that I would say, and I think this is really related to it, I don’t know how you feel about this, but a lot of founders call … Or entrepreneurs or even people that start companies call the company their baby. And recently I had to … For the most part operating role and even … I’ve had to detach from one of my companies Kissmetrics, because it was just time and I think I’ve been asked that, “Hey, so you had to give up on your baby or you had to let your baby go?” Or whatever. And I’m like, “It was never my baby. It’s not mine. It’s the world. I helped create it, but it’s this other entity out there.” Right? Just like your kid. Yeah, your kid will always be your baby. But that’s because you remember over they’re a kid, I mean they’re not always going to be a baby and they’re independent.


Steli Efti: Let me ask you about the detachment. So this is an interesting thing because one thing that I picked up on you is that although you are a really … And this might be a misinterpretation, maybe I’m projecting. Because I think this is something I find to be very true with myself.


Hiten Shah: Go for it.


Steli Efti: So think that you’re a really open guy on one end, but I feel that … I also have the feeling that you’re a guy that keeps a certain distance to anything and everything and anyone. So maybe that’s where that detachment comes from. So I wonder, I’ll tell you how I am and then I’ll love to hear if you feel similarly. And if that’s an entrepreneurial thing or not. I’m curious.


Hiten Shah: Yeah, go for it.


Steli Efti: So I seem pretty, I think warm and I’m trying to be, live a very authentic and honest life and I can share lots of things with lots of people and try to help lots of people. I have lots of friends, all that good shit, but I deal with my problems with myself. Literally if I have a big problem, just in general in my entire life, I would never just let go to my brothers or my mother or friends. Anyone will be like, “I’m really having this issue and I’m really struggling with it.” I would always deal with it myself. I would listen to other people’s problems for my entire life, but I would not share as openly. And for a while I was like, “Maybe I need to practice sharing these things.” And I tried it, and it was not as fulfilling. It felt fake. Like I’m just saying it to say it, and I’m listening to listen. But I’m not really getting anything from it. And for the last few years I stopped doing that, and I’m starting to experiment again with it. And there’s some interesting things that are going on when I asked for help or when I share some problems I have and I feel like very much I’m a newbie and I’m trying to figure out an angle for this, for my life because I literally for like 30 years out of the 33, I always dealt with my problems by myself, not asking anyone. It doesn’t matter what kind of problems. I would suspect you are smiling and nodding while it was saying it. So I suspect that you can relate to this. That’s the feeling that I have too. It’s we’re becoming good friends, but I also have the sense that we could be friends for 20 years, and I would not know if you ever went through some serious shit because you just deal with it yourself.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. I’m pretty much the same way. I try to deal with my own shit myself. Honestly, I probably have taken it pretty far where unless it’s really awful, I probably wouldn’t even tell my wife. Right?


Steli Efti: Same here.


Hiten Shah: And yeah, just whatever, right? Probably leads us to talking less to be honest. But I think part of it, is there’s a philosophy of stoicism, or whatever and stuff like that. So if you studied that, I bet it could map to this. I haven’t really studied it and looked into it because whatever. But I think that … You were asking, well one, I’m glad you brought that up because I was one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this, but I didn’t know how to articulate it as well as you did. So it’s the idea of when you have problems, even really large ones, most people would go talk to somebody about it, talk to their friend, talk to whoever. Yeah. I don’t do that either. It sounds like you don’t. But one thing about that, you said two things. One, yes, I think it is a founder trait personally and I’ll explain why. But the other thing I wanted to check in on that you said was, you said that you don’t seek help from other people and now you’re trying to learn how to do that.


Steli Efti: Yeah.


Hiten Shah: I don’t know if it’s ironic or not. But ironically, I’ve been going through the same thing where I’ve been trying to figure out, how do I ask someone for help or even feedback or whatever in a way that actually helps me. Because at this point I think I’ve found my own ways and systems that are very internal, introverted, so to speak. I guess. So, yeah. So I think I’m going through that and it’s been very difficult.


Steli Efti: Let me tell you a discovery that I made with this. So for the first time around where I try to practice going to my friends and family with my problems, even if I don’t think they can help me, just to do it. I think that what I was focusing on was … All right, I’m going to share this to do it and then I know you probably can help me fix this problem, but let’s do it anyways because for some reason it’s weird that I’m never doing this, right? And we’re going to … Let’s break the format and make this a little longer episode.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. Let’s do it.


Steli Efti: I think this one warrants it. So what was happening was I would go into these conversations very mechanically, saying things to see them, listening to the reaction, just to listen and then going, “Yeah, Kevin knew that this would not be helpful.” Right? So confirming that, this shit is a lot of work for me and it doesn’t really pay any dividends. So maybe it just doesn’t work for me, like for everybody else. And I made peace with that from hot moment. And now I’m rediscovering this topic from a new perspective. So here’s what’s happening now. What’s happening now is that, I started going with my problems or challenges to friends, not to everybody, but to a few people that I trust on a very deep level. Even if I think they can’t help me with it, but not focusing on them being able to help me with it. My focus now is not on the rational level or what’s the solution to this? My focus just started being more on the emotional level of I just want to say it and feel it, right? Just be authentic in that moment and feel the pain, the confusion, whatever I have. And have an outlet to be able to feel it with somebody else. And then, and this may be as a very feminine way of approaching problems versus a masculine way. It’s always just a rational in fixing problems. But, so I started sharing these things, not expecting a solution back from somebody, just expecting-


Hiten Shah: Empathy maybe.


Steli Efti: Maybe empathy. But even more importantly, I’m not really looking to the other side for confirming and feeling it. I’m just looking-


Hiten Shah: You just want to put it out there in the world?


Steli Efti: Yeah. I’m just trying to create a moment where I can really feel it and stay with that feeling for moment with somebody else that I trust and I feel safe with. And then see what happens. And you know the crazy thing since I’ve started approaching it this way, not every time, but a surprisingly high number of times, the conversations were really good and even a solution would come up or clarity that I would not have had before. Just because I’m not focusing on it and it’s not really the important thing. And I’ve started coming out of these conversation going, “Oh shit! I now get it. I do get why this is really could be helpful even for me.” So it’s an interesting, a new approach and I see different results and I’m starting to do change in this regard and ask more for help, dealing with more problems involving people in my life versus trying to deal with all the problems by myself.


Hiten Shah: That’s awesome. I’m going to start sharing my feelings more. It’s good, yeah.


Steli Efti: And I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s not even just the, let me talk about how horrible I feel. It’s just, let me talk about this issue. But I don’t expect a solution from you and I don’t expect you to know more about this than me and I don’t expect anything. All I want to do is, I think it’s healthy for me to externalize it, to put it out there, to feel it and to stay with it for a moment. And just by having somebody I trust, we can stay with the emotion and with what’s going on for a moment. And it’s not just in my head.


Hiten Shah: That makes sense. Let’s talk about founders.


Steli Efti: So what can founders learn from all this?


Hiten Shah: I think it’s … You were asking earlier if this is a pattern with founders of solving their own problems or solving them internally. You just expressed an idea of how to put it out there, which I think is great. And so instead of focusing on someone helping you, focus on getting your feelings out there, right? And it’s easier to do that with a person around, right? Otherwise you’re talking to a mirror or something. So I think with founders, there’s so many decisions that founders, even executive in a company for example, have to make, and if you go seek feedback on every single decision, then you just won’t make them fast enough. And at some point, founders, I know they ended up realizing that it is decisions and it is how fast you make them. Even more so than I’m being right. So I think it’s a quality that definitely translates, which is you’re solving your own problems and you’re doing it hopefully fast, but also not getting all stressed out or not having to get feedbacks from other people for every problem. I think the thing where it can go wrong, and I’ve seen this too, is you don’t ask feedback on anything. Because there’s some things that someone does know and they can give you an answer in five minutes instead of you even trying something. So I think there’s a good balance, but overall on a high level, founders need to make hard decisions and if you can make them on your own without feedback, you’re going to make them faster. That’s a good thing.


Steli Efti: I agree. I think everything in life is about balance. So this balance is tough. I think on the one hand, founders need to be decisive, right? And they need to be … Part of being decisive, the crazy thing about being decisive as a founder is that, you know, if you’ve been a founder for more than a minute, that there’s a good chance you’re wrong, but you still need to be okay with making that decision and being wrong. But being fully determined with executing on that decision right now and being still open enough to know that maybe in a week or a month or a year you might have to change your mind about this. I think that, that’s the tough thing. At the same time, I think it’s important for founders to be in touch with their emotional household because the way you feel in the states you’re in, will influence the quality of your work and the quality of your thoughts and the quality of your decision making and the communication you have with others. And if you’re totally out of touch with that emotional household and you’re just in your head, then a lot of times the decisions you’re going to be making are going to be poor and the way you communicate them is going to be poor, and it’s just going to create a lot of friction and problems. So I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for founders to have some mechanism to being in touch with how you feel and what state you’re in. And when you get to a point where you’re like, “We had an episode about being overwhelmed.” When you realize, “Oh shit! I’m overwhelmed, over the last few days.” To be able to step back and make some decisions on it, or have some outlet to get that out of your system and get clarity on what to do to adjust. Overwhelm is one, fear is another, doubt is another. There’s many emotions that are shit for you to have. If you’re a founder. That will make your job a lot harder and make you a lot worse at your job. So I think it’s important for all of us to just a, learn to explore emotions better, but also learn to find ways to be in touch with them and then react to them. And maybe for some people that’s talking to good friends, maybe for others, it’s doing something else. But I think it’s really important for a founder to be in control of their emotional household.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. And so your tip would be talk to someone with feelings in mind. Instead of with feedback in mind.


Steli Efti: Yes.


Hiten Shah: I like that. I said your tip. So what’s my tip?


Steli Efti: I think your tip is why we did this topic on today’s episode. Is when something is on your mind bothering you or keeping you busy. Or if there’s some topic that you feel like there’s something here for me to be explored. I know that I want to deal with this and I know that this is an interesting thing, even if it’s hard, you talk about it and you seek somebody out to talk about this. And death is an interesting topic because it’s part of your life and mine and you bringing it up as a thing for us to talk about is your way of dealing with it and talking about it, and exploring it. So I think we both have the same tip. Whatever is on your mind, find somebody … Or at least experiment with it. Even if you’re not convinced, why not give it a try and go, “I’ll experiment going to somebody and talking about this.” And seeing on an emotional level, maybe not as much rational this time. On an emotional level, what does that do to me? Does that help me gain balance? Does it help me be in touch with my own emotions? Does it just feel good? Just zoom in on the emotion side of conversing with somebody, talking with somebody about your problems and challenges and see how that helps you and what that does to you, the quality of your work and what you’re doing.


Hiten Shah: I like it. I think especially for people in a normally high stressful situations. Having to be running a company, starting a company, managing a team, whatever. It’s a very good idea to talk to somebody and just bring out the emotion. I’ve done it a couple times. It’s worked, so I think I always forget about that.,


Steli Efti: All right. So here’s what we’re going to end this episode with. Number one, go to the startup, there’s a box where you can put in your email address. I want you to do that. The reason for that is that we’re going to start sharing some special episodes like this one, and maybe some other ones only with the people on our email list. We create a lot more content than two episodes a week, so we’re going to start picking and choosing some episode we think are only for the hardcore Startup Chat nation, community, family, something. Only people that really listen to this regularly will want to hear and would get something out of. That’s number one. Number two, go to the startup that sends with Facebook, to join our Facebook group and be able to talk to each other and help each other out and find some other founder that can keep you accountable or that you can talk about your challenges and problems. Just a safe outlet. This is an exclusive Facebook group only for the listeners here and it could be a really great place for all of us to build a community around. And then last but not least, if you are going through some shit right now, and you’re lacking anyone else that you think you could talk about the emotional side of it, why not just talk to us? Send us an email, tweet at us to Hiten and Steli, and let us know. We’ll jump on a call with you and we’ll chat with you.


Hiten Shah: One last thing. Thank you for everyone that’s given us feedback and reached out or even ask for help. That’s exactly why we’re here.


Steli Efti: Absolutely. We love you. We’ll love that. So keep it coming. Give us feedback. Tell us what’s going on. Let’s make this a two way street. It’s not just about the two of us, so please do it. We really love it and appreciate it highly. All right. That’s it from us today. Take care guys.