We talk about one of the topics that just irritates us on today’s episode. How to get past the hard things in start-ups. What is irritating about the “but it’s hard” mentality is people often let the challenge beat them down. We are going to give those of you in the midst of a challenge a little pep talk.

This is what we talk about today:

  • Why EVERYTHING is hard.
  • Why you need to be more flexible.
  • When to quit a start-up (we actually have a past episode about this right here.)
  • What is a Zombie Start-up?
  • The best coping techniques for a hard business situation.

The next time you find yourself in a hard place in your business maybe taking a step back and looking at it on the basic level will help. If you want to weigh on this topic you can find it on our facebook group below..

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Hiten: Hi, I’m Hiten Shah.Steli: And I’m Steli Efti .

Hiten: And today on The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about how startups are hard and they aren’t for everyone.

Steli: Yes.  So this is going to be a really uplifting, cheerful episode.

Hiten: Oh of course, yeah.  Yeah, of course.

Steli: It’s like I’ve been struggling with the flu or whatever, zombie bite attack or something.  I’ve been feeling horrible physically for the last two weeks, and as a result also mentally.  And Hiten was telling me how he had a shitty week and we’re like, “Ah, we feel so horrible.” Then when we walked through the list of all the topics we wanted to talk about, we’re like, “Let’s start with the startups are really hard and not for everyone, since we’re already in that mood.”  So if you’re looking for inspiration, maybe this is going to turn into a really inspiring episode, but maybe this is also going to be a more gloomy one.  We’ll see how this is going to turn out.  But let’s talk about, what about startups is hard?  Why are startups so hard?

Hiten: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re starting, you’re generally starting from scratch, and you’re saying, “Hey, I’m going to build a business.  And first I have to probably get a team, or build something myself,” so, you’ve got to find a way to build something, and then after you, there’s all kinds of nuances to that, like why we have tactics like customer development and do things like user research and, you know, sales calls to sort of figure out what people want to buy and all this kind of stuff.  It’s because all we’re trying to do and make sure that we can make money on them.  And that’s like creating new economic value.  It’s pretty hard, because people don’t like to give up their money, basically.

And that’s your path, right?  In any business.  Even if it’s consumer business, in the long run somebody’s got to give you money for something for you to be a business.  So I think just fundamentally starting a business is hard, and if you’ve never done it before, it’s like you don’t know how it feels, you don’t know how hard it actually is.  And one of the reasons this topic is really really really interesting to me is that this thing I hear from people, and then I’d love to hear what you think about this Steli, I think we’ve talked about it at least a couple of times in different ways, but this idea that a founder will come to me and I’m giving them advice, I do this, like, more than I ever thought I would, to be honest, just advice.  That’s a whole different story.

And they’ll be like, “Hey, it’s my first time.”  They’ll just have to add that based on some advice I’m giving them.  And sometimes I feel like, “Did I make them feel like I’m talking from experience?  What is it that made them feel like they had to say that?”  Today I think it’s hard, and people say things like that, like, “It’s my first time,” to feel okay about it.  And I’m like, “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of first times that need to happen in a startup, and so if you keep feeling like it’s your first time then yeah, it is hard, and you’re going to feel like it’s hard.”  And I don’t know if that’s really healthy.  So that’s part of my thinking.  I heard that many times this week.

Steli: Yeah, we definitely have talked about this before.  I think that, to me at least, my first gut reaction to somebody justifies their challenge or something being hard for them with it’s their first time, I don’t know.  It feels a little bit like an excuse, like a way out, like saying, justifying, “Of course this is hard and it’s supposed to be hard for me and there’s no way to make it easier because I’m just a beginner at this.”  But I think at the end of the day, that’s beside the point.  Life is fucking hard.  A lot of shit is hard.  And I feel like people just need to get over themselves.  They need to get over the point of dwelling on, “Why does this not come easy to me?”  And shift their attention to, “How do I learn and grow?  How do I enjoy this, and how do I move forward?  What’s the next best thing I can do?”  Versus focusing so much of their attention and energy on, “Why is this so hard?  Oh, it’s so hard because I’ve never done this.  It’s so hard because I don’t know how to do it.  It’s so hard because I’m not sure if I can do it.”

Like, just focusing on, and complaining and justifying whatever challenges you have that things are hard or that you are new to them, I don’t know.  It feels to me like you’ve focused –

Hiten: It really bothers you, doesn’t it?

Steli: It does bother me.  I was shouting at somebody the other day.  It was a family member, that life is fucking hard, right?  That’s why, this emotion comes from that conversation.  It ended up being a really good conversation but basically, I got annoyed by him telling me how hard something was.  I was like, “Dude, just get over your fucking self.  Everything is hard.  Fucking everything that’s worthwhile something, everything that’s worth something is hard.  You know what’s easy?  Dying.  You know what’s easy?  Just sitting on your couch watching television not doing anything, and even that is hard.  Everything is hard, so choose your hard.”

I read this the other day, somebody was, some fitness dude on Twitter, was sharing a thing and was like, “You know what?  Losing weight is hard.  Maintaining weight is hard.  Gaining weight is hard.  Just choose your fucking hard.  It’s all hard.”   

Hiten: I like it.  Choose your hard.  That’s pretty good.

Steli: Choose your hard.  And coming back to startups, I do feel there’s a lot of complexity and it’s a challenging thing to pick to want to do, is to start a new business, in many cases create a new business model, find new customers, create a team from nothing.  You’re creating a ton of things out of nothing.  So that’s hard.  But, like –

Hiten: It doesn’t help you to say it’s hard, basically.

Steli: It doesn’t help you to think about that.

Hiten: It doesn’t do anything, and it especially doesn’t do anything to tell someone else it’s hard.

Steli: Yeah.  It doesn’t help to focus on that.  Right?  Instead of focusing on that, you want to focus on why is this something worthwhile doing?  Why is this something that’s going to stimulate growth in my life?  Why is this something that I chose to do?  Right?  What’s the reason behind this?  Why am I somebody that might be able to pull this off?  But you want to focus, remind yourself on the positives, and if I were talking to you instead of, you giving me advice, instead of them wasting your time and mine to tell you, “Yeah, but Hiten, did you know that I’m really shitty at this and I’ve never done this before?”  I’d rather ask you another question.  I’d rather listen to you a little bit longer and ask a few more questions and get some more inspiration, some more tactical knowledge, some more guidance, than spending any time on telling you why this is hard for me or why I’m just a beginner at this.

I remember once, going back to the hypnotist, watching a really famous hypnotist, and at the end of his presentation or whatever, people could ask questions and write them down a piece of paper, so we’d just take these Q and A sessions, but written down for people, and answer them.  And one question he got was, he worked with a lot of people that had psychological damage and just mental health issues and hospitals and things like that.  So somebody wrote the question, “What was the hardest case you ever had to work with?”  

And he was like, “You know what?”  His answer was so brilliant because his point was, “Listen, this is an interesting question because this is not the way I think about things.  When something is difficult, I’m not getting frustrated by it.  I’m not saying, ‘Oh, this patient is not ready to work with me.’  I’m not like, ‘Oh, this is a very severe case of blah blah blah.’  When something is hard, to me this only means I need to be more flexible.  ‘Oh, here’s a case where I can’t do what I’ve done before, and I need to approach this in a different way.’  So there’s no real hard.  It’s just, ‘Is this a case where I have to be more flexible, where I have to be more creative, where I have to be challenged?  Or is this a case that’s less challenging to me where I can use something that I’ve used before and I know that it’ll work?’”  

And I love that answer about not even thinking about patients or people or situations difficult or easy, but thinking of things as, “There’s things I know how to do and then there’s situations where I have to rise to the occasion and do something new, learn something new, be more creative, be more flexible.”

Hiten: You know what?  I really like the word “flexible.”  That’s the one.  I just realized that that’s what it is.  It’s really just this idea that you have to be flexible.  Don’t think of it as hard, just be like, “I’ve got to flex,” basically.  “I’ve got to use my muscle a little bit, because that’s the only way I’m going to get this done.”

Steli: It’s interesting though, right?  It’s what you get, and we talked about this before in terms of attached versus dedicated, or the image that comes to my mind is when you get, when you tense up.  Sometimes some things don’t work the way you want them, and as a result, what you’re doing is you’re tensing up.  You’re getting more stubborn.  You start hitting your head against the wall.  Instead of seeing, instead of looking with your eyes to find the door, you’re just banging your head against the wall.  You’re like, “Oh, this wall is really hard.  This wall is really hard.  I’m all bloodied up.  This is really tough.”  It’s like maybe if you just take a moment and approach this differently with more flexibility, you’ll find that it’s easy.  

To me, here’s the thing.  To me, when something is hard, it means I’m doing it wrong.  Like I’m approaching it the wrong way.  And I heard this, I heard the Heroku founders many many years ago speaking at a, why coming to the event.  And one thing that they had said back then blew my mind, because my paradigm was a startup was the only way of success in general was that I had to suffer to be successful or it needed to be really really hard for the success to be worthwhile.  So that was kind of the mental mind frame I used.  And they were asked something and their answer was really profound to me, which was, “If something is hard, we instantly stop working on it.”  And they explained this model where they said, “Well, we have this approach where if something is really hard for us, it means that it’s either the wrong time to work on it, we are either, we have the wrong approach, idea, or strategy to solve this, or we are fundamentally the wrong people to work on this problem.  And we have learned that when something is really hard and you just let it go and go, ‘Fuck it, that’s not the right problem to work on now,’ that later down the line it turns out that it either was a problem we should have never worked on. So, it was good that we stopped working on it, or that it was a problem that now, with more resources, more knowledge, or with better timing, is actually now easy to work on and fix.”

And I thought that that was pretty profound.

Hiten: So let me pause you there.  So I like the advice, but I don’t think people understand what they’re saying without the nuances you describe, because it’s too easy to say, “Oh, the second it gets hard, stop.”  That’s what some people will hear when, I have heard some people hear that actually with that advice.  That’s been my gripe with what they said. I like how you describe it and I know what you mean by it, but people take it as, “Oh, the second it gets hard, let’s stop.”  And like, you know, just talk to some people from Heroku, and their culture was very very different as a result of probably this, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.  So there’s a bunch of nuances that I don’t think people understand about like, “No, it’s not that it’s hard and then you quit, or you feel like it’s hard and then you quit.”

Because those nuances of the reasons to quit, that’s where the gold is, in my opinion.  To me, it’s a decision making framework of when to quit.  It’s not about hard.  

Steli: Yes, so let’s talk about that.  When do you know to persist versus to quit?  And I think there’s a whole episode of us talking about this, but let’s really just quickly touch on that.

Hiten: I think it’s the hardest question in a startup is when to stop something.  Right?  Like whatever it is you’re doing, an initiative, kill a feature, or even earlier on, like, “Should I even start this company?” Or, like, “Should I stop running this company?  Should I stop doing this?” One of the things is, and this is from, this is really interesting, but if somebody has a business and it’s a startup and they get this idea in their heads that they’re done, they’re usually, most of the time, I almost want to say all of the time, just done.  They’re already done.  And it’s really weird.  It’s not like somebody says, “Aw, I’m done.”  I mean you can sense it, if they just say certain things, and you’re like, “Hey, you’re done.”  I’ve heard things like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go another six months, see if this, this, and this works out, and I’ll shut it down then.”  I heard this last night, and oh man, I wish I recorded what I said to that gentleman last night.

It was at midnight after just a pretty bad day.  But anyway, he got the best of it, and man, like, it set me off, because it’s just the wrong attitude.  It’s just like, “Hey, I know you’re done.  I don’t know why you’re trying to keep it alive.”

Steli: Yeah, this is a tough one.  I truly encourage people to go back and listen to the episode, When to Quit.  I think for me the framework that I’ve been using is, and it’s very similar to what you’re describing, is when you work on something, like a startup, you’re always going to have fleeting moments of doubt.  That’s totally fine.  But I say no matter how hard things are, no matter how difficult things are, as long as you just have fleeting moments of doubt, but at the core you still completely are committed to it and passionate about it, keep going, and try to find a way to approach this and make this a success.  The fleeting moments of doubt become fleeting moments of dedication and belief, and the majority of your day is actually doubt, you have to stop.  You just have to stop.

Because at the end of the day –

Hiten: Yeah something’s wrong.  You need to step back.  That’s correct.

Steli: And the most precious resource in a startup is human emotion.  It’s like your passion, your determination, your creativity, your hunger, your energy, your human emotion is going to be the most precious resource.  Startups are not that resource rich.  So they rely on human resources to make things work.  Once you drain out of that, once you are not passionate, not creative, not completely dedicated to it, you usually, you’re usually done, right?  So then it’s just stupid to carry on and you’re like one of these zombie startups, and I was a zombie startup for five years.  Five fucking years, I didn’t quit, although I was already kind of, I ran out of steam, but I just try to force it, and it didn’t do me any good.  It didn’t really help in any way.  

So that’s kind of my framework today.  As long as you’re still in it to win it and you still believe, even if things are hard, keep going.  The moment you’re just playing to play, you’re not playing to win anymore, and most of your day you feel drained, you feel depressed, you feel in doubt, that’s the moment to stop and re-evaluate what you want to do.  Let’s maybe turn this a bit positive for the last few minutes of the episode.  We talked about hard, like why startups are hard a little bit, but then we also talked about how we think about people thinking about things being hard and difficult and all of that.  Let’s talk about how to cope with it.  Everybody’s going to have moments, and I do have moments where I feel like something is challenging or something is hard, and I don’t instantly enjoy that feeling.  Right?  So I don’t want to pretend like everything always feels easy or every time something feels hard to me, I’m still super happy.

I still have moments where I’m challenged and where I don’t gracefully rise up to the challenge instantly and I struggle a little bit until I find my way.  So what has been your best strategy, your best coping mechanisms, to deal with the moments that were really hard?  What is the advice that you give to people on how to make a startup less hard, make it easier on them?

Hiten: Yeah, I actually think this boils a lot down to personality, because you hear a lot of advice about stress, but it’s basically stress advice for founders is what it ends up being.  It’s just how great is the stress?  What degree of stress are you having?  For me, like, probably the last few days, three or four days, for a whole bunch of reasons, it’s probably been seven or eight, I’d say almost to eight, and now I’m back.  I’m probably back to baseline, whatever that is, let’s say five, as a level of stress.  If one or a zero being, like, when you’re meditating or something.  But, like, yeah, I – not that I meditate deliberately.  So for me, like, I just went through this and I think I’m over it, and I just got hit with what I call grenades, so I got three grenades across two companies all at once, and grenades are things like someone drops them and then walks away.

And then you’re left dealing with it and the person is gone kind of thing.  Those kind of grenades.  So those are always fun to deal with.  I’ve dealt with them a lot, and the level of damage is what I mean by the stress level, basically.  And so the way I deal with it is I actually try to synthesize and process as fast as I can the situation.  And that’s one, like, you know, figure out what’s going on, what do I need to do, who can help me get it done, who can I talk to on then team, not on the team, and get some advice?  And really synthesize the situation down.

I usually don’t talk to a lot of people, but I talk to the right people.  Some people like to talk to a lot of people in situations where they need advice or need to get something done.  I tend to talk to fewer people and spend more time thinking myself.  Like at that point, if you’re talking, if I’m meeting with you for whatever reason that has nothing to do with that and you try to talk about that thing, I’m probably going to shut you down, because I’m still processing and I don’t want to talk about it with anybody except who I want to talk about it with.  And that’s because I’m trying to not take what I would believe would take weeks to solve, and I’m trying to solve that problem within hours or days.  But that’s what I’m optimizing for when it’s really bad and when I personally feel like, “Fuck, this is hard.”

Steli: I love, and we’ve talked about this before as well, taking he time to confront the issue, and in your case it’s all about going to everybody and talking to lots of people about it.

Hiten: Well it’s talking to the right people, and for me if it’s really bad, I have to do that, because I have to make sure what I’m thinking is sane, because it’s too easy to go, what I call, insane at that point.  Right?  And you have to check yourself.  Like I actually, before I talked to you I was talking to my cofounder this morning, and the whole thing was a check.  I was just checking, like, “Okay, here’s what happened.”  I was reviewing, checking, just giving him an update, he was actually traveling and I didn’t need his help on this problem but I needed his validation.  And I told him what’s going to happen and what we’re going to do.  And these were two problems at two companies.  He’s involved in both of them, and I just did it and it worked.  It worked in the sense of I feel very good right now, I’m not feeling like it’s hard, and the situation is basically handled enough, even though there’s lots of work to still do.

Steli: Yeah, I love that.  I do something very similar with my co-founder where whenever, if we ever get, like, really, like it happens very rarely that either myself or him get really emotional or pissed at somebody about something.  But whenever that happens and we are about to do something stupid as kind of an emotional response, we run it by the other person first.  Because we know the other person is going to stop us, right?  So it’s like –

Hiten: I’m laughing.  We do that too.

Steli: So it’s like, what happened just a few days ago was he sent me a little email exchange with somebody.  He was like, “This is the response I’m about to send.  Please tell me to not.”  And I just read it and responded with a smile.  I was like, “Just archive the last email the guy sent you and just let it go.”  And he’s like, “I love you.  I needed to hear it.  Okay, I’m archiving this.  I’m moving on with my day.”  It’s like these little moments where you know you’re being irrational, you know you’re doing something stupid, and you just need somebody you fully trust to stop you, so you just go to that person as kind of a sanity check.  So okay, so I think that, I love that approach in terms of, like, taking the time to think about it, taking the time to talk to the right type of people, process it, have a sanity check, and then go with it.

Hiten: I’m trying to, basically, I call it suckage, the amount of time I feel suckage, where I just feel like I suck, right?  It’s like, dude, when things are bad and you cause them, because this is usually the worst, the worst things are the ones that you really believe you could have prevented.  Right?  Those are the ones that at least destroy me, and it’s just like, I feel so much suckage, and I’m trying to reduce the amount of suckage.  Because you’re not operating at your best when you think you suck.

Steli: Yeah, you operate at your worst when you think you suck.  All right.  So with that being said, let me go back to something that is, I think that points to the heart of this problem.  It’s something that I speak a lot about, and often when people ask me about very challenging situations and how to solve them, is that I tell them my advice is typically, on all subjects that are difficult, is the same advice I would give to people when they ask me how to lose weight or how to live a healthy and fit life.  Eat broccoli and work out, motherfucker.  Right?  It’s the basics.

Hiten: So what’s the equivalent?  Tell me.

Steli: I think the equivalent for startups is realizing that business is actually not that complicated.  You’re creating a service or product and then people give you money for it.  What makes it complicated is humans, right?  It’s our emotions.  It’s the customer’s fears.  It’s the doubts.  It’s the cofounders.  It’s the jealousy.  It’s the, “I need to be,” whatever, “I need to be validated when I come up with this idea.”  Whatever it is, it’s those things that make things complicated, but business itself is simple.

Hiten: Can I interject for a sec?

Steli: Yeah.

Hiten: So I was in a conversation yesterday, a two-hour one, which is, I don’t want to say not normal, but not a two-hour suckage one.  That’s not normal.  But we were talking, and the instant I said, “Hey, let’s just focus on the business problem,” and then I laid it out, everybody, like, we were good.  You know what I mean?  So I love that you said that, because it just boils down to, fundamentally, all of this stuff is just a business problem, if you just take everything else out of it.  And if you start there and then solve the problem, you’re always better off.

Steli: Yeah.  Maybe another way of saying it is try to step back and see the simple.  Like, break it down to something that is simple again, right?  What are we really talking about?  What is the core of the issues?

Hiten: Back to basics.

Steli: Back to basics.  Oh, this person has money and we want their money and we want to give them this product and they don’t want to give us the money.  All right, so what can we do to fix this problem?”  Like just coming back to really basic things, and not over complicating things with our own minds, with our own emotions, and not also get distracted by all the little details that make, create noise and the impression that things are a lot more complicated than they truly are.  Because if you would step back enough, you can separate the single from the noise and realize, “Oh, this is actually, there’s not that much going on.  It’s actually just this one big thing that’s going on, and we can address that.”  

All right, I think that that’s more than enough on the startups are hard and how do you deal with it episode.  We’d love to hear people’s thoughts.  We’re going to post this on the Facebook group.  If you’re not already part of it, make sure to go to thestartupchat.com/fb for Facebook, and join the Facebook group there, where we share a ton of resources around startups and entrepreneurship, and we’ll hear you very soon.  


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Duration: 26 minutes